Maybe the name "The Nerves" doesn't immediately strike a bell, but chances are "Hanging on the Telephone" will. A single from Blondie's stone-cold classic 1978 LP Parallel Lines, the song was actually written by Nerves drummer Jack Lee and performed by the San Francisco-based power-pop trio of Lee, Paul Collins, and Peter Case.
Following the dissolution of The Nerves, Collins and Case would go on to cement their melodic rock legacies, with Collins fronting chiming rock band The Beat (or Paul Collins' Beat, as litigation with The English Beat would eventually force) and Case forming the R&B/new wave-inflected Plimsouls.
The past few years have seen a steady uptick in recognition of all Collins/Case associated bands: Alive Records has steadily reissued their respective catalogs (even unearthing unreleased stuff like the post-Nerves/pre-Plimsouls/Beat band The Breakaways) and young acts on labels like Burger Records and Volar Records (the latter released an excellent Nerves tribute record) paying homage to the minimal, pop-driven sound of the band.
The duo kept has kept in touch over the years, and with interest at a high, they've hit the road, playing with a full backing band and a catalog of power-pop classics in tow.
"Power pop is healthier today than when it started," Collins laughs over the phone from NYC. He and Case spoke with me about the Nerves' legacy, the youth of today, and what it was like hearing The Ramones for the first time.
Paul Collins and Peter Case are scheduled to perform Tuesday, March 13, at the Rhythm Room.
Up on the Sun: What inspired you two getting back together for this tour, and what can we expect from the sets?
Paul Collins: We've been talking about this for years, and it's finally happening. We'll be on stage together, with a backing band, a bassist and a drummer. This is going to be the cream of the crop -- the "hits that weren't hits" of The Nerves. Basically, we're going to go out there and play all these amazing songs. It's really an amazing opportunity. It's kind of like, you know, what it would have been like if the Nerves had stayed together and all of us had been in the same band writing all these songs. I mean, Jack is not part of this, but the songs are, and the most powerful thing that the three of us did is in the songs. Peter Case: Paul and I haven't worked together for years and years and years. I don't even know how many. 30, or something. I'm afraid to look [laughs]. We stayed in touch. I'd run into him in New York, or Spain or something. We've always been friends, but what happened was, about three years ago Alive Records put out a Nerves record, then a live Nerves record, and then Paul had these tapes I didn't know existed, The Breakaways, and they released those, and then a live Plimsouls, and Paul put out King of Power Pop, then I put out The Case Files, and they just did a new live Plimsouls record. Alive has really supported us. The thing is, I listened to The Breakaways recordings, I had forgot even recording it. I put it on and said 'Wow, the spirit, and the energy, it was so fun.' I started thinking that we should go out and play these songs. I mean, we're doing it because we can. We've got the energy. It's not a big stretch, and it's fun working with my old friend.
Has it been interesting or surprising seeing the way The Nerves have influenced the power pop sounds of younger bands?
Paul Collins: Well, I'm surprised and happy. I was living overseas for a while and I came back here four or five years ago, and that's when I started touring heavily, and I did all that with the Beat Army, which is my Facebook page for what I do and power pop in general. I've pretty much concentrated on working with new bands, and it's been great. One of the people, the Burger Records guys, and younger acts. I've played with at least 100 new bands. What happened was, during the '90s, this whole scene fell of the map, and it was really difficult to work. It kind of felt like the music I was doing had just passed. There was no interest in it. But when MySpace got big, it was very encouraging. You'd see all these bands list The Nerves or power pop as an influence, and then it just blossomed into what it is today. The power pop of today has morphed into something new -- bands that are garage-y and punk-y. It's an elastic term. I term it "melodically driven guitar rock 'n' roll." I think it's awesome. I'm constantly finding new bands and the audiences I play for now, because I work with new bands, they bring their fans and they know the music. Power pop is healthier today than when it started.
Peter Case: When we first came out, the record execs treated us like we were the slow kids in class. It's simple, but there's an art to making stuff that simple, to creating rock 'n' roll that has a timeless feel. The Plimsouls have a new live record out, and aside from some phaser on the guitar, it sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. "Power pop" is a term is a little limiting -- there's young people who are willing to find things that aren't on mainstream radio. It's a very good time for music right now. For the young people at least. The older people, they got lost.
Was there any sense of musical community when you guys were performing as The Nerves?
Paul Collins: When the Nerves started, no. We were in a complete vacuum. I remember when we first heard The Ramones. We were rehearsing in our little basement in San Francisco, and somebody had told us "Hey, there's this band from New York called The Ramones playing at the Savoy." We had kind of heard something about them, but we hadn't heard their music. You've got to understand, back in those days there was no cell phones, no Internet. The way information got out was really quite limited, through music stores and record shops, you know?
So we called up the club, to see what time they were playing. The guy said, "Man they're doing their last song now." And this is a conventional old school phone with an earpiece and mouthpiece, and it maybe have been me, but I said, "Can you just hold up the phone so we can hear them?" So the three of us are crowded around the phone. I remember Jack and Peter saying, "They're staying on the D chord! They're not changing." [laughs] We had never heard anybody play music like that, which was kind of like what we were doing in that sense, 8th notes and all that stuff. We were totally blown away listening to them play. That's how disconnected things were back at that time. I mean, we really didn't consider ourselves a punk band . . . Later, when The Beat got signed, you could feel the emerging [punk/New Wave] scene . . . You could really tell what people listened to by the way they dressed. The punks had a very identifiable dress code, and so did the new wave/power pop people . . . very bright and colorful and the girls were sexy as all hell in their fishnet stockings, leather mini-skirts, and black boots.
Peter Case: There's just a spirit of the whole Nerves catalog. It's pure teenage rock 'n' roll, and at that time there weren't many people doing it. The Nerves were kind of minimal you know? We didn't sound like the Ramones, but there were some similarities. That first wave of punk rock, groups like The Saints, Sex Pistols, The Clash, also bands like Pere Ubu -- we related to all those kinds of bands. At the time there was such a strange time, because young people were coming up with their natural music and the record business just slammed the door on it. The shit people said to us back then was just ridiculous. They had no idea what we were doing. Finally, Blondie cut "Hanging on the Telephone" and had a big hit with it. It sort of vindicated us, but we were all on our way to other stuff by then.