Paul Collins on 1970s San Francisco and the Redemption of 'Power-Pop'
Paul Collins founded the Nerves in 1975 with Jack Lee and Peter Case in San Francisco. The group struggled to gain momentum, but the track "Hangin' on the Telephone," from their sole 1976 EP, was propelled into fame by Blondie's faithful cover on the 1978 breakthrough LP Parallel Lines. Following the Nerves, Jack Lee became a solo artist; Peter Case found success in L.A with The Plimsouls, and continues to perform; and Collins founded the Beat.
The Beat's 1979 debut is a high-mark of late-'70s power pop, a softened and polished variety of guitar-centric new wave successfully introduced to a market eager for rock 'n' roll in the wake of punk. While many of the Beat's contemporaries in the power-pop proliferation that followed the wild success of The Knack's "My Sharona" are forgotten, Collins' spirited delivery and indelible harmonies endure. He steadily records and performs to this day, even issuing a career highlight in 2010 entitled King of Power Pop. His late-career triumph affirms Collins as a journeyman honing the limitless potential of melody and the propulsive tempos of the rock band format. Ahead of Collins performance at Thee Parkside tonight (Friday, May 10), we discussed his history with the city and the recent redemption of the once-negative term "power-pop."
You've said you moved to San Francisco in the mid-'70s specifically to start a band. Why did you think this was the place to do that?
Actually the reason I first came to San Francisco from New York was that a girl I went to high school with called me up, said she was going to San Francisco, and asked if I wanted to go for the drive and keep her company. I said yes and that was a smart move on my part! I came out here and got very lucky. I didn't know anybody or anything. The girl I came out with hooked up with this guy in Tahoe and I carried on by myself, hitchhiking my way into San Francisco. I was actually rather scared.
My mom is a professional artist and very bohemian. She had taken my brothers, sisters, and I all over the world. Traveling was second-nature, but I had hardly traveled in the United States at all. I was studying drums in New York with a very cool guy and at the time there wasn't much rock 'n' roll going on. This was pre-CBGBs, and the Ramones hadn't really started yet. I was trying to get into a rock 'n' roll band and it really just wasn't possible. My drum teacher said I had to go to the West Coast. Once I was in California I went to Don Weir's Music City and the rest is history. There was a 3" x 5" sign on the bulletin board and that's how I met Jack [Lee, co-founder of The Nerves along with Collins and Peter Case].
I met you shortly after King of Power Pop came out. On that record you cover Alex Chilton's famous Box Tops single "The Letter," and you explained it was the first song you played when you got together with The Nerves.
That was the song that I sang, yeah. Jack had most of the originals at that point. Peter had a few songs and I was green with envy because I hadn't written anything yet. I never thought you could even write songs at that point. When I saw they were doing it, it lit a fire under my butt. We used to do covers because we would play high schools and "The Letter" was my cover. I was getting King of Power Pop together when Alex Chilton passed away and I knew I had to cover it because it's part of my history.
What first compelled you to leave San Francisco for LA in 1976?
There was absolutely nothing going on. We left town the night the Mabuhay [Gardens] had its first show. There was just no place to play. There were hardly any other bands. We used to see Crime at the Clown Alley and I think The Nuns were starting. Then Greg Shaw from Bomp Records wrote us and said we should come down and he could book us some shows. Once we left, we wondered why we didn't sooner. It was the recording capital of the world and all of the labels were there. It was just out of necessity because we couldn't get anything going on in San Francisco.
When you started making records again in the early '90s as the Paul Collins Beat, do you think there was less of an audience for so-called power pop music than there is now?
Oh, I think it's much better now. Even the word "power-pop," we didn't like it. It was almost a curse to be called that. The radio wouldn't touch anything called that and we thought of it as a dirty thing. Now, the second generation has embraced it and it has a new connotation, which is great and the Internet pays a huge part in that. Back then, if you weren't playing the kind of music that's on the radio, you were just locked out from all sides. You couldn't even call a record company. You couldn't get past the secretary.
Since there is more of an audience and the power pop tag's negative connotations have been lost, does it give you some sort of vindication knowing that so many young people and small labels are championing your work with The Nerves and The Beat?
Well, I find it extremely gratifying and flattering that the work I've done in the past lives on. Our premise from day one was to make a record. We knew that when you make a record it takes on a life of its own. It goes out in the world and you don't know where it might end up. That's why we were so meticulous. Those first Nerves recordings, for me, rank high up in terms of quality, creativity, and imagination. I try to implement those values and creative standards all the time. At the end of the day, power pop, punk rock, it falls under the banner of rock 'n' roll. I've always considered us a rock 'n roll band. Power-pop embodies all of the best elements of rock 'n' roll. Great songs, great melodies, great guitar hooks -- any rock 'n roll that I like has those qualities.
What compelled you to title your last album King of Power Pop?
First, that I wrote the song "King of Power Pop". If I hadn't written that song, I wouldn't have called the album that. But since I did, I figured it was within my rights to use it as the title. Secondly, to be tongue-in-cheek. I knew there was potential I would get slammed for it. Funny thing is I struck up a Facebook friendship with Dwight Twilley, and I thought, "Oh shit, he's going to really give it to me." The first time I spoke to him on the phone I said, "Look Dwight, it's just tongue-in-cheek" and he said, "Oh, that's okay. You can be the king of power pop and I'll be the king of power poop."
Paul Collins Beat performs Friday, May 10, at Thee Parkside. 9 p.m., $10.