New Haven Register Archives: “Hearts of Solid Gold: The Fleshtones just love the music”

The Fleshtones, 2001. Back then, they'd only been at it 25 years. Front: Peter Zaremba. Back, from left: Bill Milhizer, Keith Streng and Ken Fox. Photo by Anne Laurent.

Editor’s note: Once in a while, music writers are lucky enough to get the chance to write about their favorite musicians and bands. I was lucky enough to have been able to do interviews/features with Brian Wilson and the band that’s been my favorite since 1984, The Fleshtones.

This story ran as the centerpiece of the Friday, March 23, 2001 Weekend section of the New Haven Register. They were playing the next night as part of a Junk Culture Festival at the late downtown club the Tune Inn, and had recently released the album “Solid Gold Sound” on Blood Red, a small indie label out of Portland — run by a guy who worked, if I remember right, full-time as a nurse to fuel his passion for music.

And they’re still going, nearly 36 years after Peter Zaremba and Keith Streng played their first gig, at CBGB. The early days of CB’s. Before punk was punk.

The piece comes to me thanks to the good graces of one Jay Mucci, a fan of my music writing since my Waterbury days — and a big music fan, period. Jay has a blog called The Beat Patrol, where you can find countless music stories and reviews, by me and a lot of other people. Jay was kind enough to have included this on his site.

By Fran Fried, Register Entertainment Editor

You’d think they would have quit a long time ago. Instead, The Fleshtones just released their 16th album, Solid Gold Sound, on Blood Red, a Portland, Ore., indie label. They’ll also return to the Tune Inn Saturday night to play in the club’s two-night, 20-band Junk Culture Festival, going on at 9:30.

So why are they doing this? They’re not getting rich — or younger. Why put themselves through the grind, long past the point where others’ hearts would have shattered?

The answer can be easily seen at one of their shows. Like all the Whos down in Whoville, singing around where the Christmas tree once stood, The Fleshtones’ hearts haven’t been tarnished by material disappointments.

Singer Peter Zaremba still sweats and strains, frugging and swimming himself into a medallion-swinging frenzy out of a ’60s discotheque. Guitarist and fellow original member Keith Streng still bashes chords as if a young man. Bill Milhizer, in the band since 1979, still pounds the sweat-soaked beat that drives the hybrid of ’60s rock and soul that Zaremba calls “super rock.”
Bassist Ken Fox, the junior member, with 11 years in The Fleshtones since leaving Jason & the Scorchers, still has as much fun as he did when he was a fan of the band in the mid-’80s.

They just love what they do.

*****

“At this point, I think we’ve really got it. We’ve got something here,” Zaremba, 47, said. “I don’t know if it’s energy or the way we reinterpret rock’n’roll or regurgitate it. Sometimes I think we’re the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world, and at least two dozen people agree. But generally, to see us is to like us.”

Besides, “It’s taken us 25 years to learn to make a record. So why quit?”

“(We don’t think) in terms of making it,” said Streng, 45. “If we thought like that, we would have been done 15 years ago, 20 years ago. The fact that we never made it keeps us going. It’s amazing people still do discover us — ‘I’ve never seen you guys before. You guys are great!’ That’s very inspiring.”
Maybe it’s also because the band has never looked at music as a business proposition.

“I always said that I would not think about rock’n’roll as a way to make one’s living,” said Milhizer, 52. “We’ve done it for enjoyment, even though it’s been hard at times.”

And maybe it’s that adage about the family that plays together. All but Milhizer are married, Streng and Zaremba with kids, so it wouldn’t be right to call The Fleshtones a family. But the bonds run deep, and they all live near each other in Brooklyn, Streng and Fox next door.

“I would say the word ‘surrogate’ is perfect,” Milhizer said. “I can tell you this: When it’s Friday afternoon, I always call Ken, Keith and Anne (Streng), even Peter, and say, ‘What are you doing?’ And that has nothing to do with playing in the band.”

Streng and Zaremba attended Flushing High School in Queens in the early 1970s. So did original bassist Jan Marek Pakulski, who left the band in 1986 but did some singing on the new album; he and Streng have been friends since they were 12. Streng and Pakulski rented a house in the Whitestone section of Queens and began jamming. Streng was weaned on ’60s top 40: Beatles, Stones, Motown, James Brown and other soul.

By 1974, Zaremba, a Yardbirds fan, was at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan; Streng came in to see bands on weekends and crashed at Zaremba’s loft. One night, they went to CBGB to see The Ramones, amateurs who made themselves into stars. “That did it for me,” Streng said. Thus inspired, he and Pakulski started a band and asked Zaremba to join. “I was too shy to be in a band,” said Zaremba. “I didn’t think I had any talent.”

But they got a gig at CBGB on May 17, 1976. After alternating on drums, Streng and Pakulski found Jimmy Bosko, who played that first show; he soon left, replaced by Lenny Calderone.

“A lot of people didn’t like us,” Zaremba said. “We were too friendly. We were a twist band, a throwback. They thought we weren’t hip enough to run with them.” But thanks to early Cramps drummer Miriam Linna, who championed The Fleshtones in New York Rocker magazine, they began to attract an audience.

They cut their first single, “American Beat”/”Critical List,” in 1978, but an album, Blast Off, was halted for financial reasons. (It came out in 1984 and has been re-released several times since.) Tensions mounted.

“Marek was distressed with Lenny’s drumming,” said Streng. So they fired Calderone in 1979 and plotted their future while renovating a building for artist Frank Stella. Then, impresario Marty Thau, who released their first single on his Red Star label, asked them to cut two songs for 2×5, a compilation of New York bands. Blondie’s Clem Burke played drums.

Six weeks after dumping Calderone, Streng and Pakulski were eating lunch in a deli when Milhizer approached them. The Troy, N.Y., native was in the house band at the cabaret Reno Sweeney but wanted to play rock’n’roll, and overheard them.

“Keith and Marek were talking about looking for a drummer and I introduced myself,” he said. “I had no idea who they were.” Soon, Miles Copeland, founder of I.R.S. Records, heard 2×5 and wanted to sign them. “That’s when we decided we’ll do this (full time),” Milhizer said.

After a 1980 EP, Up-Front, they made the album Roman Gods in 1981. The lead single’s A-side was Lee Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony.” The flip, the title instrumental, was one of rock’s first dance singles and went top-20 on Billboard’s dance chart. It earned them an appearance on American Bandstand.

“We were happy. We were kids. We still are,” said Streng. “It was a blast back then. At that point, we were going places.”

The descent was slow. The 1983 album Hexbreaker! got mixed reviews. In 1984, they re-recorded “American Beat” as the theme to Tom Hanks’ first starring feature, Bachelor Party. But their career momentum petered out, even as Zaremba became the host of MTV’s The Cutting Edge. Two live albums failed to capture the frenzy of their shows. They watched as bands that once opened for them, such as The Go-Go’s and R.E.M., became headliners. In 1986, I.R.S. dropped them.

It got worse. The 1987 album Fleshtones vs. Reality, on indie label Emergo, was poorly distributed. The band tried to find another label, to no avail. After Pakulski, they had three bassists in four years (including Andy Shernoff of The Dictators, another high school pal). Side projects — Streng’s Full Time Men, Zaremba’s Love Delegation — couldn’t mask the fact that The Fleshtones went four frustrating years without recording.

When Shernoff left in 1990, Streng brought in Fox, his Full Time Men bassist, who had just left the Scorchers. The Toronto native, now 40, moved to New York in the early ’80s and learned to play bass from Fleshtones records. They returned to the studio when a friend, singer Dave Faulkner of Australia’s Hoodoo Gurus, offered to record them for his Trafalgar label. Powerstance was released in 1991, and they found a U.S. label, Ichiban, the next year.

But the band suffered a creative dip. Beautiful Light, produced in 1993 by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, had lukewarm results. Laboratory of Sound, produced in 1995 by Steve Albini, left everyone with a bad taste.

“I wasn’t sure about Albini,” said Streng, saying it was a suggestion of their then-managers. “I don’t feel good about that record to this day. A lot of people told me the same thing.”

From that dark cloud came a revelation: “We learned late in our career that we don’t need a record company first, or a producer,” Fox said. “We’ve learned a sense of what to do and what not to do. We learned from Albini that we can do it ourselves.”

And that’s what they’ve done. They’ve produced all their albums since, and cheaply and quickly: 1997′s Fleshtones Favorites (later called Hitsburg U.S.A.), 1998′s More Than Skin Deep, 1999′s Hitsburg Revisited and the new disc.

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2 Responses to “New Haven Register Archives: “Hearts of Solid Gold: The Fleshtones just love the music””

  1. jmucci Says:

    Hey Fran… I just saw this posting and then saw my name in your preface. Thanks for the mention!

  2. Geoff Hemzell Says:

    The Fleshtones are the best band in the world! Just listened to Beachead and Do you Swing after a few drinks with friends on a Saturday afternoon and they are definitely the best band ever!

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