Photo by M. Henry
With a patented blast of stompbox-laden sturm und twang guitar, greazy organ, blowzy sax, slobbering harmonica, wordless vocals and a party vibe that only comes in screw-top bottles, the Fleshtones returneth with Do You Swing?, the NYC quartet’s 12th studio album since they first brought their “getting down needs no justification” mantra to 45 rpm vinyl lo these 25 years ago.
Much like their kissin’ cousins the Cramps, the Fleshtones have reveled in their roles as America’s foremost trash compactors for so long — a trio of mind-bending early-’80s albums for I.R.S. coupled with front man Peter Zaremba’s 1984–87 stint as the original host for MTV’s The Cutting Edge, for starters — that they’ve been christened “garage fathers” of the musical sensation that’s been threatening to sweep the nation ever since “three’s a trend” journalists got slapped upside the head by the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Hives and blah blah blah …
Speaking for co-founding members guitarist Keith Streng, drummer Bill Milhizer and — since ’92 — bassist Ken Fox, Zaremba remains rather sanguine about the Fleshtones’ current éminence grise status: “On one hand, it makes me feel slightly vindicated after almost 30 years of people asking us, ‘Why do you even bother doing this?’ On the other — to paraphrase Leo Gorcey — ‘I wouldn’t mind a piece of that action.’
“But I’ve always said the Fleshtones are a band that no movement can help. The English have never gotten us — maybe ’cause we’re too quintessentially American — and that’s sort of hurt us in this country. They’re always saying, ‘That doesn’t respect the Standells!’ But if you ever met the Standells, you’d know not to respect them anyway.” Zaremba laughs.
“And we’ve always avoided those typical Nuggets-type things like ‘Dirty Water’ or ‘Wooly Bully,’ ’cause those songs are total statements and you’re only going to do a crummy version. There’s a quote from Jorge Luis Borges — ‘Both copulation and mirrors are abominations because they multiply mankind’ — and when it comes to music, it’s the same thing.”
Yet the Fleshtones have always spiked their albums with not-quite-faithful renditions of hopeless obscurities or radical revamps of rock standards, and Do You Swing? continues this tradition in the form of the Coastliners’ mid-’60s frat-rocker “Alright” and Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown,” respectively.
“A lot of times we’ll try to take a song that bands we like might’ve done but didn’t, and try to figure out what they would’ve done with it. That Coastliners thing is just a fun, dance-type number, and the Zeppelin tune was an attempt to take it back to their roots in the Yardbirds, but since we can’t really play like the Yardbirds, it just sounds like punk rock.”
As far as the Fleshtones’ own songs being covered, that hasn’t happened much. “They’re too quirky,” says Zaremba. “The instrumentation is too weird — otherwise it just sounds like another three-chord whatnot — and there’s a certain lack of proficiency at work. It’s kinda like if Shemp Howard died and Moe and Larry asked Laurence Olivier to take his place. He’s great, but he really wouldn’t have fit in. But I’d love it if a few bands covered our stuff rather than just recycling our stage moves.”
Such as the Hives appropriating your arms-crossed “powerstance” from 1991?
“Yeah, but the only thing that really bothers me is when some writer says we’re ‘ripping off the Hives.’” Zaremba laughs again. “All the choreography we’ve ever done has been to try and break down that invisible wall of pretense that separates the performer from the audience in favor of creating a communal orgiastic experience. And when it’s a good show, we’ve succeeded in that.
“It’s kinda like why we’ve always done a bunch of instrumentals, from ‘Roman Gods’ and ‘Theme From The Vindicators’ on down to the new album’s ‘Double Dipper’ and ‘One Four Five.’ For one thing, doing an instrumental is a helluva lot easier, ’cause then I don’t have to think of any dopey lyrics, which is always a big pitfall. Like what shouldn’t you say? I love doing instrumentals, ’cause then it’s just the emotion of the music that’s going to take you away.”
A lot of music critics have a hard time getting their heads around that concept …
“Yeah, well, a lot of people don’t understand why Hershell Gordon Lewis is
a better filmmaker than Steven Spielberg: ’Cause he makes a lot more entertaining movies, and doesn’t have to spend
$100 million to do it.”
THE FLESHTONES | Do You Swing? | (Yep Roc)