Time has always stood still for the Fleshtones. Old-fashioned in sound when they began plying their “super- rock” trade in New York’s skankiest night clubs in 1976, the Queens group’s determined mediums — singer Peter Zaremba, guitarist Keith Streng and drummer Bill Milhizer — have never stopped channeling the spirit of every great rock’n’roll party band that ever stepped to it, from the Coasters to the Kingsmen, the Raiders to the Kinks. Decades down the pike, they’re still going strong, making great entrances and stylish exits and pouring it all out in uplifting sets of smart and sassy uptight bliss in between. Amazingly, Streng and Zaremba’s aged-in-the-studio songwriting hasn’t lost its colorful zest, which means that the group’s recent albums are just as likely to prove wide- eyed and wonderful as their first blasts of serious fun. Somewhere along the way, self-conscious re-creation became subconscious reality for the Fleshtones, which makes them something of a perpetual motion machine.
Up-Front‘s five-song menu includes a fake surf instrumental and a jumped-up account of the Stones’ “Play With Fire.” Zaremba’s humorously tough approach comes through loud and clear, but the recording’s cleanness borders on aridity.
The Fleshtones take a big leap forward on Roman Gods by adding new personality and passion to the beat, as witnessed by “I’ve Gotta Change My Life” and “Let’s See the Sun.” There’s a fun cover of Lee Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony.” However, the album’s standout underlines the progress remaining to be made elsewhere: “The World Has Changed” crackles like vintage Yardbirds.
Blast Off dates from abortive 1978 sessions for Red Star Records and succeeds beautifully on its own limited terms. It’s raw, noisy and incomplete-sounding — just right for debauchery, though unsuitable for careful listening.
Hexbreaker! is outstanding, an exuberant collection of memorable numbers made even better by brilliant playing and spot-on production by Richard Mazda. “Right Side of a Good Thing,” with its hysterical falsetto chorus; “New Scene,” a pulsing fuzz-guitar punk raveup; and the shingaling title tune all roll with soul and frolic in the sounds of the ’60s without ever losing a grip on the band’s own identity. An ultimate ’80s garage-rock classic.
The only way to match that achievement was to do it live, smearing as much sweat and personality on the vinyl as possible. It took two attempts: the first Speed Connection was issued in France but deemed inferior to the second, which was recorded at a different 1985 Paris show and released in the US and UK. Although technically casual, Speed Connection II is a stupendous, old- fashioned warts’n’all concert record, loaded with all the chaos and frantic rock panache the Fleshtones can muster. Especially potent is their brilliant “Kingsmen Like Medley,” as well as “Return to the Haunted House” and “Wind Out,” the latter featuring guest guitar by Pete Buck of R.E.M.
Buck also collaborated with Fleshtone axeman Keith Streng on the first Full Time Men record, a three-song 12-inch. Although pleasantly unchallenging, the slightly retro-minded countryish pop tunes would have benefited from a more confident vocalist than Streng. Concocting a fuller version of the side band (without further involvement by Buck, although the EP’s “I Got Wheels” turns up again), Streng made a full album with three-fourths of the Fleshtones — Gordon Spaeth (sax/harmonica), Bill Milhizer (drums) and Robert Warren (bass) — and a spare guitarist. A busman’s holiday of rocking originals and cool covers (by Marvin Gaye and the Creation — now that’s versatility!) enthusiastically played by a studio full of low-rent superstars, Your Face My Fist is as easily enjoyable as it’s meant to be.
The Fleshtones’ pursuit of party nirvana continued on Fleshtones vs. Reality. The results are uneven, though the high points are sublime: the snarling prehistoric Kinks guitars of “Way Up Here,” the raise-the-dead soul fervor of “Whatever Makes You Happy,” a swift remake of Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s “Treat Her Like a Lady” and so on. (The CD adds one track.)
The 20-song Living Legends provides a quick brush-up run through the band’s first decade for those still taking off their coats and looking for the punchbowl. It starts with a stingy but righteous selection of tracks from Up-Front (“Theme From ‘The Vindicators’,” a fictional guitar-organ-sax theme), Roman Gods (“I’ve Gotta Change My Life,” “Ride Your Pony”) and Hexbreaker! (“Right Side of a Good Thing,” “Screaming Skull”), adding such rarities as the dynamic “American Beat ’84” (from the Bachelor Party soundtrack), some singles and a pair of previously unissued covers. Rockalicious — but hold on to your copy of Hexbreaker! all the same. Soul Madrid, a double-live album, was recorded and released in Spain.
Despite relentless good humor, Zaremba’s Love Delegation LP (with Streng, a horn section and such guest vocalizers as Barrence Whitfield) illustrates the dangers of unchecked ’60s camp revivalism — it sounds more disposable than dynamic. “Turn Me on Again” and Aretha’s “Save Me” burn real good, but fluff like “Shama Lama Bing Bang” and a pseudo-heavy remake of Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning” (which Thin White Rope does better) are more typical of Spread the Word‘s dippy spirit.
Angry Years 84-86 is a belated but presentable collection of unissued tracks and demos from an unsigned era (which sounds a lot like the ’60s from here, especially when the Fleshtones barrel through the Serpent Power’s 1967 FM-radio classic “Endless Tunnel” for a full 13 minutes). Time Bomb!, ostensibly a various artists compilation, features variously permutated side projects by Fleshtones and their pals, along with non-LP tracks from the band proper. Love Delegation, Full Time Men, Action Combo, Cryin’ Out Loud, Mad Violets and Wild Hyenas all toss in OK cuts, but the disc really catches fire on the Action Dogs’ sizzling “I Can’t Get Through to You,” starring Peter Case, and the mothergroup’s “I Was a Teenage Zombie,” from the film of the same name.
Five years out of the American record market did nothing to dampen the Fleshtones’ spirits on Powerstance! With Andy Shernoff of the Dictators standing in on bass (Ken Fox, ex-Jason and the Scorchers, makes his entrance to full-time membership on one song), producer Dave Faulkner (of the Hoodoo Gurus) strikes an agreeable compromise between the band’s raw slop and commercial rock sensibilities, making the Fleshtones resemble his band as much as the inverse was earlier true. But while the album incorporates amusing citations from the Yardbirds to Gary Glitter and Slade, stokes the fire with horns and delivers some long-term tunes (“Armed and Dangerous,” “Let It Rip,” “Mod Teepee” and the caveman instrumental stomp “Candy Ass,” which tests the studio’s phasing equipment and finds it fully operational), the Fleshtones mete out the energetic music too carefully, sacrificing the urgent elbow grease that ignites their best work.
Produced in Athens by Peter Buck, the less upward-looking Beautiful Light takes a few slim chances and comes up a rootsy winner. “Mushroom Cloud” reconnects the band to the organ-powered psychedelia that has served it well in the past; “Take a Walk With the Fleshtones” powers a smart stroll through the East Village with Streng’s bracing Kinks chord chunk; “Whistling Past the Grave” elevates the band’s melodic ambitions with Yardbirdsy atmosphere; “Pocketful of Change” takes the quartet on a tuneful Western detour; strong horn charts on “Outcast” and “Pickin’ Pickin'” fire Zaremba’s soulful testimony into tuneful orbit. All’s right on the Fleshtones front. (Forever Fleshtones is the identical album with the front and back cover artwork flopped and the first song likewise shifted to the caboose position.)
Laboratory of Sound, however, is one experiment the Fleshtones probably shouldn’t have tried. It’s tempting to blame the letdown on “engineer” Steve Albini, but other than razorblading Streng’s guitar tone with his patented anti-lapidary trebling action and organizing inappropriately harsh and thin sound, he doesn’t appear to be at fault. Nor does the hedonistic ethos expressed in “High on Drugs” seem responsible. No, it’s Zaremba’s generally ineffectual songwriting and distressingly sharp singing that keep the album from matching the easy appeal of its immediate predecessor. Streng’s “Hold You” is the album’s only great contribution to the collection, although Zaremba’s “Accelerated Emotion” comes close; the jointly penned “We’ll Never Forget” revisits old structural ground without incident. Otherwise, the monochromatic rock performances of constricted melodies leaves Laboratory — the casualty of inadequate preparation and overly casual execution — a disappointing write-off. Come back for the make-up. (In a fun-with-technology coda, the band sticks a honkingly fine unlisted garage version of Jimi Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today” on track 69 of the CD.)
Released months after the publication of Joe Bonomo’s Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, a detailed biography of the band, Take a Good Look! is fine for what it is, but after all this time it’s hard for the Fleshtones to uphold familiarity without risking redundancy. Produced by New York scene vet Ivan Julian, the fearless foursome bashes out the usual high-energy sloptastic party trash in all the right varieties: garage spuzz (“Shiney Hiney,” “Feels Good to Feel,” “Never Grew Up”), amped-up bop (“First Date,” “Back to School”), shingaling groove (“Jet Set Fleshtones”), Farfisa wheedle (“Ruby’s Old Time”), Stonesy wail (“Down to the Ground”), etc. Highlights: “This Time Josephine” takes off on a different tack, something of a ’60s Pretty Things acoustic vibe, and “New York City” surges ahead of the pack with a hooky gospel-soul feel.