Monday, February 29, 2016

SCREEN TEST: Inspired Humans Making Noise

Screen Test, one of my all-time favorite pop groups, will be playing a relatively rare live show this coming Saturday night, March 5th, 2016, at Vendetti's Soft Rock on Teall Avenue in Syracuse.  If you're a power pop fan in Central New York this Saturday, then this is where you need to be.  These are my liner notes for Screen Test's 2005 anthology, Inspired Humans Making Noise.


                        Sometimes you start to wonder, what you're doing right
                        When you're kissing with your lover all through the night
                        What was different about you when you were in your teens?
                        If you didn't wanna play their game, then you weren't part of the scene                                   

Arty Lenin's portrait of teen alienation provides a fitting intro as we look back on an incredible pop band that the world, scratch that, because Screen Test was a band the world never really got to know in the first place.  At best, they've become a footnote in the story of The Flashcubes, a phenomenal power pop band from Syracuse, NY, who broke up in obscurity in 1980, but whose stature grew in the ensuing decades to the point that some pop fans now (rightly) refer to them as “legendary.” 

                    Well, what did they know?
                        And where are they now?
                        Where did they go
                        If they're any place at all?
                        They hurt you so
                        But that was long ago
                        And nothing really mattered when you were young
                        Oh no, nothing really matters when you're young

It was different in 1980.  The Flashcubes--hitless, unsigned, unsuccessful--were history, not likely to be remembered as “legendary,” probably not likely to be remembered by many people at all.  Still, the demise of The Flashcubes gave us two new, cool bands to replace the departed 'Cubes.  Former Flashcubes guitarist Paul Armstrong formed a spunky rock 'n' roll trio called 1.4.5., and the remaining original 'Cubes--guitarist Lenin, bassist Gary Frenay, and drummer Tommy Allen--became Screen Test. 

Screen Test was adamantly not The Flashcubes.  Subsequent pop history has seen The Flashcubes' status elevated considerably, but in 1980 the 'Cubes were considered a thing of the past.  Screen Test consciously set out to carve its own niche in pop music, and --kinda like what Paul McCartney did in going from The Beatles to Wings (if you'll forgive the comparison)--Screen Test did so largely without playing many Flashcubes songs, concentrating instead on great new material that would be specifically and identifiably Screen Test music.

The Flashcubes ended in August of 1980, when guitarist Mick Walker (Paul Armstrong's replacement in the group) didn't show up for a 'Cubes gig, forcing Gary, Arty and Tommy to play the gig as a three-piece.  “We decided to change our name and re-launch,” says Gary. 

But what to call this group that was not The Flashcubes?  “I remember pushing for The Heartbeats and The Pinstripes,” says Gary.  “We all wrote lists of names,” continues Tommy, “but couldn't agree on one--we had a gig booked, and no name.  I had the name 'Sneak Preview,' and kinda liked it.  I ran into a fellow musician (Spencer Montague--now that's a cool name!) at the post office one day, and he asked me what we were gonna call ourselves.  I was trying to remember Sneak Preview, but 'Screen Test' came out instead, a name that wasn't on any of our lists.  When I said it, I liked it and ran it by Gary and Arty...I guess they liked it, too!”

But why change from The Flashcubes into Screen Test in the first place?  “After Paul,” Gary recalls, “we thought we'd be able to shed his--and thereby our--'punk' image.  But even as the totally power pop Mick lineup [of the 'Cubes], we still got called that.  It was a reputation that would not go away.  So we thought, if nothing else, the name change will give us a fresh start.

“In retrospect, I think it was the single biggest mistake we made in our entire career.  Even bigger, in my opinion, than jettisoning Paul from the original band.  As three of the four original members, we had just as much right to the Flashcubes name as the Mick lineup had.  The band had so much press, and a true national profile...and we tossed that all aside, so that we could start anew.”

Screen Test made its live debut at The Lost Horizon in Syracuse on September 1st, 1980, three years to the day after The Flashcubes' first show.  They played out often, and they didn't waste any time getting back into the recording studio.  Two Gary Frenay songs were cut as the first Screen Test demos on November 11, 1980 at Sigma Sound in New York City.   “Sound Of The Radio” (which Gary used to introduce live as “a song about how great radio used to be, back when radio stations played The Kinks”) and “Growin' Up Too Fast” were produced by Matt Weiner and Bruce Solomon.  “Solomon worked for E.B. Marks Music in NYC,” says Gary, “and these were done as demos for him to shop our songs for a record deal.”

A bit closer to home (at Chase Media in nearby Skaneateles), Screen Test found itself back in the recording studio on December 8, 1980, the night John Lennon was killed.  These sessions provided the tracks for the first Screen Test EP, Inspired Humans Making Noise, titled (fittingly) after the phrase Lennon himself had used to describe the transcendence of rock 'n' roll music.  The EP was released in March of 1981 on the group's own Northside Records label.
The EP kicked off in fine fashion with Gary's “Anytime,” a confident rockin' pop number propelled by a simple, monster riff that immediately owned any room it entered.  “There's No Place Like Work,” Arty's danceable ode to the work ethic, and “I Am Sincere,” Gary's winningly earnest placing of heart on sleeve, further contributed to a perfect pop EP.  A message etched in the record's inner groove--“Finger & Berries”-- eagerly admitted Screen Test's debt to the music of Badfinger and The Raspberries, and the tracks on the EP carried forth that tradition with pride and distinction.

But the showstopper was Arty's “Nothing Really Matters When You're Young,” a devastating screed of discarded hearts, broken promises, and square-peg disillusionment, delivered with a stiff upper lip and an inherent buoyancy that belies its bitter origin.  (Another terrific Arty tune, “I Won't Trust You Anymore,” was also recorded at the EP sessions, but has been unreleased until now.  A cover of The Beatles' “Thank You, Girl,” recorded at these sessions as a tribute to the late Lennon, remains unissued.)

Screen Test continued to gig constantly, traveling frequently to New York City for dates at Trax, The China Club and CBGB's, plus Spit and The Rat in Boston, and numerous local jobs, including a spot opening for U2 (at a club located within a shopping center, no less) in May of 1981.  In June of '81, Screen Test returned to Skaneateles to record tracks for the second single, this time with longtime associate Ducky Carlisle producing.

That single, Gary's “Suellen” backed with Arty's “Girl's Brand New,” was released on Northside in January 1982.  After the single's release, Screen Test expanded to a quartet with the addition of keyboardist Wells Christie.  The addition was short-lived, and Christie was out of the band by the end of March.

On April 1, 1982, the Screen Test trio convened at Minot Sound in White Plains, NY to record master demos for Atlantic Records.  At the helm was British producer Mark Dodson, who'd previously worked with Joan Jett and Greg Kihn, and on Bow Wow Wow's hit cover of The Strangeloves' “I Want Candy.”  These sessions produced completed tracks of two Gary Frenay songs, “I Get Restless” and “You Don't Know Me,” both presented here.  Also recorded were a remake of “There's No Place Like Work” and a cover of Greg Kihn's “Hurt So Bad” (which Dodson suggested), though neither track was ever released.  An incomplete version of “Nothing To Say To You” was shelved, then eventually overdubbed and completed as a Flashcubes track in 1999.

The tracks were excellent, but no contract with Atlantic (or anyone else) materialized.  “You Don't Know Me” was included on a sampler album (Son Of Soundcheck) compiled by local radio station 95X in 1982.  The track would return in a slightly higher-profile venue before too long.

In March of 1983, Screen Test recorded the still-unreleased 19 Big Ones, a collection of four-track demos produced by Ducky, preserving 19 otherwise-unrecorded Screen Test gems.  Meanwhile, Screen Test returned to Chase Media in Skaneateles to cut another track, “I Know It's Over,” in April of '83.  But still, no more records were released at the time, nor were any record labels beating a path to Syracuse to sign these kids up.  Maybe a more dramatic means of getting attention was necessary.

By now, MTV's conquest of popular music was well under way, and a video seemed the very '80s thing for Screen Test to do.  “A former Syracusan, Tom Garber, saw us play in New York City,” says Gary.  “[He] was doing video work and asked us to come down to Long Island for a video shoot.  He storyboarded the whole thing, hired the actress, got the club and soundstage to shoot at, and we did it.”

“It” was Screen Test's only video, made for “You Don't Know Me.”  A thoroughly professional effort, the video served as an effective accompaniment to Gary's hauntingly pretty tune about a regrettable one night stand.  It was relatively free of the many cliches already rife within rock videos in 1983, perhaps not groundbreaking, but both of a piece with the video landscape circa '83 while not seeming overly dated today.  It would have been a fine addition to MTV's power rotation.

It did, at least, get one spin, anyway.

MTV's Basement Tapes was a television showcase for unsigned bands, competing for audience votes and (one presumed) eventual stardom.  On August 10th, 1983, Screen Test made its one-and-only national television appearance, as the video for “You Don't Know Me” competed on Basement Tapes.

It was a heady experience.  Prior to the big night, Gary, Arty and Tommy had pulled out all the stops in promoting the event.  They'd contacted everyone, from current fans to old members of The Flashcubes International Fan Club.  They'd arranged for plenty of local media coverage, and many Central New Yorkers were quite prepared to support the local boys now poised to make good.

But it wasn't to be.  Screen Test came in third, with the honors going to a Boston act called Digney Fignus (all together now: “WHO?!”).  Still, Screen Test managed a strong showing; “We finished third behind bands from Boston and Miami,” says Gary, “which, being such large markets, was some consolation.  I can't tell you the number of people over the years who still come up to me and say, 'I voted for you on MTV!'”
Screen Test again returned to Chase Media on November 9, 1983 to cut three more tracks, Gary's “We've Gone Too Far” and “It's No Secret” and Arty's “What Is Wrong With This Picture.”  It would be the last full-fledged Screen Test recording session for some time.

It's tempting to believe that Screen Test's loss on MTV's Basement Tapes served to slow the group's momentum, though it's probably not accurate.  But one wonders if things were beginning to change within the group.  “I recall that there was a point in 1982,” says Gary, “when we talked quite seriously about relocating to Boston or New York City.  I began saving toward that end, and was surprised to discover, several months later, that I was the only one who was!  After that, I just decided that I had to put myself first, and the band second, and that included getting married.  Jackie and I had been together for five years at that point, and it was certainly time.”

Gary got married in July of 1984.  If married life had any effect on the band, it wasn't immediately apparent.  In September of 1984, Screen Test investigated the possibility of raising its profile by having Marshall Crenshaw produce them.  Crenshaw was certainly a marquee name in indie pop at the time, and it seemed an ideal match.  Contacts were made, but the group wound up concluding that they couldn't afford Crenshaw's asking price.  “I seem to remember $10,000 as a figure that was quoted at the time,” says Gary.  “Actually not a bad deal, given his notoriety at the time.”  Screen Test friend and fan Pat Pierson also arranged contact with Mitch Easter, whose work with R.E.M. and his own band Let's Active had certainly made him one of the hottest pop producers of the time; Easter did reply to the contact, but things never quite fell into place.

In December 1984, Screen Test became a quartet again, as keyboardist Jim Carney joined the group.  “It was the '80s,” says Gary, “and everywhere we turned there were keyboards.  The songs Arty and I were writing implied more sonically than just the three-piece could cover.  The first choice, Wells Christie, was a disaster, and only lasted a few months...I barely remember playing with him.”

The following May, June and July of 1985 found Screen Test once again camped at Chase Media, cutting (among others) Gary's “This Is Fiction” and Arty's “Old Man & The Sea.”  And life went on.  Early in 1986, Screen Test also set up shop at UCA Studio in Utica, NY for additional studio sessions.  Among the tracks recorded here were Arty's “Waste Of Time” and “Feather Dancer” (the latter recorded live in the studio to digital 2-track), and a lovely Frenay-Carney composition called “I'll Never Forget You.”  These would be the final Screen Test recordings.

                     Still keep thinkin' 'bout the young sweet girl           
                        She told me she would marry me when we got out of school
                        She started dating the boy down the street 'cause he got a brand new car
                        A week or so was all that it could last
                        She had to make it through the senior class
                        What did they know...?

There wasn't a fight, there wasn't a blowup, there wasn't a line in the sand to mark a parting of the ways.  But it was clear that Screen Test had run its course.  For one thing, the addition of a keyboardist to the original trio still hadn't really worked out to anyone's satisfaction.  “Jim was/is a major talent,” says Gary, “but not a good fit for where we wanted to go.  We tried co-writing--"I'll Never Forget You” was the most successful one--but there was always something a little wrong about how we sounded.  Tommy, Arty and I were so tight, musically and personally, that I'm not sure we could have found the right match.”

(Perhaps further aggravating this situation was the fact that Arty was living with Jim by this time.  “Arty grew to dislike the arrangement,” says Gary.  “Not Jim, necessarily, but living with him.  Jim would practice piano sometimes six hours a day, very hard to live with for anyone.  And despite some of the gains musically--we did like a lot of it--it was clear that Jim was not really one of us.”)

Tracks from the '85 Chase Media sessions and the '86 UCA sessions were combined as Screen Test, an eponymous, twelve-song cassette released in June of 1986.  Maddeningly, incomprehensibly, Screen Test still could not find a record label interested in its material.  As Tommy's brother Bob Allen recalls, “I wish I could locate the letter I received in '84 (I think) from [former Raspberries producer] Jimmy Ienner, which said that while he loved the Screen Test tunes I had sent him, he 'just didn't hear any hits.'”  With no record label backing, the Screen Test cassette was self-released, almost as a souvenir.  In September of 1986, Tommy Allen played his last gig with Screen Test and relocated to New York City.

“We had played The China Club a few times in 1986,” says Gary, “and Tommy's sister Sarah was dating the owner.  And Tommy saw the chance to get a job at the club, because of her connection.  And honestly, we were sort of out of gas by then.  We had played twenty weeks of that year, four nights a week, at the Sheraton Inn [in Syracuse].  We had done what we thought were our best recordings to date that spring, but had been unable to get anyone really interested in them.  We continually made the decision not to release things on our own, as we were always sure that a record deal was just around the corner.  Hope springs eternal...!”

Gary and Arty attempted to soldier on, recruiting Ed Steele on drums and--well, this is interesting!--latter-day Flashcube Mick Walker back again on guitar.  “Mick was quickly dismissed after he and Arty had words,” says Gary, “and we added Ed's brother Steve to the line-up.  We actually still played a few dates as Screen Test in that line-up--opened for KBC Band, played at The Landmark [a beautiful old movie theater in Syracuse], and even went down to New York City to The China Club, to play with Tommy--but sputtered out quickly, and just went on as The Neverly Brothers.”  One final Screen Test single was released posthumously in 1987, as the Frenay-Carney tune “I'll Never Forget You” (from the UCA sessions, previously released on the Screen Test cassette) was issued as a 45 in memory of basketball player Len Bias.  The lyrics, reflecting on a lost love, proved prescient, and could apply equally to the late Len Bias, or to Screen Test itself:  “I'll never forget you/If I live for a hundred years/No, I'll never forget you/And I'll never believe that it wasn't meant to be.” 

The Neverly Brothers had begun in the early '80s as a side project for Gary and Arty, an acoustic duo specializing in oldies covers.  As Screen Test faded to black, cover gigs became Gary and Arty's primary live venue, sometimes as just the two of them, sometimes supplemented by other musicians.  Frenay and Lenin original songs still found their way into Neverly Brothers set lists--it would have been a crime against pop music otherwise--but these tunes weren't the primary interest of those tipsy bar patrons calling out requests for CCR and Van Morrison.

This image paints a much drearier portrait than the reality of Gary, Arty and Tommy's life after Screen Test deserves.  Tommy became active in production, toured as a drummer with Paul Young and Robin Beck, and helped develop pop acts like The Sighs and Kara's Flowers (the latter now known as hitmakers Maroon 5).  Gary and Arty's partnership was interrupted in 1990, when Arty relocated to New York for a time, where he joined The Paul Collins Band, the act fronted by the legendary former leader of Paul Collins' Beat; Arty appeared on the 1993 Paul Collins Band CD From Town To Town.  Gary stayed in Syracuse, continued to write songs, and won SAMMYs (Syracuse Area Music Awards) as Best Songwriter.  He played solo and in various combos (eventually reuniting with Arty), and released two solo albums nationally, Armory Square and Jigsaw People.   No one in Screen Test was looking back.

“Honestly,” says Gary, “I think in 1987, because I had just signed a publishing deal with China Doll Music, I probably hoped that all these years later we'd be talking about all those hit songs I wrote.  It's funny, everything is always so egocentric.  When The Flashcubes was done, it was done.  'Let's be Screen Test...we'll kill!'  Then when that was done, it was, 'Man, I'm gonna score so many song covers!'  I guess I was just always so busy looking forward, that I never really looked back in any kind of accurate way.  And it wasn't until my solo career kind of sputtered out, in the late '90s, that I started to assess in any kind of real sense.  By then, of course, all of the Flashcubes stuff was already happening....”

Still, even as The Flashcubes suddenly and unexpectedly rose like a really loud phoenix from the ashes, some wondered what became of Gary, Arty and Tommy's other great pop group.  “I would always get people coming up to me at the [Flashcubes] reunions,” says Gary, “saying, 'Yeah, this is great, but what about the Screen Test stuff?  That was your best stuff!'  And that is what Arty, Tommy and I have always felt, that our best songwriting, and our best recordings (until [The Flashcubes' 2003 album] Brilliant) were as Screen Test.  I say this without any disparagement towards Paul, and all that the 'Cubes mean to all of us.  But remember, we only played with Paul, the first time, for 23 months, and Arty, Tommy and I were together in one form or another for nine straight years.  There's just no comparison.” 
“When I listen to the songs,” adds Tommy, “ it really sounds like Screen Test to me.  In all the years I've been playing music, there has been nothing as consistently satisfying to me as playing the songs of Gary Frenay and Arty Lenin.  Their songs have left an indelible mark on my musical genetic code, and I feel lucky to have been a part of it.”

"It's funny,” continues Gary.  “We always felt a little inadequate as a three piece band, always felt that we needed something more, thus the keyboard players.  And in the industry, that was also the response we'd get: 'A three-piece pop band?  C'mon...!'  Then in 1987, when we were history, along came Crowded House, a three-piece pop band, with hit singles and all kinds of success! 
“In assembling the anthology and listening to old live tapes, we realized that the three-piece band was our finest hour.  And that's why, where possible, we've always gone with a three-piece version of a song rather than a keyboards version.  Might've sounded good then, but not anymore!  Long live the three-piece pop band!!”   

If only it hadn't taken the world at large so long to learn that simple lesson.

                        You can't really think about life bein' fair
                        Because you can't forget the faces that took away your share

But what did they know, and where are they now?  In February of 2004, it was my great fortune to attend a full-fledged Screen Test reunion show in Syracuse.  Gary and Arty's British Invasion cover band, The Fab Five, had been booked to play a gig commemorating the 40th anniversary of The Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.  For an event billed as “From Liverpool UK to Liverpool USA,” The Fab Five were to play two sets of British Invasion covers, including one set duplicating all of the songs The Beatles played on their first three Sullivan appearances.  Then, The Fab Five would serve as backing band for sets by Terry Sylvester of The Hollies and Joey Molland of Badfinger.  A nice evening out, it would seem.

One hitch:  Fab Five drummer Paul Miller (Arty's brother) wasn't as familiar with the Badfinger material; he was perfectly comfortable with the Hollies songs, but he thought it best that the group find another drummer for Joey Molland's set.

And a light bulb appeared over Gary's head:  “Let's call Tommy!,” he said.
So Tommy would travel from New York to Syracuse for the Friday night event.  And, with Tommy in town anyway, why not have him join Gary and Arty for their regular Thursday night gig? 

And everything clicked.  Rather than perform their usual Thursday night cover gig (which, mind you, they do brilliantly), all agreed that this would be a Screen Test show, featuring just Screen Test songs, many of which had not been played live in over twenty years.  It sounded as if not twenty minutes had passed--it was The Lost Horizon, The Jabberwocky, The Firebarn, and all of the other now-defunct Central New York nightspots that Screen Test had played in its original run, the vibrance, the songcraft, the sheer, unsullied joy of nonpareil Syracuse rockin' pop music from the '80s transported unharmed into the 21st century.  When Joey Molland turned up to join Screen Test on-stage for an impromptu rendition of Badfinger's “No Matter What,” it merely capped an already-transcendent evening.   And Tommy, in particular, looked like he was in Heaven.

One final digression:  sometime circa the summer of 1981, I went to see Screen Test play at The Firebarn, my very favorite local bar; it would be the last time I ever went there, but I didn't know that at the time.  It may also have been the first time I ever met my future radio partner Dana Bonn, but we're never gonna know that for sure.

I had moved out of Syracuse by then, and was just back for a short visit.  I decided to wear my Flashcubes T-shirt to the show; oddly enough, a number of other fans also decided to wear their 'Cubes T-shirts that night, something that really didn't happen all that often.  Noticing more Flashcubes T-shirts than he'd seen since 1978, Gary went and did the unthinkable:  he led Screen Test through an old Flashcubes song, an unreleased live favorite called “Social Mobility.” 

It was friggin' MAGIC.  Sure, 1978 to 1981 was hardly a large span of time, but it seemed a giant leap to bridge those two very different years, and “Social Mobility” made it all seem one.  Screen Test's show was awesome, as always, but that one song stands out, not because it was better than (nor even as good as) Screen Test classics like “Sound Of The Radio” or “Nothing Really Matters When You're Young,” but because it linked how cool Screen Test was with how cool The Flashcubes had been.

Because what's cool once is cool forever.  I later ripped that phrase off from Greg Shaw, but that Screen Test show was the first time I became fully conscious of its truth.  There was something vital here; it wasn't just a pretty good local band I liked when I was a teenager; it was a great band, as good as anyone, anywhere, any time, potentially with great appeal to a great number of people.  As time wore on, and Gary and Arty moved from Screen Test into The Neverly Brothers, they wouldn't dip into the 'Cubes (nor even early Screen Test) canon often, but when they did, the connection was electric and instantaneous.  And each time I witnessed it, I became further convinced that the legacy of The Flashcubes and Screen Test was important, worth preserving and worth expanding.  For me, that appreciation started at The Firebarn in 1981, when a bunch of Flashcubes T-shirts inspired an epiphany that should have been so obvious, yet was a revelation nonetheless.

(Incidentally, based on anecdotal evidence in a Chris von Sneidern interview I once read, I believe that same night at The Firebarn may also have been the first live rock 'n' roll show that CVS ever saw, thus indirectly inspiring HIS great pop work.  From small things, mama, big things one day come.)

Nothing really matters when you're young?  Everything matters when you're young; minor snubs become the stuff of grand drama, tiny little wounds seem to draw blood, each little wave of emotion threatens to inundate and drown your floundering heart.  And it's all real, and no one else seems to understand.  But it matters, then, now, and for as long as your memories live.

                        Where did they go?
                             Where did they go?

You've never heard of Screen Test?  Well, y'know, that doesn't really matter, not anymore, because you're about to get another chance.  So may I introduce to you, the act you've missed for all these years....

Screen Test's Inspired Humans Making Noise is still available as a download from CD Baby:

"Nothing Really Matters When You're Young" written by Arty Lenin
"I'll Never Forget You" written by Gary Frenay

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