Thursday, March 3, 2016
The Flashcubes: Bright Lights, Small City
Trust me on this: I've written a lot of stuff over the course of three decades as a pop journalist. This will probably always be my favorite. These are the liner notes to The Flashcubes' 1997 anthology CD Bright Lights.
The Flashcubes? Who the hell are The Flashcubes?
If you weren't a disaffected kid living in the sleepy Central New York town of Syracuse, NY in the late 70's, then you can be forgiven for not knowing The Flashcubes. After all, the band was only together for a few years, and they never caught on outside their home town. They played showcases as far afield as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit, and released two 45s on their own, but they never snagged that ever-elusive record deal, never made that grand grab for the brass ring, and they were history by the time Ronald Reagan made it to #1 on the political pop charts.
If you've even heard of them, it's probably from their first single, "Christi Girl", which scored a berth on a couple of new wave compilation albums.
You weren't there, and you'll never know what you missed. But if you were there, you remember. The Flashcubes were our band, and they were gonna rule the world. We were sure. We were so sure...
In late August of 1977, the #1 spot on Billboard's Hot 100 was occupied by The Emotions' "Best Of My Love", which remained in the top spot for five weeks. It followed a four-week run at #1 by Andy Gibb's "I Just Want To Be Your Everything", and surrendered the spot to Meco's "'Star Wars' Theme/Cantina Band". Meco, in turn, gave way to a ten-week stay at the top of the pops by Debby Boone and "You Light Up My Life".
This was the state of pop music in 1977. You could argue about the relative merits of the above records, but few could deny they were sorely lacking in pure power or passion. They were slick, they were professional, and they were stiflingly boring. So much for excitement on the pop charts or on AM radio. FM radio wasn't much better, as many stations seemed more concerned with their own laid-back, self-conscious hipness than with genuine rock 'n' roll energy.
But there were rumors that something exciting was going on. There were stories of outrageous groups in England, wearing safety pins and pounding out some loud, primal noise. There were tales of a new rock 'n' roll scene forming down in New York City, showcasing at clubs like CBGB's and Max's Kansas City. There were records coming out, some only as imports, records that might not have found their way onto radio playlists, but which did find their way into the hands, heads and hearts of eager soon-to-be-fans. The music was beyond categorization, but "punk" was the label that stuck. And, against all odds, its influence was felt even in Syracuse.
On Thursday, September 1st, 1977, The Flashcubes took the stage for the first time, debuting at the Brookside Inn in the Syracuse suburb of DeWitt. They opened their set with a charged-up cover of The Beatles' "Hold Me Tight", and it was like shock treatment. Syracuse, against its will, had suddenly been jolted awake.
The Flashcubes themselves consisted of guitarists Paul Armstrong and Steve "Arty" Lenin (née Steve Miller), bassist Gary Frenay and drummer Tommy Allen. They were occasionally supplemented on guitar by one Buddy Love (real name Mark Roberts, then a teaching assistant in Syracuse University's English Department, and no relation to the NYC pop group Buddy Love). Arty had previously been in a hard rock band called Talisman, Gary had played with a group called Fieldstone, and Paul had been a very early member of Rochester band New Math (whose first single was on CBS-UK, later released an EP on San Francisco's 415 label, and eventually evolved into the Jet Black Berries).
Paul was born in Nuneaton, England; Gary, Arty and Tommy were all native Syracusans (Tommy's claim to be from Beverly Hills notwithstanding). All four grew up in the Syracuse area. Tommy, Arty and Paul knew each other since they were kids, and Arty used to amaze his friends in grade school when he brought in his guitar and played tunes like "Secret Agent Man" for them. Paul met Gary in the mid-'70s, when both worked at Gerber Music, a local music store.
Paul was the catalyst for The Flashcubes' formation. Paul visited England and returned to Syracuse abuzz with the sounds of the early British punk scene, and groups like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam and Eddie and the Hot Rods. Arty was a fan of New York City bands like Television, and Gary and Tommy were passionate devotees of the melodic rock 'n' roll that would later be called power pop: Big Star, Badfinger, The Dwight Twilley Band and, most especially, The Raspberries. All four of them loved the energetic rock 'n' roll of the mid-'60s British Invasion.
All of these influences were combined in The Flashcubes' sound. Although the early Flashcubes were certainly brash, irreverent, rude and trendily punk, they were never simply a nihilistic punk band. Sure, they covered The Sex Pistols and sang songs about needing glue more than needing you, baby baby baby, but there was always something more going on. This was both a part of their appeal and their commercial Achilles' heel, as they were considered too pop to be punk, but too punk to be pop.
They were, in fact, too punk for Syracuse by some estimates. Many people flat-out hated the Flashcubes--hated their music, hated their image, everything. Their early press was, at best, condescending, and many club owners and booking agents would have nothing to do with them. To some, The Flashcubes were a joke.
But this joke laughed back, sneered back. Alongside the spirited covers (of The Jam, Television, The Raspberries, The Knickerbockers, The New York Dolls, The Kinks, The Who, Big Star, Badfinger, The Hollies, Eddie and the Hot Rods, The Yardbirds, even Shaun Cassidy), the 'Cubes played more and more of their own original songs. At first, many of these songs were simple proto-punk ditties like "I Need Glue", but the songwriting matured quickly. "Power pop" was their label of choice, and The Flashcubes wore that label as proudly as one would wear a heart on one's sleeve.
Paul, Arty and Gary were all prolific writers; Tommy never wrote for the 'Cubes (though he did have the others convinced for a short time that he'd written "Tonite Is A Wonderful Time", which he'd actually swiped from an April Wine LP). Paul specialized in angry, aggressive punk tunes like "Damaged Beyond Repair", "Student Rape" and "Got No Mind", but he also tried his hand at a more pop style with "Misunderstanding" and "Radio", the latter co-written with Gary. Arty's songs ran the gamut from the ultra-pop of "Christi Girl" to the alienation of "I Don't Want To Be A Human Being". Gary's forte was pure pop; he could write a memorable pop song better than anyone this side of Eric Carmen.
This mix of styles suited Flashcubes fans just fine. The fan base grew, as did the number of bands catering to those fans. Buddy Love and guitarist Charlie Robbins (who had been in Fieldstone with Gary) formed their own group, Buddy Love and the Tearjerkers; a much later edition of The Tearjerkers was fronted by Tom Kenney, now a stand-up comic and film and TV star. (Buddy Love, incidentally, is now an English professor at California State, and a published author and poet under the name B.D. Love.)
Arty's girlfriend, Debbie Redmond, started calling herself Meegan Voss and joined an all-female group called The Poptarts. Danny Bonn, a Flashcubes roadie, formed The Dead Ducks Band (initially with Bobcat Goldthwaite on vocals). Other fans and onlookers became The Ohms (a great band that deserves its own CD anthology-someday!), Dress Code, The Drastics, The Bad Hands, The Natives, The Toys, Distortion, The Penetrators, and The Gigantic Dogs.
Against all odds, an increasingly confident new wave scene grew in Syracuse. There was even a local fanzine, Poser, created to track the local, national and international new wave scenes. ("Poser" founder Penny Poser, alias Diane Lesniewski, went on to work for Teen Bag magazine-nice résumé!) The Syracuse new wave was in full swing, and it was all thanks to The Flashcubes.
But The Flashcubes always had goals outside the Salt City. To raise their profile, The Flashcubes opened for virtually every new wave or power pop act that passed through the area: The Ramones, The Runaways, The Police, David Johansen, The Romantics, Fabulous Poodles. They played outside of Syracuse as often as possible, including gigs in Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Philadelphia and, especially, New York City.
And they recorded. They recorded many of their live shows, and they recorded demos in hopes of snaring the interest of a record label. Their earliest demos were crude, but The Flashcubes soon learned how to get the most out of basic recording equipment. They announced that they would release their own 45, with Arty's "Christi Girl" backed by Paul's "Do The Jumping Jack".
The release of those demo sides was aborted, but "Christi Girl" was recut in a real studio at Syracuse University, produced by Bill Murphy and Randy Saex as a student project. It became the debut single on The Flashcubes' own Northside Records label in 1978, backed by home demos of Gary's "Guernica" and Paul's sneering "Got No Mind".
"Christi Girl", a lovely light pop number worthy of The Rubinoos, ultimately became The Flashcubes' best-known work. At the time, though, it was supposed to be but another step in The Flashcubes' path to fame and fortune. Locally, The Flashcubes' progress was beginning to be recognized, and Syracuse New Times music editor Mike Greenstein named them Band of the Year for 1978. Elsewhere, the 'Cubes continued to form friendships and connections they hoped would lead to greater things.
The Flashcubes kept trying to make inroads outside of the Syracuse area. In New York, they played for audiences that included The Ramones, Blondie, Johnny Thunders and the whole Max's Kansas City crew. A photo that appeared in Rock Scene magazine showed Joey Ramone chatting with Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, and Joey was holding a copy of "Christi Girl". At a show in Cleveland, former Raspberries guitarist Wally Bryson told The Flashcubes that they did "Hey Deanie" better than Eric Carmen ever did. They amassed loads of press clippings: good write-ups from Bomp! and The Aquarian, and a lambasting from New York Rocker (who at least conceded that "September Gurls" "was great, though", referring to the 'Cubes' live cover of that classic Big Star song).
By the end of 1978, The Flashcubes had established themselves as a consistent local draw. They sang six songs (including a power pop cover of The Supremes' "Stop! In The Name Of Love") on an Oswego, NY cable TV show, and promised the imminent release of a new four-song EP.
That EP was ultimately abridged to a two-song single, Gary's "Wait Til Next Week", backed with the Armstrong-Frenay "Radio", released on the Northside label in the spring of '79. "Wait Til Next Week" was a terrific power pop ode to the terror of delayed gratification, inspired by Eddie Cochran and by Bomp! magazine's Greg Shaw. Shaw had promised to write about The Flashcubes in Bomp!, but the piece took much longer to appear than he'd originally said. An early, unrecorded verse of "Wait Til Next Week" commented on this directly: "Greg Shaw writes about the music scene/Told us that he'd put us in his magazine/Three months later, it's nowhere to be seen/He says, 'Why don't you call me next week.'"
To Shaw's credit, the blurb on The Flashcubes did eventually appear in Bomp!. More importantly, he included "Christi Girl" on Waves, a sampler album of unsigned new wave bands from around the U.S. and England.
By the middle of 1979, The Flashcubes looked unstoppable. Although they hadn't yet managed to land a record deal, they had become definite contenders. Their performances got tighter and tighter. They became more professional without sacrificing an ounce of the honest energy that was so important to their appeal. And they kept writing piles and piles of great songs.
In June of '79, The Flashcubes took nine of those great songs and put together a demo tape that could have been the basis for their first album. There certainly weren't any losers in this bunch, which included Arty's "Taking Inventory", "Girl From Germany" and "Gone Too Far", Paul's superb "Sold Your Heart", "Muscle Beach" and "Misunderstanding", and Gary's "She's Not The Girl" (a sequel to an earlier, unreleased number called "Social Mobility"), "You're Not The Police" and, best of all, the incomparable, Raspberries-inspired "No Promise". The tape ended anticlimactically, with Arty's quick take on "Bad To Me", a Lennon/McCartney tune that was a hit for Billy J. Kramer. But surely somebody would sign this lot now!
Surely. The Flashcubes themselves were so positive that a deal was imminent that they postponed releasing their planned third single, "No Promise"/"She's Not The Girl", reasoning that they should save it for after they got a record deal. The deal never came, and this amazing power pop single was never issued.
And, at this point, things just went wrong.
The lingering punk image had become a burden for The Flashcubes. Where the punk connection had originally served to get the band noticed, that label now seemed to hold them back as they progressed beyond punk's perceived limitations. Gary, Arty and Tommy all felt that the 'Cubes could only succeed as a power pop group if they finally shed their punk past. And the band still had but one indelible link with its now-unwanted punk image: Paul Armstrong.
Paul was fired from The Flashcubes in July of 1979. The roots of his dismissal from the group lay in their musical differences, the very dichotomy that had once seemed to be The Flashcubes' strength. The split was hastened by Michael Browning, whose management firm handled hard rockers AC/DC. Browning was interested in taking The Flashcubes on as clients, but he insisted that they do things his way. His way would include a general taming-down of Paul's high-energy on-stage antics, or a removal of Paul entirely. Bye-bye, Paulie.
Paul's replacement was Mick Walker, a local veteran, then playing with Joe Whiting and the Bandit Band. Within a day of leaving the 'Cubes, Paul formed The Most, a new group fronted by Paul's girlfriend, Dian Zain. Now, Paul had his aggressive rock group, and Gary, Arty and Tommy had their energetic pop quartet. Everyone should have been happy, right?
But no one was happy. Paul felt betrayed, and was furious about it. Meanwhile, the split was a public relations disaster for The Flashcubes, as many fans deserted the 'Cubes to follow Paul and The Most. To add insult to injury, the newly-signed contract with Michael Browning proved a moot point when Browning mysteriously left the country.
Musically, The Flashcubes were still strong. Mick Walker was technically a better guitarist than Paul, and the group gelled quickly. The Flashcubes were now an accomplished power pop band, in the same catchy mold as The Raspberries and The Knack. They continued to record great demos: Gary's terrific Raspberries tribute "I Wanna Stay All Night", "It's You Tonight", "My Little Angel" (a composite of The Knack's "My Sharona" and "Good Girls Don't"), "Tell Me It's Allright Now", "Fourth Of July", "Boy Scout Pin-Up", and the heartbreaking "Born To Cry", plus Arty's "I Won't Wait Another Night" and "Walking Through The Park" (inspired by The Left Banke). They also rerecorded several earlier numbers, and cut a cover of The Searchers' "When You Walk In The Room."
But something was missing. Paul Armstrong was more important to The Flashcubes than anyone realized. The group was capable of great performances without him, but they weren't able to replace his spirit, his attitude or, most importantly, his drive to succeed. Without Paul, The Flashcubes didn't practice as much, they didn't play out of town as much, and they didn't seem able to pursue their career goals as aggressively as they had with him in the fold. And, before too long, they simply weren't The Flashcubes any more.
By late in the summer of 1980, both The Flashcubes and The Most were history. Gary, Arty and Tommy hung together as the three-piece Screen Test (and as The Neverly Brothers, their oldies cover band alter ego), while Paul took the core of The Most (minus Dian Zain) to form 1.4.5. The two factions finally made their peace. Screen Test and 1.4.5. would often play gigs together, with Paul occasionally joining Screen Test onstage for one more romp through "Got No Mind."
Screen Test and 1.4.5. continued to record, and Screen Test even placed a video of Gary's "You Don't Know Me" on MTV's Basement Tapes. Paul moved 1.4.5. (by now featuring former Dress Code singer Norm Mattice on lead vocals) to Boston, and released a fine LP called Rhythm 'n' Booze in 1988. The group has since changed its name to The Richards, and released another album, Over The Top, in the Spring of '95
Tommy Allen left Syracuse in 1986, relocating to New York City, then Los Angeles, and eventually New York City again. He has toured Europe with Robin Beck, and internationally with Paul Young. Tommy was also associate producer of the 1992 debut album, and the 1995 follow-up, by The Sighs, a new power pop group.
Mick Walker played for a time with local hard rockers Marilyn's Chamber; more recently, he's been with L'il Georgie and the Shufflin' Hungarians, one of the best New Orleans-style dance bands in the country.
Gary and Arty's partnership continued until 1990, when Arty decided to move to New York City. Arty joined The Paul Collins Band, and is featured on that band's 1993 CD From Town To Town. Returning upstate, Arty recently formed his own band Stiff Ginger, and again plays regularly with Frenay.
Gary remains in Syracuse, where he continues to write, perform and record. In 1993 and 1994, Gary won SAMMYs (Syracuse Area Music Awards) for best songwriter; he released his first solo album, Armory Square, in 1993. "Armory Square" was reissued nationally in 1995 on the Tangible Music label. His follow-up, Jigsaw People was released in 1996.
Starting at The Neverly Brothers' farewell gig in December of 1990, The Flashcubes have made a Christmas reunion show an annual event. Tommy has not been able to attend any of these Christmas shows, though he has returned for two emotional (and terrific) full reunion shows in 1993 and 1996. At the Christmas shows, his drum seat has been kept warm by former Neverly Brothers drummer Cathy LaManna, former Ohms/1.4.5. drummer Ducky Carlisle and Tony Carbone, former drummer for Blue Wave recording artists The Unholy Wives.
The first two of these Christmas shows were sloppy, ill-rehearsed short sets, redeemed mainly by the thrill of seeing these guys playing together again. But the 1992 show, commemorating The Flashcubes' 15th anniversary, presented The Flashcubes reborn. This was a fully-realized, professional Flashcubes show that created the same kind of buzz the group generated in '78. And the guys looked like they were having the time of their lives.
"Christi Girl" was exhumed by Rhino Records as a track on Come Out And Play, one of two volumes of American power pop in Rhino's nine-volume history of '70s punk and new wave, D.I.Y. The renewed interest in The Flashcubes caused by D.I.Y. led directly to this CD anthology of The Flashcubes' recordings.
The Flashcubes have even recorded again. When Tommy was in town in '93, the group cut four tracks: Gary's "It's You Tonight" and "Beverly," Paul's "She's Leaving," and Arty's "Angry Young Man". "It's You Tonight" has already appeared on the first Yellow Pills power pop sampler CD, and all four tracks are presented here. If anything, they prove that The Flashcubes today sound even better than ever. (A fifth track, a cover of Paul Collins' "All Over The World", was recorded earlier with Ducky Carlisle on drums. It appears on The Beat Or Not The Beat, a Paul Collins tribute CD issued in Australia in 1995. The group also recorded a cover of "Don't Wanna Say Goodbye" for Preserved, a Raspberries tribute disc, released in 1996.)
The CD boom gives us a chance to preserve all these songs, both for those of us who were there, and for new fans who've only read about The Flashcubes in magazines like Yellow Pills, Goldmine and Yeah Yeah Yeah. This collection presents a time capsule of what it was like to be a young rock 'n' roll fan in Syracuse in the late '70s, saved from terminal boredom by a transcendent hometown band.
If you weren't there, you may wonder what the fuss was about. There were a lot of great bands that went unnoticed or undiscovered in the late '70s, just as there were in the '60s and still are today. What, you may ask, was so special about The Flashcubes?
Well, with all due respect, buddy, you weren't there, and you don't know.
You don't know what it was like to be 18 and a pop music square peg. While most of my friends were getting their kicks in the discos, The Flashcubes were the first band that I ever saw who seemed to like the same kind of music I liked, and played the kind of music I liked. I remember going with my friend Jay to see them the first time, a week after my 18th birthday, at a club called the Orange up at Syracuse University. I stood there in my heavy winter coat, transfixed by this band slamming through songs by The Searchers, The Yardbirds, The Sex Pistols and The Jam. I remember being convinced that this must be what it felt like to see The Beatles at the Cavern.
An overblown comparison, you say? You weren't there.
I was blown away by The Flashcubes that first time, and that initial buzz continued every time I saw them. I joined The Flashcubes International Fan Club, and got a nifty black Flashcubes button (which Arty covets to this day). I haunted Gerber Music, waiting for "Christi Girl" to finally be released. I got to know other Flashcubes fans a bit, and felt like part of a vital pop community, doing the Jumping Jack with Penny Poser, Danny Ramone, Dian Zain, Dave Glavin (who even asked me to join the band he was putting together), Matt MacHaffie, K-Martta Rose, Rush Tattered, Meegan Voss, Kathy Kensington and 'Cubes manager Mr. Mick.
I remember seeing The Flashcubes at a club called Gildersleeves on Bowery in NYC. I was visiting my girlfriend on Staten Island, and I dragged her out to see this great Syracuse band I'd been raving about. I bought a copy of "Wait Till Next Week" from Gary at the club, and I watched as supposedly jaded New Yorkers shouted up to the 'Cubes onstage, "hey, you guys are good!" We also got lost in the subway until 4am, trying to make it back to Staten Island. (Luckily, the girlfriend didn't hold a grudge, and she eventually became a Flashcubes fan and my wife. Not necessarily in that order.)
And I remember bringing a friend, Tom, to see The Flashcubes, The Runaways and The Ramones for a mere four bucks at the Brookside in '78. Tom hated The Ramones, but loved The Runaways and The Flashcubes. He even bought Arty a beer. I remember Tom liked the alienation songs the best, Arty's "I Don't Wanna Be A Human Being" and Paul's "Damaged Beyond Repair", in particular.
In the wee hours of the morning on July 1st, 1979, Tom killed himself. I was devastated, and I cried all day. That night, Jay and I went to see The Flashcubes play at Dave Glavin's graduation party. And they were great. They didn't make the pain go away, but they helped lessen it. Maybe they even saved my life. The party rocked until the police shut it down. Dave and me yelling, "hey, you're not the police!" at the cops probably didn't help matters in that regard.
(In a sad coda, Dave Glavin also passed away a few years later. To me, no one person embodied the exuberance of the Syracuse new wave scene better than Dave. In a world of little permanence, the best we can hope for is a safe haven along the way. Godspeed, Dave; the Flashcubes experience wouldn't have been as much fun without you.)
The Flashcubes always offered an opportunity for redemption, a chance to jump up and down on top of your problems with manic glee. If you were there to see them play at the Firebarn, the Jab, the Brookside, the Slide, the Orange, the Grape 'n' Grog, the Poor House North or any other now-defunct nightspot, then you know. You know.
But the appeal of The Flashcubes isn't merely nostalgic. In 1992, Arty, Gary and Paul did an acoustic set of Flashcubes songs for a songwriters' showcase at Syracuse's Club Zodiac. At the end of the too-short set, a couple who'd clearly never even heard of these guys before jumped to their feet, applauding, demanding to know who this great act was. "We're The Flashcubes!" Paul replied. "Well, we were The Flashcubes", Gary corrected.
What's cool once is cool forever. If you have a history with something, then time adds extra resonance. But if you weren't there, these recordings can at least offer you a clue to what it was like. Even if this is your first exposure to The Flashcubes, perhaps you can still enjoy them just as I did years ago that first time at the Orange. And I really hope you get to see them someday.
I have a tape of a Flashcubes live show from 1978. On it, an announcer promises that, "someday, very soon from now, you people are going to be able to say, 'I saw this band before they were famous.'" You know, it's still not too late to get in on the ground floor.
If you have a heart, and if you have a soul, then there are certain events you will go through in this life that will stay with you forever. You never forget your first love. You never forget your first kiss. You never forget your first broken heart. You never forget feeling that you just can't go on. You never forget deciding that you're going to go on anyway. You never forget your first best friend. And you never forget your first favorite band.
I was there, and I remember. When I was 18, The Flashcubes were my favorite band. All these years later, they still are.
TOMORROW: The Flashcubes And Me, with a free Flashcubes track.