R&R is not defined by its stars. Although undoubtedly R&R in their hey days Elvis, the Stones or Springsteen do not define the genre. The may make up for its aspirations, but they are not at the core of what R&R is. At its heart R&R is literally thousands of bands busting their chops in the garages and sordid basements all over the world, dreaming to make it in the big league one day. The Fleshtones have been at this game for about 30 years now, never escaping the basement. In a sense they are the text book example of R&R. Joe Bonomo's book "Sweat" captures their ongoing search for ever elusive fame perfectly. Anybody familiar with the band couldn't have thought of a better tittle to this autobiography. The Fleshtones have been guaranteed to give the best R&R show around for as long as they've been together. Yet the subtitle to sweat, "30 Years, 2.000 Shows, 1.000 Blue Whales, No Hits, No Sleep" gives the perfect summary of what to expect when reading "Sweat".
The Fleshtones story starts in a basement in Queens. Much to the dismay of the neighbors, some of the key members of what later would become the Fleshtones, throw legendary Blue Whale parties while churning out raggedy R&R, barely being able to master their instruments. A Blue Whale apparently is quite the toxic mix of various kinds of alcohol, preferably served in big barrels. That loud and lethal mix of three chord R&R would be a constant in the band's bumpy career. It would get them kicked out of their apartments, make them lose record companies, would find them in bloody brawls, turn them in the gutter but would also make living legends out of them. Although there are way to little people to recognize them. For the lucky few who fell under their spell, they are R&R best hidden deities. For the lucky few who stumbled onto their albums the Fleshtones have come to symbolize sweat drenched good times at their shows, roaring saxophones, screeching farfisa organs, rambling guitar riffs, raggedy soul crooning and pure and simple R&R.
The Fleshtones came smashed between the burgeoning Punk scene of NY city in the late seventies and back to basic superstars such as Bruce Springsteen. Like the latter the Fleshtones went back to the core of R&R. They found their inspiration in a time when 45 was king. The core of the Fleshtones, Peter Zaremba and Keith Streng found themselves in their love for the format. Swapping obscure 7" records filled with R&R, ranging from Hank Ballard and the Midnighters to the Strangeloves. At the time when Punk and Springsteen were about to burst wide open, R&R had strayed from its true path. The scene was marred by various horrific super groups, making guitar based intellectual drivel that had very little to do with R&R. Both Punk and Springsteen were a counter reaction to that drivel. The Ramones brought R&R back to its (barely) three minute essence in a loud cartoon like mess. Blondie did much the same, giving R&R a new sense of ice cold cool. Building on the foundations Punk's god fathers, the MC5 and the Stooges, had built, NY busted R&R wide open again.
"Sweat" unravels the mystery why the Fleshtones, despite a killer live reputation and rave reviews, never managed to reap the benefits of that movement. In a sense R&R was the Fleshtones final destination. Though you couldn't accuse the Fleshtones of being a retro act, the strand of R&R they tapped into just didn't gel with the all too self conscious Punk movement, especially in NY where Punk was as much high fashion as it was a new form of musical rebellion. The Fleshtones simply didn't thunder down the same tracks the Punk movement lays down. In Bonomo's excellent write up of that scene it soon becomes clear that the Fleshtones' brand of good times and party hard R&R "danced" to a different beat than the Punk movement where shaking it up was branded out of style. Punk rebelled against the drivel of the day, but wasn't about to put the fun back in R&R. The very fuel that kept the Fleshtones running.
At the same time the Fleshtones never made R&R any grander than it was. Unlike Springsteen who infused his brand of R&R with big dreams and a lingering sense of melancholy. Where R&R was the door to ultra coolness for the Punks, to Springsteen it was the door to something bigger, an escape for his small town background. R&R as a means, R&R as a promise, not an end. To the Fleshtones R&R was the final stop. They live to recreate the exitement on the records of Larry Williams, The Kingsmen, Lee Dorsey and Link Wray. The Fleshtones never aspired to anything bigger, be it a fleeting sense of cool or the realization of bigger dreams. The Fleshtones simply wanted to be R&R and indulge themselves in the accompanying lifestyle of sweaty parties deep into the night, raving live shows, sex & drugs.
It's not that the Fleshtones never dreamed of making it bigger. Bonomo's book is drenched with frustration. The Fleshtones were chasing that same all to elusive dream of R&R stardom. Save for in Paris, where they were treated like R&R royalty throughout the years, they would find that dream always more than an arm's length out of reach. Although their career seemed to be off on a promising start when they got signed at Punk legend's Marty Thau's Red Star label in 1978, the band soon hit that brick wall they would ram in to on various occasions throughout their career. Red Star folded after the recording sessions, the Fleshtones' "American Beat" single fell of radar and their debut album never properly saw light of day. American Beat would be recorded in 1984, complete with a video for MTV, but the Fleshtones never fitted the video medium.
The Fleshtones would be forever stuck in the basement their story is defined by bad business decisions, botched album preparations, odd production decisions and sometimes disastrous tours drenched in and caused by a haze of alcohol and drugs. Although "Sweat" is superbly written, Joe's subject is what makes the book hard to stomach at times. I don't think that there are a lot of R&R biographies out there that are as honest and confrontational as "Sweat". Even though Joe is clearly a fan, he doesn't spare the band. Peter's and Keith's erratic moods are thrown right in their faces, they come off as troopers of R&R yet seldom as heroes. Through out the book you keep waiting for that release of success and career highs that are trade mark to most R&R biographies. That release never comes. Instead there's this uneasy sense of "what if.......". You can't help but escape the notion that with a little more luck and discipline the Fleshtones would have been inducted in the R&R Hall of fame by now, doing high priced reunion tours. In stead the Flsehtones stumble their way through their career, seemingly forever one step behind or beyond the zeit geist. Never really fitting into the Punk movement, too raggedy to go up against the super stars of the eighties, too upbeat for the chronically depressed Grunge movement and finally too old for the recent Garage revival.
Yet despite all the hard knocks and set backs the Fleshtones have managed to keep that train rolling down the track. They are still living it up on the road, albeit with moderate amounts of drugs and alcohol these days, garanteed to give you one of the best R&R shows you'll ever witness. They seem to have found a stable record deal at Yep Roc-Records, issuing some of the best albums in their career. A new Fleshtones album is slated for early next year. I don't think it will make any dents in the charts. Meaning that quite a few people will deny themselves some of the finest R&R there is to find.
"Theme From the Vindicators"
"Tribute To Hank Ballard"
"Good Good Crack"