While they never scored a
hit single like the '60s pioneers who inspired them, and it's been a long
time since they were media darlings like current heroes the White Stripes,
the Hives or the Mooney Suzuki, a case can be made that the Fleshtones are
the greatest garage band in rock history.
The long-running group formed in Queens in 1976, the best of a handful of
bands (including the Slickee Boys from Washington, D.C., the Mighty Mofos
from Minneapolis and the Chesterfield Kings from upstate New York) who
sought in the wake of punk to revive the energy, sounds and attitude of the
'60s garage bands that had been celebrated on Lenny Kaye's "Nuggets"
compilation--snarling but tuneful groups such as the Seeds, the Standells
and the Kingsmen.
Now, 27 years and 16 albums later, founding members Peter Zaremba (vocals
and Farfisa organ), Keith Streng (guitar) and Bill Milhizer (drums)--along
with Kenny Fox (a relative newcomer on bass dating back to the
mid-1980s)--have weathered two or three garage revivals, and they're still
going strong with a solid new album ("Do You Swing?" on the Southern indie
Yep Roc) and live shows that are justly famous for stopping one step before
a debauched bacchanal.
THE FLESHTONES, THE
*10 p.m. Saturday
*Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
"During a good show--or even a really, really bad show--something just
takes over," Zaremba says of his stage persona as the ultimate speed-freak
party animal. "In fundamentalist religious circles, it's called the spirit,
and I'm most definitely possessed. Sometimes I have trouble explaining that
to people, but it's not an act. Something happens, and I'm usually
disappointed if it doesn't happen."
Like their '60s heroes, the Fleshtones have had a career that has largely
been a comedy of errors. In the early '80s, they signed to IRS Records, then
the hippest label in the world and home to their pals in R.E.M. For a time,
Zaremba was also on his way to rock celebrity as the host of MTV's "The
Cutting Edge" (before the show became "120 Minutes" and the music video
channel turned away from music).
Now the classic discs that the group recorded for IRS--including '81's
"Roman Gods" and '83's "Hexbreaker"--are long since out of print, as are a
strong string of albums that the group made in the '90s for the Telstar
"All the stuff we did in the '90s was impounded by the feds because the
company went out of business and they were bought by somebody else who also
went out of business," Zaremba says. "It's part of our continuing history of
obscurity--we're everyone's favorite frustratingly obscure band."
There's a key difference between the Fleshtones and the forgotten legends
on "Nuggets," though. "We've kept at it!" Zaremba says.
To record "Do You Swing?" the group drove down to North Carolina to work
with Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids in his cinder-block
studio, the Kudzu Ranch, formerly a commercial garage. "He was sort of a
natural to work with us," Zaremba says. "Not just that he knows the
band--he's been a fan since he was a kid--but he knows where we draw from."
In addition to their undeniable talents--Zaremba's soulful growl,
Streng's fuzz-driven fury and Milhizer's tribal pounding--the Fleshtones'
strength is that they've always viewed garage as an attitude more than a
particular sound. Rather than slavishly trying to recreate the past, they
try to bring the garage spirit into the present, whether transforming
unlikely covers (they've been known to tackle everyone from disco hero
Sylvester to Led Zeppelin) or churning out their own timeless anthems
(including "Screaming Skull" from the classic "Hexbreaker" album, or the
title track of their latest disc).
"Garage was an attitude, a process," Zaremba says. "It was a way that
these bands worked. Why did we like these bands? Why did we like what they
did as it was happening? These guys were just covering the Sylvesters of
their time. It wasn't that they set out to sound like they did; they just
played to the best of their sometimes limited abilities, but they were
inspired and they wanted to do it.
"When we cover a song by another artist, it becomes a Fleshtones song.
We're great believers in, 'What were these bands trying to do?' When we did
'Communications Breakdown' on 'Do You Swing?' we were trying to do a Led
Zeppelin song as the Yardbirds would have done it, because they very well
might have--that might have been one of the songs that they were kicking
around before they called it quits. If the Standells were around at the
time, they may well have done a Sylvester song, but they'd have done it
Zaremba and his bandmates have long since resigned themselves to the fact
that the Fleshtones will never be superstars--"I always say there is no
trend that will ever help the Fleshtones," the singer says--but they're more
than content to balance their ongoing status as underground rock gods with
pay-the-rent day jobs. (Zaremba is now a travel and food writer who
contributes to the New York Daily News, Modern Bride and Time Out New York.)
"Our ups and downs through the years do give me a weird perspective on
the music business," Zaremba says, "although it must be obvious at this
point that we never took it seriously enough to either capitalize on any of
that stuff or to feel that bad when it was over. A lot of bands would
probably just break up. We were never desperate to make a lot of money--and
I'm not saying that we don't want money--but we were never desperate enough
to compromise what we were doing.
"As for where we fit in now, man, I don't know, even if we helped start
it in a way. It's more that we enjoy it and we know that a certain amount of
people really enjoy it. I see a lot of bands that you can tell are just
going through the motions--it's like a chore or a job. This isn't a job for
us. Enough people come up to me and tell me that we're the best band in the
world. Well, whether that's true or not, that's a great thing to be told."
And speaking of '60s revivals, our town plays host over the next few days
to The ModChicago Weekender, a series of gigs celebrating the
once-again vibrant mod scene. Events include an dance party starting at 9
tonight at the Note, 1565 N. Milwaukee, with DJs featuring New Jersey super
mod and fanzine publisher Bill Luther (cover, $8; call 773-489-0011)
and a mod/garage sale and record swap at Delilah's, 2771 N. Lincoln, from
noon until 6 p.m. Saturday.
The highlight of the weekend, though, is Saturday's rare local
performance by Minneapolis legends the Funseekers at the Empty
Bottle, 1035 N. Western. The Chains and the Civilize Age open
the show, which starts at 9 p.m. Cover, $12; call (773) 276-3600.