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CHAPTER ONE: Meet The Flashcubes!
Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with my power pop proselytizin' over the last few decades is surely aware of my pervasive and prevailing affection for The Flashcubes. In my liner notes to The Flashcubes' archival CD A Cellarful Of Boys, I mention that "I wish The Flashcubes had been signed immediately, and that the group had released an album on Bomp! in 1978 and another on Sire in 1979, with many more to follow."
Y'know, what's the point of having your own blog if you can't indulge such random flights o' fancy?
A Brighter Light In My Mind will imagine a series of Flashcubes LPs that never existed, a brief run of 'Cubes albums from the late '70s to the early '80s. These albums weren't real...but they shoulda been. And we begin the series with The Flashcubes' imaginary debut album from 1978....
Meet The Flashcubes!
Christi Girl (Lenin)
Social Mobility (Frenay)
She's Leaving (Armstrong)
I Can't Stop Wanting You (Lenin)
No More Lonely Nights (Frenay)
September Gurls (Alex Chilton)
Tonite Is A Wonderful Time (To Fall In Love) (Goodwyn)
You're My Girl (Armstrong)
I Don't Want To Break Your Heart (Frenay)
Stop! In The Name Of Love (Holland-Dozier-Holland)
I Don't Want To Be A Human Being (Lenin)
Got No Mind (Armstrong)
Tommy Allen: drums, percussion, backing vocals, lead vocals on "Tonite Is A Wonderful Time"
Paul Armstrong: guitar, vocal
Gary Frenay: bass, acoustic guitar, vocals
Arty Lenin: guitar, vocals
Produced by Greg Shaw. "Christi Girl" produced by Bill Murphy and Randy Saex.
In The Flashcubes' real-world chronology, Bomp! Records maestro Greg Shaw was supposed to catch the 'Cubes live at a Spring 1978 show at The Brookside in Syracuse, when our local lads opened for The Runaways and The Ramones. Shaw wound up missing that performance, but did see the band at a later time. He liked the 'Cubes, and promised to write about them in Bomp! magazine; Shaw eventually included "Christi Girl," the A-side of the group's first self-released single, on a Bomp! Records compilation album called Waves, Volume 1. Other than that, The Flashcubes never recorded for Bomp!
Now, let slip the butterflies: it's time-bendin' time.
Greg Shaw sees The Flashcubes opening for The Runaways and The Ramones in Syracuse in 1978, and goes out of his freakin' mind. This is it! he exclaims to the nubile on his arm. This is the sound I'm looking for! Shaw meets Tommy, Paul, Gary, and Arty, there is a mutual dance of dollar signs in five pairs of starry eyes, and a tentative deal is struck right then and there. The Flashcubes would join Bomp's Galaxy O' Stars.
The Flashcubes had already begun work on their first single, an Arty Lenin love song called "Christi Girl." The recording was a Syracuse University student project, produced by Bill Murphy and Randy Saex. The 'Cubes completed work on that recording, but trashed plans to self-release the single when the Bomp! contract was finalized. Soon, The Flashcubes were off to California to record their debut album.
Shaw had a few demands. He wanted The Flashcubes to include at least three cover tunes, figuring some material already familiar to pop fans could only help sales. He also wanted to pick all of the songs that would be on the album, but the 'Cubes insisted that each of their three songwriters be represented equally. Compromises were struck, and all parties settled on a mix of 'Cubes originals and a trio of covers.
Arty was represented by two ballads, "Christi Girl" and "I Can't Stop Wanting You," plus the slightly edgier "I Don't Want To Be A Human Being." Gary chose three catchy pop songs, "Social Mobility," "No More Lonely Nights," and "Face To Face," but Shaw convinced the group to go with Gary's "I Don't Want To Break Your Heart" instead of "Face To Face;" "Face To Face" wound up as the non-album B-side of the "Stop! In The Name Of Love" single. Paul wanted to do some of his more aggressive songs--"Student Rape,""I Need Glue,""Damaged Beyond Repair"--but Shaw insisted on the uncharacteristically (for Paul) ultra-pop "You're My Girl," a song which New York Rocker magazine had savaged in a review of a Flashcubes live set at Max's Kansas City. The raucous, randy pop of Paul's "She's Leaving" was acceptable to everyone involved, and Shaw green-lit Paul's punk tour-de-force "Got No Mind" to close the album.
For the cover songs, The Flashcubes and Shaw agreed on the above-mentioned power pop version of The Supremes' "Stop! In The Name Of Love" and Big Star's then-obscure classic "September Gurls." A number of other covers were discussed and demoed: The Kinks' "I Need You," The Beatles' "Hold Me Tight," Herman's Hermits' "A Must To Avoid," a Sex Pistols medley, even dat ole standby "Louie, Louie." Shaw lobbied long and hard for the 'Cubes to cover "I'd Rather You Leave Me," a forgotten '60s nugget originally recorded by The Choir, but the group decided on April Wine's "Tonite Is A Wonderful Time (To Fall In Love)," a wonderful song that Tommy had discovered (and initially led his bandmates into believing he'd written). The album was recorded quickly and cheaply, and released in September of 1978.
Although candy-coated dreams of stardom were inevitable in this heady environment, no one really expected much to come from the Bomp! deal. Both the album and the "Christi Girl"/"Guernica" single (its non-LP B-side a basement recording of a rare Frenay punk tune) sold respectably by Bomp! standards, prompting "Stop! In The Name Of Love"/"Face To Face" as a follow-up. But suddenly, unexpectedly, that second single just took off. "Stop! In The Name Of Love" caught the attention of college radio and some more adventurous FM radio programmers, and then even some of your standard-variety non-adventurous radio programmers. It wasn't a big hit by any means, but it scraped 'n' scrapped its way onto the bottom of Billboard's Hot 100. A short tour supporting Cheap Trick beckoned, followed by three nights at The Starwood in L.A. After a sold-out show at New York's Palladium (with The Romantics opening) in March of '79, Sire Records president Seymour Stein had seen enough. Seymour met the 'Cubes backstage with candy and treats (metaphorically speaking), contract in hand, and waving an advance check that was much larger than the notoriously miserly Stein was used to writing. Stein was determined. And Stein got his way. The Flashcubes were signed to Sire Records that night.
CHAPTER TWO: Wait Till Next Week
Wait Till Next Week
Taking Inventory (Lenin)
Wait Till Next Week (Frenay)
Sold Your Heart (Armstrong)
No Promise (Frenay)
Soldier Of Love (Arthur Alexander)
Gone Too Far (Lenin)
Muscle Beach (Armstrong)
Somethin' Else (Sheeley-Cochran)
Girl From Germany (Lenin)
Tommy Allen: drums, percussion, backing vocals
Paul Armstrong: guitar, vocals
Gary Frenay: bass, guitar, vocals
Arty Lenin: guitar, vocals
Produced by Ed Stasium
Acclaim. Great reviews. Street credibility. All nice things to have, but Seymour Stein didn't care about any of them anymore. Stein wanted some goddamned hits.
Stein's label, Sire Records, had invested heavily in punk, or new wave, or whatever the hell they were calling it this week. He'd signed The Ramones, and he didn't really regret that, even though the group's sales had come nowhere near the massive success he'd imagined. Still, he was spending a motherlovin' fortune on their next album, working with that putz Phil Spector in the hope of finally getting a Ramones record that would sell. Talking Heads had done okay, but most of these acts he'd acquired--The Flamin' Groovies, Radio Birdman, The Dead Boys--sold an accumulated total of roughly bupkis. Stein was sick of it. Sire needed a big, big hit, fer Chrissakes.
The Flashcubes had caught Stein's eye. He liked them, but might not have signed them on their own merit. However, they'd done remarkably well on Greg Shaw's label; a # 78 "hit" in Billboard wasn't earth-shaking by itself, but a # 78 hit on a little label like Bomp Records? There were possibilities. There was a buzz about The Flashcubes. With the right record, with the right push, Stein was certain The Flashcubes could deliver the hit Sire needed.
Stein gulped down an Alka-Seltzer. He hoped The Flashcubes could deliver the hit Sire needed.
Time was money. Stein wanted product on the street immediately, wishing to capitalize on The Flashcubes' success with "Stop! In The Name Of Love" on Bomp. He pushed for a quick single release of the 'Cubes covering The Four Tops' "Standing In The Shadows Of Love," and was surprised when DJs flipped the record over to play its B-side instead: a Gary Frenay original called "Wait Till Next Week."
"Wait Till Next Week" was only a modest hit--it peaked at # 46 in late May of '79--but its relative success was encouraging. Hell, it was higher than The Ramones ever managed. The bonus good news of The Flashcubes connecting with an original song rather than another cover was not lost on Stein; that could bode very well for the group's commercial prospects. Finish that damned album, Flashcubes--time is money!
The album was originally to be titled The Flashcubes' Second Album, an homage to The Beatles' U.S. Capitol Records LP history, following the 'Cubes' own Meet The Flashcubes!; one presumes they would have altered this course before they got to Flashcubes '65. Paul Armstrong pushed for a Rolling Stones reference instead, insisting that the album should be called America's Newest Hitmakers. All of this was mooted when the "Wait Till Next Week" single made its chart ascent; Stein declared that the album would be called Wait Till Next Week, and have you finished the damned thing yet?
Stein's impatience was unwarranted, really; working with producer Ed Stasium, The Flashcubes completed Wait Till Next Week in less than two months, finishing work just before the single dropped out of the Hot 100. The album shipped to retail in July of '79, accompanied by a new single, Frenay's "No Promise" backed with Armstrong's "Muscle Beach."
To promote the single and album, The Flashcubes appeared on American Bandstand. The "Stop! In The Name Of Love" single had been featured the previous year on Bandstand's popular Rate-A-Record feature (though it earned a mere 77 out of 100 rating, and was indeed dismissed with the infamous snub of not having a good beat that one could dance to). But now, The Flashcubes had their first chance to appear on national TV, lip-syncing to both sides of their new single. In between the earnest, effervescent performance of "No Promise" and Armstrong's opportunity to mug his way through "Muscle Beach," The Flashcubes chatted briefly on-camera with Dick Clark about their shared Syracuse roots and their own pop aspirations. Teenaged girls swooned at the sight of Tommy Allen. This was pop music. This was success.
"No Promise" cracked the Top 40, and then the Top 20, bubbling its way to a power pop peak of # 17. The album did even better, briefly sneaking its way to almost the Top 10, stalling at a more-than-respectable # 12. A second single, the Arthur Alexander-via-The Beatles cover "Soldier Of Love" (backed by a non-LP Lenin song, "Angry Young Man") barely made it to the Top 40 at # 39, and the third single, "Gone Too Far"/"Misunderstanding," fared similarly (# 36). But a fourth and final single, "Suellen" backed by Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else," was a two-sided smash; both tracks received significant airplay, and "Suellen" became The Flashcubes' first Top 10 hit at # 8.
With success came more offers and opportunities. The Flashcubes spent November in England, jamming with Chris Spedding and playing shows with The Jam and Rockpile. "Girl From Germany" was selected for use in the soundtrack for an upcoming film called Times Square. And Seymour Stein, who'd signed The Flashcubes to a three-album deal, was anxious for another 'Cubes LP on Sire.
Stein looked at what had worked for The Flashcubes so far. After that first Bomp sorta-hit with a Supremes cover, the 'Cubes had experienced limited success with subsequent covers; "Somethin' Else" had done well enough, but--like "Stop! In The Name Of Love"--that was likely a right song-right time fluke. Singles written by Arty Lenin hadn't sold as much, and Stein regarded Armstrong's stuff as album tracks and B-sides only. But Gary Frenay...! Frenay's songs had sold, and sold increasingly well. As far as Stein was concerned, all future Flashcubes A-sides would need to be written by Gary Frenay. It was Stein's label, so that opinion had damned well better be the one that mattered.
In time, this edict would inflict permanent damage on the band. But, in the short term, it would also lead to The Flashcubes' first--and only--# 1 hit single.
CHAPTER THREE: A Face In The Crowd
A Face In The Crowd
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)
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.
CHAPTER FOUR: Nothing Really Matters When You're Young
Nothing Really Matters When You're Young
Sound Of The Radio (Frenay)
She Couldn't Say No (Armstrong)
There's No Place Like Work (Lenin)
The Boy From Shaker Heights (Frenay)
Fourth Of July (Frenay)
Sorry Wrong Number (Armstrong)
Best Seller (Lenin)
Born To Cry (Frenay)
Below The Belt (Armstrong)
Nothing Really Matters When You're Young (Lenin)
Tommy Allen: drums, percussion, vocals
Paul Armstrong: guitar, vocals
Gary Frenay: bass, guitar, vocals
Arty Lenin: guitar, vocals
The Poptarts (Gael, Meegan, Kathy, Margie, Sheena): backing vocals
Eric Carmen: backing vocals on "Sound Of The Radio"
Dave Davies: additional guitar, backing vocals on "Sorry Wrong Number"
Jimmy Destri: keyboards
Mark Doyle: additional guitar on "The Boy From Shaker Heights"
Musketeer Gripweed: backing vocals on "The Boy From Shaker Heights"
Jerry Harrison: keyboards on "The Boy From Shaker Heights"
Produced by The Flashcubes.
The boy was only five years old. And The Flashcubes were his favorite band in the whole world.
Because his Daddy had been a musician, everyone just assumed the child had been immersed in music his whole life. But that wasn't the case. One couldn't describe his days as quiet--what five-year-old's days are quiet?--but music wasn't a big component. There was laughter, and games, and stories, and silliness, and walks in the park, and always, always the love of his ever-present Daddy. Mommy was often busy working; Daddy called her the breadwinner, which confused the boy, since he and Daddy baked all of the bread themselves. Adults made no sense sometimes. But Daddy was with him, all day, every day.
Until Daddy decided he wanted to be a musician again. Until Daddy decided he had to go to work--every day! Intolerable. The boy sulked a bit, even though Daddy always made time for him when he did finally get home from work each night. One day, he asked his father a question:
"Do you know what I want to be when I grow up?"
Amused, the father replied: "What do you want to be when you grow up, Sean?"
"Just a Daddy!"
John Lennon winced. But he would try to make it up to his son as best he could.
Sean's half-brother Julian had given Sean some cassettes to listen to. Julian was more taken with The Sex Pistols than Sean was, though both enjoyed The B-52's. But it was The Flashcubes that really caught Sean's interest. They seemed so...so bubbly and fun, while still remaining serious and cool. Little Sean wore out his Wait Till Next Week and A Face In The Crowd tapes in short order. Daddy replaced both cassettes, and added a home-made cassette of Meet The Flashcubes!, which had not been issued in that format. The family rarely, if ever, watched television, but when The Flashcubes appeared on Saturday Night Live in December of 1980, Mommy and Daddy allowed Sean to stay up and watch his heroes rip through "You're Not The Police" and--Sean's favorite!--"I'm Not The Liar." The elder Lennon observed Sean's pop mania, and he knew exactly how to redeem himself in his son's eyes.
It would be something of an understatement to say that John Lennon knew some people. Phone calls were made, a few stunned Are you shittin' me?!s were tossed about, and arrangements were set. Just. Like. That. Lennon had recently released a new album, Double Fantasy, and was already at work on a follow-up. On Monday, after the day's recording sessions had ended, John's beloved wife Yoko Ono brought Sean to The Hit Factory for a private concert by The Flashcubes.
The Flashcubes were as giddy as Sean was. Any rock 'n' roll musician their age who claimed he wasn't influenced by The Beatles was a goddamned fibber. They opened their set with a Beatles tune, "Thank You, Girl," and played as if they were hoping to pass the audition. At Sean's request, they played "I'm Not The Liar" three times, with Yoko joining members of The Poptarts on backing vocals. When an exhausted Sean finally conceded that it was time for bed, Ono whisked him home, while a grateful John Lennon whipped out his acoustic guitar and joined the dizzy, delirious Flashcubes in renditions of Beatles numbers and '50s rock 'n' roll classics into the wee, wee hours, beginning and ending with "I Don't Want To Spoil The Party." It was the most memorable night of The Flashcubes' career.
(In an odd side note to the evening, they all later learned that police had questioned a suspicious-looking stranger loitering outside the Lennons' luxury apartment. When the cops discovered he was armed, the suspect was taken into custody. He killed himself in his holding cell, and no one ever even found out his name.)
1980 ended with some rare time off for The Flashcubes. As 1981 came in through the bathroom window, Seymour Stein reminded The Flashcubes that they still owed him one more album in their Sire contract. Back to work, 'Cubes!
Throughout 1980, The Flashcubes felt like they never had a chance to catch their breath. Frenay had continued to write songs for other artists; Shaun Cassidy rejuvenated his flagging popularity with a rendition of Frenay's "Boy Scout Pin-Up," Hall and Oates followed up their earlier "It's No Secret" success with "Tell Me It's Alright Now," and Marshall Crenshaw had his first Top 40 hit with "I Am Sincere." Meanwhile, an older Lenin tune called "One More Try" had been exhumed as a British # 1 for The English Beat, and Pat Benatar enjoyed massive radio play with a live cover of Armstrong's "I'm Not The Liar;" she would subsequently score a # 4 hit with a studio take of Armstrong's "Sold Your Heart." Tommy Allen had formed a production company, and was looking to discover and nurture new artists.
A new Flashcubes album, Seymour? Oh, all right....
Of course, the 'Cubes wanted John Lennon to produce their next album. He was interested, but it couldn't be worked out. (As a consolation prize, The Flashcubes accompanied Lennon on a short club tour, which included a stop at Red Creek in Rochester, NY.) A lot of names were floated as potential producers: Nick Lowe, Roger Bechirian, and Steve Lillywhite were discussed and mooted; George Martin declined. Ultimately, given the group's own studio experience--especially Tommy Allen's growing studio acumen--it was decided that The Flashcubes would produce their own album.
With the working title Inspired Humans Making Noise, The Flashcubes began studio sessions for their fourth album in April of 1981. Armstrong demoed a boppin' new song called "Let's Groove," but the 'Cubes couldn't quite get that groove, and the track was left unfinished. Lenin's quirky, herky-jerky "There's No Place Like Work" was likewise a challenge, but the group managed to complete an appropriate master of that one. Frenay came in with an ambitious, six-minute track called "The Boy From Shaker Heights;" The Flashcubes nailed the basic tracks for that in a day's work.
The recording process dragged on longer than The Flashcubes were used to. One would be tempted to blame this delay on the group's relative inexperience as producers; however, it was just as likely a byproduct of already having done so much in such an astonishingly short period of time. The Flashcubes had formed less than four years ago. They'd played their first gig just over three and a half years ago. In the space of no time at all, they had gone from being a bar band on the receiving end of projectiles tossed by drunken idiots to having smash hit records, pop idolatry, and hanging out with a freakin' Beatle.
The Flashcubes were tired. And they were still too caught up in their own whirlwind to realize how tired they were.
The exhaustion caught up with them in the studio. Tempers flared. Words were exchanged. The occasional apology, the ongoing awareness of perspective, kept things from truly spiraling out of control. The Flashcubes had been friends, and they'd been through an awful lot together, That common, shared experience may have been the only thing that kept fists from flying.
Finally, the album was done. The songs were still good, the performances still top-notch. But, if you listened closely enough, you could hear the weariness underneath it all. The LP, Nothing Really Matters When You're Young, took its title from a simply epic Arty Lenin rumination on alienation and the elusive nature of redemption. It was a million miles away from "Christi Girl."
Nothing Really Matters When You're Young was released at the beginning of August. The first single was Frenay's wonderful "Born To Cry," backed by Lenin's breezy "Best Seller." Armstrong pushed relentlessly for Sire to promote his song "She Couldn't Say No" to radio, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. The album was a more modest success than its predecessor, never quite cracking the Top 20; "Born To Cry," as lovely as it was, still missed the Top 40. The Frenay ballad "Fourth Of July" fared better, peaking at # 12. The Flashcubes were still stars. They just weren't as big as they'd been a year ago.
The Flashcubes had fulfilled their contract with Sire. The relatively disappointing sales of Nothing Really Matters When You're Young notwithstanding, Seymour Stein was keen to sign the 'Cubes to a new contract. But he wasn't the only interested party. There were a lot of labels eager to add The Flashcubes to their roster. The Flashcubes would soon record another album with a bigger label. There was still so much they could do.
But The Flashcubes would have to do it as a trio. Paul Armstrong wanted out.
CHAPTER FIVE: This Is Fiction
This Is Fiction
Notes From Trevor (Frenay)
Back Into My Heart (Lenin)
Another Young Girl (Frenay)
Growin' Up Too Fast (Frenay)
Girl's Brand New (Lenin)
She's Sure The Girl I Love (Mann-Weil)
You Can't Go Wrong With Me (Lenin)
Runnin' With The Bad Guys (Lenin)
I Get Restless (Frenay)
Syracuse Summer (Frenay)
Leave Yourself Behind (Lenin)
You Don't Know Me (Frenay)
Hello Suzie (Wood)
Get Me Out Of This Mess (Lenin)
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.
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?
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.
POSTSCRIPT: After the final chapter was published, Flashcubes bassist Gary Frenay and his wife Jackie Lewis-Frenay replied with a fictional bio of...um, me:
Carl Cafarelli was snapped up by Creem Magazine in 1979, where he wrote alongside Lester Bangs. Then in 1984, he joined the staff of Rolling Stone, where he went on to be the senior rock writer while penning the definitive Monkees screenplay I’m A Believer (an Oscar-nominated film, directed by Cameron Crowe in 1996), and beating out Peter Guralnick for the Pulitzer Prize in Rock journalism for his definitive two-part history of The Ramones, Blitzkrieg Bop in 2004. On the personal side, he was lucky enough to marry the love of his life, Brenda (on the same day in 1984 as Gary and Jackie!). They have a daughter, Meghan, who shares her Dad’s love of music and words.
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