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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.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A BRIGHTER LIGHT IN MY MIND # 5: THE FLASHCUBES, This Is Fiction (An Imaginary LP From 1983)

We conclude my fictional series examining a what-if timeline in which Syracuse's unsigned, undiscovered power pop powerhouse The Flashcubes got a record deal in 1978. We began with Meet The Flashcubes! in 1978, followed by Wait Till Next Week in 1979, A Face In The Crowd in 1980, and Nothing Really Matters When You're Young in 1981. Please welcome back: THE FLASHCUBES!

The Flashcubes
This Is Fiction
Columbia 1983

Side One

Notes From Trevor (Frenay)
Back Into My Heart (Lenin)
Another Young Girl (Frenay)
Growin' Up Too Fast (Frenay)
Girl's Brand New (Lenin)

Side Two

She's Sure The Girl I Love (Mann-Weil)
You Can't Go Wrong With Me (Lenin)
Anytime (Frenay)
Runnin' With The Bad Guys (Lenin)
I Get Restless (Frenay)

Side Three

Syracuse Summer (Frenay)
Leave Yourself Behind (Lenin)
You Don't Know Me (Frenay)
Hello Suzie (Wood)
Get Me Out Of This Mess (Lenin)

Side Four

My Baby's Stacked (Lenin)
Nothing To Say To You (Frenay)
End Of The Line (Lenin)
I Won't Trust You Anymore (Lenin)
This Is Fiction (Frenay)

Tommy Allen: drums, backing vocals
Gary Frenay: bass, guitar, vocals
Arty Lenin: guitar, vocals
Jim Carney: keyboards
Marshall Crenshaw: backing vocals on "End Of The Line"
Dave Davies: additional guitar on "My Baby's Stacked"
Jools Holland: piano on "Hello Suzie"
Neil Innes: additional guitar on "Nothing To Say To You"
Richard Lloyd: additional guitar on "My Baby's Stacked"
Darlene Love: backing vocals on "She's Sure The Girl I Love"
Charlie Robbins: additional guitar and vocals on "Syracuse Summer"
Mark Rivera: saxophone on "She's Sure The Girl I Love"
Jane Wiedlin: additional guitar on "Syracuse Summer," backing vocals on "This Is Fiction"
Carl Wilson: backing vocals on "Syracuse Summer"
Roy Wood: backing vocals on "Hello Suzie"

Produced by Tommy Allen.

Hello Philadelphia!

As the band took the stage this July afternoon in 1985, it had been almost two years since they had played before an audience, nearly four years since the original line-up had played together at all. But here they were, before an audience of about 100,000 rock 'n' roll fans, plugged in and ready to go.

We're The Flashcubes! As the 'Cubes began their set, each of them shared a single thought: How did we get here?

How, indeed?

Paul Armstrong's departure from The Flashcubes at the end of '81 had been as amicable as anything involving lawyers could be. Armstrong's timing was deliberate: with The Flashcubes' Sire Records contract already fulfilled, it was much easier for him to leave the 'Cubes now rather than try to extricate himself later from a freshly-signed contract with another label. The terms of his exit guaranteed him profit participation in future Flashcubes projects, albeit at a reduced rate. Money wasn't a big problem for Armstrong; Pat Benatar's cover of his song "Sold Your Heart" had been a significant hit, and Sammy Hagar's cover of his "Let's Groove" was included on the soundtrack (and soundtrack album) to the hit film Fast Times At Ridgemont High; that meant a truckload of songwriting royalties, and the added joy of watching actress Phoebe Cates remove her bikini top while his song played in the film. Always a go-getter, Armstrong found himself playing in various projects with Ian Hunter, Ace Frehley,The Romantics, The Real Kids, former Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson, and former Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. Armstrong formed his own new band, The Richards, with lead singer Norm Mattice; The Richards' dizzying success story is a topic for another day.

Meanwhile, the three guys who were still in The Flashcubes--Gary Frenay, Arty Lenin, and Tommy Allen--elected not to replace Armstrong, and to continue as a trio. There was some discussion of changing the group's name--"Screen Test" was mentioned as a potential new nom du pop--but really, they'd already established so much recognition as The Flashcubes, and it would have been a mistake to toss all of that away.

The first order of business for this Flashcubes trio would be to secure another record deal. Elektra wanted The Flashcubes, and made a very serious offer; but Columbia wanted 'em more, and proved it with a five-album, multi-million dollar contract. Mitch Miller could not be reached for comment. Bet he was pissed, though. Columbia artist Bruce Springsteen was pleased, and he joined the 'Cubes on stage at a surprise club gig on Long Island in March of 1982, celebrating the group's new Columbia contract. Welcome to the label, lads!

Studio sessions for The Flashcubes' first Columbia album began in April, with Tommy Allen producing. The session began with Frenay's "It's You Tonight," a terrific power pop song they'd recorded for their previous album, but decided to save for a later date. This was a surefire Top 10 hit!

Seymour Stein sure thought it was a hit. That's why he went ahead and released the earlier version on Sire, while the 'Cubes were still in the beginning stages of recording their Columbia debut.

Shit, meet fan. Shit, fan. Fan, shit.

The Flashcubes went ballistic. How could Stein do this to them? Stein was unapologetic; he'd paid for the sessions, the track was recorded while the 'Cubes were still under contract to Sire, it was a goddamned Sire record, and that was that. Legal threats bounced back and forth, and the bickering did precisely nothing to slow the single's chart ascent. The Flashcubes refused to support it in any way, of course, even declining an appearance on The Tonight Show if it meant they had to sing that song. There was brief talk of rush-releasing the new Columbia version as a single, but label execs decided that would be both costly and pointless.  As The Flashcubes looked on, furious, the Sire single made it all the way up to # 3, and remained a Top 10 hit for seven weeks.

Obviously, The Flashcubes scrapped the plan to finish a new recording of "It's You Tonight." The shenanigans with Sire cast a pall over the recording sessions; only a handful of tracks--Lenin's "Girl's Brand New," Frenay's "Growin' Up Too Fast," and a gender-switched cover of The Crystals' "He's Sure The Boy I Love" (with the legendary Darlene Love on backing vocals)--were completed before the 'Cubes decided to take a break.

Columbia wasn't happy about that. To add insult to injury, Sire released a Flashcubes best-of LP called It's You Tonight: The Biggest & Brightest Of The Flashcubes, and that set rocketed to # 1. It was Sire Records' best-selling album to date, and it remained a popular catalog item for years (though Madonna eventually eclipsed The Flashcubes as Sire's all-time top act). So, Sire had a # 3 single and a # 1 album with the act Columbia had just signed. No, Columbia was not happy with that at all.

The Flashcubes had all but ceased playing live. Paul Armstrong had previously been a key factor in getting the group to play and tour as often as they had; without Armstrong, the 'Cubes simply had less desire to play out. But now, The Flashcubes needed to shake off the cobwebs and get back in the game. A series of live shows in Syracuse (where Gary still lived), New York, and Boston proved that The Flashcubes still had that spark. Now, it was time to prove that again in the studio.

Album sessions resumed in July of '82. Energized, The Flashcubes hit these new sessions in earnest, armed with a ton of new songs. It soon became apparent there was just too much top-shelf material to squeeze into one album. The solution was obvious: double album! This would effectively be The Flashcubes' White Album.

Columbia balked at the idea immediately.

Looking back, it's still difficult to understand why Columbia was so skittish about The Flashcubes. The whole debacle with Sire and "It's You Tonight" was unfortunate, but it shouldn't have been anywhere near enough to undermine a label's confidence in a band as obviously great (and popular) as The Flashcubes. For cryin' out loud, The Flashcubes were still on the charts with their Sire best-of! It wouldn't have taken much on Columbia's part to duplicate, or even surpass that demonstrated success.

Nonetheless, the Columbia suits continued to act in increasingly weasely fashion. There were complaints about the spiraling production costs of this new Flashcubes album--double album!--second guesses about the band's direction, even outstandingly dunderheaded suggestions that The Flashcubes bring in some outside songwriters to write 'em some hits. Somehow, The Flashcubes soldiered on, effectively ignoring all of this sniveling corporate noise.

The album, now called This Is Fiction, was completed and delivered to Columbia in September of 1982. It was a consistently engaging two-record set, impeccably played and pristinely produced, and it had "HIT" written all over it. For all of Columbia's grumbling and grousing, The Flashcubes had finished the record in plenty of time to take advantage of Christmas season sales.

Columbia wasn't impressed.

What the hell was wrong with this picture? Over thirty years later, we still don't know what anyone at Columbia was thinking. The Flashcubes had given their label a sure thing, a record that could garner rave reviews and sell like a guaranteed cure for ugly. The label acted like it had been handed a stool sample. The record was not released in time for Christmas; for a while, it seemed destined to not be released at all.

Frustrated, The Flashcubes consulted advisors and experts, and told Columbia those three magic words: breach of contract. Somehow, cooler heads prevailed; Columbia relented and put This Is Fiction on its release schedule. The double-album--the exact same album The Flashcubes had turned over to Columbia back in September--finally hit retail shelves in March of 1983.

Columbia did little (or less) to promote This Is Fiction, but the set sold well nonetheless. The Flashcubes made a video for Frenay's song "You Don't Know Me," and an over-the-top T & A video for Lenin's "My Baby's Stacked," both of which scored a presence on MTV. Columbia released the title track as a single, gave it no support, yet it made the Top 20 anyway.

The Flashcubes hit the road for a tour in support of the album, and played to still-enthusiastic crowds across the country. The tour ended with a homecoming concert in Syracuse on August 27th, 1983; only The Flashcubes themselves knew that was intended to be their last live appearance.

The show was transcendent. The Flashcubes played for two hours, reaching back to old songs they hadn't played in years, mixed with all of the hits, generous bits of This Is Fiction, a few choice covers, and even Paul Armstrong's "Got No Mind," with Arty Lenin singing lead. This did not seem to be the image of a band about to throw in the towel.

But it was. With that show, The Flashcubes were done.

Tension with the label had reached such a state that none of The Flashcubes had any interest in continuing. After the double-album This Is Fiction, The Flashcubes still owed Columbia three more albums in their five-album contract. Tommy Allen went through existing tapes, and assembled a pretty damned good collection of covers, as well as the recording of their final concert. The covers album Hearts In Her Eyes and the double-album End Of The Line were submitted to Columbia to complete The Flashcubes' contract.

(The label howled and sputtered, and litigation went on for years. But eventually, The Flashcubes prevailed, and even managed to regain control of their master tapes. The group's self-released Bright Lights compilation has been a seemingly permanent fixture on Billboard's catalog chart since its release in 2006.)

When The Flashcubes ended in 1983, Gary Frenay turned to songwriting full-time, and continued to pen timeless pop tunes that were eagerly snapped up by artists from The Bangles to KISS; Frenay married his fiance, Jackie Lewis, and together they raised a happy family in Central New York. Arty Lenin had his pick of offers as songwriter and guitarist, and buzzed contentedly through an endless array of collaborations with just about everyone you could name in pop, rock, soul, and jazz. Tommy Allen concentrated on his production company, and became one of the most successful (and one of the most powerful) studio bigwigs in the music industry. The Columbia Records disaster may have stopped The Flashcubes, but it didn't even slow down any of the individual 'Cubes.

And The Flashcubes remained in style. In 1985, director John Hughes used a remix of The Flashcubes' "Nothing Really Matters When You're Young" in a pivotal scene in his film The Breakfast Club. The success of that movie and its soundtrack kept The Flashcubes in the public eye and ear, on the radio and on record store shelves. There were even labels actively looking to snag The Flashcubes for new recordings, Columbia lawsuits be damned, but the 'Cubes were no longer interested.

So The Flashcubes' reunion set was indeed unexpected.

Paul Armstrong had met Bob Geldof during The Flashcubes' first trip to England way back in 1979. By the mid-'80s, Geldof had become actively involved in famine relief for Ethiopia, and had organized an all-star Christmas single under the name Band Aid to raise money and consciousness for this cause. In 1985, Geldof was putting together a massive, massive live concert in London and Philadelphia, all in the hope of raising millions of dollars for this humanitarian end. Geldof had gotten the surviving members of Led Zeppelin to re-unite for this show. And Geldof called Armstrong, and asked bluntly: "Can we have The Flashcubes play?"

Armstrong called Frenay, Lenin, and Allen. And so, on July 13th, 1985. the four of them stood on stage at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, reunited at Live Aid.

100,000 people at Live Aid. Fundamentally, it wasn't all that different from playing for a dozen drunks at a dive bar in DeWitt, New York in 1977. They were The Flashcubes. They knew who they were. They knew what they could do. They'd had but one quick rehearsal, just before their set, but it didn't matter. It never mattered. They were The Flashcubes. All they ever had to do was just play.

And play they did, ripping through an energetic set that has entered pop legend as one of the most exciting live rock 'n' roll performances ever televised. The Flashcubes performed a quick, condensed summary of their best work, from their first single "Christi Girl" through their final album. How did we get here? The question was there, unspoken, understood. And The Flashcubes sang together one last time:

This is fiction
It's stranger than the truth
This must be fiction....

This is fiction.

The Flashcubes never got a record deal in the '70s, never achieved the success they so richly deserved. I've been a fan of the group since January of 1978; last week, I started to imagine what it might have been like if things had gone The Flashcubes' way. This five-part series is the result of that whimsical idea.

Throughout the series, I've tried to tether the flights of fancy to some semblance of the real world. Sure, it may be an extreme notion to picture an alternate timeline where an undiscovered band from Syracuse, NY takes the pop world by storm, but isn't that half the fun? And is it really intrinsically more far-fetched than the real-world story of a bunch of no-account rock 'n' rollers in Liverpool, England surviving violent surroundings in the early '60s, transcending bar-band anonymity, and somehow becoming the goddamned Beatles?

Fine. Maybe it is more far-fetched. But it was a delight to conjure nonetheless.

The power of our imagination can give substance to dreams, can lend gravitas to what's purely pretend. I didn't even get around to telling you about The Monkees having a # 1 hit in 1987 with Gary Frenay's "Make Something Happen." Alternate worlds can be an engaging place to visit. In this world, John Lennon still lives. I don't know whether or not The Beatles ever reunited. But the Challenger still exploded; 9/11 still happened; Veronica Mars was still cancelled; we're still stuck with President-Elect Trump.

No world is perfect; not even a pretend world.

But damn--this pretend world does have brighter lights. The brightest lights. We can still see them shine, even from over here.

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