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Razorcake Podcast #149
With Mike Faloon

By Staff
Friday, March 04 2011

Syracuse: PopCity (With Some Punk Rock Too)

The power pop land that time forgot. That’s Syracuse, New York. The SaltCity. Best known for people passing through on their way to bigger and better things—whether it’s the students making their way through SyracuseUniversity or the minor baseball players hoping to make it to the majors. But Syracuse also has a history of great music. Like a lot of local music, Syracuse’s best bands are often better appreciated by people living outside of the area. I loved growing up in Syracuse but I was unaware of area bands when I was living there. Ever since the early ‘90s, though, there’s been a steady stream of relatively easy to find compilations that have recirculated Syracuse’s best power pop and punk.

-Mike Faloon

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The Flashcubes, “Wait Till Next Week” (Bright Lights: An Anthology 1977-1980, Northside)
The Tearjerkers, “Syracuse Summer” (History of Syracuse Music, Vol. 12 & 13, Blue Wave)
Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers, “Leave Married Women Alone” (Gary Dunes Presents the History of Syracuse Rock-n-Roll, WSEN)
The Teen-Tones, “Miss Sweet” (Gary Dunes Presents the History of Syracuse Rock-n-Roll, WSEN)
Sam and the Twisters, “Fooba Wooba John” (Gary Dunes Presents the History of Syracuse Rock-n-Roll, WSEN)
Bobby Comstock and the Counts, “I Wanna Do It” (Gary Dunes Presents the History of Syracuse Rock-n-Roll, WSEN)
Carmen and the Vikings, “I Do” (Gary Dunes Presents the History of Syracuse Rock-n-Roll, WSEN)
Don Barber and the Dukes, “The Waddle” (Gary Dunes Presents the History of Syracuse Rock-n-Roll, WSEN)
The Poptarts, “August Is a Wicked Month (Fresh Out of the Toaster: Poptarts Anthology, PlumTone)
The Poptarts, “Glad She’s Gone” (Fresh Out of the Toaster: Poptarts Anthology, PlumTone)
Screen Test, “Nothing Really Matters When You’re Young” (Inspired Humans Making Noise, Northside/Air Mail)
The Penetrators, “Teenage Lifestyle” (Basement Anthology 1976-84, Swami)
The Penetrators, “Baby Dontcha Tell Me” (Basement Anthology 1976-84, Swami)
The Trend, “Giddy Up and Go” (Batman Live at Budokan, Hate)
The Wallmen, “Preservative Children” (7” single, Dead Judy)
The Flashcubes, “Do Anything You Wanna Do” (Brilliant, Screaming Apple)

THE FLASHCUBES: Probably the best known of Syracuse’s pop and punk bands. They released a couple of 7”s in the ‘70s, one of which, “Christi Girl,” was included on an early Bomp Records compilation, Waves. Ever since then the Flashcubes have been revered by power pop fans around the world. (At one point a few years ago they had current releases in Germany, Italy, and Japan but none in the U.S.) By the early ‘80s they had evolved into Screen Test (more on them coming up). Bright Lights was released in 1997. It collected material from the band’s first run along with songs re-recorded in 1993. Very good disc with excellent liner notes by Carl Cafarelli. (Great photos too. My favorite is one of Joey Ramone, a copy of the first Flashcubes single in hand, hanging out with Rick Nielsen.) The band’s main songwriters, Gary Frenay and Arty Lenin, still play out in Syracuse. http://www.frenayandlenin.8k.com/

THE TEARJERKERS: A Syracuse super group featuring two Flashcubes (Gary and Arty) and buddies from other bands. How and why this song isn’t on Syracuse radio daily astounds me. Super song with a perfect pop chorus. Should be a drive-time go-to. But it isn’t. I had to track down a copy of History of Syracuse Music, Vol. 12 & 13 to finally hear it. Tip of the cap to Syracuse music historian Ron Wray for putting together the History of series. It’s really hard to find copies and they’re expensive, mostly due to the inclusion of Ronnie James Dio’s early doo wop groups. (I speak the truth here. Ronnie grew up in Cortland, south of Syracuse, and prior to his days in Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath or Dio, he fronted a couple of doo wop groups. They’re not included here because I don’t dig those songs but they’re easily found on the internets. Ronnie Dio and the Nightcaps, if you’re interested.)

Gary Dunes is a local DJ, Oldies WSEN. In the early ‘90s he compiled a CD of Syracuse’s greatest hits. Many of the songs came from Ron Wray’s History of Syracuse Music series. It’s a lot of fun. The next half dozen songs are from this disc.

JIMMY CAVALLO AND THE HOUSE ROCKERS: Sound a lot like Bill Haley and the Comets but give Jimmy and company their due. This song is from 1951. They recorded throughout the ‘50s. Highpoint: 1956. They appeared in Alan Freed’s Rock Rock Rock and played at the Apollo. Perfect example of a band with the talent and songs to make a big dent but things didn’t play out that way. Jimmy lives down south now but comes back to Syracuse once or twice a year. For more check out Rock the Joint (Blue Wave Records) http://www.bluewaverecords.com/cavallo.html

The next five songs are also the Gary Dunes/WSEN disc. Great examples of local bands playing the sounds of the day. THE TEEN-TONES (1958), SAM AND THE TWISTERS (1963), BOBBY COMSTOCK AND THE COUNTS (1963), CARMEN AND THE VIKINGS (1965), and DON BARBER AND THE DUKES (1965).  

THE POPTARTS: Like the Flashcubes and Jimmy Cavallo, the Poptarts’ story has an imbalance of talent to attention received but multiplied by ten. The ladies in the Poptarts were around the pop and punk scene of the late ‘70s and like so many figured, Why not us? Fresh Out of the Toaster collects two dozen demos recorded in 1979 and 1980. The Poptarts wrote their material, played their instruments and nailed their harmonies. Their demos circulated and the response was uniform: You’ve got great songs but no one’s going to buy a record from a girl pop band. They broke up in 1980. Just before the Go-Gos and Bangles. Singer and guitarist Gael McGear rounded up her cassettes and released Fresh Out of the Toaster in 1997. I’m shocked that the Poptarts haven’t developed a bigger cult audience. Put these songs on K Records or Parasol or Harriet, any number of ‘90s indie pop labels, and the bedroom poppers would flip their collective lids. Rightfully so, too. Gael’s site has more on the Poptarts story: http://www.fortruthis.com/gaelmcgear/gaelpage.html

SCREEN TEST: After the Flashcubes Gary, Arty and Tommy Allen (drums) evolved into Screen Test. They released three singles in the early ‘80s. Inspired Humans Making Noise (a title taken from a John Lennon quote) collects 20 songs. The first half is really good power pop. They second half shifts focus, lighter, more mainstream. (Check out the link to Gary Frenay and Arty Lenin’s site above for more on Screen Test.)

THE PENETRATORS: Whenever record collectors go nutty for an obscure release it makes those records foolishly expensive. Not so cool. The upside is that that same level of interest often leads to a band’s posthumous CD collection. Case in point, the Penetrators. Loud, simple, funny, and stomping their way through the Stooges songbook (figuratively speaking—the Penetrators wrote their own songs). They self-released a few singles on Fred Records. These songs are from a compilation released on Swami Records. http://swamirecords.com/bands/0013.html

THE TREND: A trio of teenagers who released a single and an album in the early ‘80s. (The album came out on Northside Records, which was also home to the Flashcubes.) Those records along with a number of live songs were compiled by Hate Records (Italy) for the Batman Live at Budokan CD. Punked up pop tunes, kind of like the Buzzcocks kid brothers. Here’s a link to the label that released the comp (keep in mind it’s in Italian—you’re best bet may be seeking a used copy stateside): http://www.haterecords.com/html/hateRecords.html

THE FLASHCUBES: They’re the big fish in the Syracuse pond and they’ve earned it. In addition to what they accomplished on their own they helped out a lot of the bands listed above (the Poptarts, the Penetrators, and the Trend all thank at least one Flashcube). And though the Flashcubes started in 1977, it wasn’t until 2003 that they recorded their debut CD, Brilliant (Screaming Apple).    

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