By MIKE CHAIKEN
Cue up “Wheel of Talent,” the latest album by New York garage band legends The Fleshtones, you hear a bevy of new tracks that crackle with energy.
After four decades of mining the underground music scene, it’s clear from the latest effort, The Fleshtones still have it.
If you’re hearing energy zipping through your speakers, explained the band’s guitarist/ vocalist Keith Streng, the reason is simple. What you’re hearing when you take note of the snap, crackle, pop of “Wheel of Talent,” said the group’s co-founder, “(is a band) being in the studio, having fun, and a making a new record.”
Connecticut audiences will have two chances in the coming weeks to check out the New York rockers. The Fleshtones will be at Two Boots in Bridgeport on Saturday. Then jump forward a few weeks, The Fleshtones come to Bridge Street Live in Collinsville on Saturday, April 5.
The Fleshtones are Streng, fellow co-founder Peter Zaremba on vocals, harmonica, and organ, Bill Milhizer on drums and vocals, and Ken Fox on bass and vocals.
The Fleshtones currently have racked up four decades of making music. Other artists who rose up from the same ranks from the mid-1970s New York scene have either passed away (such as many members of the Ramones) or moved on to other ventures beyond music.
Why have the Fleshtones kept going after all this time?
Keith said the answer is simple. It’s exciting to be given the chance to record yet another album, and release new music for fans.
“This is what we always wanted to do,” said Peter. “We weren’t closet musicians. We liked music. We collected records. We listened to music.”
“We just wanted to make records,” said Peter. “That’s what we’re still doing.” And as long as they can continue to make new music, they will continue to play.
The first track on “Wheel of Talent” to garner attention is the zippy rocker, “Remember the Ramones, which is a tribute to their contemporaries of the 1970s New York punk rock scene.
But, why remember the Ramones?
Keith said the Ramones, who gave the world such punk rock classics as “Teenage Lobotomy,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and “Rock and Roll High School, “were true influences on Peter and myself.”
“We saw the Ramones (at the venerated club) CBGBs,” said Keith. “They were truly exciting.”
Unlike a lot of rock acts that were popular at the time, said Keith, there was nothing forced about The Ramones, who were often overlooked. They were all about having fun.
The Fleshtones came out of the same rock and roll scene in the 1970s that gave the world seminal bands such as The Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, the New York Dolls, Suicide, and Blondie. They helped pave the way for British punk rock, new wave, alt-rock, and indie rock.
It was also a time of a decaying and gritty New York City, eons away from the glossed over “Sex and the City” glamour and hipster haven that would take it over in subsequent decades.
Asked about that time in rock history, and the history of the New York scene, Keith said “it was exciting and new.” The New York scene was also different from what the rest of the music industry was offering, explained Keith. “The record companies were big machines, making big money, and it was big-this and big-that.”
“It was amazing,” said Peter of those days in the 1970s that gave birth to The Fleshtones. In a way, said Peter, the decay and decadence of New York City at the time allowed that music scene to happen. The city was cheap at the time, even Manhattan. “It was easy for artists to get lost and hang out.”
At that time, said Keith, there was no place for bands with original music to play or get noticed. That’s why places such as CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City were such a revelation and a godsend to burgeoning musical talents.
“It was exciting to go out every night and see Television, Blondie, Suicide and the Ramones,” said Peter.
“It was wonderful and it felt underground,” said Peter of that music scene in the city. It was a time when bands stopped worrying about having the best equipment, elaborate costumes, or money to play rock and roll. They would just do it.
The scene wasn’t huge numbers wise, at least compared to its long-term influence on music in future decades, said Peter. Out of a city of 8 million people, if there were 350 people involved with the scene at Max’s or CBGBs, it was a lot.
A key figure at the time was Marty Thau, who signed The Fleshtones to their first record deal and worked with the likes of the New York Dolls and Suicide. The Fleshtones reference him in their latest song, “Remember the Ramones.”
Thau passed away last week after an illness.
“I was a little bit shaken,” said Peter of Thau’s passing
“He was an important figure in rock,” said Keith. He was also the first person to actually pay the Fleshtones.
“He gave us our first shot,’ said Peter. “It was our only shot. I’ll never forget him for that.”
As for Thau as a person, Peter said, “Marty was an intelligent guy.”
“He was an intellectual. He was a true artist,” said Keith.
“Marty was a real record business fellow,” said Peter, but in a good way. “He had a lot of great ideas.” He always was looking to do something new rather than just tread on the same-old same-old.
Thau’s record label, Red Star, went bust pretty quickly, said Peter. And people have faulted Marty for its demise, said Peter. But, Peter recognized there were many things beyond Marty’s control.
“He was a true visionary,” said Peter. He signed many acts, such as The Fleshtones and Suicide, who no other record label wanted.
Peter had been in touch with Thau recently about releasing some albums of live recordings from The Fleshtones circa-mid-1970s. But with Marty’s death, Peter doubted those ideas will come to fruition.
The Fleshtones have always mined the genre dubbed “garage rock.” It’s a genre that was best encapsulated by Lenny Kaye’s vinyl compilation “Nuggets.” Garage rock included such songs as “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen or “Pushing Too Hard” by the Seeds.
Keith said he loves garage rock because of the many different elements that go into the genre. There is a little rock and roll. There is a twinge of raucous R&B. “It goes in many different directions.”
Peter said he liked the simplicity of it. And some of the ineptitude of early garage band records was endearing. “The wackiness to it amused us and attracted us.”
When fans come to Two Boots or Bridge Street Live, Keith said fans will see the band at its best. At the time of the interview, the band had just returned from a three week tour of Spain. “We’re playing very well. It should be a fun and great evening.”
The band will grab your attention “from start to finish” and you will remember the show, promised Keith.
“It’s infectious,” said Peter of the band’s live show. And the Fleshtones like to surprise their audiences.
“I love it when people tell me it’s the first time they’ve seen us and it was the best show they had ever seen,” said Keith.
And if you catch The Fleshtones at Two Boots, don’t expect to see the same show at Bridge Street Live. Keith said that although the band heads out on the stage with a set list, more often than not, Peter changes it in mid-stream depending on how he gauges the audience.
The Fleshtones play Two Boots, 281 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport on Saturday. Tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the door. For more information, go to TwoBootsBridgeport.com
The Fleshtones then return to play Bridge Street Live, 41 Bridge St., Collinsville on Saturday, April 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $14 and $24. For more information, go to 41BridgeStreet.com
For more information on The Fleshtones, look for them on Facebook.