By Melissa Fossum
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By New Times
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You just gotta do things. There was unfinished business with the Plimsouls and it still seemed like there was a lot of life in it. I just went for it," says singer/songwriter Peter Case on what he was thinking when he re-formed his New Wave garage band nearly 15 years after they had packed it up. So, following a well-received reunion tour and recording session, Case immediately turned around and recorded his sixth and seventh studio albums of roots-oriented, acoustic music (his second and third for the prestigious folk label Vanguard), Full Service No Waiting and Flying Saucer Blues.
The Plimsouls eventually self-released the fruits of their second labor in 1998 as Kool Trash; Case claims the experience with his old bandmates Eddie Muñoz and Dave Pahoa (original drummer Lou Ramirez sat out the reunion and was replaced by Clem Burke) reenergized him. "It kind of revitalized me," he says. "I was depressed, I guess. I weighed about 40 more pounds, I had this huge beard, I was really angry all the time. I just went through a really bad period. And then I started the Plimsouls, and about halfway through it, I'd adjusted and got back into the whole thing. The Plimsouls is like a Dionysian, submit-to-the-force kind of thing. I try to bring as much of that kind of vibe as I can to what I'm doin' now."
Though the majority of the world was introduced to the Plimsouls via their cameo in the totally '80s cult movie Valley Girl (they got to perform "A Million Miles Away" poolside), by then they'd already released the new-wavy Zero Hour EP followed by a self-titled debut in '81. The ramshackle, maximum R&B outfit formed in L.A. in 1980 and had earned a reputation for its sloppy but ultimately white-hot live shows, which had the Plimsouls pulling tunes from British Invasion bands and writing their own songs like "Now" and "How Long Will It Take?" in a similar boy-meets-girl vein. But after four years of playing and touring, and even after finding a measure of success with "A Million Miles Away" from an '83 album for Geffen, Everywhere at Once, the band called it a day. "We were out of our minds in the Plimsouls," says Case.
Case grew up plucking out songs on guitar by Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Lightnin' Hopkins, later busking on street corners, working his way across the country. In the mid-'70s, he ended up in San Francisco and was discovered by songwriter Jack Lee, who invited Case to join his power-pop combo the Nerves. That led to a move to L.A., the place Case calls home today, and the recording of a rare EP. As a three-piece (Paul Collins was the third), they managed to squeeze out a New Wave classic in their short tenure: "Hangin' on the Telephone," which would get cut later by Blondie. When that band combusted, Case hooked up with the Plimsouls.
From 1984 to '86, the period Case calls his "lost years" after the Plimsouls breakup, he took to busking again. "I'd go into coffee houses and play. I did a whole string of gigs around the East Coast where I changed my name." But when he was done with that, he ended up in San Francisco again, perhaps trying to recapture some of that old street-corner magic; he holed up in a North Beach residential hotel and woodshedded the songs that would make up part of his 1986 self-titled solo debut and its critically revered follow-up, 1989's The Man With the Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar; one of the album's most evocative stories, "Entella Hotel," is a colorful remembrance of the time. The first album's jangly, foot-stompin' and harmonica-accompanied numbers like "I Shook His Hand," "Walk in the Woods" and "Small Town Spree" were inspired by childhood memories. His songwriting was taking a slight turn.
What Case didn't realize was at the time, he was almost single-handedly launching an acoustic music revival among rockheads. "I guess I was one of the first people from the rock world to open it up to the acoustic roots stuff at that point," he says. "Those years were probably difficult years for a lot of your singer/songwriters. The old audience had dwindled and the new audience hadn't really caught on yet. John Hiatt, T-Bone Burnett and me -- we were a new burst of energy for that music." It's true that Hiatt and Burnett had started to "unplug" themselves well before it became a program on MTV. "T-Bone became a teacher," says Case. It was Burnett who helped round up the L.A.-based musicians and session cats (including Hiatt, Roger McGuinn and Van Dyke Parks) who played on Case's debut album. But Case was pulling his audience from a younger, weaned-on-college-radio crowd; Hiatt's and Burnett's people were mostly '70s-folkie holdovers. Boomers may not have known what to make of Case (who pictured himself in a rumpled, Depression-era suit against a rural backdrop on the cover of his debut), but new music's disciples did. Many would go on to build their own acts based on traditional, Appalachian and country music, clad in vintage clothes, carrying their own dusty banjo and accordion cases from the pawn shop, but Case was there first, providing the so-called No Depression camp with a model.