Flat Duo Jets – Eye of the hurricane
Dexter’s Kiss fixation didn’t last long once he discovered ’60s rock, and that soon gave way to rockabilly. By the time he was a teenager, Dexter was trying to put bands together. One of his many short-lived bands from back then was an unnamed ensemble with Sara and a bass player named Sean Reynolds, better-known nowadays as Sean Yseult from White Zombie. Another was the Kamikazes, whose lineup included Sara Romweber’s future Snatches Of Pink bandmate Michael Rank.
Flat Duo Jets first convened in 1984. Jefferson Holt, who was then managing R.E.M., remembers seeing them pretty early on at the Cat’s Cradle nightclub in Chapel Hill. Holt’s main memory of the performance is that Romweber’s guitar cord was too short and kept coming unplugged.
“He’d start a song, go into his death rattle dance and pull the plug out,” Holt recalls. “He’d play for a while before realizing it was out and then stop, plug it back in, start again, get carried away all over and pull it out again. It was one of the most marvelous things I’d ever seen.”
From the start, Flat Duo Jets were different. There weren’t too many guitar-and-drums duos out there (anybody remember House of Freaks?); fewer still playing volcanic, primal rockabilly; and absolutely no one else exhuming the obscure oldies the Jets routinely offered up onstage.
The best recorded representation of this side of the Jets is Safari, a 1993 compilation on Norton featuring lo-fi recordings the Jets made between 1984 and ’87 that sounds for all the world like a ’30s-vintage Alan Lomax field recording. Of the album’s 34 tracks, 28 are covers of songs by the likes of Hal Winn, Benny Joy and Marty “The Phantom” Lott — about whom Romweber can quote you chapter and verse, on every last one.
“How many bands during the ’80s did everybody talk about for their amazing covers?” asks Holt. “Most of those bands only knew maybe three or four songs. But Dex knows this stuff — and it’s not just knowing, it’s being. It sounds corny, but it’s like this stuff is in Dex. He’s not like, ‘I’m gonna be cute and play a cover now,’ he’s lived and breathed and eaten it since he was a kid. His head’s a helluva jukebox.”
Holt was enamored enough of the Flat Duo Jets to sign them to his label, the now-defunct Dog Gone Records, where they joined Snatches Of Pink as labelmates. Dog Gone released the amazing Flat Duo Jets in 1989, a preternaturally raw album putting surreal Romweber originals such as “Pink Gardenia” alongside a choice assortment of covers (including a definitive version of Louie Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing”). The Jets picked up some nationwide notoriety on the road in 1990, expanding to a three-piece with a bassist to tour as opening act for kindred spirits the Cramps and routinely stealing the show. Another stellar effort followed in 1991, the Jim Dickinson-produced Go Go Harlem Baby.
On the business side, however, a funny thing happened. Or rather, didn’t happen. The Jets were one of the best live acts in the country, but no major label would take a chance on them. After Dog Gone went under, the Jets kept making records for small independent labels and toured relentlessly, scraping to make ends meet. The early-’90s “alternative rock” boom came and went without doing a thing for them; it looked like alternative country was going to be equally unfruitful before longtime fan (and Outpost Records founding partner) Scott Litt came to the rescue.
“I’d always hoped to be in a position to do something with them beyond producing a record and handing it over,” Litt says. “The Jets always seemed like the kind of thing that needed more than the typical production project — like a champion at the label. So when we got the label going, I had it in mind to do something with them, and I kept playing their demos around the office until finally everybody asked, ‘Will ya just go ahead and sign ’em already?!'”
From here on out is a crap shoot, of course, but the planets might finally be lined up on the Jets’ side. After being softened up by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, radio stations may be willing to give the Jets a shot. There are plenty of possibilities on Lucky Eye — the hyper-dramatic “Love Is All Around”, the finger-poppin’ “Hustle & Bustle”, the wonderful jazz-flavored instrumental “N.Y. Studio 1959”, even Crow’s vocal cameo on the country shuffle “Little M”.
Even if Lucky Eye doesn’t hit, there is a certain justice in this album being made at all. It’s the record Flat Duo Jets always had in them but never had a chance to make until now, and better late than never.
“When I heard it, it broke my heart in a good way; in happiness,” says Holt. “Because I can remember during one of Dexter’s dark periods trying to tell him to look at the bright side: ‘You can always make records, which is what you want to do. We can make records with orchestras, without orchestras, whatever. The sky’s the limit.’ So when I heard Scott and Chris got them in there with strings, it was just too good.
“Dex has been through some periods that have been kinda scary. I’m glad he hung in there and got to make this record.”
When contributing editor David Menconi was moving to North Carolina about a decade ago to take the rock critic job at the Raleigh News & Observer, he counted it a major plus that the Flat Duo Jets were a hometown band.