About Me

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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Flashcubes: Taking Inventory

From the September 17, 1997 issue of The Syracuse New Times, my own little song-and-dance about The Flashcubes' CD release party for their then-new anthology disc, Bright Lights (plus my review of the CD itself).  Thanks to True Believer Pete Murray for keeping this piece handy! (Handy?  Where?  Oh, at Pete's own website:  Gary Frenay & Arty Lenin)


Two decades ago, when he was a cub reporter at the Oswego Palladium-Times, current New Times Music Editor Russ Tarby owned the Port City's only copy of the Sex Pistols LP Never Mind the Bollocks. So when he learned that Syracuse had spawned a punk band called The Flashcubes, he hounded booking agent Dave Rezak into securing the "new wave" group a gig at Oswego's Great Laker Inn. 

In the punk spirit of wild abandon, Tarby was literally thrown out of the bar for pogo-ing out of control and spitting at the stage. Before he was bounced, however, he introduced the 'Cubes to a local rock radio programmer, who soon put them down on the air, calling them "old wave" because they opened with the 1965 Top 20 Knickerbockers' hit "Lies." 

"The longhair deejay didn't even stick around long enough to hear the 'Cubes' incredible original material," Tarby recalls. "And as for 'Lies,' they did a killer version, full of piss and venom. He just didn't get it. I mean, here was an upstate New York rock band copping the British punk sound by doing a song by The Knickerbockers, a New Jersey group who had, in turn, been copping the Beatles practically note for note. Pop music is an evolutionary process, and The Flashcubes definitely provided an important link in the local scene. They borrowed from the best, and then gave the music their own cynical spin."

Local Punk Pioneers

This Friday night, Sept. 19, a briefly reunited Flashcubes--Tommy Allen, Paul Armstrong, Arty Lenin and Gary Frenay--will celebrate the band's 20th anniversary and the release of a long-promised CD anthology with a live performance at Styleen's Rhythm Palace, 314 S. Franklin St. Opening the show will be The Experiments, a San Diego band featuring expatriate Syracusan Dan Bonn. And, since Bonn's old combo The Dead Ducks shared many a bill with the Flashcubes, it's fitting that a brief Ducks reunion is also planned for Friday. But the gig commemorates more than just an anniversary for one of the great Syracuse rock 'n' roll bands. It also marks 20 years since the start of a short, unusually exciting burst of energy in our staid Salt City: the Syracuse punk/new wave scene.

The international punk scene, led by acts such as The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, was originally born out of the frustration many rock 'n' roll fans felt with the seemingly bloated state of rock in the late 1970s. Although The Flashcubes is generally considered Syracuse's first punk group, that title rightfully belongs to a group called The Cuban Heels. "Yeah, Steve Latham's band, The Cuban Heels," says Flashcubes guitarist Paul Armstrong. "They were a true Velvet Underground, sunglasses, pointy shoes, leather pants, androgynous type of punky type of thing."

The Cuban Heels played at Punk City, a party staged in Armory Square in the summer of 1977. "The beginnings of the Syracuse punk scene could almost be brought back to that night," Armstrong says. It was, coincidentally, also the night that The Flashcubes chose their name.

The Flashcubes may not have been Syracuse's first punk band, but it was the one that drew the most attention. Such notoriety was far from immediate, however. "When we started," says bassist Gary Frenay, "we were playing to a bunch of drunken people out at the Brookside on a Thursday night who were tanked up and thought we were sorta cute, but didn't really get it in any major way.

"When it really happened was when it got written up up on the [Syracuse University] Hill. The SU kids who were from Long Island and New York City and knew about Blondie and Television and The Ramones and all that, suddenly went, 'Oh my God, there's a punk band in town!' And it was like a bus showed up the next week at the Brookside. Suddenly all these different people we'd never seen before showed up. They were all dressed just like the whole punk scene in New York City. And we were like, 'Wow, where'd this scene come from?'"

With The Flashcubes as its de facto leader, a local punk scene began to flourish, in spite of a frequently hostile reaction from those outside the scene. More bands popped up: The Drastics, with future Masters of Reality frontman Chris Goss; Buddy Love and the Tearjerkers, featuring guitarist Charlie Robbins and Buddy Love (alias Mark Roberts, a teaching assistant in SU's English Department); the aforementioned Dead Ducks Band, a spunky trio of high-school students (and briefly a quartet that included future comedy star Bobcat Goldthwait).

American Originals

While cover bands dominated Syracuse's mainstream rock scene, the new wave groups stressed original material. "I think the fact that we did originals [was important]," Frenay says, "and the fact that we were not just a reflection of some other band's material, but we were our own thing. The only place you could hear that stuff was to come and see us... I think the originals made a big difference, and we were like one of the only bands that was just going out there and doing 90 percent original music."

Two of the most distinctive acts on the scene were The Poptarts and The Ohms. The Poptarts was an all-female quintet inspired by Sixties' girl groups and the pop ideal of The Beatles. It was, in effect, a working prototype for the then-unknown Go-Go's, a group that wound up topping the charts after The Poptarts broke up.

The Ohms, comprised of three SU students, also made quite an impression with songs such as "Teen-Age Alcoholic." "My favorite band was The Ohms," former Poptart Debbie Redmond says. 

"Just amazing," Frenay agrees. "My two favorite songwriting bands were The Poptarts and The Ohms. For sheer, sheer pop songs, they were great." 

Still, the Syracuse scenesters pinned their pop dreams on The Flashcubes. "I think everybody just figured they were gonna get signed at some point," former Poptart Cathy Van Patten says. "And every other band sort of figured that they would go on the coattails." 

But it was not to be. The Flashcubes released two singles on their own, but failed to snag a record contract. When a falling-out in 1979 resulted in Armstrong's dismissal from the band, the momentum was broken. "We thought Syracuse was going to be the new Liverpool," ex-Poptart Gael McGear Sweeney says. "And I tell ya, I thought it was possible right up until the minute that Paul left the band. But when that happened, I knew it wasn't gonna happen." 

Armstrong started a new band, The Most. He was replaced in The Flashcubes by Mick Walker (now with Little Georgie and the Shuffling Hungarians), but neither The Most nor Flashcubes II managed to achieve the success that had once seemed nearly within their grasp.

As The Most evolved into 1.4.5. (and later The Richards) and the remaining Flashcubes became Screen Test, the club scene was changing, for the worse. In the early 1980s, the state raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21, crippling the live music scene and resulting in the demise of such clubs as Jabberwocky and the Firebarn that had supported the new wave bands.

The scene's untimely death did not lessen its legacy: a time of great music and tremendous excitement, a vibrant era that will forevermore refute ex-Syracuse singer-songwriter Ed Hamell's recent claim that Syracuse is not a music town. With so many terrific local acts playing at local clubs in the late Seventies and early Eighties (including Hamell's band, The Works), one could not have dreamed of a more vital atmosphere in which to be a young rock 'n' roll fan.
The Flashcubes were the undisputed kings of that scene. This Friday night, the group celebrates its past and plots its future (they hope to play gigs in New York City, Boston, Chicago and at Poptopia--Los Angeles' prestigious power pop festival). There is also the new CD, Bright Lights (Northside Music), which preserves the best of The Flashcubes' mostly unheard music, old and new.

The last time The Flashcubes played--in August 1996--a group of kids young enough for their parents to have been 'Cubes fans stood on the sidelines, trying to maintain a cool facade. As the 'Cubes played, the cool facade melted, and the kids found themselves jumping on the dance floor, bouncing with righteous fervor while Arty Lenin sang about being an angry young man. And the old-timers? They got to be 18 again. The spirit of '77 lives on. 

Carl Cafarelli, a regular contributor to Goldmine magazine, also wrote the liner notes to the Flashcubes' new anthology CD-ROM.

Power Pop Delight

The Flashcubes. Bright Lights (Northside Records).
Twenty years after shaking up the Syracuse club scene with its brash brand of rock'n'roll, The Flashcubes' first album has finally been released. Sure, it comes disguised as a 1977-1980 career anthology, but this band only issued two singles during its original life span. With only the A-sides of those 45s included here, this could be considered less an anthology and more a belated debut.
Whatever you want to call 'em, the 21 tracks on Bright Lights provide ample evidence that The Flashcubes was the great lost power pop band of the late Seventies. Most tracks are demos from the group's original run, supplemented by four 1993 studio tracks and one live cut from the old days.

The homemade origins of most of this material notwithstanding, the tracks generally sound complete and compatible. Almost all were painstakingly remixed by Ducky Carlisle (former drummer of The Ohms), and Paul Armstrong added some chugging rhythm guitar to punch up tracks originally recorded without him. The result is a rockin' pop delight.

Since the songs--all original material by Armstrong, Arty Lenin and Gary Frenay--date back to the days when The Flashcubes tried unsuccessfully to land a major-label deal, the consistent, confident quality of the songwriting makes it all the more mystifying why the 'Cubes failed to get noticed. This stuff is the equal of virtually any power pop act of that era, surpassing the work of familiar names like The Romantics and The Knack.

Of particular note are Frenay's superb paean to The Raspberries, "No Promise," and his cocky "You're Not the Police," plus Armstrong's surf-punk "Muscle Beach" and riff-driven "Sold Your Heart," one of the few songs on the disc that still sounds like a demo, although it's a tough enough track to overcome its sonic limitations. Likewise, Lenin's pile-driving "Girl from Germany," lovely "Gone Too Far" and accomplished "I Won't Wait Another Night" also impress with their craftsmanlike production and razor-sharp hooks. Of the rest, the singles "Christi Girl" and "Wait Till Next Week" retain their original charm while sounding better than ever.

On the other hand, "She's Not the Girl" still suffers from its sexist sentiment; if listeners can ignore this--or at least presume it's intended to be ironic--the song can be appreciated for its pleasant hooks and soaring chorus. And the newer tracks--Frenay's "It's You Tonight" and "Beverly," Lenin's "Angry Young Man" and Armstrong's savage "She's Leaving"--prove that The Flashcubes can be as creative in their forties as they were in their twenties.

The disc closes with a live "Got No Mind," recorded at the Firebarn in 1979. Armstrong's anthem of idiocy snarls and spits with transcendent punk power, and as it fades away, it segues into a teasing snippet of "Dizzy Miss Lizzie," serving as a potent reminder of what a vital live act the Flashcubes was in its prime.

The disc also includes CD-ROM data covering such significa as The Flashcubes' complete sessionography and lists of gigs and cover material. All in all, it's the kind of deluxe package you'd expect only if the Flashcubes had actually been as successful as they deserved to be.