[16 April 2003]
You’ve probably heard the joke that the only things that will survive a nuclear war are cockroaches and Cher. If the Fleshtones were more famous, you could probably add them to the punch line. Formed in New York City in 1976, the Fleshtones reaped some of the benefits of the city’s punk scene although their retro ‘60s sound shared little common ground with the punks, save Blondie and the Ramones. The Fleshtones recorded their debut for punk guru Marty Thau’s Red Star Records in 1978 but when the label folded before its release (it was finally issued by ROIR in 1982 as Blast Off) the band moved to legendary new wave label IRS. The Fleshtones’ IRS years were their finest as recording artists, resulting in the Up Front EP (1980, featuring the classic “The Girl from Baltimore”) and the albums Roman Gods (1981), Hexbreaker (1983, largely acknowledged as their best album), and Speed Connection (1985). After the IRS deal ended, the Fleshtones continued recording for a number of small labels and have released 16 albums to date.
More importantly, the Fleshtones have toured their asses off, and their live shows have established their legend. The band has carried the garage rock torch for almost 30 years now, dishing out its self-proclaimed “Super Rock” to a cult-like following. The problem that has plagued the Fleshtones’ career, though, is that they haven’t found a producer who could channel the raw energy of their gigs into a studio setting since the IRS days. Enter Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, who gathered Peter Zaremba, Keith Streng, Ken Fox, and Bill Milhizer in his North Carolina studio in January to record Do You Swing?. Although it surely doesn’t match the fantastic Hexbreaker, Do You Swing? might well be the band’s best album since then, as Zaremba has boldly declared.
Miller’s no frills production mostly leaves the band to its own devices, and for its part, the foursome has come up with a surprisingly strong batch of songs. Although Zaremba’s always offbeat voice has grown more haggard with age, longtime fans will recognize trademarks of the Fleshtones’ sound like hard-driving Farfisa organ, blasts of harmonica, and sing-shouted “sha la la” backing vocals. Unlike some of their counterparts, though, the Fleshtones aren’t married to their ‘60s influences and feel free to mix and match styles. That’s why they can easily slip from the soul of tracks like “Hard Lovin’ Man” and “Are You Ready for the Mountain?” to garage à go-go on “Alright” and “Double Dipper” and even a wild, harmonica-infused cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”.
This strong new album from the Fleshtones seems to come at an opportune time, since younger bands like the Mooney Suzuki and the Hives have been reaping the rewards of the newfound popularity of a style on which the ‘tones never gave up. The Fleshtones are well aware of the competition and have issued a “battle of the bands” challenge to the whippersnappers, a move that seems unnecessarily harsh but drives home the point—as do the songs on Do You Swing?—that the garage rock revival might have given the Fleshtones the kick in the pants they’ve needed for awhile. While the album is strong, though, the fact remains that it’s the live shows that can’t be beat, so catch ‘em if you can.