Garage bands never die, they only fade away. Little Steven’s Underground Garage and the many garage-rock revivals have proven this much. But the Fleshtones won’t go quietly into that cold night. More than 30 years into a career that’s seen them laugh in the face of ridicule and spit in the face of imminent success, they’re staging their own revival.
This year brings a tribute album, Vindicated!, and a documentary, Pardon Us for Living, the Graveyard Was Full, which follows last year’s biography, Sweat. In January, they released a terrific new album, Take A Good Look, the band’s third release for Yep Roc, with each better than the last. Good Look probably rivals early classics such as 1982’s Roman Gods and 1983’s Hexbreaker, though they’ve been out-of-print so long it’s hard to remember. Then again, anyone who’s seen them live knows the Fleshtones cook with kerosene.
Birthed in the ’70s alongside the New York punk explosion, their sound is rooted in ’60s garage, with fuzzed-out guitars and bleating organ, while incorporating a lot more elements than your typical Kingsmen wannabe. Old-fashioned ’50s rock, bubblegum pop, beatnik swing, dance-party soul, and even proto-punk stomp all get dipped in the Fleshtones garage-rock batter, then flash-fried into a sound at least as vital as that of the Hives.
Despite being signed to I.R.S. Records — home to R.E.M. and the Police — the Fleshtones weren’t hungry for success. “Some people might go as far as saying self-defeating. And we were really successful at that,” says Fleshtones frontman Peter Zaremba, who hosted the mid-’80s MTV indie-rock show The Cutting Edge.
But after squandering endless opportunities, it seems the Fleshtones finally decided to get down to business. They were spurred by the recent garage revival and the success of bands such as the White Stripes. “We said, ‘Hey wait a minute here. We’re stuck being forgotten? We’re in oblivion-land and everyone else is capitalizing on the foundation that we laid down for them. Why don’t we focus a little bit and do something,’”
It’s hard to imagine a better culmination to that process than their latest release. Bursting with irrepressible energy, the dozen tracks never let up, from “Love Yourself,” which recalls the Animals, to the British Invasion rush of “Going Back to School,” and the bluesy title track, with its complaints of “hipster overflow.” The album is deeply informed by the records Chris
Blackwell put out on Island Records, particularly the work of the Spencer Davis group, who, under Blackwell’s supervision, subtly blended Jamaican rhythms into their British R&B.
“That whole relationship between Jamaican music and stuff like Spencer Davis, it’s not an obvious connection,” says Zaremba, who had his epiphany after listening to an Island Records compilation. “It’s like you’re around this music all your life and you don’t put it together until it all clicks in your head. It was such a revelation, and the whole band really listened to all that and it became a huge influence on the way we did the new album. But it’s not like we said, ‘Let’s smoke a big spliff and play Wailers songs.’”
It’s a subtlety that’s readily apparent when listening to the previous Fleshtones album, Beachhead, and the latest, back-to-back. Where the last one indulged their love of the Troggs (“even more than usual”) by employing a rubbery shuffle, Good Look boasts a swing you won’t typically find in garage rock’s four-on-the-floor rumble.
“Our records have always been considered very danceable, but this time it seemed like the songs were alive on their own. They bounce right out at you,” Zaremba says.
He offers that after three decades of making music, they’ve finally gotten a handle on how to make a record. Those aforementioned first albums were completed in marathon, reportedly drug-addled, sessions that stretched for days instead of hours, but the last three have been “fun,” and not the contentious, adversarial affairs of their youth. Along the way, they’ve learned more about the craft.
“When we were younger, and ever so much more impetuous and driven, we tended to try to cram everything into songs. There’s only so many hooks you can hear. Believe me, I’ve tried,” Zaremba says. “Another thing about these Jamaican records, they’re fairly simple. There’s not too much extraneous stuff. The good records, anyway. The things that are there are there because they do something to bring life to the song.”
Life is something no Fleshtones performance ever lacks. What makes their recent albums so special is that they’ve finally gotten close to replicating that live-performance feel, because a Fleshtones show doesn’t feel like nostalgia, it feels like a good time. Despite their years, they still retain a playful, childish enthusiasm — like a bunch of toddlers acting out. This primitive joy has always been one of their primary connections with punk.
“We’re less dangerous now. It’s definitely more fun-oriented, but it’s always been a blast, and it’s always had to do with a lot of celebration,” Zaremba says. “The point of this garage thing is not about wearing some perfect outfit. It’s a homemade sound that anyone can do. It’s exciting, and it’s a process — a process of looking at music and trying to play it yourself. And by doing that you get all these influences mixed up and confused, and then you create something new, and pretty vital.” •
Fleshtones w.Sons of Hercules, The Ugly Beats, and Captain Pierre
9pm Thu, Mar 27
Rock Bottom Tattoo Bar
1033 Ave. B