Anybody remember The Fleshtones? Anybody heard of The Fleshtones?
This roots garage band from the late 70’s/80’s/today gets an interesting and extended profile in Joe Bonomo’s book Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, out on Continuum Books. The story might be best expressed in this way: the band’s best two albums, Hexbreaker! and Roman Gods, is still not out on CD, not available to download as mp3’s, and here’s a book about the band itself, out by a major publisher. Why isn’t anybody awake?
You can download some of the band’s later CDs off of emusic.com, but that’s not quite the feel we want here. The point is that the band’s music was never promoted properly, not by the band (who, according to the book, was always wrecked), but especially not by the labels. It’s not that the opportunities weren’t there: they were initially under contract with I.R.S., which was working with some of the most popular indie bands of the era (like the Go-Gos and the Police). The band, which apparently was HOT onstage, spent all of its time on the road on the States and in Europe. Its base, though, was nearly always NYC and the Peppermint Lounge and various crash apartments. They were so good live that they got the attention of the New York press & critics & this was what they were trying desperately to ride when recording. The energy just didn’t make the transfer to vinyl—at least not usually—and the cool production of the time didn’t work with the bluesy Standells-type, Stax/Volt, alt-country sound. They’d probably do way better today, when they could get some buddy with computer skills to sell their music directly.
The story as told in Sweat is strangely not sad. It probably should be sad, but the book has a distant feel. It’s a recounting of deals gone bad, of screw ups, of narcotics. The thing was, the book never let me get to know any of these guys, so while I was intrigued by the machinations, I didn’t really care about them at all. I didn’t pity the musicians, didn’t feel like they got what they deserved, nada. I felt like I understood the frustrated producers more than I did the guys, whose personalities I overall could barely separate. (Except for Gordon, the horn player, who did all kinds of crazy self-destructive things.) I was told that Peter was an intellectual genius and condescending, but honestly, I didn’t see it. Once in awhile I’d hear that a guy broke up with a girlfriend, like Judy. Who is Judy? Randomly, I’d hear a reference to someone being married, but I had no idea who he married or why or how that all worked with being on the road all the time. I didn’t know who their friends and enemies were. It’s like…the guys didn’t exist as individuals in the book. They were more representatives of the Roots Punk Sound (or something). And since they apparently helped to bring about their own lack of success, I would’ve liked a little more personal understanding of just how that happened. The closest I can get is that they were truly just too honestly garage band, too performance oriented, too drunk, too working class, too cranky to really work the business end.
I read the book because I remember the Fleshtones. I had their two best records, Roman Gods and Hexbreakers! They were gloriously fun records, great for parties and to dance around to when nobody was looking. They were more ballsy, less intellectual, more Americana than most of the other bands of the era. I don’t have the albums anymore (that’s what happens in breakups), but I remember the moment. When I saw the book, my first response was, “The Fleshtones? They’re still around? Someone wrote a book about them? Why?” They were one of the most fun bands of the crazy period that ended up getting called New Wave/Punk. Just can’t shake off the horn joy of the time, and so here’s a book. Young bands, it’s a cautionary tale. I.R.S., who put out the best of the Fleshtones records, was absorbed by MCA. Old punkers, it’s all too familiar. Fleshtones and whoever owns the I.R.S. music catalog: why the hell isn’t The Fleshtones’ old music available for download RIGHT NOW.