New York’s Fleshtones have survived at least two, possibly three, garage rock revivals, and have somehow managed to keep themselves elevated from the trendy clichés while forming a unique, and surprisingly durable, rock ‘n’ roll sound. Like fellow travelers the Lyres, the Fleshtones have managed to keep the garage rock flame alive without descending into mere mimicry or sterile revivalism. Their new album Beachhead comes far too late to cash in on the brief era of the “The” bands, but it arrives just in time to remind us why garage rock continues to thrive and still inspires bored teenagers and 20-somethings to form their own bands.
“It’s nothing new, it’s just bigger and better,” the Fleshtones scream on the opening track “Bigger & Better”. They are, in theory, describing the singer’s new girlfriend in comparison with last year’s model, but they are also commenting on how they keep a 30-year plus musical genre fresh and exciting after decades of live shows and 13 albums. Nothing that the Fleshtones do is groundbreaking, but they know just when to turn the amplifiers up, and, most importantly, they know how to craft snarling, catchy pop songs. Too many bands in the garage rock school fail to understand that all the volume in the world won’t hide sloppy or undistinguished songwriting. The various garage rock artists featured on the Nuggets compilation that launched a thousand bands have remained fresh not only due to their exploration of primal sounds and strange, amateur takes on rock and roll clichés, but also because they happened to stumble upon catchy songs (even if they did have to borrow a riff or two to get there). Needless to say, there is not a single track on Beachhead that fails to lodge itself right in the brain. The Fleshtones know when to hit the big, dumb rock hooks, like on the hilarious “Pretty, Pretty, Pretty” (“…pretty stupid”), and “She Looks Like a Woman” (“…and not like a man!”).
The Fleshtones, like many in the garage rock mold, do not take themselves seriously, but they make it a point never to devolve into a mere joke act. As they point out in “Serious”, the band is “serious about not being serious / Serious about nothing”. They may be joking around, but they really care about joking around. Humor is a major component in rock ‘n’ roll history, as any random Chuck Berry or Ramones song will attest, and the Fleshtones attempt to keep the humorous spirit alive in this all too serious age in rock music. They are not a joke band, but rather a band that jokes around — an important distinction.
The Fleshtones, of course, are serious about rock ‘n’ roll; they claim (half-joking) to be “the only MEN who make rock ‘n’ roll for life”. They may be overstating their claim just a little, but the Fleshtones are ambitious in trying to keep a simple form of rock ‘n’ roll alive without becoming mere archivists. Although guitar-oriented, the Fleshtones mix in all sorts of old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll sounds into their songs: a honky tonk piano; a squealing, rollicking saxophone riff; even an untrained harmonica solo. They do a little of musical recycling, the foundation of rock as we know it, on “You Don’t Know”, where they rework the memorable opening riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which, of course, is hardly without musical precedent itself).
The Fleshtones, at first, seem like a one-note band, but Beachhead‘s 11 songs, while all springing from the same well, come out as distinct entities. The Fleshtones even end the album on a surprisingly effective mid-tempo ballad, “Late September Moon”. It’s an almost beautiful end to an album that also includes the brute commands “Hit Me” and “Do Something for Me”. If the Fleshtones, in their pursuit to capture the soul of rock ‘n’ roll, sound like everybody else, it should also be noted that nobody else really sounds like the Fleshtones. The Fleshtones really are, as promoters hype every garage rock wannabe, “primal” and “vital”, and they have been for years. In the words of lead singer Peter Zaremba, “I am what I am what I am what I am… and I like it”.