The Fleshtones: Soul City, and the Ham Sandwich Effect

We’ve been getting some very good early feedback on our upcoming Fleshtones book – Sweat – written by Joe Bonomo, and publishing in September.

Here’s an extract from the book, about the making of the astonishing video (by M. Henry Jones) for “Soul City”, an old Hi-Lifes song co-written by Lou Reed, that the Fleshtones recorded in 1978. (Note: there are two versions of this video on YouTube. This one is shorter, but much better quality.)


What Jones wanted to accomplish with Soul City was twofold: film the band performing live in black and white and – taking his cue from the band name – color in their fleshtones with oil paint; and explore his interest in retina paths, in manipulating the viewers’ eyes to follow a certain pattern on the screen and to remain pleasurably lost in that pattern, unwilling to move their gaze. “I laid the band out in such a way that visual cues would go from one to the next to the next to the next so it was in a circular pattern that was almost a spiral,” Jones explains. “You’d go from Marek to Lenny to Keith to Peter, and then out of Peter you would go for the big picture again. It had to do with what later on was termed the ‘Ham Sandwich Effect,’ the concept of forcing people’s eyes to be regulated to a degree where they would never reach the edge of the screen when they might think about food or think about going to get a ham sandwich.” More ambitiously, Jones hoped to “visually counterpoint the music of a subculture” with his film.

Jones spent the bulk of the spring and summer of 1978 working on the project, which burgeoned wildly, due mostly to his ambition and to the meticulous, labor-intensive nature of the photo-animation process itself. The work took its toll, and Jones quickly realized that the short was going to become his thesis project, the cumulative evidence of his talent and vision at SVA. Jones was certainly vibing on the fun and energy of the Fleshtones’ ethos in the process: as a scholarship student, he had manufactured keys to the buildings at SVA and was familiar with the security guards, so he would work on the film all day, and then around six o’clock or so go get something to eat, meet up with the Fleshtones, go the rehearsal space at Billy Piano’s, check out the gear, pull it up to Max’s, do a whole show with them, and then help them lock the equipment down, leave, go back to SVA, open the doors, check with the guard who was cool with it, and then work again until the morning. Oftentimes, Jones would work straight through the day, and then go and see the Fleshtones again that night. The band played Max’s three times in August alone, so this became Jones’ frolicking, feverish work routine.

Not that the routine wasn’t without hair-pulling pitfalls. Jones would spend hours in front of projectors at SVA with his eyelids literally taped open, studying sophisticated, repeating filmed patterns as tests to gauge optical illusions, and his fluctuating eye chemicals and retina paths. His typical diet during the Soul City project: cottage cheese, Entemann’s chocolate-covered donuts, and No Doz pills crushed and dropped into strong coffee. A sympathetic teacher allowed Jones the use of his studio on East Thirty-fifth Street to where he would lug his equipment, chemicals, and poorly balanced meals on weekends and work from Friday night at 8.30 until Sunday morning at five. The Soul City project became an exactingly technical journey for Jones, and eye- and mind-opening immersion into visual design and execution possibilities. The end result was a widely influential short film, its international, well-earned reputation arguably more consequential now than at the film’s debut.



2 thoughts on “The Fleshtones: Soul City, and the Ham Sandwich Effect”

  1. i wonder how much of the strobe effect is lost on the soul city video since it was transferred to youtube. they don’t do so well with flashing graphics in my experience. i wonder if somewhere hosts a hi-res version of it… fleshtones hall of fame?

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