Since 1976, Queens, N.Y.'s The Fleshtones has been applying an eclectic mix of genres on a musical canvas to create a unique vivisection of covers along with originals that influenced a generation of garage rockers.
The principle was simple. Pare the music down to its basic elements, then put everything you had into delivering it. But the band didn't stop there, stirring surf, blues, R&B and psychedelic soul into a throbbing soundtrack that epitomized the live fast/die young mantra of '50's rock 'n' roll roadburners.
So, it was only fitting that the first cover tune the band learned to play, "Nervous Breakdown," belonged to '50s rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran, who cranked out "Twenty Flight Rock" and "Summertime Blues" before checking out at age 21 in 1960. "The genius of Eddie was that he could boil things down to this minimalist rock 'n' roll," says Fleshtones keyboardist/vocalist Peter Zaremba by phone from New York. "He could play circles around anybody if he felt like it, but he decided to just strip it down to a coupla chords and a dynamite rhythm."
That approach worked well for another band The Fleshtones learned from as well. "We started seeing The Ramones in 1975 and immediately it was a huge influence on us," Zaremba says. "They were like that really good paint remover, like when you're tryin' to strip a wall and you can't do it and then you put that stuff on, takes all that gunk off, scrapes that 500 layers of paint right the heck off, and there you go, you have that nice shiny wood underneath," Zaremba says with a chuckle. "All that junk, all that early '70s junk, they stripped it all away, and you were left with rock 'n' roll."
The band's latest, Brooklyn Sound Solution, features covers rearranged beyond recognition as well as a handful of upbeat originals. Mel Torme's "Comin' Home Baby" is transformed from a bluesy torch song to an instrumental worthy of surf rockers The Ventures. Chicago bluesman Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would" loses its Bo Diddley-backed thump for a Caribbean beat. Sleepy John Estes' "Rats in my Kitchen" sounds like legendary wildman Screamin' Jay Hawkins. "We were thinking about the Kinks a little bit, but I'm glad it sounds like Screamin' Jay," Zaremba says.
Zaremba's first paying job was working backstage at a music festival in Central Park that featured Hawkins. Part of Zaremba's job was to keep Hawkins from leaping into the orchestra pit during the show. "He was a giant, like 7 feet tall, ex prize fighter, guy's totally worked up, and I'm tryin' to stand in front of him." Zaremba succeeded in keeping Hawkins from jumping, but Hawkins' total immersion in his character and dedication to his performance stayed with the aspiring musician.
But while the band respects the original artists' performance, when the 'Tones reach back in time to cover a rock icon's material, it doesn't feel compelled to do it note for note. "We don't handle it like some sort of religious thing, where you can't change it or fool around with it or have fun with it," Zaremba says.
Despite the band's balls-to-the-wall live show, huge fan base and a hefty 35-year back catalogue, financial success has eluded them. The federal government impounded their work on Ichiban records and other small labels the band recorded for have disappeared. "Just being in the Fleshtones would be a poor living at best, but it's enough to keep at it, keep wantin' to do it, and it's fun," Zaremba says. He prefers to call his non-Fleshtones duties "stop-gap ways of hustling money" instead of day jobs. Zaremba writes about travel and food, Keith Streng has a one-man moving company and Kenny is a contractor and renovator.
There's still hope for the band to recoup come of its back catalogue. Australian label Raven has started re-issuing some of the band's work on the IRS label and it has hung on to their publishing rights. "I foresee a long future for the band," Zaremba says. "It's time to quit when it's no longer fun, and when people are horrified by us."
The singer says he wants the band to have been a positive force on rock that helped keep the music fun, honest and emotional. He also wants to remind fans of the importance of turning in a good performance every time. "If you don't want to play like you mean it," Zaremba says, "then don't get on stage."