Apr 152010
 

Friday night, April 16, in Philadelphia marks a long-awaited reunion show for Baby Flamehead, a late-’80s local (at least) sensation featuring two of our regular contributors. The show will be at the M Room. There’s not a whole lot more I can say about the band and how much I intend on enjoying this show. For this reason and others that I’m too classy to explain, I’m getting a headstart on our occasional Friday Flashback feature. Enjoy!

This post initially appeared 12/6/08.

General Slocum, Mrclean, and bandmates shopping for used records, sometime in the late-80s

I saw this photo of Baby Flamehead, a cool Philly band from my youth, featuring two old friends and Townspeople, General Slocum (Andy Bresnan) and Mrclean (Dean Sabatino), and took a walk down memory lane. Your memories might differ, but won’t you join me?

Baby Flamehead, “Badadadadup (Live on KCRW in 1990)”

Long before he achieved rank as General, I met the young Mr. Slocum, if memory serves, through an English class at Temple University that we blew off almost as often as we attended. The lure of checking out the latest arrivals in the record bins at the Temple bookstore sometimes took precedence over the instruction of our Paul Simon lookalike professor. For some reason the bookstore had a line on cutout Klassic ’60s Kinks albums (cheap Spanish pressings), the EMG catalog (ie, Eno, Fripp & Eno, Jon Hassel, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, etc), and some high-brow jazz (eg, Anthony Braxton) I would not otherwise have risked more than a precious $1.99-$2.99 on checking out.

On the Kindness of Strangers, “Bartokspotting”

Andy and I hit it off bigtime, discussing the arts, women, altered states, and other Big Issues. He had an established band, or what might more accurately be called a collective these days, named Junior Mints. I’d seen them play a couple of times, and they were unlike anything I was used to seeing. Andy led the band with his old partner in crime, Chris Pastore. The two of them played various horns (and woodwinds, I believe – I still don’t have all those distinctions straight) – Pastore exclusively played instruments that required blowing into something. (Bresnan and Pastore also were featured as The Giant Slugs, the guest horn section that always brightened an early Ben Vaughn Combo performance.) Andy could – and did – play everything. Junior Mints played a combination of kitschy ’60s covers, Bartok movements, punk rock, Velvet Underground, and anything guest contributors would bring to the stage. Show-by-show the band’s lineup varied, but the next two most consistent members were an anarchist punk-type singer named Christine and a naturally super-cool rock guy named Chris Unrath. Unrath had perfect curly rock locks and could dangle a cigarette perfectly in his Rolling Stones lips while effortlessly cranking out Keith Richards cum Sterling Morrison licks. Other contributors who’d drift in and out of shows included a soundman named Andre, who was featured on guitar in some killer song that now escapes me; a tall, wispy late-night DJ who looked like he could have crawled out of Andy Warhol’s Factory (this guy was great too, but time has dulled my ability to remember exactly what he contributed that was so right for the band’s act); and a host of other non-uniform characters who were ready to march to Andy and Chris’ beat…when it was convenient for them.

At this time, I was working with my old friends at keeping our proto-Nixon’s Head afloat and in development while key members were attending college outside the Philadelphia area or were working through girlfriend-induced “retirement” from chasing the music dream. Although our goal-oriented nature was totally geeky and opposed to the natural cool expected of guys who were born to rock, it would serve us well and – in our formative early years – serve as a protective shield while we learned how to play our instruments, write songs, and develop a halfway acceptable Look. Suffice to say, the proto-Head members in the Philly area had plenty of free time.

Andy and Chris P, probably looking for a couple of rock-solid band members who would not opt out of gigs in favor of whatever busy social circuit it was that kept their “Factory” contributors occupied, asked Sethro and I to join Junior Mints as their permanent rhythm section. We jumped at the chance to play with an established band at established clubs and weird parties. The chance to rub up against that “Factory” crowd that seemed to congregate around Andy was icing on the cake. It was a lot of fun, although I was constantly in awe of Andy and Chris’ ability to loosely manage such a loose-knit organization. I knew then that I was and would always be a major tight ass.

I think we played with Junior Mints for a year and a half, by which point our own band started to come together. Andy and I continued to work on some cool recordings on our own, including a Residents-like version of The Doors’ “Five to One” and some other song that required us throwing a pot lid or mic stand base on the ground at just the right moment. I can’t remember the details, but I do remember laughing really hard as we tried to nail this key overdub.

As the Head got its act together, we were granted some choice opening spots for the two biggest and best bands in our local punk rock scene, the aforementioned Ben Vaughn Combo and The Dead Milkmen. Opening for the Combo was a breeze: the band members and many of their fans were a little older than us, meaning that our fairly “square” tastes in ’60s pop were appreciated with as little irony as we had for that music. Opening for the Milkmen was a little more intimidating: they had ties to both the hardcore scene and the all-ages scene. Our tastes in punk rock were strictly pre-hardcore, and back then I was certain that no one could better see through to the 14-year-old pussy within me than a living, breathing 14-year-old boy! Thankfully, we usually went down as well with the Milkmen crowd as we did with the Combo crowd. The members of both bands were very welcoming, friendly, and supportive. Backstage in Cleveland, Milkmen drummer Dean Clean (nee Sabatino), even served us chicken. That, my friends, is an act of kindness!

Baby Flamehead, “Thimble Full of Nothing”

Over the course of those mid-80s Philly scene years, a lot of cross-polination went on — offshoot bands, special guests from other bands jumping on stage, late-night jam sessions. It’s been that way for every band that’s been through any scene in any town, but this was our scene and our time, and it was cool whenever one of these moments came together. An offshoot band was especially cool to see for the first time, and although I do not rememeber the details, I’m almost certain I saw the first apppearance by Baby Flamehead, which brought together a Dead Milkman (Dean) with two former Junior Mints (Andy and Chris Unrath, of the super-cool Stones lips and dangling cigarette) and a newcomer to the scene, a fresh-faced, slightly artsy singer named Eden Daniel. The band was mostly if not entirely acoustic when they started: Andy played some exotic 3-string, acoustic stand-up bass that perfectly matched his imposing frame. Chris played acoustic guitar. Dean played a toy drum kit, which perfectly matched his nonstop grin. (If you’ve never seen Dean play live, his grin may be the only grin in rock that matches the outstanding rock grin of Billy Zoom.) Others will better know Eden’s background, but all that mattered that night was that she had a good voice and looked great. Baby Flamehead was an instant sensation, all the more so for covering both the theme from Sesame Street and the theme from our local Action News broadcast.

Baby Flamehead, “Action News Theme”

Baby Flamehead, “Sesame Street”

While the Milkmen chugged on and reached new, exciting heights that bands in our scene could rally around, we all looked forward to the next Baby Flamehead show. I was really happy to see my friend Andy in a “real” band, focusing on a well-defined part of his broad musical palette. I was happy to see Dean being so happy on stage (not that that was anything new). It was about time Unrath held down a steady job in a band and did what he did so well on a consistent basis. As someone who never had great “natural musical ability” and badly wanted to be cooler than I was – I felt guys like Unrath, who could play circles around most of us and be cooler than us without even trying had an obligation to rock. Although Eden wasn’t much of a scene-maker off stage, she was a great frontperson for the band. She and Chris were a couple, I believe, at this time – or at least they gave off that vibe and all the drama it connoted. (See correction here.)

Baby Flamehead, “Supple Turtles Worry About Milk”

Baby Flamehead, “Amy (Live on KCRW in 1990)”

We expected Great Things of Baby Flamehead, and in short time they were signed to Texas Hotel Records, owned in part by Michael Stipe. They supported their album, Life Sandwich, with small tours in between the busy touring schedule of Dead Milkmen. The album is long out of print, so enjoy these tracks and click here if you want to find some more Baby Flamehead downloads.

Baby Flamehead, “Corpus Christi”

Baby Flamehead, “Stupid Surfer”

Now we’re getting into the late-80s/early-90s, if I’ve got my dates straight, and the lives of mid-’80s Philly scene members are getting more complicated. Many of us are trying to figure out what the hell we’re going to do now that it’s becoming clear the dream of some form of rock stardom is fading. Some are getting into serious relationships. Some are moving away. Around this time Andy leaves Baby Flamehead. Maybe he can fill you in on the details, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise that a guy with such a broad vision could not last long in a fairly tightly focused pop band. He’s replaced by, among other members of our old scene, Art DiFuria (known in the Halls of Rock as Saturnismine), Andy Chalfen (known in the Halls of Rock as Tvox), leader of his own fading band at the time, The Wishniaks, and now the leader of one of my favorite post-mid-80s scene bands, The Trolleyvox. (See correction here.) Chris and Eden may no longer be a couple, with all the drama, I would presume, that connoted. Dean, I’m sure, kept grinning, but without Bresnan conducting one of his musical worlds, it couldn’t have felt like the same Baby Flamehead. At least it didn’t seem like the same Baby Flamehead to me (no insult intended for any replacement or remaining members). Baby Flamehead, in their prime, was a special mix of special people. They were a great example of what a local scene can produce. I hope you’ve enjoyed the songs I’ve sprinkled throughout. I wish I could have found a YouTube clip of the band peforming live, but we didn’t walk around with camera phones back then.

I’ll leave you with two seasonal tune from Andy’s next, brave new musicotheatrical world, Big Mess Orchestra.

Big Mess Orchestra, “Snow”

Big Mess Orchestra, “Sound & Vision”

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  23 Responses to “Young and Innocent Days: Baby Flamehead”

  1. I remember playing with Jim and the jr. mints at wxpn radio on-air live with no practice. I think I named one of our songs “Shesteak”. We had schlepp our stuff up all these stairs in the old xpn building. I was very excited to get the chance to enter the scene of Philly music. The Jr mints gig on the Ben Franklin parkway for Super Sunday was also a highpoint. We played Bartok, and other stuff. Thanks for the memories.

  2. trolleyvox

    Great overview, Mr. Mod. Saves me the trouble of doing a Little Hits post. I think Unrath and Daniels were not an item by the time of the Baby Flamehead formation. Mr. Clean and Ms. Daniels were briefly a thing in, what, ’86? I have a photo of them in my dorm room senior year.

    I was never in Baby Flamehead, though Townhaller Saturnismine played bass in a most excellent Flamehead Lineup. I have a tape of some of those recordings which I should digitize and put up on RTH. Those tunes are pretty great. Flamehead and the Wishniaks both demised in 1991, I believe.

    In like ’93 Gimme formed, which was like an electric version of Flamehead. I played bass in that. Very little released material, unfortunately. 2-3 years later, Gimme demised, and the Shimmers formed, with me, Daniels, and 1/2 of Marah. That lasted another 2 years or so.

    Funny enough, currently Mr. Clean and Unrath and I are playing instrumentals and might be looking for a bassist. You interested, Saturn?

  3. Thanks for your kind words Mr. Mod. I have very fond memories of that band and what we got up to…

    Tvox’s corrections are correct…

    Also to note – BFH used another drummer for most of the longer tours while I was Milkmen-ing – a fine fellow named James Frost. Not sure of his scene origins or current where-a-bouts. I think he moved on to Chicago at one point.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    Right, I forgot about the other drummer!

  5. saturnismine

    t-vox, tell me when and where to be, and i’ll bring the bass. i keep saying that i’ve gotta convert that gimme dat, which they recorded at my studio ca. ’93. maybe the prospect of actually seeing unrath will force me to do it.

    mod, this is great. flamehead are a philly band that is truly worthy of celebration.

    i went from being a khyber soundman who was wary of seeing flamehead’s name on the schedule to being a huge fan, to being IN the band, albeit at the end when, in my estimation, most of the magic was gone.

    the wariness came from two daunting tasks: mixing an acoustic band on a lousy PA, and dealing with the very sharp ears of their fans, who were not afraid to come back to the board and critique my work.

    joining was an honor, and it was great that we worked on originals material as well as playing the slocum era stuff. but i don’t think we came close to the fun of these songs.

    slocum’s shoes were big ones to fill. it was made a little easier by the fact that i was actually replacing alan hewitt, instead; alan was the first post-slocum bassist, I was the second. he was a wonderful player, but since he wasn’t slocum, the flamehead faithful were already used to his absence by the time i joined.

    again, thanks for the memories, mod!

  6. saturnismine

    these big mess recordings are sublime.

  7. saturnismine

    oh…and, for the record, current photon band bassist chris kubicek was the first bassist in gimme, after i played flamehead to its demise, and before t-vox joined gimme.

  8. BigSteve

    This is a great history lesson about a scene I know almost nothing about, except for some of the later records by RTH regulars. I’ve got to say that Unrath is a totally cool rock surname.

    I’m looking forward to downloading and listening to these tracks at home.

  9. I saw Alan Hewitt just the other night. Wasn’t he the bass player in the band toward the end, before he joined the Low Road?

    How funny, the mention of the Temple bookstore. What was with that place? I used to find some interesting things from time to time.

    I remember all those bands. Good times.

  10. dbuskirk

    I sense a bit of restraint from someone who doesn’t want to get all sobby praising an old pals band, let me say as an outsider I too loved seeing Baby Flamehead back in the late 80’s. It’s always fun when a band radiates such strong individual personalities,
    Bert Schneider & Bob Rafelson (and Hanna-Barbera) spent fortunes trying to conjure such chemistry.

    I continue to dig out that CD from time to time it continues to sound fresh (another of my favorite records of that era, Vic Chesnutt’s WEST OF ROME was on Texas Hotel). Glad to find the bank of rarities MP3s, bummed that I still haven’t heard Junior Mints (although I think I heard them on XPN eons ago).

    Still looking to hit up Unrath for a copy of his No Milk tapes. Lee Paris used to kid that they had a record in stores everywhere and I was dumb enough to go looking.

    -db

  11. general slocum

    BFH was by far the longest I ever played with 1 lineup. And after James Frost came in on drums, that was the second longest. Though the core of Big Mess was together in 1984 or so, and we’re only moribund in fact, not in theory!

    Thanks for an embarrassingly uncritical view of these things. The Junior Mints era (Mod/Sethro edition) was one I had great hopes for, and was one of my earlier lessons in the perplexing issue that people you like who can play what you like may just still not make a band, somehow. The only solution overall, is to not have that problem in the first place! BFH was a semi-organic outgrowth of sitting at Doobies at 22 & Lombard, and being broke enough that it became preferable to go to Chris’ studio with six packs. A very natural way to start a band. Socially, we all kinds of issues with each other, which, for me, became insurmountable in the end. But the music was very natural and managed mostly to please everyone in the band, at least enough of the time. I’ve never been in a setting where there was such group creativity. Before or since.

    Hey, the Action News link craps out after 30 seconds or something. Is that just a quirk?

    Anyway. We had a great deal of fun. And I don’t know if bands generally attract appropriate audiences, but I have found that BFH audiences were very fun and interesting folk. And the same goes for Big Mess, for the most part. Oh. I don’t know if it’s kosher to put in, but I have posted a lot of these things on last.fm The BFH Hi-Fi Companion, Big Mess, On the Kindness of Strangers…

    I was playing Feliz Navidad on the double-bell euphonium 70 times in Bridgeton today and almost made it by your place on the way back, Mod. But time got away from me. It was cold out there!

  12. Mr. Moderator

    I thought the Action News theme ended earlier than I’d remembered. I’ll try downloading it from last.fm again and see if it’s that file or if something happened when I downloaded. If it’s the one you posted there, let’s talk and I’ll get a full version up there. Thanks for all that you turned me onto in those young and innocent days.

  13. BigSteve

    This may seem like a stupid question from an outsider, but why acoustic? At first I thought it was just that the radio sessions were acoustic, but all of these tracks are acoustic, no? Was BFH the acoustic side project while everybody had their own electric bands?

  14. Mr. Moderator

    The full Action News theme has been swapped in for the messed-up, abbreviated file that I first loaded. I highly recommend listening to it in its full glory. You’ll be primed for news of local murders!

  15. alexmagic

    Thanks for posting the full version of the Action News Theme. I’ve been hoping to hear this since somebody mentioned it in a thread here last year.

    Thanks for putting all this up, really. I’m still young enough (relatively speaking, anyway) to have missed all this, and am enjoying getting to hear it all now.

  16. Big Steve asks “why acoustic?”

    Because nobody was doing that yet really. This was before the whole “unplugged” thing took off in the 90’s…plus we had all done the electric thing before.

    That, and Andy had that Burda that we just had to use on something!

  17. general slocum

    Mr. Clean, do you remember doing an electric set and an acoustic set? It didn’t last long, and my feeling was a lot of quitting the electric was about carrying all that stuff. But definitely the Croatian bass worked so well with the acoustic guitar, too. It felt a little like ear floss at the time, to just pare back to acoustic. And much more pleasant rehearsals.

  18. BigSteve

    Burda? Croatian bass? Google is not helping here.

  19. Mr. Moderator

    Do I see General Slocum’s burda resting in the background of this shot of Ornamental Wigwam (Joe and Dave of the Milkmen)?

    http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Balcony/2830/imagej/wigwam1.jpg

    I believe this photo is from my favorite Philly club back then, Bacchanal!

  20. general slocum

    Yes, we were playing in Clark Park in W. Philly, and someone asked me if I knew what my instrument was. I said I didn’t. Eden had seen it in a thrift store of clothing, a headscroll sticking out. So I went and bought it (what… $75 or so?) And this guy later sends me to the Valentich brothers in Pittsburgh. Frank Valentich on the phone says, “describe it.” I do, and he says, “What you have there is a sick puppy, and it followed you home, didn’t it?” I said yes, and asked if he could work on it. He said, “Are you a Croat?” I said I was Irish, and we play pop music. He was a little chilly, then, but I did go out and he looked at it and repaired a split in the top and put in a new bridge bit and what not. They hand wind the strings. When I broke one at a gig in Cleveland, the promoter who put us up, knew someone at Cleveland institute of music’s piano dept., so we went and got some piano wire of the same gauge. well, of course piano wire isn’t meant to be played with a pick, so it lasted about three songs, and we had to fedex strings from the Valentich brothers the next day. There’s some pictures I have up on Facebook and Flickr… And yes, it is in that photo at Bacchanal.

  21. Was I hallucinating, or did Flamehead also do an awesome cover of the Jingle from 1970’s commercial for IDEAL – a discount dress store in NJ – “If you’ve got the passion for fashion, and you’ve got the craving for savings, then take the wheel, of your automobile, and swing on down to Ideal!”

  22. Mr. Moderator

    As you confirmed tonight, tovjim, you were not hallucinating – or maybe you were but the reality of the show you saw included a cover of the IDEAL theme song! Great show tonight. It was nice seeing you and many more old friends.

  23. I had missed Baby Flamehead in a live setting the first time around, only knowing them from the tunes on the You’re Soaking in It compilation. Glad I got an opportunity to catch them second time around. It was a great show with the band taking every opportunity to stretch way out and shine. If they’re back again, I will be too.

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