Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Inside the Phantom Zone of Fun

Climbing high up the mountain of love -- or any other place I must go...

Holly Hughes has a damn fine blog called The Song in My Head Today. In the past, she's rhapsodized about Paul McCartney, Marshall Crenshaw, the Kinks (including an entire month where she reviewed their catalog in chronological order), and Nick Lowe. But mostly what she does is talk about a song that's stuck in her head and dissect the music and what it means to her. Great stuff.

Lately, Holly's been counting down her list of Top 100 Singles of All Time (5 per post) and she's about halfway through. That's great for reading about those Top 100 Singles, but makes me miss that "Song in My Head Today" feel.

So today, (since she's not using it right now) I'm stealing um hijacking um borrowing the entire underlying concept of her blog.

Somewhere in the universe, there's a party that goes on forever. And the Fleshtones are the house band.

Like General Zod trapped in the Phantom Zone (reference too obscure? watch a few seconds of this), this Phantom Zone of Fun slices through our three-dimensional reality, suddenly blinking into existence from out of nowhere.

"Hexbreaker" fades up like it's always been playing but we just couldn't hear it before. The song seems simultaneously fresh and dated. And yeah, "Hexbreaker" came out in 1983, when handclaps and drumbeats were sampled and played from keyboards -- and even Springsteen was dipping his Jersey Toe into the murky synth waters. But these are real hands clapping (not quite in unison) and a real drummer playing (not always exactly on the beat). It sounds human -- sometimes sloppy, always delightful. These guys seem like they're stuck in 1957 or 1965, not like they're contemporaries of the Human League or Talking Heads.

And it builds slowly. The call-and-response vocals have that frat-party everyone-shout-along quality. The sax sizzles, promising something dirty and sexy and vaguely forbidden. It's a perfect match for the raspy vocal style of Pete Zaremba. And the words channel bad hoodoo, love gone horribly wrong, and the promises of the magical talisman that has always been rock 'n' roll.

"Wait a minute," he says. "Are you ready for a SuperRock time?" And in this alternate universe, in the Phantom Zone of Fun, we're all ready. But he makes us wait, letting Keith Streng's guitar chug-chug-chug us forward, building and churning.

The cars whizz past (bottles will break)
People shout (how much can we take?)
Just keep calm (what more can we say?)
Because we always stay cool -- we like it that way.

And as the song builds, we wonder who (or what) is the Hexbreaker? And what hex needs to be broken anyway? Then we realize -- it's everything. And the song, drenched in echo, drips with the sweat of 100 revelers crowding the dance floor.

In all matters of money and love, the band promises, the Hexbreaker's power is strong. This is primal stuff -- and if you've ever believed that rock 'n' roll can save your life or redeem your soul, you'll want to tap into this kegger and drink deep from the heady brew they serve in the Phantom Zone of Fun.

But just as we're getting somewhere, the song starts to drift away. The band is floating off to another galaxy and we can't go with them. Clearly this song goes on forever, but just intersects our sonic plane of existence for 4 short minutes.

And maybe that's why this song sounds as fresh, vital, and elusive now as it did a quarter century ago. Whatever the reason, it makes me want to dance (and that almost never happens) and get up and join the party, traveling the universe to spread the joyous gospel of the SuperRock sound of the Fleshtones.

And that, with apologies to Holly Hughes, is why "Hexbreaker" is the song in my head today.


Anonymous said...

Damn. I haven't thought of the Fleshtones in years! Thanks.

Joe Bonomo said...

Well done! Nice vibe.

You can read about the making of this song and the Fleshtones' whole crazy career in my book "Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band" (Continuum).


Alex said...

Thanks Joe.

Very cool to learn about your book too... going online to order it now.

Holly A Hughes said...

Groovy post, Alex -- I'd never even heard this track, and what a treat it is. I love the idea that we're just intersecting this sonic zone, as if there's a flying saucer of Fleshtonely Fun whizzing continuously around the universe, like some kind of musical Moibus strip. Hey, you're welcome to steal my blog format anytime!

Kevin said...

Where is the ultimate Fleshtones box set I've been waiting on for years?? I have very little music from these guys... Any good suggestions as to where to start?

Alex said...

Kevin, I love the Hexbreaker album, so I'd start there... although you can listen to most of their stuff online (through Rhapsody or Grooveshark or similar services) for free to decide what you like best.

William V. Madison said...

Dang! Your descriptions are particularly tantalizing for one whose musical tastes don't entirely converge with yours: the song I read is so good, I almost don't want to hear it, to spoil the idea of it that you've presented. I mean, the reality can't be this good -- can it?

Alex said...

Probably not. (And thanks.)