In this first of what we hope is a number of installments, Thau talks about his first impressions of The Fleshtones.
Alan Vega of Suicide and Miriam Linna, Red Star’s media spokesperson in 1978, were the first to tell me about The Fleshtones.
“The first time I saw the Fleshtones, I flipped,” Miriam recalls. ”I walked into Max’s during some song that featured the most haunting reverb guitar playing since the Seeds “Nobody’s Spoiling My Fun.” There was this drummer thumping out a beat from the past and a singer straight out of that movie where the pop star becomes the Prime Minister. All I could think of when the guy took off on the most Yardbirds-ian harmonica and Standells-ian maraca-shaking I’d ever witnessed was that here was the music I would lock myself in my room with.”
A neo-garage band that managed to bring recycled and re-energized sounds from past dimensions to a newer generation, from times when rock ‘n’ roll was young, daring and dangerous, The Fleshtones reminded me of a newer version of the early Yardbirds when legendary producer Giorgio Gomelsky, circa 1966, was at the controls. Led by singer/songwriter/keyboardist Peter Zaremba, a graduate of New York City’s highly regarded School of Visual Arts, and Keith Streng, the band’s explosive guitarist and co-vocalist, The Fleshtones were a rollicking bunch when they first appeared in Manhattan’s skankiest clubs in 1976. With music that consisted of a combination of rebellious rhythm and blues, surf and rockabilly music-complemented by an irresistible take on ‘70s punk energy-the early Fleshtones channeled the psychedelic bands on Lenny Kaye’s famed Nuggets compilations of ‘60s and ‘70s garage bands. A typical Fleshtones song might include Zaremba’s kitschy acid organ and blues harmonica, Streng’s gritty and daring guitar riffs drenched in vibrato, and sing-along styled harmonies in conjunction with drummer Lenny Calderone, later replaced by Bill Milhizer, and bassist Marek Pakulski, later replaced by Ken Fox. When I first viewed their brand of sweat-soaked, post-punk, r’n’b loving efficiency in performance, a broad smile lit up my face. It was obvious to me that they were indeed true rockers.
Not everyone agreed, however, with Alan, Miriam, and my favorable assessment of the band. Some hardcore punk fans and sharp-tongued critics resorted to subjecting them to contemptuous ridicule and classifying them as irrelevant and unfashionable revivalists with a repertoire of yesteryear’s mindless party music for faddish pseudo-punks. Those ill-informed and abrasive critiques proved to be baseless, however, as the Fleshtones’ reputation for wildly energetic club performances at CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City and the band’s favorite venue, Club 57, propelled Zaremba, Streng, and company into the upper tier of downtown bands on the rise. The record company race to sign the band to a contract had begun, and I beat them all out, signing them to my Red Star label in June of ‘78 and producing a 2,500 limited edition single called American Beat as well as their first LP, Blast Off.
Being arguably one of America’s first punk/new wave indie labels in the ’70s was a lonesome struggle, so Blast Off sat on the shelf for the next two years until I was able to sell an interest in it to Reach Out International Records (ROIR) in 1980 and they enthusiastically promoted it. Despite its sonic flaws (the album was never completed to the band’s or my satisfaction) publications like Los Angeles’ Slash Magazine (which would later spawn the label of the same name), and London’s New Musical Express agreed it was an inspired rock ‘n’ roll LP, publishing hearty endorsements of the band and effusive reviews. Rolling Stone called American Beat “an awesome recreation of guitar heroics and psychedelia from a period in time when rock ‘n’ roll was youth music and not just an industry business.”
As the years passed, the band went from one label to another – never quite grabbing the brass ring but always making recordings that were critically acclaimed. (Try Roman Gods and Hexbreaker on IRS and their current release, Brooklyn Sound Solution on Yep Roc for size). Although they’ve never quite hit the commercial sweet spot they’ve always possessed the spirit, raw enthusiasm, exuberance, excellent chops, and a slight touch of madness that has fueled all great pop-rock music. And they’re highly danceable too.
After 30 years of struggle, the band are still active and still adored by their fans for their explosive concerts. Though The Fleshtones have suffered through everything a band could suffer – drug and alcohol abuse, bad label deals, and membership turnover – they have also shared the stage with some of the biggest acts in the world, have appeared on 16 albums, and are popular in a number of European and Scandinavian countries. So quietly being whispered in the shadows is an unanswered and troublesome question – “Why are The Fleshtones so unappreciated in America when they are as American as Campbell Soup and the New York Yankees?” Have they failed to strike a balance between artistic integrity and commercial success? Are they perceived to be too retro in the new millennium?
In 2008 Continuum Books published SWEAT, an inspired book by Joe Bonomo, about The Fleshtones’ perseverance and longevity, and a rock ‘n’ roll read that gets down to the heart of who the band are as well as examining the rare virtue of endurance and staying true to yourself. And in 2009 a retrospective documentary film called “Pardon Us For Living, But the Graveyard Is Full” was released online. Packed with footage of the band’s primal-yet-tuneful high-energy live performances, TV appearances, music videos, it features interviews with such luminaries as writer Robert Christgau, producer Steve Albini, REM’s Peter Buck, writer Barney Hoskyns and CBGB owner Hilly Kristal all speaking about the band’s lasting impact and significance. This book and film raise deep questions about what “making it in the music business” truly means. They show what I’ve always known – The Fleshtones are truly a great band and Peter, Keith, Bill and Ken should be commended for they believing in their music and continuing to celebrate the glorious fun-loving abandon of rock ‘n’ roll
PS: Want to see the coolest review of The Fleshtones’ Brooklyn Sound Solution? Click Here