Friday, April 7, 2017

Hippies vs. Punks: The Fleshtones' Hexbreaker (1983)

Evidence of time-past is all around. The Damned are coming to town soon, on tour to promote a 40th anniversary edition of the album, Damned Damned Damnedthe record that kicked off UK Punk. Then in the fall it will be Depeche Mode. Posters are up in abundance. Oh, and this August, at CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks play, Metallica.

A couple months back, I experienced a "rock is dead" epiphany. I was sitting in a coffee house during my lunch hour, eating a grapefruit and reading the newspaper. Playing on the sound system was some sort of turgid tar-sands Grunge -- Screaming Trees? Skin Yard? And it struck me how truly distant and mothballed rock'n'roll has become.

The whole point of Grunge was to reanimate, revivify the old longhair Hippie headbanger cock-rocker by tapping into the uptempo testosterone of Punk. Well, on this particular winter afternoon, it might as well have been a recording of The Kingston Trio performing at The Purple Onion. That's how dead the sound was. Gone, baby, gone. A set of sensibilities as far removed as the horse-&-buggy days.

Then, not too much later, maybe just a day or two, I happened to be in a different neighborhood, and I decided to try the swank coffee bar in the main lobby of the Seattle Center building that houses the new KEXP studio. The coffee bar is staffed by attractive, well-mannered young adults, and it is next to the front entrance of a large, museum-type room -- almost an auditorium in size -- of architectural concrete. There is a stage for performances at one end of the room and a little Light In The Attic Records kiosk in a corner at the other end; in between are tables and chairs, coaches and stuffed chairs. Young people hang out and study their tablets and laptops. The sound system is state of the art

On this particular afternoon Television was on the PA. I was feeling good from a double espresso. The music sounded pristine and very much alive. Maybe rock isn't dead, but it lives on as a museum piece.

Another band on tour is The Fleshtones. They'll be touring Europe this summer.

I started thinking about The Fleshtones again after listening extensively to The Feelies last month. The Fleshtones, like The Feelies, are a band that we listened to a lot in the first half of the 1980s. Like The Feelies, The Fleshtones got their start performing at CBGBs in 1976. Like The Feelies, The Fleshtones have put out a new album recently. And like The Feelies, I saw The Fleshtones perform live at Berkeley Square in the 1980s.

At the time they were on tour promoting what is now regarded as their most successful album, the I.R.S. Records release, Hexbreaker! (1983). I can't remember if it was the late fall of 1983 or the early winter of 1984 that we -- my girlfriend (wife-to-be), my fellow student co-workers at the U.C. Berkeley library and I -- saw them perform one Friday night. What I can remember is that it was not one of the best shows I have ever seen. It was the best show I have seen. Ever.

This week has been a pleasure because after downloading Hexbreaker! this past Sunday I've been listening to it all week, particularly the title track, "Hexbreaker." I've listened to "Hexbreaker"on repeat over and over. There is something that sax player Gordon Spaeth achieves at the crescendo of the song (there is a technical name for it; I just don't know what it is, when the notes are splaying, the saxophone reed is splintering, like Anthony Braxton is playing in a garage-rock band) that makes me feel as good as I did that night at the Berkeley Square.

I felt so good that night -- dancing side-by-side with my girlfriend and my friends who I worked with at the library -- that I think I stayed high for a whole week. And I wasn't stoned or even that drunk. Toward the end of the show lead singer Pete Zaremba danced a floor tom down to the pit in front of the stage and held it in one arm (no easy feat) while banging on it furiously with the palm of his other hand. We deliriously danced alongside him.

I remember the feeling well. I was high. We were all high. But we kept going higher. I remember thinking, "This has to stop. I can't keep feeling this good." But it just kept getting better and better.

The show finally ended with a bunch of people following Zaremba back up on stage and pogoing with him and the rest of the band, Zaremba placing a headlock on a Marilyn lookalike -- short-sleeved A-line dress, curly peroxide-blond hair, shock-red lipstick -- who I recognized from the coffee houses around campus, and dancing with her that way for several minutes.

There are some important Hippies vs. Punks clues to be found here. What The Fleshtones did, what the essence of the band is, is to return rock'n'roll to its rudiments, which is in the garage, before the Hippies, the Haight and the Summer of Love. The template they used is Lenny Kaye's Nuggets. Bands like The Seeds, The Standells, The Chocolate Watchband, Count Five, The Leaves.

When I started thinking about The Fleshtones again I checked first with my public library out of curiosity to see if they had any Fleshtones material in their collection. The only thing that came up in a keyword search was the 1982 film Urgh! A Music War.

Urgh! A Music War is a priceless document memorializing how different the Punk, Post-Punk and New Wave scene was from its Hippie predecessor.

For one, you had a band at the top of the heap for a spell of time, say, 1980 to 1983, that was progressive and supportive of the B- and C-list acts -- Skafish, Au Pairs, Wall of Voodo, The Fleshtones -- and that band was The Police.

Two, the shared traits of Post-Punk music -- the high-treble lead guitar; the robotic and repetitive drumbeat; and most all, the fact that the music is pretty uniformly uptempo --  clearly distinguish it from the lengthy and meandering ruminations of, for instance, Pink Floyd's Ummagumma (1969).

Why? So you can dance.

Nineteen-eighty to 1983 is an interesting period for rock'n'roll. Situated just outside the boundaries of the 1975-to-1979 Hippies-vs.-Punks war, it is pre-MTV and pre-Hardcore. The Hippies aren't an issue. They're zombies off to the side, staggering and stupefied. The essence of music is now dance, movement. 2 Tone ska.

With the ascent of MTV and the music video this kind of simple dance-party vibe gets crushed by commercialism. People like me found our way soon thereafter to Hardcore. The important year being 1984, when both Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime are released, effectively wiping out all other pole-position aspirants in the rock avant-garde.

But with Hardcore, whether we realized it or not, we were smuggling in a lot of metaphysics that would come back to haunt us. Maybe the metaphysics weren't as pie-eyed as the Hippies, but they were whoppers nonetheless. The divination of the D-I-Y working man for starters. (It is no coincidence that the mass appeal of Charles Bukowski's fiction corresponds to a time when young men were listening every night to "Working Men are Pissed.")

But, really, is there a working class in this country anymore? Was there one in the 1980s? I made a decision in my young-man youth to live as a member of the working class, but aren't we just consumers?

For rock to renew itself I think it has to go back to the garage, back to the dance party.

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