Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Flies On Fire: Overlooked and Under-Appreciated

(First off, a big thank you to Ric Browde and Tim P. for all the correspondence and help compiling this story…)

I was originally going to start this with a funny spoof of the Behind The Music template. I could have started with an intro like: “Four young musicians converged on the LA scene in the late ‘80’s with a common goal: to make a scorching brand of rock and roll that they could call their own”, leading into the story of their brief dalliance with success. But the problem with Behind The Music was that the last segment always morphed into: “Band Member X turned into a giant prick and the others in the group simply ceased to rock.” or something more dramatic like “Hopped up on PCP, their pet Orangutan maimed a clown - signaling the beginning of their downward spiral.” But really, the only tragedy Flies On Fire had to face was the fact that after only two albums, their clearly delusional record label parted ways with this amazing talent.

Flies 101 – In The Beginning…

The back half of the ‘80s was a weird time for music – we saw the end of the era of teased hair and general rock’n’roll clichés giving way to the stripped-down, flannel-clad grunge kids of the early ‘90s. Flies On Fire started out somewhere in the middle of that equation (around ’86 or ’87), and didn’t fit easily into any one category. I mean, sure they were playing a breed of rock – but like all dog lovers will tell you, a good ol’ cross-bred mutt is much more fun. You could hear the obvious Stones influence, but with a slight Southern snarl and twang coming out to play. Or maybe you were holding out for a more punk mindset, or perhaps something that sounds like you just opened the door to a Baptist church on Sunday – just wait a couple songs, the Flies will get around to it. And the fact that they were working the LA club scene in the late ‘80s and wearing jeans and t-shirts instead of sporting spandex and blush? Who needed it - the music spoke for itself.

So, who are these guys and where are they from? Interesting that you should ask – remember that Southern flair I talked about earlier? Well Tim P. (Paruszkiewicz - guitar, vocals, main songwriter) gives a different story than I had expected: “I am not from the South – I was born and raised on the East side of Detroit. I played in a band for some time with a couple of guys from Mississippi and it must have rubbed off. Ritchie (D’Albis – drums, vocals) is from New Haven, CT, Terry (“Mess” Messal – bass) is from Alamagordo, New Mexico and Howard Drossin (guitar) is a native of North Hollywood. We all came to LA separately to play.”

How did these crazy kids put the band together? Tim and Ritchie met through an ad in the recycler (which, I’m assuming, is like our local Penny Saver adverts), and originally played for another band called Derigeur. Those two met Terry through a similar listing: “We wanted him in our band before we ever heard him play”, says Tim. “He was and is truly the nicest person I have ever met – he makes me laugh.” (Howard Drossin was the last to the party, showing up around when the first album was being recorded).

In 1988, The Flies landed the gig as house band for the popular Sunset Strip Night Club “The Coconut Teaszer”. During that residency, the guys won the MTV “Basement Tapes” with their self-produced video for “Long Gone Dead” (yes, MTV was still playing music in ’88 – kooky, huh?). This brought them national exposure, but still no record deal – until producer Ric Browde (Joan Jett, Ted Nugent, Poison) caught their phenomenal live show. Browde got them to record five songs, bringing these tracks to the attention of ATCO Records (then a subdivision of Atlantic), where the Flies signed on with the label.

Flies 201 – And Then There Was Rock – A Discography (Of Sorts)

1989 saw the release of their self-titled first effort. It showed that a band could inject humor into the songwriting recipe without diluting the intelligence of the lyrics, while making it all look easy. And the music? A bullet train ride that took us through most of the rock landscape, from the opening roar of “Anything Goes” to the gospel overtones of “Salvation Boulevard” and back ‘round the bend to smarmy tales of the music industry like “Let It Roll”. The album features bombastic guitar, ferocious drums and vocals that range from a quaint drawl to a primal howl in three songs flat. And the addition of female backup singers and just a dash of harmonica certainly set these guys apart from the generic ‘80s flotsam. No pretentious antics, no devil horns, no gimmicks – just the music. If anything, the Flies were a year ahead of the curve – The Black Crowes took their similar stripped down rock sound to the masses with their debut in 1990.

So why didn’t the Flies’ album sell like hotcakes, too? Ric Browde shared a little speculative history on the subject: “The record company’s president (who was never the biggest Flies fan) insisted on releasing “C’Mon” as the first single, which both (Atco’s) head of promotion and I argued would be a mistake - most of us wanted “Anything Goes””, says Browde. ““C’mon” picked up a few radio stations but not enough – and the second single “Baptize Me Over Elvis Presley’s Grave” never really worked.” From there, ATCO’s president continued to drop the ball as he began to commit resources to his pet project, Enuff Z'Nuff (who, if you’d told me were still around before I started researching this, I would have laughed at – yet they’re still going. Where’s the justice?)

So by the time the second (and final) album, Outside Looking Inside, dropped, Flies On Fire only seemed to be a minor blip on ATCO’s promotional radar. Which is a shame, considering the sophomore album showed that this band had no sign of losing momentum. You could tell right from the opening track, “Cry To Myself”, that the addition of the horn section to their already lush arrangements became something that would leave Jagger and his crew yearning for their glory days. “Hello Mr. Daniels” is the obligatory drowning your sorrows song – a song that was destined to fuel as many drunken debacles as the accompanying mornings after. And you say you want a “Na-na-na” singalong ballad? Well, look no further than “Turn Your Head, Close Your Eyes”. This disc had a little bit of everything, but it was too late – the plug had been pulled on this fantastic band.

After their demise, the band still had a bit of a budget left over, though. So Ric Browde got the boys back into the studio to record a few more songs – all of which made it onto the companion disc to Browde’s book, “While I’m Dead…Feed The Dog” (which sounds hilarious and is still available here).

Flies 301 – Advanced History or “Where Are They Now?”

Is it true that the guys had a punk makeover? You bet your sweet patootie they did - the original core trio of FOF (Tim P, “Mess” and Ritchie) formed Vitamade in 1995. They released one album, “Everything You Need” on Bong Load Records – with each song clocking in under the two minute marker. This configuration eventually morphed into VOMF (Very Ordinary Mother Fuckers) – the same exact band and sound, just without the support of a label. They released one album, for digital download only - and you can still chech them out on YouTube and MySpace.

What happened to VOMF, then? I’ll leave that to Tim: “VOMF and Vitamade were my personal favorite band(s) ever (and I speak for Terry and Ritchie here), and it was the highlight of my performing career. We were and are very close friends and it’s just more fun to be stuck in a van for months on end with people you like. In 99 we played our last gig together as VOMF - the breakup was a totally mutual thing, we just weren’t making enough to support our families and had to move on. I still talk with or see the guys on a regular basis. The subject of Flies On Fire rarely comes up.”

So, are they jaded about the music biz? Surprisingly, they retain an incredibly optimistic view. When I asked Tim for his general take on the industry, he had this to say: “My comment about the music industry is always pretty much the same thing: “Do what you do and do it well.” And never ever forget that it’s a BUSINESS. The ultimate goal is to make a living at it.”

And most of the guys ARE making a living at it – just not as the rock icons I’d hoped they would become. Here’s what they’re up to now:

- Tim Paruszkiewicz is currently the musical composer for Reno 911, The Mind Of Mencia and The Root Of All Evil, all on Comedy Central, as well as the made-for-TV movie “Bait Shop" (starring Bill Engvall and Billy Ray Cyrus). “Apparently the TV/film industry thinks my music is funny…go figure.”

- Ritchie D'Albis moved back to New Haven and has played in many bands. He is currently in an experimental art rock band called Taiga.

- Terry Messal is still in LA, teaching junior high school. He has set up a very successful after school music program called “Garage Band”. “He’s gonna go down as that teacher who makes a difference in young people’s lives”, comments Tim.

- Howard Drossin is a talented film composer/orchestrater who has recently worked on “Inside Man” and “25th Hour”, both with Spike Lee.

Okay, I’m ready to rock – where can I get some FOF music? Well, you can pretty much do your one-stop shopping at – they’ve got both Flies discs (for around 4 bucks each), Vitamade, VOMF (for download) and Ric Browde’s book. It doesn’t get much easier folks – go get it!


jeff s. said...

thanks for the awesome bio on these guys!!! for some strange reason i'm fascinated with sunset strip era bands that DIDN'T make it! if you like fof you should check out a similar l.a. band who got signed to a major but failed to launch called the broken homes. they have 2 stripped-down, bluesy rock 'n roll CDs that kick ass. also, check out the lost... same sound and same era as the aforementioned just from nyc instead of l.a.

el Juano said...

Thanks, Jeff! I'm similarly interested in great bands that never quite made it - so I'll definitely try to track down the bands you recommended. I just wish FOF got more recognition than they did...

jeff said...

i agree! those 2 albums are amazing. right up there with the first black crowes, imo. i first heard of 'em when my mom brought me back stacks of l.a. free music rags like rock city news when she would visit a friend in beverly hills back in the late 80s.

let me know if you'd like me to upload either the broken homes or the lost.

MusicAndHuman Lover said...

Terry Mess Messal was, is, and will *always be* THE BOMB!!

Jimmie H. said...

I was in the Navy based in Virginia and picked up their first cassette and LOVED it! I still have it...albeit with nowhere to play it!

Anonymous said...

Saw them twice live. First time I saw them they were the opening band for the Tragically Hip in Montreal and 3 weeks later in Myrtle Beach where they were the headliners. Mess even recognized me in Myrtle Beach since we had just hanged out with them 3 weeks earlier in Montreal.
I still listen to them and miss them so.

Mr. Tim said...

I love FOF. I found their second album in the early 90's. One listen and I had to see if they had anything else. Found their first album. It rocks too. They quickly became one of my favorite bands. Have it in my CD player in the car at the writing of this post. I am happy to see they have some other music out. I really like this style. I have one of the Broken Homes albums as well. FOF are just straight forward kick ass rock and roll. Gotta love that. To bad their record company wasn't smarter. If you know of other similar bands I would like to know.

Don said...

Gotta love the internet. I remember meeting these guys in my rinky dink northern Ontario town in 1992 when I was 17 at the local record store. They were in town for a gig at a bar, so me and my friends couldn't go to the show. Four dudes from LA really stood out, and you could really tell they were in shock at what a cultural wasteland they had found themselves in. I distinctly remember the tall one point at a CD and ask 'who the hell is Travis Tritt?! That's what I want to know!' We saw them a couple of days later on Much Music being interviewed by Erica Ehm and they played their video.

Anonymous said...

Great band, in my opinion one of the greatest undiscovered bands of all time. I continue to play the first disc, originally purchased as a cassette, eventually converted to cd. The second release was great as well. Its in my cd changer. I recognized Terry Messal from the New Mew Mexico State alumni web-site and started to dig for more "FOF". The Vitamade music is really cool, harder with a capital H. I purchased the While I'm Dead Feed the Dog book, to try to find more FOF music and damn if there isn't another great great song "still Monday", this song is the best song I've heard in the last 10 years. If there are anymore gems please let us hear them!! Go Aggies!

Anonymous said...

Bob L. says one more thing on the FOF, check out the VOMF on the web/youtube. These guys are GREAT. I would kill to hear more material. I will keep digging. This is an amazing bio thanks for posting this. I wish there were updates with new material. Flies on Fire Great great band

senormedia said...

Baptize Me Over Elvis Presley’s Grave got a lot of airplay on the college radio station (WUTK) in Knoxville.

Timber Gilliland said...

Very nice article thx for it. Even spelled Tim's name right [I think]. Loved the band. Love the guys as well. Glad to hear they're still being creative.

Ryan said...

I saw these guys open for the Tragically Hip in Toronto circa 1989 (?). I liked them quite bit.