Monday, February 11, 2008

Sweat – The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band by Joe Bonomo

I was very surprised when I discovered that this book existed and even more surprised to find it at my local library! Not that these hard working garage-heads don’t deserve it, but I’m impressed that a book publisher agreed.

Joe gives a basic background on all of the guys who all grew up with a love for music and with some basic artistic aptitudes – as well as a love of partying! A couple of big surprises came from saxophonist/harmonica-player Gordon Spaeth – one, I had no idea that before he joined the band he did time for involuntary manslaughter for a bar fight and two, that he passed away in 2005! I’ve been out of touch with these guys for decades, but I’m surprised that I never heard about that. Truly sad – he was a damn nice guy.

The info on the boys is all interesting - Keith's deep interest in garage and legendary, excessive parties (where the band as well as previous embryonic versions started), Peter and Marek's equal love for 60’s rock but combined with a fascination for the underground, extremely hedonistic disco culture (they loved to dance and thought of the Fleshtones as an updated 60's-styled dance band) and Bill's unusual past as a puppeteer!

After a stint with Red Star records (who also put out fantastic records by Suicide and the Real Kids) that didn't work out as planned (their debut album with the label didn’t come out for several years and then as a cassette-only release on ROIR), the boys hooked up with IRS records – a major label signing a garage band! The label released Roman Gods, the first full length from these wildmen – a terrific album which received rave reviews.

I met, played with and partied with these cats at this time (early 80’s) and they truly were a phenomenal live band and great fun and personable guys, also.

Bonomo has incredible stories of the recording of the second album, Hexbreaker, including outlandish drug usage by everyone, even the producer, and an outrageous budget of $80,000 (!) that they managed to surpass!!!! How they produced a record this sloppy and somewhat muddy sounding – though truly great! – for that amount is astounding! I guess that labels liked to waste money in the 80’s!

Unfortunately, they never caught on like other semi/pseudo garagey bands like the Go-Gos and the Bangles (both of which I would never have imagined hitting big when I first saw them – the Go-Gos were a punk band at first and the Bangles were covering Tom Petty! I loved them both, but I would never have guessed that the American public would have latched onto them like they did). But the Fleshtones certainly had all of the advantages that most bands can only dream of – major label, management, booking, touring with big name bands as well as on their own, traveling around the world, getting on a movie soundtrack, appearing in the Urgh! movie, appearing on American Bandstand, working with name producers, and on & on. They worked hard and I do not think that the lack of major success was due to the band (though possibly their over-the-top partying might have gotten in the way), but at least they can’t really say “what if…” as so many bands do. They tried their damnedest but something just didn’t click for whatever reason with the American public.

Another surprise in the book is that the Fleshtones as a whole are quite conservative politically – so much so that they drove Marek’s replacement, Robert Warren, to quit! I had no idea about this, but I suppose we talked far more music than politics in the early 80’s. Also, the guys are certainly no dummies and I normally equate smart with liberal, though I know that is my own prejudice.

After Warren, Fred Smith (Television) and Andy Shernoff (Dictators) sat in for a while before they found Ken Fox, a Canadian who played in several bands in the States, including Jason and the Scorchers, who remains with them to this day.

The guys gave up on the idea of making any real money off of record sales just as garage started to hit big again for the first time in 4 decades and the scene that they helped to reignite finally started catching on with a wider audience. Instead they finally decided to make records for themselves with sounds that they wanted to hear. Some worked better than others (More Than Skin Deep sounds light years better than the exceedingly trashy Beach Head) but with no illusions of grandeur driving them, they just set about to make the best music that they could.

Nowadays, they are older and somewhat wiser. Grey haired, with wives and kids, they still bring the rock to the people, but on a smaller scale, with shorter trips and to lesser crowds. They remain r'n'r beacons in the darkness of mainstream mediocrity.
Check out Joe's My Space page for the book for more info.