- 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 three 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.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
THE FLASHCUBES: The 1997 BRIGHT LIGHTS Interview
With the ol' clock on the wall ticking closer and closer to our big 2016 BRIGHT LIGHTS! Syracuse new wave rock 'n' roll reunion party on July 3rd (as detailed here), let's dig deeper into the archives for some first-person accounts of the late '70s/early '80s local scene that BRIGHT LIGHTS! celebrates. These interviews were conducted by me in 1997, as background for a Syracuse New Times article on The Flashcubes and other great bands playing around the 'Cuse during that three-chord-charged time frame; it was published the week of The Flashcubes' 20th anniversary show, which was also a release party for The Flashcubes' anthology CD Bright Lights. The article itself can be found here. This is the first publication of the complete interviews.
Hey, wanna go to the BRIGHT LIGHTS! show? Of course you do! Get yer tickets, man!
I don't think there would have been a Syracuse new wave rock 'n' roll scene if The Flashcubes hadn't jump-started it in the first place. Then and now, The Flashcubes are guitarists Paul Armstrong and Arty Lenin, bassist Gary Frenay, and drummer Tommy Allen. Let's have a chat with Gary and Paul of Syracuse's own power pop powerhouse, THE FLASHCUBES!
We've all heard recent claims that Syracuse is not a music town. Maybe that's true now, but I don't think it was true in the late '70s.
PAUL ARMSTRONG: Syracuse is definitely a music town. It's just there's no venue to play it at.
When did the Syracuse new wave begin? I've dated it from The Flashcubes' debut on September 1st, 1977.
PA: I personally would say, that was the first Flashcubes date, but to me, as a fan, the first thing that happened in Syracuse that would be considered new wave--and this was actually, it happened on the same day that The Flashcubes were named--is there was a party in the building in Armory Square where The New Times used to be. And there were two bands playing there, and they were punk bands. There was one called The Cuban Heels, which was Steve Latham, and he had this band The Cuban Heels with another guy, some other guy from North Syracuse. And they were like trying to be The Velvet Underground. And there was this big loft party. I don't remember the other band. Maybe Gary remembers.
GARY FRENAY: I don't remember either.
PA: But they called the party "Punk City." And there was like this loft thing going on. There were two bands playing in two different rooms. And me and Gar and Art went, but also the guys who ended up being in New Math, who were friends of mine from Rochester, they came down. And the beginnings of the Syracuse punk scene, I think, could almost be brought back to that night. Because that was the night that we were all hangin', the guys from New Math were hangin'. We had a party at my house beforehand, and it was at that point when I tried to take a picture of everybody that we came up with the name "The Flashcubes." Because we had this band with no name, and I wanted to take everyone's pictures, and I said, "Where's my flashcubes?" And Gar says, "That's it! That's our name, The Flashcubes!" And then Kevin [Patrick] from New Math said, "No, there's already a band called The Flashcubes." And I said,"Who?" And he goes, "Us!" 'Cause they didn't have a name at the time either, they weren't New Math [yet]. And I think that probably happened maybe some time in July or August of '77.
GF: Yeah, right around there.
PA: That was the first real punk happening that I know of in Syracuse.
I remember reading about The Cuban Heels some time later, in the local fanzine Poser.
PA: There was another group too, and I cannot remember who it was, except to know that the drummer in that other band had a thirty-inch kick drum. I can't remember their fuckin' name, though.
GF: I remember a blond lead singer who seemed more rock than new wave to me. And I didn't really like them. I liked Steve Latham's band a lot better.
PA: Yeah, Steve Latham's band, The Cuban Heels, they were a true Velvet Underground, you know, sunglasses, pointy shoes, leather pants, androgynous type of punky type of thing. As opposed to the other band, which was more like a hard rock band trying to be a little punky.
So The Cuban Heels actually were the first punk or new wave band in Syracuse, even before The Flashcubes?
GF: I would possibly say that, yeah. Because I don't know about The Penetrators, and The Drastics and stuff, I think, sort of came along after us.
PA: Well, also, Arty was in Talisman with Steve and Ed [Steele], and I used to actually play with them from time to time, and this is a year before the 'Cubes. We were doing like Eddie and the Hot Rods covers, and "She's My Gal" by The Gorillas.
GF: But that was because of you, right?
PA: That was because of me though, yeah.
If I remember right, some time around 1980 or so, local tabloid The National Rag said that no one person is more responsible for bringing the new wave to Syracuse than Paul Armstrong.
GF: I would agree with that, because Paul had that England connection, because he was from there and had been over there. And, I mean, we were both always big British rock fans, but Paul, you really grabbed on to the whole new wave thing before anybody I knew.
PA: Right. I went to England in '76 with long hair and a Van der Graaf Generator fan, and I came back with short hair and being a Clash fan. But I also had the perfect stage for helping to do that, because I worked at Gerber Music, and I was in charge of doing the ordering and doing the displays. So the displays went from being Kansas and Styx to being...
GF: Sex Pistols and The Jam.
PA: ...to all of a sudden having every 45 that Jem Records offered was at the front of the store, with a little explanation about why that record was cool.
GF: It was a real influential position for all of us to be in. Not only were we suddenly going to be in a band, but we were working in a music store where music fans came in, and we could expose them to this music.
PA: Next to The New Times, that was probably the number one thing that helped The Flashcubes go, was the fact that me and Gary and Tommy [Allen] were all working at Gerber's, and it was the perfect promotional vehicle.
GF: But even with that, it was still a really hard sell, because Syracuse, then as now, was always a very conservative town. And it really took...I mean, I don't know if this has been documented elsewhere, but The Flashcubes, when we started, 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 sort of cute, but didn't really get it in any major way.
PA: There was probably ten people that got it. The rest of the people were curiosity-, novelty-seekers. They came out, not so much to make fun of us, but sort of to laugh along with us. It wasn't really considered a musical thing.
GF: Because, when it really happened though was when it got written up up on the [Syracuse University] hill. And the SU kids who were from downstate, from Long Island and New York City, and knew all 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, you know, the whole punk scene in New York.
PA: Spitting at us, throwing stuff.
GF: And going completely crazy. And we were like, "Wow, where'd this scene come from?" [laughs]
PA: Yeah, there was Dennis and Rita, I remember them as being the first, but they had a whole entourage of people that were like New Yorkers.
GF: Yeah, Martta and Amy and all of them.
PA: Yeah, Martta Rose and Penny Poser and that whole crowd.
How did Mark Roberts (later to become Buddy Love, of Buddy Love and the Tearjerkers) come into this?
GF: He was a teacher's assistant, a TA up at SU. And was just, I think, hipper than most people up there.
PA: I think he sort of came along with this whole SU crowd.
GF: I think he heard from the students, and he was always keen to find something cool going on. He was a huge Lou Reed fan, you know, stuff like that.
PA: Actually...I think Mark Roberts actually was someone that we knew that used to come into Gerber's and talk about hip records, too. Maybe it was the SU connection, but I think he was also a Gerber's customer. Like Ducky Carlisle, the way we met him was he was a Gerber customer. He used to come in with his little goatee and wire-rim glasses, buyin' drum sticks. And we talked him into comin', you know, we told him about our band and he told us about this cool band he had, The Ohms. And I actually went to see them at a SU Battle Of The Bands amateur night, and walked in and they opened with "I Saw Her Standing There," like at 120 decibels, and thinking, "Man, this is great!"
GF: [laughs] The other thing, I think Gael [Sweeney] and Cathy [VanPatten, both later of The Poptarts] were students of Mark's, and I wondered if maybe they, you know...I don't know who influenced who there.
PA: Another person who we're not mentioning here, but someone who was right there at the beginning, and really another person who sort of came from the heavy metal or hard rock arena, but definitely grabbed on to the new wave thing right off the bat, pre-Flashcubes, is Chris Goss. Because he had a band, as early as '75, called Riff Raff, which was basically The Drastics with a different name. And they were doin' Aerosmith covers. But right around the same time, I mean, right along with Aerosmith covers they were writing their own material, which was starting to get a little punky and less hard rock. I mean, Chris Goss was right there from the beginning also. He's someone in Syracuse. I still can't believe that he, you know, with Masters Of Reality taking off and him being who he is, that he doesn't get any recognition for that. But he was there, at that Punk City party with The Cuban Heels. I'm sure he was there.
GF: Oh, he was there. No question about it.
PA: Well, actually, Steve Latham ended up being the manager for Masters Of Reality. And he was the one that made them happen by getting 'em a whole bunch of New York City gigs, so there's a definite tie between The Cuban Heels and Chris Goss.
The Flashcubes seemed to be at the center of the scene as it developed. Is that a fair recollection?
GF: Yeah, I think so. I think we were able to break out and achieve the most the quickest. I mean, we got right out of here within six months of forming and were playing in other cities, playing in Boston and New York, and making contacts with bands and bringing them back here. And then later that summer bringing The Romantics to town. I mean, we were sort of taking on stuff that other bands hadn't really gotten to that point yet.
PA: I think musically there were other bands that were into it as much as we were, writing their own tunes and all of that, but I think we were the most driven in a career sense. We were the ones that were getting the gigs, hiring the other bands to play with us, making the contacts, you know, talking the guy at The Brookside into bringing The Ramones and The Runaways in, calling up [promoter] Chuck Chao and having him...you know, he didn't know who the hell The Police were, but we knew that they were cool because they were on IRS Records. and we were sort of the catalyst for making a lot of it happen in a business sense, not in a musical sense.
GF: Yeah, I mean, we were inspired by everybody else anyway, but it was just that we had the most energy and the most juice going, I think, at the time, and it was so cool, because when they finally started to see that they could sell these bands that would come through, because we were the most notable band around here and we had the biggest following already, we would get to play with every one of them. And then we would be able to sort of do exchange things, and go and play with other bands elsewhere. It was a great situation to be in. It just happened really quickly, and sort of naturally.
Tell me a little bit more about the genesis of The Flashcubes' popularity, for lack of a better description: of going from being this unknown band that people sneered at, to achieving some level of recognition.
PA: One thing I think to keep in mind is our name recognition is probably greater today than it was at any point while we were playing. Definitely. I mean, especially with the power pop revival going on, thanks to [writers like] the Jordan Oakes and the Pat Piersons and all those, and [record label guys like] the Bruce Brodeens of the world. So we're definitely more popular now than we were then.
I remember at the time reading a lot of really snide remarks about The Flashcubes initially, and then moving to a point where Syracuse New Times writer/editor Mike Greensteen named you Band Of The Year for 1978.
PA: I don't know if we ever while we were together really achieved that much popularity in Syracuse other than at Syracuse University. We could make some major money and pack the house at The Jabberwocky or The Orange.
GF: Well, The Firebarn [downtown] we did pretty good at.
PA: Oh, The Firebarn, yeah, that's right. But there were still some lean times. I think we actually, before the whole thing imploded, started building a little bit of a following like in New York and Boston. We played in New York and Boston probably 15 or 20 times. I don't know, we can go back and count the dates, but there's numerous dates in each one of those cities. And, I mean, living here in Boston, I still to this day run into people that saw The Flashcubes back then, and they're just, you know, catching up with me now. It doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen.
GF: Yeah, it happens to me, too: that I'll meet some new person I've never met before, and they'll say, "Well, so have you always done acoustic music?" And I'll go, "Well, no, I was in bands. I was in The Flashcubes." And I have no idea who this person is, and they'll go, "You were in The Flashcubes?!" Like people in Syracuse just seem to know about the band. Like, it seems to be, you know, unlike other bands--like say, pick a band from back then, Alecstar, 805, whatever--the names don't necessarily live on in the same way [as] The Flashcubes, I think because it was such a cool factor to the new wave thing, and we were identified with that, so it just seemed to live on. The other thing about, Carl, what you were saying about why the band got popular, I think, at least with the scenesters--the college kids I was talking about--we were sort of "their" new wave band, their Ramones or whatever. But I think the fact that we did originals, and the fact that we were not just a reflection of some other band's material, but we were our own thing. And the only place you could hear that stuff was to come and see us, if they wanted to hear "I Need Glue" and "Damaged Beyond Repair" and "I Don't Want To Be A Human Being" and Social Mobility" or whatever. Those were Flashcubes songs, and you had to go to those clubs; we didn't have records out. You had to come and see this band, and everybody was telling their friends about it: "They got these cool songs, they're great, you can do The Jumping Jack," whatever. And 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% original music.
PA: And also, the perspective of looking at it now, 20 years later, we realize that The Ramones are world-famous, and that The Romantics, you know, have the Budweiser commercials, and all these bands we were playing with went to some major status which we never achieved. But at the time, if you go back to 1977 or 1978, we were at the same level as The Romantics; maybe not The Ramones, because they had a major deal. But a lot of these bands, like The Romantics and The Police and a lot of these other bands, they were in the same boat as we were. They were doin' it themselves, gettin' in the van and drivin' across the country. They were just fortunate enough to take it a couple of levels beyond. But at that time, we were at the same level as they were, so the fans really got behind us; they were hoping that we'd become what The Romantics or The Police or 999 or any of these infamous type of people were. Not that 999's infamous. They are to me, but....
GF: The Jam.
PA: The Jam, yeah. Someone like that.
You mentioned doing mostly originals. Was that a tough sell getting gigs?
GF: I don't know, we got gigs in a different way. Like, we couldn't really sell ourselves...I mean, even when we first started, and we didn't have as many songs because we just hadn't written as many yet, even the covers we were doing weren't anything [well-known]. I mean, we were doing, you know, songs by The Rings and Eddie and the Hot Rods and Chris Spedding and stuff. I mean, nobody had heard of 'em anyway, they might as well have been originals. So we had to sell the band in a different way. We had to identify ourselves with the new wave thing and say, "This is a new thing, it's a real energetic thing, it's blah blah blah." So we could never sell ourselves with the repertoire that people knew.
PA: Gar, I think another way that we would have sold ourselves--as you know, we couldn't really sell ourselves on the music--the club owners were all interested in the bottom line, just like they are now, and that was makin' money. And we'd go in there and say, "Hey look, you put us in here on a Wednesday night, we're gonna get a hundred people in here that are gonna be dancin' and sweaty and drinkin' beer." And I think it was more of a business thing, that the club owners saw that we were a much better chance to bring some people in and sell some liquor. I don't think that too many club owners that we dealt with really got our music.
GF: Yeah. And if you go back and look at the gig list, you know, for the first three or four months we played the same two or three clubs. We played The Brookside regularly, we did The Boardwalk a few times, we did The Poor House North. It was just stuff that wasn't happening in a big way, until we got the following from SU. And then [promoter] Dave Rezak got interested and said, "Well, I've got this band, they've got this huge following in Syracuse, you can get people out." "Well, what songs do they do?" "Well, you won't know any of the songs, but they got a following." And it's like that was the way that we were able to be sold. But for the first three or four months there, it was a really hard sell. I mean, we played gigs for $50, we played for anything just so we could say we were playing and so that the people we were telling about could come and see us.
You played The Ramones/Runaways gig at The Boardwalk for free.
GF: Yeah, that was probably right.
PA: I think we probably played it for free, and also threw in the use of our PA [laughs]. I'm 99% sure we had our PA there for them to play through, and a lot of the word of mouth and all that, and did it for nothing. So it really cost us money to do it.
Another thing: on the one hand in Syracuse, it made it hard to get gigs by playing original music. But our goal, even though we wanted to be popular in Syracuse and play Syracuse, we were looking well beyond that. I mean, the only way to get gigs in New York or in Boston or in Philadelphia or a major city was to play originals. You aren't getting a gig there by doing Eddie and the Hot Rods covers. Syracuse was our launching pad, it was our home base, but we were really looking beyond that. So we had to focus on the originals if we wanted to take it out of the Central New York area.
GF: And I think that set us apart from other bands, too, because we had a larger scope. We had our sights set on larger things than a lot of Syracuse bands, I think, ever do. You know, if they can get a gig at The Poor House North, that's great, you know, they'd get free beer. I mean, I've got tapes of us on interviews on 95X saying, "Well, if we don't have a deal in six months we're gonna give up." We just thought we were gonna conquer the world immediately. We were so completely cocky. But I think any great rock 'n' roll band has to have a lot of attitude. And we had a lot!
PA: Attitude works if you become The Beatles; and [otherwise] you look like idiots like we do [laughs]. I mean, that attitude only works if...well, as Reggie Jackson says, "It ain't braggin' if you can do it." We were braggin' and we hadn't done it yet, and unfortunately we never did do it. But you have to that attitude.
GF: You've gotta believe in yourself to the max if you want anyone else to believe in you.
There were some times when 95X got behind you, and gave you some airplay. Dave Frisina played your demo tape in its entirety one night.
GF: Right. And after that they played some of the tracks from that--"She's Not The Girl," "No Promise"--like they were regular songs. I mean, I've got radio clips that we taped from back then, saying, "And after that you heard Van Morrison, and before that, The Flashcubes."
PA: I vividly remember standing up on a ladder two stories up in the air, painting the side of Dian [Zane]'s house an ugly tan, with 95X blasting across the yard, and having "No Promise" come on the radio in the middle of rotation, like after Kansas and before Bob Seger, and almost falling off the ladder. It was one of the pinnacles of my life.
Let's talk a bit about the other bands of that era, and your recollections of them. Let's start off with The Ohms: guitarist Zenny Caucasian, drummer Ducky Carlisle, and bassist Rick Suburban (later replaced by Keith Korvair).
GF: Well, The Ohms were just amazing. My two favorite songwriting bands were The Poptarts and The Ohms; for sheer, sheer pop songs, they were great. But The Poptarts, you know, just didn't have the chops to really deliver 'em live, they were sort of learning as they went. So even though there was a certain charm to them, it didn't really move your butt the way The Ohms did. I mean, The Ohms were playin', like Paul said before, like 120 decibels, and they were just loud as hell. And Zenny with his sunglasses on, playing these just unbelievable songs.
PA: From a musical standpoint and all that, The Ohms were probably a lot more talented than The Flashcubes.
PA: I mean, Zenny's a brilliant musician.
GF: And they had a singular sound, whereas we were like, you know, either Arty's songs or Paul's songs or mine, they were all Zenny's songs, and they had more of a direction.
PA: But they had absolutely no business sense, no drive. They didn't know how to turn down, they didn't know how to milk the audience, they didn't know how to warm up to club owners and to people. Zenny had such a bad...it's not a bad attitude, but it's just like a bad business attitude. He didn't turn down for anybody.
GF: Yeah, he was brilliant, but he was really surly.
PA: Yeah, that's a way of putting it. I mean, musically, The Ohms were just amazing, but they just didn't...I mean, it's sort of funny to say that The Flashcubes were semi-user-friendly when everyone thinks we weren't, but we knew how to kiss club owners' butts and get our way with people.
GF: I mean, we would at least make the effort. We really wanted to work. We had some sense of trying to play the game.
PA: And even if playing the game meant, not necessarily kissing up to Dave Rezak and [Rezak's booking agency] DMR, but going down there to DMR's office, and they expected The Flashcubes to be these obnoxious guys, so we'd go down there and start pulling our pants down in their office, just so they'd be talking about us for the next week. Maybe it wasn't public relations in the traditional way [laughs], but it definitely got their attention.
GF: I loved The Dead Ducks. They were one of my favorites.
PA: I always liked The Drastics and Chris' whole thing. He's another one that didn't have that user-friendly, kiss-up-to-the-clubowner attitude, but that was sort of his appeal, too.
GF: And Buddy Love's whole thing. I thought they were a really fun band. Bud was a totally unique guy. He wasn't a great singer, but the new wave, the beauty of it was that you didn't have to be. You could be just a personality, [and] he clearly was that. And he surrounded himself with a bunch of people that were really energetic on stage. It was a good band.
PA: The Flashcubes, we came up with a hypothetical best-case scenario of what we thought might happen for us, and then we sold it like it was the Gospel truth.
GF: I'm amazed, when I was researching the Flashcubes package, I would go back through clippings and I would read things in the paper, that were written in the papers, that never happened about us. And I'm thinking,"God, did we tell people that was gonna happen?" Like, you know, four-song EPs [laughs] and all this stuff that never came out.
Has there been a change in attitude toward this sort of music? You recently presented an award for Best Alternative Band at the SAMMYS [Syracuse Area Music Awards].
GF: I mean, rock 'n' roll was always about rebellion. That's where it came from. I guess I'm just talking about specifically in Syracuse, that we did what we felt was a pretty rebellious, sort of cutting-edge kind of band with The Flashcubes, and the existing music industry--whether it be the players, or the agents, or whatever--literally laughed at us. And now, here I was on stage as the person who had been in The Flashcubes, handing out an award for a band that had all kinds of attitude and was irreverent. It just seemed like that, after all these years, things had changed quite a bit, certainly for the better. I wish The Flashcubes had gotten some awards back then, but there was no existing thing to give it, and I don't know that anyone who was a musician back then would have voted us for anything.
There was a lot of negative reaction to The Flashcubes.
GF: There was a lot of jealousy from other musicians because, like I've said before, we got big so fast. At the time, three or four months seemed like a long time, but in retrospect...! I mean, look how long it's taken us to put the 20th anniversary thing out. It's taken forever. But in three or four months we suddenly had this huge following, and these other musicians who could play circles around any of us couldn't get five people out to see 'em play at a club on a Saturday night. They were like, "Who the fuck are these guys?"
PA: I can think of two particular instances where guys that I went to high school with, with Arty--Arty and I went to school together--and guys that we went to high school with, that were in the same musical circle of people that we know, but were still practicin' in their bedrooms and didn't have bands, tried to start fistfights with me at gigs. I remember we opened for David Johansen at The Boardwalk, and this kid that I knew from high school came up and tried to rearrange my face, 'cause he was drunk and, like Gary says, it was a jealousy thing. And there was another time at The Slide-Inn, where a guy that I actually played high school soccer with came up and started tellin' me I couldn't play, and this and that, and he could play this chord and that chord or whatever. And he was all pissed off about it. It was just a jealousy thing. I mean, to gain a level of notoriety in music you've gotta be able to play a little bit. But a lot of it's just about image, and being driven and all that. Because there's tons of people that can play.
GF: Great rock 'n' roll was never founded on proficiency. It was founded on attitude and drive.
Yeah, it's not always just who the strongest musician is. As Dave Soule of The Tearjerkers pointed out: if you look for the musical weak link in The Beatles, it's probably John Lennon.
GF: And that's probably very true. He probably is the weak link.
PA: Just from judging from the musical standpoint. But looking at the overall package, when you take into account drive and image and attitude and music--which is probably an equal component with those others, but certainly not greater--he carried the ball on the other three, where musically the other guys carried it.
GF: If that's your weak link, that's a pretty good weak link. And I think--and I don't mean this to put you down, Paul--but I think you were always considered the weak link in The Flashcubes...
PA: I'm proud of being the weak link!
GF: ...but you were also the driving force in The Flashcubes. And if you were our weak link, that's a pretty good weak link.
PA: I never picked up a guitar to be musical about it. I did it as a reason: you know, a little bit of notoriety, a little bit of pussy, a little free beer.
Mission accomplished, then!