Friday, August 10, 2018

Never lose that beat

Peter Zaremba (middle) and Keith Streng (right) signing with Red Star Records, with Marty Thau (back) and Miriam Linna (left), 1978.
40 years ago this month the Fleshtones trekked up Highway 9A to Blauvelt, New York and recorded their first, albeit aborted, album with legendary producer Marty Thau.

Here's the story, from Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtiones, America's Garage Band:
They met Thau at Ultima, what Lenny [Calderon, original drummer] would soon soon dub the “River of Fear Studio” (“His head was awash with lugubrious heavy metal imagery,” bemoans Peter). For a couple of weeks, the guys had to overcome any fears they might have, and make a great rock & roll record. “They were reasonably prepared,” Thau says. “They were where I thought they would be.” High-ceilinged, Ultima had the shape and vibe of an enormous rehearsal space, and Lenny marveled at the soundproof tiles and the giant Hammond organs, in the warm presence of beautiful vintage equipment that he remembered from his childhood. Peter, Keith, and Marek plugged in and swallowed hard

After two years of hesitant composing, Peter and Keith had a batch of songs, most of which had been stage-tested for several months, a year in some cases. They brought with them to Ultima one cover song, The Strangeloves’ “Cara-Lin” from 1965, and three originals: “B.Y.O.B.,” a shout-along ode to The House parties; the year-old “Judy,” Peter’s upbeat, childlike testimonial using Keith’s girlfriend’s nom de plume; and a new song Peter had just written, a propulsive four-in-the-bar anthem celebrating the radio sounds and homeland imagery that he grew up with, and that he was calling “American Sound.”

The band had to find a way to capture their sweaty, chancy onstage spirit onto magnetic tape, and the move from a cheering, beer-stained dancefloor to the friendless, analog domain was a challenge. “We were turned loose to recreate all the great sounds from all our favorite records in our record collections, all on the same song,” laughs Peter. He adds that “Marty was great about letting us add whatever junk we wanted to, no matter how superfluous. We added reverb from the amps, the ultimate 70s engineering sin, reverb from the board, and then reverb in the mix. But it still wasn’t enough. After a while it was hard to tell what we were listening to.”

From the control room Thau would ask, “How’s this?” Then he’d turn a small knob. “How’s this?”

The guys would shrug their shoulders. Good? I guess? 

During a break in the sessions, Peter told Andy Schwartz in New York Rocker that “what we’re trying to do in rock & roll now is bring it back to a level simple and infectious enough to dance to. Party music.” Above all the guys wanted their studio tracks to be propulsive, to really move. “We always made sure that everything was danceable,” says Lenny. “No matter how wild I got, I always kept things very danceable. I put this great disco beat on ‘Cara-Lin’ where I played two separate drum parts on top, one track of playing all over the drums and then one track of the high-hat disco drumming.” The Strangeloves’ “Cara-Lin” embodied everything that The Fleshtones loved about rock & roll: an archetype of groove and rhythm, put the song on anywhere in the world anytime and people will grin and move. The Fleshtones’ version was one of the high points of these sessions, Lenny’s darting drums dancing with Peter’s cheap, ham-fisted organ and Keith’s strident guitar creating an energetic rereading, replacing mid-60s frathouse chants with late-70s speed and punkish verve, finding as close to a punk/dance hybrid as The Fleshtones would in these early days.

But what were they capturing on tape exactly? Peter and Keith brought tunes into the studio as the sessions resumed, including two, “Shadow Line” and “Watch Junior Go,” composed literally on the way up to Ultima, “riding with Marty on Palisades Parkway,” as Keith remembers. “Shadow Line,” a moody, urgent number issuing from the wellspring of Peter’s imagination and muscled along by Keith’s psychedelic melody, was inspired by the Joseph Conrad story of the same name, a characteristic Conradian exploration of the thin line between adolescence and adulthood, innocence and responsibility. Peter, nearing his mid-twenties, was trespassing that line nightly.

“‘Shadow Line’ is about people who stayed up all night doing things,” says Peter. “I was with a bunch of people and we’d finish playing at four in the morning and go off to the Crisco, and this place is packed with all sorts of people. Fine citizens. I mean, these people are not burning the candle at both ends, these people are on fire. So we’d leave there at nine in the morning and we’d go up to the Cell Block. You sit in there and you're wondering, What the hell, I should have been asleep hours ago. Here’s this guy with chains wrapped around him, and that’s definitely beyond the shadowline.” Notable for the quickness with which it was put together, “Shadow Line” was an ambitious song, a plea from outsiders for understanding, and would do much to catapult the band’s career in the coming year. The guys felt that the song was seminal and they would re-record it three times within the next three years.

Also taking shape at Ultima were “Critical List,” Keith’s first song, to which he gave a weird, whiny, but effective lead vocal aided by Peter’s wailing harmonica; “Atom Spies,” a high-energy surf instrumental written by Keith and Marek; and “I’ll Walk By,” a middling Mersey Beat-styled tune from Peter that would see the light of day a quarter-century later. The band nailed two songs particularly well, veering close to the sweaty feel of a Max’s or Club 57 gig. “The Way I Feel” was a hilariously fast statement of purpose from Peter, articulating his desires to connect in the best way he knew how: an audience-embracing, call-and-response chorus and nonsense singing. The song is in many respects the most sincere that Peter’s ever written, a childlike, passionate sing-along set to a rocking beat, a hopelessly unhip marriage that he would spend the better part of his career defending—and The Fleshtones would be stubbornly, happily playing the song twenty-five years later. Keith’s “Comin’ in Dead Stick” was a companion tune to “The Way I Feel,” equally reckless in nature, breakneck in pace, and frank in attitude.

In local fanzines at the time the band was adamant in stating that the ratio of originals to covers on their debut would be low. “We’ll have maybe two covers at the most,” declared Keith. They had planned on recording “Cara-Lin” and Kid Thomas’ fabulous early-60s burner “Rockin’ this Joint Tonight,” an obscure cut that Gordon turned the guys onto and that they raved-up onstage, proudly aligning themselves with remote but impassioned black R&B when few New York bands beyond Blondie were embracing musical history across racial lines.

Indeed, Peter, Gordon, and Brian were relating to black R&B as intensely as they were to white 60s rock & roll, and Peter and Marek had begun to celebrate that in the discos. “Keith’s background was more like my own; we knew the better-known rock of the time,” Marek says. “But Peter, Gordon, and Brian were bringing in the Kid Thomas records, really zeroing in on a spirit that was there in the off-the-wall honkers and shouters that had influenced the white rock & roll that was coming out of Britain. The Shadows of Knight were imitating The Stones imitating Little Walter, but what Peter ended up doing was going back to the Little Walter.” That wasn’t that common in the New Wave scene, Marek notes, and “that was where The Fleshtones came out of.” The Fleshtones tore through “Rockin’ this Joint Tonight” at Ultima. The band flew and twenty-three year old Peter shouted and fiercely blew on his harmonica, an instrument that he was excelling at to a degree that surprised even him. His solos, respectful to Thomas’ wailing, were blistering and real, creating a sound that only further distanced the band from what was happening in New York, allowing Peter to escape his geeky white suburban background and lifting into something universal, a clarion call for fun and rock & roll.

The band ended up recording two more cover songs for the album. They discovered “Soul Struttin’,” a Bubblegum song by 1910 Fruitgum Co. on a shared album with The Lemon Pipers from 1968. The tune was as funky as the pop-conscious Buddah Records would get, but what was especially enticing was that Marty Thau had cowritten the track (with Tony Orlando, whose sister Thau eventually married). Thau had always liked the song and was pleased when the guys decided to record their rendition in tribute; it took them three versions before they were happy. The band was dividing their time now between Ultima and Blank Tape studio in Manhattan, where Thau brought in Alan Vega who took lead as The Fleshtones, wire-tight, played a memorable, atmospheric, psychedelic version of Suicide’s “Rocket U.S.A.” Vega growled and moaned his way through the taut song, and the utterly unique track could fit nowhere else on the album but in closing. “Recording with Vega was a great day, a cool memory,” marveled Lenny. “Being that close to Alan was really cool.” Peter cherished the experience, also: “Too bad we didn’t do a few of his other things as well.”

The Fleshtones spent the remainder of their brief time at Blank recording overdubs of vocals, handclaps, and various percussion. Thau had struck some rough mixes, volume presence, balance, and touches of EQ extras in the course of recording. All that was left was the final mixing, but the console knobs would soon be darkened by the long shadow of financial misery.

Thau had his own ideas, especially concerning Keith’s novice guitar-playing. “I tried to get out of Keith a certain guitar presence that was present in The Sex Pistols and The Ramones,” Thau says, “sort of bridging them between that classic Yardbirds place and what the punk sound of New York was about.” The basic tracks for “Cara-Lin,” “B.Y.O.B.,” “Judy,” and the re-titled “American Beat”—already earmarked by Thau as the band’s first single—were laid down quickly. Thau and the band were interested in translating their essential energy, and so the pace of the songs was quick, the performances wound-up tight, too tight in some cases. A certain drunken, sing-along recklessness is apparent in these tracks but it’s hard to tell whether it issued from nerve or nerves. Bum notes, microphone “pops,” brittle energy, and amateur spirit abounds.

The late Marty Thau's take on the band here.

The ill-fated album, Blast Off!, would eventually be released in several iterations down the years. "American Beat," the band's debut single, was released on Red Star in 1979. Never lose that beat:

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