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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.

Friday, November 18, 2016

A BRIGHTER LIGHT IN MY MIND # 3: THE FLASHCUBES, A Face In The Crowd (An Imaginary LP From 1980)

Continuing my fictional fancy of what could have happened if The Flashcubes had been signed to a record deal in 1978. Part One was the 1978 album Meet The Flashcubes! and Part Two was the 1979 LP Wait Till Next Week.



THE FLASHCUBES
A Face In The Crowd
Sire 1980

Side One

She's Not The Girl (Frenay)
I Wanna Stay All Night (Frenay)
I'm Not The Liar (Armstrong)
I Won't Wait Another Night (Lenin)
You For Me (Armstrong)

Side Two

My Little Angel (Frenay)
A Face In The Crowd (Armstrong)
Walking Through The Park (Lenin)
Cycles Of Pain (Lenin)
You're Not The Police (Frenay)

Tommy Allen: drums, percussion, backing vocals, glockenspiel on "I'm Not The Liar"
Paul Armstrong: guitar, vocals, bass on "She's Not The Girl"
Gary Frenay: bass, guitar, vocals, piano on "She's Not The Girl"
Arty Lenin: guitar, vocals
Chris Spedding: additional guitar on "A Face In The Crowd"
Larry Knechtel: keyboards on "I'm Not The Liar"
Debbie Harry and Mary Weiss: backing vocals on "I'm Not The Liar"

Produced by Chris Spedding. "I'm Not The Liar" produced by Richard Gottehrer.

Does success breed more success? Maybe. But it certainly breeds a hunger to duplicate that success, to recapture lightning in a second bottle, and a third, and a twentieth. The Flashcubes were successful; they weren't superstars, but they were competing in the pop rock marketplace with the likes of Dire Straits, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Police, and The Cars, and holding their own. They returned from the U.K. in December of 1979, just in time to open for The Kinks at Madison Square Garden and then headline a Christmas show at the Onondaga County War Memorial back home in Syracuse. They were getting great coverage in the rock mags--Rolling Stone, Circus, Rock Scene, Hit Parader--and the editors of Creem took a particular shine to the 'Cubes. The Flashcubes starred in a memorable edition of that magazine's popular Creem's Profiles feature, posing with cans of Creem's fake beer Boy Howdy! alongside porn star Marilyn Chambers.



In search of fresh lightning, open bottles in hand, record labels descended upon Syracuse, hoping to find the next Flashcubes. Seymour Stein himself snapped up The Tearjerkers for Sire. An all-female band called The Poptarts signed with IRS, while an all-male band called The Works went with Columbia. Dress Code and newly-formed teen group The Trend both caught the interest of Stiff America. Red Star grabbed The Dead Ducks. And Elektra outbid everyone to snag The Ohms; alas, The Ohms broke up before completing their debut album, and those recordings remain unreleased.

The Flashcubes never had time rest on their laurels...or even just to rest. The 'Cubes welcomed the '80s with a swank and pricey New Year's Eve gig in the ol' home town (with opening act Pat Benatar, who would later have a hit with her own cover of a Flashcubes song). January saw the 'Cubes off on a quick tour of the midwest, supported by Artful Dodger and The Scruffs An appearance on Saturday Night Live was discussed, but postponed; Stein wanted The Flashcubes back in the studio.

Ed Stasium, who had done such a terrific job producing the previous Flashcubes album, was unavailable this time around. A few names were floated as possible replacements: Frenay and Allen were interested in luring Jimmy Ienner, whose work with The Raspberries had been such an inspiration, while Armstrong really wanted Mick Ronson for the job, and Lenin had the unexpected, unconventional choice of Philly soul stalwarts Gamble & Huff. Stein wanted someone cheaper than Phil Spector. But the solution was obvious; The Flashcubes had met Chris Spedding while in London that fall, and Spedding was everything they needed: a stellar musician himself, an accomplished producer, and (to Stein's delight) reasonably priced. The Flashcubes had included Spedding's "Boogie City" in their early live set, so this was a match made in Heaven's record store. Work on the new album commenced in early March of 1980.

Armstrong, Frenay, and Lenin were all still writing new songs at a rapid clip, so there was no shortage of material. Frenay was feeling particularly liberated; in addition to the green light Stein had given him to write more top pop singles, Frenay experienced the thrill of having other artists express interest in covering his compositions. British Invasion heroes (and Sire Records label-mates) The Searchers had already recorded Frenay's "Prince Of Passion," and he was writing a new song for Hall and Oates. Hall and freakin' Oates! Toppermost of the poppermost, mates!

Meanwhile, Armstrong felt conflicted about his group's musical direction. He loved pop music, but he was a true rock 'n' roller at heart. For God's sake, The Flashcubes had started out as a punk band, not as new wave's answer to The DeFranco Family. The group demoed a new Armstrong tune, "Sex Machine," but there was no way a rude song like that was making its way onto a Flashcubes album. On the other hand, Armstrong couldn't argue with the results of The Flashcubes' pop agenda: Women. Money. Women. Fame. Women. Decent pizza. And girls! What could a poor boy do, but play in a power pop band? Armstrong knew that Seymour Stein wouldn't let him write any of The Flashcubes' singles, but he'd written some way cool pop songs himself, and he'd make sure they were preserved on wax. And he'd make sure they rocked, as well.

As for the group's drummer and other guitarist, Allen and Lenin were likewise having the time of their lives. Tommy Allen was the biggest pop fan on the whole friggin' planet, and he flat-out adored this whole scene, from the teen-beat hype to the recording process itself. Allen developed a passion for studio work, and soaked up as much experience and information as he could about the art and craft of making records. Lenin just wanted to play guitar, and he was like a kid in a candy store with the sheer wealth of six-string and twelve-string toys at his disposal. And the chance to work with a guitar god like Spedding? Yeah, Lenin was content.

In honor of their producer, The Flashcubes wanted to record a Chris Spedding tune, either "Boogie City" or "Hey Miss Betty." But Stein wanted all originals on the album; frankly, one suspects that Stein was tempted to push for an album of just Gary Frenay songs, but likely realized that would create more dissension than the notion was worth.

And pop fans are grateful for that. The album, A Face In The Crowd, is now a recognized pop classic, a collection made stronger by the varied mix of its three accomplished songwriters.

Lenin channeled his love of The Left Banke, Emitt Rhodes, and even an incongruously poppier version of The Velvet Underground with his songs "Walking Through The Park" and "I Won't Wait Another Night;" Lenin's frequent public citing of Big Star as the inspiration behind "Cycles Of Pain" was a key component of the buying public's belated discovery of that lost pop group.

Frenay, as usual, outdid himself with a fresh supply of irresistible pop confections. You want singles, Mr. Stein? One could imagine Frenay coyly asking the question, and answering in the same breath, Okay, I've got some singles. "She's Not The Girl" was a stunning midtempo number about a hapless guy trying to understand his liberated girlfriend, "I Wanna Stay All Night" was horny power pop in the style of The Raspberries, and "You're Not The Police" was a defiant warning to a too-possessive lover.  A fourth Frenay song, "My Little Angel," was actually written for The Knack, who very much wanted to record it. Stein heard about that, and asked Frenay if he was out of his gourd. No. No no no. That's going to be your next single, Gary. Don't give it to the goddamned Knack.

But, for all that, Paul Armstrong provided the glue that really held A Face In The Crowd together. Armstrong's title tune was an epic tale of a young rock 'n' roll fan aching to be a star. Autobiographical? Yep. Armstrong and Lenin traded lead vocals (with Arty playing the role of the rock star our young fan emulates), and Spedding turned in a blistering guitar solo. In contrast, "You For Me" was a lovely, lovely love song, propelled by Lenin's Byrdcalling twelve-string leads.

The group also cut another Armstrong song, "I'm Not The Liar," but those sessions never quite gelled. The Spedding-produced version (available on the 2013 expanded deluxe reissue of A Face In The Crowd) was an acceptable attempt to salute both early '60s pop and Johnny Thunders at the same time, but it never quite snapped in the manner its composer envisioned. And time had effectively run out; Spedding returned to England, and Stein was howling for the masters for the presumably-completed album.

But an offhand remark from Lenin, talking about how effectively Johnny Thunders had covered a Shangri-Las song on a recent album, caused a light bulb to appear over Armstrong's head. That's it! Armstrong got on the phone to Stein, and detailed his plan to marry the girl-group sound of The Shangri-Las with both NYC punk and Flashcubes power pop on "I'm Not The Liar."

For all his penny-pinching ways, Stein also had a deep and abiding love of the music. You can make a buck a million different ways, but nothing beats makin' a buck in the music biz, boyo. He liked what Armstrong was saying, and he knew who to call to make it happen. He called Richard Gottehrer.

Stein and Gottehrer went way, way back. Gotterher had been Sire's co-founder, but before that he'd been a very successful songwriter--"My Boyfriend's Back,""Hang On Sloopy," and "I Want Candy" were pretty good items to have on one's songwriting resume--and he'd been a producer. Gottehrer agreed to help out, and he brought with him Mary Weiss of The Shangri-Las and Debbie Harry from Blondie to help realize the elusive sound Armstrong heard in his head. With oohs and aahs and handclaps galore, "I'm Not The Liar" soared into the grooves, and the album was finished.

A Face In The Crowd was released in June of 1980, and shot immediately into the Top 10. It peaked at # 2, unable to break Billy Joel's stranglehold on the top spot. But it was all over the radio, especially the first single, "My Little Angel." "My Little Angel" could not be denied, and it was the # 1 record in all the land for four weeks. It was replaced at # 1 by "It's No Secret," the little ditty Frenay had written for Hall and Oates, giving Frenay a combined seven-week berth at the tippy-top of the Hot 100.

Sales. Airplay. Magazine covers. TV appearances. Concerts. Fans. More fans. Success was everything The Flashcubes had ever hoped it could be. As rock 'n' roll fans themselves, they were giddy at the chance to meet so many of their own idols, and hear icons like Graham Nash compliment their harmonies, or Ray Davies confess to being a 'Cubes fan himself. Looking back, it seemed that the summer and fall of 1980 belonged to The Flashcubes, even though the subsequent single "You're Not The Police" was (ahem) only a # 7 hit. By the time The Flashcubes got around to being on Saturday Night Live in December, the album had spent five months on the higher half of the charts. And even there, the thrill hadn't ended. While in New York for SNL, The Flashcubes had the chance to meet their biggest fan...and his Dad.

NEXT TIME ON A BRIGHTER LIGHT IN MY MIND: Nothing Really Matters When You're Young (Sire, 1981)


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