Our shout! Why The Fleshtones and Peter Zaremba still drink for free after all these years...
Meet Keith Streng, Ken Fox, Peter Zaremba and Bill Milhizer. Jacopo Benessi photo.
Here’s another plea for justice and a call for long overdue respect. Add another name to the list of bands whose “failure” (such a harsh word when applied without context) to break into the mainstream is not just unfathomable but criminal. Ladies and gentlemen, I speak of The Fleshtones, stars of stage and screen and bearers of a vibrant new record, “The Band Drinks For Free”, on Yep Roc.
The Official Biography lists it as Album Number 21 (including live releases) and says the band is in its 40th year, but let’s dispense with the figures and deal only in facts. The first one is: If you’re not listening to The Fleshtones, you’re a loser. The second is: It’s never too late to shed your loser status.
The Fleshtones emerged from a basement in New York City’s Queens borough and onto a stage at CBGB in 1976. Largely written out of histories of the Lower East Side scene despite being fixtures at places like CBs, Max’s Kansas City, The Pyramid, Danceteria and Club 57, they went through a trailer-load of trials and tribulations (labels going broke, line-ups in flux, drugs and drink) to “almost make it” in spectacular style.
Rehearsal room partners of the Cramps…discovered by Suicide… signed by ex-New York Dolls mentor Marty Thau to his Red Star imprint and then internationally signed to IRS…The ‘Tones even made it to the soundtrack of a major movie (“Bachelor Party” featuring Tom Hanks) only to founder at the feet of commercial indifference/puzzlement.
Trading in their own potent brew of garage, soul, rockabilly and surf called Super Rock, The Fleshtones were (are) renowned as a portable party machine, showing no respect for genres and putting on spectacular live shows that owe as much to dance steps as fuzz pedals and Farfisa organs.
The subject of a 2007 book (Joe Bonomo’s “Sweat”), a 2009 documentary (“Pardon Us For Living But The Graveyard’s Full”), The Fleshtones arguably did it all before it became fashionable or an logo on a T-shirt. They’ve had the same line-up of Peter Zaremba (vocals, organ harmonica), Keith Streng (guitar, vocals), Ken Fox (bass) and Bill Milhizer (drums) since 1990.
“The Band Drinks For Free” shows the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you can’t find something to sate your appetite for energetic, hip-shaking rock and roll here, you ain’t trying.
THE BARMAN spoke to PETER ZAREMBA to get the lowdown on “The Band Drinks For Free” and to bug him with a whole load of questions about all things Fleshtones (just because he could.)
I-94 BAR: It’s 40 years. How many more and what’s the secret?
PETER ZAREMBA: 40? it's gone by so quick! And still waiting for 'our ship to come in'. Frankly,, it'll be as many more as it will take. We're just hitting our stride, and learning to play our instruments as a side benefit. There is no secret to our longevity, this is fun -for us and for the audience -and if we weren't the Fleshtones, it would have to be created!
The late Marty Thau said The Fleshtones reminded him of “the early Yardbirds when legendary producer Giorgio Gomelsky, circa 1966, was at the controls”. I was wondering if The Fleshtones had crossed paths with Gomelsky at any stage of their long career?
PZ: Marty was a good frIend of Giorgio when he moved to New York. He introduced us to Giorgio in the early '80s, which was a great thrill to us, having been such Yardbird fanatics growing up (?). Giorgio was quite keen on us moving into the creative studio/work space that he had as well as managing us, but as much as we respected him for what he did in the '60s, we no longer felt that people from the musical past could really help us with what we were trying to do then. We're really not revivalists and besides we realized we were unmanageable anyway.
You name-checked Marty Thau in “Remembering The Ramones”. He’s recognised as a highly influential person, managing the Dolls and working with acts like yourself, Ramones, Suicide, Real Kids and Blondie. Did The Fleshtones remain on good terms with him? How do you see his legacy in terms of New York music and his importance to The Fleshtones?
PZ: We left Red Star Records because Marty couldn't get our first album out, which was a huge disappointment as you could imagine, but we always stayed on good terms with him. He convinced us to get back together when the band fell apart for a few weeks in 1979. Well, anyone would have been discouraged! But I continued hanging out with Marty, in fact it was at Marianne Faithful's apartment in Greenwich Village.
Anyway, Marty had this idea for a compilation album of songs by five young New York bands. Jimmy Destri of Blondie would produce and he really wanted The Fleshtones to be included, so we convinced Keith to do the record. Marek (Pakulski, bassist) said he'd rejoin if we found a new drummer, so Clem Burke said he'd love to drums for us for the record. Anyway the “2X5” album led to us doing the “Start Swimming” show and compilation album in London for Stiff and directly to us getting signed to IRS Records.
Sad, but Marty and I were working on releasing an album of Fleshtones material he had from 1978 when he passed away.
Speaking of Suicide, is there anything you want to say about Alan Vega’s recent passing? You saw plenty of Suicide live. What was the most remarkable performance you experienced?
PZ: All I can say about Alan's passing away is that it was very sad news. We lost a great soul, but he made such a huge mark on music and happily he lived to see some recognition of that fact.
Yeah, I saw plenty of Suicide live and I tell a lot of that story in Kris Needs’ book ("Dream Baby Dream: Suicide - A New York City Story"). Alan of course was responsible for us getting our first recording contract with Marty Thau. There were so many insanely memorable performances from Marty and Alan, sometimes with Marty Thau joining in at the sound board after various house soundmen refused to work with Suicide. Amazing!
I think the most gut-wrentching best show ever was two sets at Mickey Ruskin's super-artsy way down-town hangout The Ocean Club. It must have been in 1977. Two sets, the first Alan used to drive out most of the paying customers with personal threats -some of whom were actually trying to eat their super-late downtown dinners, then a near emotional breakdown in the stairwell to the basement that served as a “dressing room” where he was buoyed by hearing Wilson Pickett's “Midnight Hour”. (Someone played it on the juke-box -hearing these songs was still somewhat uncommon then and still had a lot of power.) Alan broke into a frenzied rendition of the “Jerk”. Thus re-energized, Suicide re-took the stage.
Within minutes Alan commanded Rev away from their “souped-up Farfisa”, Marty took a few steps into the audience, then slumped down like his battery-pack had been removed while Alan furiously began smashing away at the Farfisa with the heavy duty motorcycle chain he had been wearing over his shoulder. The ear-splitting wall of noise continued long after they left the stage for good. That was an amazing performance, one that I forgot to tell Kris about for his book.
Suicide’s first record cost $4000 to produce. What’s the most you’ve spent on an album? What’s your average recording budget these days?
PZ: I'm not sure but I shudder to think what was spent on “Hexbreaker”, most of which was wasted. But I had fun being flown out to Hollywood with produced Richard Mazda where we could be more closely “supervised” by IRS management for the re-mixing -and re-mixing, and so on for two weeks.
Our average budget is not much more than that first Suicide album these days - well, maybe 2000 more or so - but this is 2016, almost 40 years after that Suicide record, and prices for doing things have gone up a bit!!!!!
Let’s talk about the new record. You’re quoted as saying it was a breeze to write with your contribution the lighter songs and Ken and Keith’s the more serious. Is that usually the case and can you compare and contrast the approach on “The Band Drinks For Free”?
It WAS a breeze, the songs just came pouring out - for the other guys, too. So different from how we had to torture the songs out of ourselves for “Roman Gods’”and “Hexbreaker”. Dare I say I'm getting the hang of this after 40 years?
Anyway, what I said about me doing the easy (i.e' “stupid”) songs ins't 100 percent true: I did write “Living Today” which does have sure signs of maturity, and Keith did pen “Love My Lover” which speaks for itself. But Ken and Keith's tunes do seem to have a serious “dark” edge to them. Good, it gives the album some variety and “depth” so it can be listened to more than once, and not only when high.
It’s been two years since the last record. What’s the optimum time between Fleshtones recordings? (The mathematics of 21 albums in 40 years suggests two years, by the way,)
PZ: That math is off because I don't count 21 albums. Most groups would have made 21 albums in six years and then broke up hating each others’ guts, also becoming junkies along the way. Well, we did all that and came back as well, but never the “hating each others’ guts part”. Hell, Marek Pakulski still comes in and sings on our records!
Anyway, I'd like to record an album a year. That would be a cinch. In the '60s, groups would record two or three albums a year, and they'd all be great!
The album certainly sounds and feels like a “recent” Fleshtones record - at least to my ears. Is there any one song on it that best captures the Fleshtones sound for you?
PZ: Sounds “recent” Is that good? There's such a variety of songs on the record that it's hard to pick out one that ‘”captures” our sound. Maybe “Before I Go” because that's a type of song we've been working on for many years, but I think this is finally a successful version! What do you think, I'm curious, and by “recent” do you mean it sounds like we've finally learned how to play?
I suppose the recent records seem to have a certain consistency to the sound, even when you play varied styles. On the new record, "Love Like A Man" is my favourite. Does the band go into recording with a certain sound in mind? Or is it turn up and see what comes out? I suppose I’m thinking of “Brooklyn Sound Solution” where Keith and Lemmy Kaye recording together would have made an emphasis on guitars pretty much a foregone conclusion whereas “The Band Drinks For Free” has a bit more of a Stax-soul-meets-The-Kinks take, at least in parts.
PZ: Yes, we always have a certain sound in mind, and it seems we're finally getting it! You hit the nail on the head with the “Kinks meets Stax-Volt” analogy - a common enough sound these days, but we've been working towards that for decades. I hope we're not too late!
“Love Like A Man” really is a killer opener! Who’s inspired idea was it to involve Lisa Kekaula? Have you guys played much with The BellRays?
PZ: Thank you, it's my favorite track. Keith came up with the idea of recording “Love Like A Man” in a “garage” treatment, Clicklewood Green is a great album. but I'll admit I was the one who became obcessed with the idea and insisted on it being brought to the most logical and complete conclusion.
I also insisted on the album opening with it. Most people were hesitant because it was “slower” and different from what might be expected by our fans (or detractors!) but those were the very reasons I thought it belonged in the opening slot.
I had the idea of the lead vocal switching from me to Keith for the song's finale, I mean we're finally learning to just let the guy who can sing the part best just sing it, but Keith insisted that we ask Lisa.
We've toured with The BelRays in Europe - always a pleasure for us bands and the audience -guaranteed dynamite nights! We last played with them in Switzerland a few months ago in Zug. Of course Keith was 100 percent spot-on to have Lisa sing that part; she takes it to the next level - right where it needs to go. Wait until you hear our Spanish version of the song!
The title track is a stand-alone 45 and isn’t on the album. Smart play for the collector market or a concession to the fact most people will buy it digitally anyway? What’s the rationale there?
PZ: Haha, typical Fleshtones move -we're addicted to being too clever by a half. It's just our way, but the truth is we had more songs recorded than could go on this album, hence all of the recent 45's that were actually recorded for this record wound up being left off it!
I, of course, mean recent 45's like “I Surrender”, “End Of My Neighborhood” and their B-sides. So “The Band Drinks for Free” was left off as well. My big idea. I wasn't 100 percent happy with the treatment of the song anyway - a bit too obvious for us. So let people track it down who want it, we grew up as record hounds, we understand how that is.
The Fleshtones tend to self-produce these days in tandem with an engineer. Do you miss the conflict in the studio that you had with records like “Hexbreaker”? Looking back on the band’s history, when things did go off the rails, how much blame would you lay at the feet of with the band versus the producer?
PZ: No, I do not miss the conflict with the producer. it's a total waste of time and energy and we've wound up making records that sounded like we didn't want them to sound - like “Up Front”. I just wish we could work with a producer that could bring some new dimension and ideas to the band. Still waiting.
It was Steve Albini who took me aside and asked ‘What do you guys need a producer for anyway?' while we were recording “Laboratory Of Sound” with him. We haven't used a producer since.
But we were pretty crazy guys, I mean really crazy. Some bands played at being crazy like say The Replacements, but we were seriously unmanageable. I guess things went of the tracks for us early on, we had too many ideas of our own, and didn't take the idea of “success’”seriously at all. I wish we did have someone how could have channelled all our creative energy and manic force into recording, but even when working with our heroes like Richard Gotterher - well he made hit records wth our friends like Blondie, The GoGos and The Bangles - but we just wouldn't stand for it!
You made “Powerstance” in Australia with Dave Faulkner producing. Talk about how that came about and the band’s ongoing friendship with Dave and the other Gurus.
PZ: The very first time The Gurus came to play in New York Dave called and invited us to hear them at CBGBs, he said we had been a huge influence on them when they formed their band. Well, only Keith made it to the show, but we became very good friends with the Gurus.
Anyway the end of the ‘80s was a very tough time for the Fleshtones. We had been dropped from IRS Records (three times) and Emergo, the label that picked us up after that, went bust after just one album: “Fleshtones vs. Reality” (see how that worked out for us!)
So David, who was interested in producing and was doing A&R for Trafalgar Records, took pity on his old pals and was sure he heard a great album in us. It (“Powerstance”) was a reasonably successful album. It got us to Australia a few times, something I will be grateful to Dave for until my dying day, and got us yet another “new” lease on life by getting us picked up by Ichiban Records in the States.
David also invited us back to Oz for the debut edition of “Dig It Up”…I hear, despite considerable resistance to us being on the bill. Brad also graced us with some great backing vocals on the song “Living Today” on the new album. Really makes the track!
I think you only played one show while recording “Powerstance” with Dave in Sydney in the ’90s. If memory serves right, it was a “Rock Against Work” on a Tuesday afternoon at the Hopetoun. It was a long time ago but do you recall it?
PZ: I recall it quite well, Keith and I joined the Gurus at the Hopetoun. He called the band the Velvet Gerkins or Merkins or something. It was great and a great crazy night followed that just continued in to a life-long love of Australia!
The Hoodoo Gurus have been a big musical sponge, soaking up influences from all over the place. Do you see The Fleshtones as kindred spirits in that regard and is that why you all get on?
PZ: Some say we're the sponges. Yes, of course and we do get on!
Any other bands from this part of the world that you guys admire?
PZ: Heaps! Especially lots of old one like The Lime Spiders and the Celibate Rifles. And Died Pretty (who we toured Australia with) and The Stems and…too, too many bands to mention. We also toured California with the Divinyls back in the Stone Age, and love Radio Birdman and The Saints and love Ron Peno's new work…
So how was that last run through Australia on the Dig It Up bill in 2012? Are there any prospects of you making it back?
PZ: Like I said, being included on “Dig It Up” was fantastic. I think we were a bit of a surprise for the audiences that managed to catch our sets. I've been to Australia three times in my life, three more than most people and all thanks to Dave. Of course we'd love to return but Australia is a long and expensive way from Brooklyn. We need a viable “public” to make such things financially feasible, but we can dram. Maybe this record will do it.
This might be a trade secret but anyway…how much practice does a human pyramid take?
PZ: More nerve than practice, really.
It’s often said The Fleshtones have so many influences that’s it’s impossible to classify Super Rock. You’re probably way past caring but has that been a help or a hindrance as far as commercial success is concerned?
I don't think that has been our problem. Super Rock is a blessing, and it's all OURS!
Talk about the influence of dance clubs on the Fleshtones sound. It seemed to work OK for Blondie but that sort of diversion must have pissed off the Downtown audience.
PZ: It did piss off some people, but most were ready to embrace dance influences. “Roman Gods” actually broke into the Billboard Top 40 dance charts. We were into it early on, after all good disco was just the current manifestation of soul music at the time, although most rock and roll people were too stupid to realize it. Besides it was hardly disco's fault that rock and roll had abdicated it's role as the dance music for youth.
We liked getting high and going out and dancing all night long and missed that in rock and roll, although I was really happy to discover that dancing like crazy to rock and roll flourished in Boston.
The Fleshtones have fans all over the world but it seems France and Spain are where the passion runs deepest. Why is that and why haven’t you seemingly been embraced by England? Did the music press have something to do with that? How was your last show in London?
PZ: We stuck a chord in France from the beginning, and I don't believe it has anything to do with the cult of “the loser” - Johnny Thunders had that cornered. Same for Spain. Since English is not their language, they are attuned to something else in music and art. Some sort of passion, and we seem to have it. God bless them!
Now as for England, I won't be too harsh. We have lots of great, long suffering fans, mostly in London and the south, but I think we've always been too “simple” and “face-value” and, well, American for the more trend and tribal-driven British audience, and certainly the English musical press. They just couldn't see the “point” in four or five guys that didn't wear some sort of costumes or makeup, that just got up there and played - oh dear, rock and roll. So American!
I remember one reviewer in (I think) the NME who ended his piece on us with the extortion to "reject this Yankee Imperialist CRAP!!!!" Well, at least that was one English music journalist who had something passionate to say about the Fleshtones. And it didnt help that we say, persisted in playing guitars when that was supposed to be no longer done (remember that?)
Even when Englsih bands finally started playing pretty much what we had been playing all along, they'd find reasons to ignore us for doing it. I think the only time MOJO will ever devote any space to The Fleshtones will be to run one of our obituaries - if that!
The other side of that coin…are there any bands from the first (or second) wave of UK punk that floated your boat back in the day?
I loved the Pistols’ first 45 and we even played the song live at Max's when it came out and dedicated it to them. I like the Glen Matlock stuff - intense and raw. I like Eddie and the Hot Rods too. I didn't think it was cool that the English bands kinda hi-jacked the whole punk thing - but we (and the press) let them. Let's hear it for the Buzzcocks and The DeRellas too!
You recorded a B-side called “Dominique Laboubee” a couple of years ago. He was the leader of The Dogs, one of France’s most revered underground bands. I’m guessing you guys played plenty of shows together in Europe in the ’80s? Did you play with The Dogs on their one and only US tour?
PZ: No, I think we were out of the country when they finally made it here. The Dogs opened for us at The Palace, our first show in Paris and the most fantastic night of my life - ever. After some incredibly hard weeks of touring in England…cold, ignored, hated by the few who bothered…we met the Dogs and (experienced) a bit of Beatlemania. We floated on the love of the crowd and reached amazing heights that night. It meant so much to us to finally mean something to people. This will always be linked to Dominique and The Dogs.
We never got around to recording with Dominique, although we did cut an EP with Tony Truant in Greenpoint a few years ago. He also sings and plays guitar on “Dominique Laboubee”.
I know retrospectives on the Bowery scene overlook The Fleshtones. Is that because the people who’ve written them - I’m looking at Legs for one - just weren’t into the band? How many times did you play CBGB vs Max’s anyway?
PZ: I'd say you are correct there. Legs was always too much into promoting bands like Shrapnel and The Sic F**ks to pay any attention to us. Dig up something by those groups and give them a listen...
We played heaps of times at CBGB's (in fact our first show ever) and Max's too, until we got tired of that scene and sorted booking our own “dance parties” at old Polish halls like 57 St. Marks and then Irving Plaza. We've basically been written out of all that history. Kinda like when Stalin would bump off another of his Politburo - they'd be “disappeared”.
MOMA (Museum of Modern Art in New York City) is doing some sort of big retrospective right now, I believe, on the Club 57 scene - something we actually started. I have not been contacted. We shall see, but the victors write the history, right?
What was the better club? CBGB, Max’s or The Pyramid? Talk about The Pyramid on Avenue A and the scene around there, if you like.
PZ: Look, nothing topped CBGBs when it started to happen in 1975 and ’76 - it was a dream come true, something I had been waiting for for years. Max's was great too, and gave more of a shot to bands like the Cramps, Suicide and us. But in the ‘80s the Pyramid was just the most exciting and fun maelstrom of talent in the world, I repeat the world, and we were called the Pyramid's “house band’”.
Of course we were intimately involved with the birth of “Wigstock” (annual NYC outdoor drag show). Keith and I were at the drunken after-hours “meeting” in Tompkins Square Park when the whole thing was cooked up, but I did not come up with the name. Maybe the late and sadly mostly forgotten Wendy Wild did that. Anyway, the bar at the Pyramid became known as the Fleshtones Office.
We even invited (now Sir) Ian McKellen (actor) down to the Pyramid after we finished our shoot with him for what turned out to be Andy Warhol's last TV show. You should have seen Ian's face when he saw all those none- too-convincing drag queens go-go dancing on the bar. He did not stay long!
You’re originally from Queens, Have you been to the new Ramones Museum there?
PZ: No, I saw Joey, Johnny, Deedee and Tommy too many times in full-force at CBGBs, to want to see them in a museum. I wrapped up my feelings about those times in the song "Remember The Ramones’” I have very mixed feelings about rock and roll in any museum; it’s supposed to be a living thing. At least it is for me. And Queens per se never gave much of a damn about the Ramones, certainly not when they were alive. So what's the big thing now?
“Hipster Heaven” on “Wheel of Talent” said a lot about gentrification. Is gentrification inevitable or avoidable? If there’s a rock and roll scene in NYC, is it still in Brooklyn or have the hipsters pushed it elsewhere?
PZ: Gentification is probably inevitable, and like it or not we are the conduits for the process. Everyone want to live “where the action is”, no? But very often, once they are living there, they want the action to stop. Now it seems people come here from all over the world to start a “Brooklyn Band” but I don't know who these people are, and they don't know who I am.
I read your day job was travel writing. Is that true? Where’s the most memorable place you’ve been anyway?
PZ: Well, it certainly was very true, but not really a day job, more of a “when not playing music” job -that and food and restaurant reviews, of which I was writing quite a lot of starting in 1997. I became a contributing editor for Time Out New York, then wrote lots of cover stories for The New York Daily News. All of that has sadly dried up with the huge changes in publishing and the great recession.
Now, one of the reasons I got into this was that I like to go to restaurants and I'm a reasonably good cook. I also had a list of places I wanted to go to since I was a kid, so I convinced my editors they needed stories on these places.
Memorable places? The Cook Islands were memorable, so was Macau, and The Corn Islands -and I got to fall in love with Jamaica and sleep in Ian Fleming's bedroom - more than once.
How important have been side projects like The Master Plan and your own Love Delegation to keeping The Fleshtones happening? Do you, Bill or Keith have anything else currently on the boil?
PZ: The Love Delegation was a direct outgrowth of hanging out at the Pyramid almost around the clock in the mid-’80s. I had a lot of ideas that didn't quite fit in the Fleshtones framework and besides, The Fleshtones didn't have a label anyway. I also wanted to make records that sounded the way I heard them in my head, or at least show it could be done.
I think The Love Delegation records, especially the second album “Delegation Time” (which was sort of a “garage disco” record) would bear with some re-discovering by today's DJs - lots of material in there for mixing! Anyway I got a “hit” record out of it: “I’m Gonna Knock You Out” is still played in discos along the Spanish Mediterranean coast.
Keith Streng meets the people at the Sydney Dig It Up. Kylie Pitcher photo
Keith recently put out an album with the Spilt Squad: Clem Burke is on drums and Eddie Munoz of The Plimsouls is in there too. He's always got something “on the boil!” And I would love to record more records - in French…in Spanish - with the Fleshtones, or otherwise. Let's Go!
You’ve had re-issues on Australian label Raven and two tracks on the Rhino “Sons of Nuggets” collection. What chance a complete back catalogue release or a box set? Or do the vagaries of multi-label dealings make that impossible?
PZ: I was just having this discussion with Robert Jaz (artists/DJ) while sailing on The Jewel (cruise boat) for the Fleshtones sunset cruise on New York Harbor - a lovely rocking evening if I may say so, got to do it more often. Anyway, I'd say considering our recording history that's a very complicated and expensive proposition and I’m not sure of the demand for said product. That said, outfits like Rhino, who do actually view us favorably, do work wonders in the box set genre, so who knows? I, however, always look to the future, and it's complications! Let there be more!
You’re washed up on a desert island with only a volleyball and a record player for company. The Professor is still there (although, alas, not Ginger or Mary Ann) and can arrange by radio to have five LPs dropped in. What are they going to be?
“Face To Face” by The Kinks. The Ramones’ “Rocket To Russia”. “The Best Of Eddie Cochran”. “Introducing The Beatles” and “Their Satanic Majesties Request”….wait, I might want to buy back my record collection!
Hypothetical supplementary question: Ginger or Mary Ann?
PZ: Looking back -both! Hell, I'm stuck on an island, right?
Since we’re in a bar, what are you drinking? For free of course. Can I arrange a Blue Whale?
PZ: Right now? A well mixed “old-fashioned” or “sazarac” would do nicely but I've been inclined to rum ever since I got interested in going to the West Indies. Now, you certainly could mix up some Blue Whale - and I, or Keith would be happy to show you how. Or Blue Whale's cousin the Blue Lagoon which is made with rum instead of vodka and is popular in Curaçao, which is of course home to the Blue Curaçao that gives these cocktails their distinctive color and flavor. Hey, I finally got to go to Curaçao as well because of my writing - Goggle: 'Blue Curaçao, Busybuddy Blog'!
"The Band Drinks For Free" is released on September 2 on Yep Roc. It can be pre-ordered here.