These are my liner notes for Flashcubes On Fire, a new CD preserving the Flashcubes‘ incendiary live show at the Firebarn in Syracuse on May 26, 1979. I’ve been waiting more than 42 years for this. You wanna know why the Flashcubes are up with the Beatles and the Ramones in the pantheon of my all-time favorite groups? This CD offers an invigorating glimpse at the answer.
Writing about the Flashcubes brings out the best in me. Syracuse’s own power pop powerhouse. It’s a Saturday night in Syracuse. Get ready. Get set.
FLASHCUBES ON FIRE
At its best, live music is alchemy in action, capable of transforming the air around us into pure gold. This mystic process is fueled by so many ingredients, both physical and phantasmic. Sweat. Love. Lust. Hate. Alcohol. Hunger. Ambition. Greed. Generosity. Divine inspiration. Betrayal. Heartbreak. Laughter. Tears. One pill that makes you larger, one pill that makes you small. Amplifiers, power chords, the beat of the bass and drums. Voices rising in anger or exultation. Taking a sad song and making it better. One for the money, two for the show. NOISE. Beautiful, transcendent noise. The sound of gold.
In 1979, I was 19 years old. I reveled in this golden sound. My preferred alchemists were a fantastic rock ‘n’ roll group called the Flashcubes. My go-to goldmine was the Firebarn.
The Firebarn Tavern, a former fire station, was on Montgomery Street in Syracuse. In the mid ’70s, before there were Flashcubes, the Syracuse Cinephile Society held screenings upstairs at the Firebarn; my cousin Maryann took me to see films starring Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn, and my parents endured a long evening indulging me for all twelve chapters of the 1941 Adventures Of Captain Marvel movie serial.
From the age of 18 on, I saw tons of bands at the Firebarn: the Fast, New Math, the Dead Ducks, the James L. Cortland Band, Distortion, the Most, the Battered Wives, and others that the generous flow of beer blocks in my memory. I was not among the tiny group that witnessed the Flashcubes share a 1978 Firebarn gig with a new British group called the Police. But I was at the Firebarn a lot. The bartender recognized me as I came in, and had an ice-cold Miller ready by the time I got to the bar.
And then: upstairs! The movies weren’t upstairs anymore. Upstairs was for bands.
That’s where you’d find the Flashcubes, bending air into gold. They were gonna be the biggest stars in the whole goddamned world. I knew it. If history contradicted me, I regret nothing. I wasn’t wrong. The world was wrong.
But in 1979, the world was poised to get it right. There was an undeniable buzz. When the Flashcubes debuted in 1977, they didn’t seem…normal. Punk rock? Power pop? Original songs? Cover choices that favored the Sex Pistols and Television rather than Zeppelin? In Syracuse…?!
Things evolved. In 1979, The Syracuse New Times‘ Mike Greenstein proclaimed the Flashcubes the local band of the year. Gigs drew exuberant crowds. On this very set, you can hear future GRAMMY-winning recording engineer Ducky Carlisle introduce the Flashcubes with confidence: “One day, very soon from now, all you people are going to be able to say ‘I saw this band before they were famous.'”
As the summer of ’79 approached, that day seemed imminent. Gold. Syracuse’s phenomenal pop combo. Gary, Arty, Paul, and Tommy. Like John, Paul, George, and Ringo, or Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy, the ‘Cubes were a fab and ferocious four:
Bassist Gary Frenay sang sweetly, played commandingly, and crafted surefire radio-ready confections, Central New York’s songwriting answer to Eric Carmen, Emitt Rhodes, and Paul McCartney.
Guitarist Arty Lenin lived at the left of the dial before anyone heard the phrase, a six-string (and twelve-string!) shaman preoccupied with a million thoughts at once, from William Faulkner to jazz LPs to Miss September.
Guitarist Paul Armstrong was this town’s first punk and # 1 rock ‘n’ roll fan, driven and hard-working, the individual most responsible for bringing that energy to the Syracuse scene, and described in local fanzine Poser as “Dennis the Menace all grown up.”
Drummer Tommy Allen could have appeared on the covers of 16 and Tiger Beat, while simultaneously wielding fast and lethal sticks like heavy artillery in the battle for your heart and your wallet.
Gold. Precious metal formed by British Invasion, maximum pop, absolute rock ‘n’ roll, the edgy sound of the underground, and the rush of AM Top 40 when AM Top 40 was cool. Put ’em all together. Let ’em play.
The Flashcubes were loud. The Flashcubes were invigorating. And the Flashcubes were on fire.
On May 26, 1979, the Flashcubes recorded a Firebarn show on multitrack, their only 1970s show to be preserved with that level of oomph. You can hear the sweat. The Firebarn’s upstairs could get hot. It was never hotter than this night. Bright lights. Guitars, bass, drums. Volume. Your ears are gonna be ringing for days. Ladies and gentlemen, The Flashcubes!
The tape is the Flashcubes’ greatest hits, live, from Arty’s Playboy appreciation “Taking Inventory” through the one-two bludgeoning of Paul’s “Got No Mind” and the stalwart “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” a Larry Williams song the Beatles taught us, with a little Link Wray to chase us home. It’s got Arty’s gorgeous treasure (and the Flashcubes’ first single) “Christi Girl,” Gary’s urgent “Wait Till Next Week” (their second single), Paul’s angry “Sold Your Heart,” pumpin’ covers of fave raves by the Raspberries, Big Star, the Kinks, the Who, Eddie Cochran, and Arthur Alexander (via a Beatles bootleg), and so much greatness from the Flashcubes’ own songbook.
“She’s Leaving.” “Gone Too Far.” “No Promise,” which should have been their third and biggest single. Arty’s lost song “Cycle Of Pain” and Paul’s likewise-lost “You For Me,” both making their over-the-counter debuts here. Gary’s “Suellen,” later a single for Gary, Arty, and Tommy’s ace post-‘Cubes outfit Screen Test. “Muscle Beach.” “Beverly.” “Boy Scout Pinup.” “Girl From Germany.” “You’re Not The Police.” “Angry Young Man.” And Paul’s “A Face In The Crowd,” a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy performed by a group THISCLOSE to making it all come true.
Gold? Oh hell, yeah. The Flashcubes were pristine ‘n’ dirty gold. Stars? In 1979, the brass ring wouldn’t even know what grabbed it. As the summer beckoned, the Flashcubes shopped their demo to record labels. They did shows with the Ramones, Joe Jackson, 999, David Johansen. They had interest from high-powered management. My God, the Flashcubes were about to go big time.
And it all went away.
Bad luck. Bad advice. Bad decisions. Gold traded for pyrite. Paul Armstrong was no longer a Flashcube. The Flashcubes were still great, but one could argue that they were no longer the Flashcubes, not as we knew them. The four would reunite in later years. They would play, they would tour and record, they would become legit legends of power pop. But that flashpoint when material gold was within reach, when the dreams written so large in the sky were near enough to touch and taste and take to the bank, THAT moment….
Gone. Like it was never there. But it was there. I remember it.
In 1979, the Syracuse summer was electric with promise. I was 19, a shy, misfit teen from the Northern suburbs, home from college until the fall, and having the time of my life. I was in love, falling ever more deeply in love with a girl I’d met at school. We saw each other every weekend. I had a full-time summer job, putting a little cash in my pocket. So there was romance, money to spend, and a giddy sense of freedom.
And there was gold. The summer could have lasted forever.
Even nostalgia can’t erase the bad times. By the end of that same summer of 1979, my favorite band had split, and one of my best friends was dead by his own hand. I thought the world would just crush me at that point.
Yet I still look back on that summer as the best I ever had. See, there will always be heartbreak; there will always be tears and sadness, and there will always be an abyss that taunts us. But there will also be love, and there will also be music. In 1979, the Flashcubes were among the best live rock ‘n’ roll acts anywhere. My ears are still ringing. The moment lives on.
Flashcubes On Fire documents that precise moment, that pyrotechnic spark when the Flashcubes were at their peak: a quartet of rock ‘n’ rollers dead set for the toppermost of the poppermost. If you were there, you’ll never forget it. If you weren’t there, just close your eyes, open your imagination, and breathe in the gold.
GOLD. You’re there now. You’re one of us, upstairs at the Firebarn. Grab a beer on your way up. Welcome to this golden world of promise under the bright, bright lights.
Syracuse Summer 2021
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