PAUL COLLINS: TOMORROW IS TOO FAR AWAY!
dave van patten
As the drummer for the Nerves and Breakaways and lead singer of the Beat, Paul Collins helped create the genre of power pop. His songs have been covered by virtually every band with a guitar, from Audacity to Green Day to White Fence to the Muffs to the Exploding Hearts to … me. And yet despite never achieving the chart success of his rock ‘n’ roll heroes or even bands like the Knack, Collins still has the enthusiasm and optimism of the kid he must have been in the mid-70s: a New York/San Franciscan newly arrived in Los Angeles, workin’ too hard to be the man the record labels would want. He will play Friday at Blue Star Bar—win tickets here! This interview by Dan Collins and Kristina Benson.
Kim Shattuck of the Muffs wants me to ask you if ‘being two millimeters away from my mouth with your mouth gave you any ideas.’
Yeah! I wanted to kiss her really bad! But I couldn’t do it. We did a show here a while ago, and it was great.
I feel like a lot of your fans are like her: more toward the punk side than the pop side. Even when the Nerves started, you seemed more comfortable hanging out with bands like the Weirdos rather than the Knack or the bigger power pop bands.
With the Nerves, we were like these street urchins in the streets of Hollywood and we were definitely trying to find people to relate to. And we met all those bands. The Nerves put on the first shows of the Weirdos, the Dils, the Zeros, the Zippers, the Germs … None of those bands could get gigs at the Whisky or the Starwood so we started running our own renegade shows. Unfortunately it was pre-video so we couldn’t document it, which was a shame, but we put on the first L.A. shows of the Germs and the Zeros and the Dils and all those bands, and it was incredible.
Did any of those bands ever look down on you for having a more traditional rock sound?
The Nerves were so steeped in our trip, I think people thought we were kind of crazy to tell you the truth. ‘Who the hell are these guys? What planet did they show up from?’ The thing is, all those bands were L.A. bands, and they came from Orange County and L.A. and they grew up there and they had all their friends from high school and stuff. We were complete outcasts. We didn’t have any friends, and we were major hustlers. Every day was, ‘We gotta do this! We gotta get it together!’ So I think in a way that made us a little over the top. We were just a little too intense for them because they were more laid-back. Plus we had this desperation factor. We really wanted to make it, like the Beatles and the Stones. There was like no time to waste. That’s the fucking lede for your article: NO TIME TO WASTE!
Why did you have to do everything yourself? What do we take for granted now that you never had?
Well, we’re talking about ‘70s, early ‘80s. This is just when the indie scene was starting. In 1976 you could not get a gig at a club unless you had a record deal. And that meant a major label record deal because there was no indie labels. Either you were signed to one of the handful of big major labels, or you didn’t get a gig. They’d yell at us at the Whisky: ‘Why are you calling us? Don’t call us until you have a record deal!’ Which meant, ‘Don’t call us until you have a major label record deal.’ There really was no way to get gigs. So out of desperation … we met all these bands at rehearsals cuz that’s where we’d see these bands. We ran what we called the Hollywood Punk House, which was just a roving location. Sometimes we did it at S.I.R. Studio Rentals——anyplace that we could rent out. The last place that we put on shows, we put them on at the Orpheum Theater that was across the street from the Tower. The Whisky scouts would come up and we ran the door—it was a shoestring operation. They’d say, ‘We’re from the Whisky! We want to come in.’ ‘Sure, five bucks.’ ‘We’re from the Whisky!’ ‘We don’t care where you’re from, man—we can’t even play your club! If you’re comin’ in, you’re paying!’ They’d get all upset, but you know—screw you.
Why hadn’t anyone done this before?
It does seem crazy that people didn’t think to do it. But in those days you had a whole new scene, and we were all young kids, and the established music business had such a grip on things—nobody thought there was any other way to do it. We were locked out from all sides, and so ambitious and aggressive… it forced us to do these things. And in reality, they were simple things. We put on shows. That’s a very simple thing. Anyone could do it. But it was also very difficult and nobody thought there was any point in doing it. We moved to L.A. from S.F. because we couldn’t get anywhere in San Francisco, and it’s like a light went on: ‘Oh yeah! We gotta go to L.A.! Why didn’t we think of this before? That’s where the music industry is! That’s where we’re gonna get famous!’ Of course we went to L.A. and it was even harder than in San Fransisco. And it was also more brutal. S.F. is like a hippie town, and L.A. was totally cutthroat and really intense. So after we did all thse shows and we STILL couldn’t get anywhere and get any acceptance from anyone in the business, we decided to do the tour. And the tour was like the major thing that we did, outside of making that record. But then we decided once we had that record and couldn’t get anywhere in L.A., that we’d take it national and go on tour. Basically we did what every other band did locally—we just did it nationally.
Now I can just jump on the internet: ‘I want to find a bunch of venues where I can play to a hundred people.’ But back then, how did you do it?
It was a massive amount of work and I did it myself because I was good at it. I did my research by looking at fanzines, and Greg Shaw helped me a lot. He was very supportive because he knew that this would be something very important to open up the avenues for a lot of bands to do this because nobody had tried to do it with this kind of music. Bands had been doing this in other times and in other genres in American music, but nobody had done it in this new wave of music. What I did was—it was my coup d’etat. It was a stroke of genius. There was no internet and no cell phones, and calling these clubs all across the country would have been astronomical on a regular home phone, and I don’t think we even had home phones at that point, we were so broke. I have a long history of ripping off the phone company and this was my piece de resistance. I figured out that if you go on the pay phone and called up the operator and ask, ‘How much does it cost to call Chicago?’ that they’d tell you, you know? ‘Two dollars and twenty cents for the first three minutes.’ So then I’d hang up and call the operator back and I’d say, ‘Listen, I was just talking to Chicago and I got cut off.’ ‘How much did you put in?’ And if you gave them the correct amount they assumed you were telling the truth and they’d reconnect you. I’d have to get all my business done in three minutes. I booked an entire national tour on a dime.
Three minutes at a time?
Yeah! But then a year later, I’d go back to these clubs with the Beat, and this one guy told me, ‘We were getting phone calls’—cuz this is when there was only one phone company, AT&T—‘we were getting phone calls from the phone company asking about did we know this guy Paul Collins? And did we have any way of getting in touch with him?’ They tried to track me down. And at the end of that Nerves tour I was at the Chelsea Hotel in New York doing that same thing, and they changed their policy to if you got disconnected you’d have to give them your name and address and they’d send you a refund.
Because of you?
I’d like to think it was because of me because I was making a massive amount of phone calls! I think someone finally figured out that someone was trying to take advantage of the phone company. Not that they weren’t taking advantage of everybody else! Jack [Lee]’s job was to figure out how much money we needed to do this thing, and I think he came up with a number off the top of his head, it was $80. So that’s what we would ask for. Today, I think it would be even harder to do. But we would get it! 90% of the time, we got that. I kept a diary and I kept the finances and I know that we came home with no money. We were completely broke. The other thing we did that was pretty ingenious—we ran out of money going into the desert that you come out of before you get to like Palm Springs. This was in August. It was brutally hot. We had no money. And what we’d do to eat … we’d go into supermarkets and get a shopping cart and pretend to fill it up with all this crap, and a lot of these supermarkets had delis. So we would order a sandwich and eat it while we were shopping. Then we would just wind up like buying a loaf of bread and cheese whiz. That’s how we ate. I think by the time we hit Las Vegas we had literally nothing. Like zero. We didn’t have enough money to buy gas. This was Jack’s idea and I hated this but we had to do it. Everytime you pulled off the freeway, there were four gas stations—one on each corner. So we would all fan out, one guy at each gas station, and go up to the cigarette machine. This is when cigarettes were like 65 cents a pack, and you would pretend that you put your money in the machine and then you’d start pulling on the lever—back then, you’d put your money in and pull a lever and the cigarettes would come out—and then say, ‘Oh man, it just ate my 65 cents!’ And the gas station attendant would invariably give you your 65 cents. That’s how we got home. We’d do that at each exit.
Did your parents know about this?
No, that’s a whole separate issue! And that’s another thing that played into it. I came from New York, Peter came from Buffalo and Jack came from Juneau, Alaska. When we got to San Francisco and then L.A., we knew nobody. We didn’t have any infrastructure. All these bands we were dealing with—they grew up there. That was their scene. We were completely isolated. We didn’t know anybody. It was really difficult for us to get things going and as a result we were like a very nuclear family. We really depended on each other. Really, that’s all we had—each other. We were extremely ambitious and extremely aggressive and in a certain way that kind of worked against us, you know? Because California is laid back and we were anything but laid back. I think we rubbed some people the wrong way. We were like, ‘No. Now. We can’t wait for tomorrow. Tomorrow is too far away!’ And we wanted to go to the top, We wanted to be as big as the Beatles and the Stones, which are all normal things for young people to do. You’re hungry and you want to go out and eat up the world. And that drove us to go out and do what we did. In one way, it was really good. We were constantly working on the music, and constantly figuring out how to get the music out there. And I’m proud of the work we did. You look at that band, and we put out one EP with four songs. 35 years later, that record is still sought-after. People pay $180 on eBay for it. When you hear it, it sounds as incredible today as it did the day we made it. The production is simple, but it’s extremely well-executed, the music is awesome and so all those things that we applied … we were right. The principles involved were worth aspiring to. All this time later, you can pop that thing on and it still rocks and it’s still exciting and it doesn’t sound dated.
What was it like going from struggling with the Nerves to signing with the Beat and working with people like Eddie Money?
When things started to move really fast we went from the Nerves—which was like total street urchins—to, like, big time rock with Bill Graham and Bruce Botnick and Columbia Records. It was really intense. I mean, I was parking cars, and all of a sudden we were at Columbia and we were like rock stars.
You literally had a job parking cars?
I used to park cars at the Imperial Gardens, and L’Orangerie, which was like a really upscale French restaurant, and Osko’s Disco, which is no longer there. I parked everybody’s cars. I parked Jack Nietzsche, I parked Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Milton Berle—you name it, the whole nine yards. Osko’s Disco was totally fucking insane. It’s where they filmed Thank God It’s Friday.
When you were parking the cars of people like Jack Nietzsche, were you ever tempted to leave a demo tape?
I did! I left one with him, I left one with Ringo. I used to park John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. They’d show up in, like, an old Buick Riviera, and they had a Pepsi bag filled with blues cassette tapes. And the first time they showed up, I was wearing my little red parking jacket with the black lapels and a white shirt with a skinny black tie, and I had a Blues Brothers button. I parked them and they were like, ‘Yeah, man, that’s cool.’ They gave me my best tip: $20.
Was that how you caught Columbia’s ear?
You know, Eddie Money really did it. He went out of his way for a solid year. He told everybody and anybody that I was a great songwriter. He just went on a rampage. It was almost embarrassing. He was invited to these parties—and this was in the day when people would spend fifty 50 grand making a demo tape—and he would play this fucking cassette made at home on, like, a Realistic cassette player that sounded like shit and he’d say, ‘Aw fuck that—you gotta listen to this!’ And he’d put on ‘Let Me Into Your Life’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Girl’ and these guys were like, ‘Eddie, what the fuck are you talking about?’ And he’d be like, ‘No! This guy’s fucking great.’ And he just went to town for me.
Are you guys still friends?
I ran into him on the street in New York, and we took a great photo, and I put it on Facebook and got this incredible response. We haven’t played together, but I love the guy and he is who he is. He co-wrote ‘Let Me Into Your Life.’
I read that the Paul Collins Beat and the English Beat had to fight over who could be ‘the Beat.’
Well, it wasn’t a fight. I just got this call in the middle of the night in L.A. saying, ‘This band from England has the rights in England. You’ve got the rights everywhere else. What do you want to do?’ Blah blah blah blah. They actually made it ugly. They were kind of assholes about it, but I was like, ‘Aw, fuck it, I’ll be ‘Paul Collins Beat.’ I don’t give a shit.’ We were actually playing the Roundhouse in London, and we went to the recording of ‘Tears of a Clown’ but they weren’t very nice to us. It’s really funny because in the last two years I’ve been touring my ass off all over America and I’ve done about ten shows where they either played the night before or the night after. At the last show I was playing in Pittsburgh, they were literally playing across the street on the same night.
Who had the bigger crowd?
They probably did. They’ve got that whole dance thing, you know. I actually called the guy and said, ‘Why don’t we do a “‘Beat Off?”’’ No, they probably would win because they have all that action, but that’s what I’m saying, man. It’s an uphill battle with power pop, and I’m totally ready for the challenge. It’s what I do every day. I bust my ass for this kind of music. A lot of people still have to hear about it and learn about it.
When people talk about the history of power pop, they often mention the Raspberries and Big Star as sort of being these pivotal—
I don’t know about that. I mean, I love the Raspberries, but power pop started in the mid- to late ‘70s. That’s the generation that started it. I know that Pete Townshend coined the word but for me it really started in the mid- to late 70s with guys like us and the Shoes and the Romantics and the Knack and the Plimsouls. You know, all those bands that did that shit.
Who would you say are the top three power pop bands of all time?
Me, me and me! [Laughs] No … it’s hard to say. That doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that people discover the treasure trove that there is here. There’s all kinds of bands. Just go look at a map: Syracuse, that’s the Flashcubes. The Pezband from Chicago. Material Issue. Name a place in the country, and there are great power pop bands that came out of there.
I’m from Oklahoma and the only power pop guy we have of any note was Dwight Twilley—and he’s now on Burger Records!
Yeah, I’ve been talking to Dwight lately and we’re talking about maybe doing some touring together. I love him. I mean, if I’m the king of power pop, he’s the emperor.
In the early ‘80s, it seemed like there were a lot of people poised to make power pop the next big thing. Kim Fowley declared on the Tom Snyder show that it would replace punk rock. And yet it didn’t happen.
You know what the problem with power pop is? It’s not that fucking dangerous. Rock music is dangerous. Punk was dangerous. Hardcore is dangerous. You don’t have to kill your parents to like power pop. It’s a very particular genre of music and it really does embody all the great elements of rock ‘n’ roll which are great songwriting, great harmonies, great hooks, great guitar parts, tight pants … sexy looking guys on a good day. The thing is, it’s not dangerous. It’s uplifting. If you come to any one of these shows that I do and there’s a hundred-plus people and you see them smiling and dancing and singing, it’s such a great time. So maybe it’s like, you know, Pat Boone. It’s wholesome, but it’s so cool.
It is cool, and a lot of it was produced really cool—tight and rockin’, not slick like mainstream seventies 70s rock. Do you think horrid production in the ‘80s helped poison the genre?
What happened in the ‘80s with the record industry is that the record industry took over, and it became a producer’s medium. I mean, to hell with the band! Look at guys like David Foster, who did Toto and all those bands. There were a handful of guys that dominated the market, and it was like, ‘We’re not going to use the band. You’re just going to come in and sing,’ and of course a lot of the bands probably hated their own records.
Did you have those struggles with making the second Beat album, The Kids Are the Same? I can’t help but notice that it lacks some of the oomph of the first album.
Oh, we had tons of problems making The Kids Are the Same. It took us two years to make that record and it was because of the music business. It was like, ‘You gotta have a hit.’ They fired the drummer, they fired the producer. We went on this merry-go-round with different producers. It cost a fortune. The problem was they were trying to fit that music into the mainstream pipeline and it just wasn’t going to work. It just wasn’t. After they fired Bruce Botnick we went back to him. We did a whole album with Andy Johns, who’s Glyn Johns’ younger brother who did Rod Stewart and shit like that. Before him, we did the album with this guy John Jansen who was from New York. It was just a clusterfuck. It was absurd. But I will say that record has some great music on it. ‘That’s What Life Is All About’ is one of my biggest songs to date.
You can tell that the first album was lovingly crafted and the second album just feels … different.
We were so lucky to make that first album with Bruce Botnick because he really loved the band and he did what every great producer should do. He acted like a piece of glass or a mirror. He just got our sound on tape. Then we let all these people tell us what to do and it took me a long, long time to get out from the influence of the music business.
And now you’re back, and there’s a larger audience than ever waiting to hear it! What rekindled that interest in your music?
First thing is, I never threw in the towel. Secondly, the internet has just been fantastic for my music and the kind of stuff I do. There are always new bands that cite me as a reference, and that’s pretty much who I work with now. Like the tour I’m doing out here, I’m going to be with Audacity, Garbo’s Daughter. The Burger Records guys are good friends of mine, and I’ve done a lot of tours with their bands. All these new up and coming bands: it’s incredible!
A lot of them are on the Nerves tribute that came out a couple months ago.
Yeah—Volar Records. The show in L.A. is going to be in conjunction with them.
Some of those songs, like the Shark Toys’ version of ‘I Don’t Fit In,’ really made me listen to your songwriting in a new light. What’s the secret to writing songs that will stand the test of time?
Well, you know—when I started, I was so lucky to hook up with Jack Lee and Peter Case at the time that I did because that was like my university. That was my college of rock ‘n’ roll, and we spent so much time studying the masters, everyone from Elvis to the Beatles to the Stones, Chuck Berry—all the great music of the ‘60s that really inspired us. We wanted to take it a step further and make it very economical and compact and high energy, but there was a level of quality that we wanted to achieve. ‘Good’ was what you threw out! We worked so hard to achieve a high level. You know, that Nerves 45 … we made that little 45 in a tiny studio for no money and thirty 30 years later, you put that record on and it rocks, man. Recording was like our religion. That was our Holy Grail. You’ve got to put it down on tape and make it count. All those things that I learned then, I’ve tried to keep all that alive and implement it in the work I do today, which is why I’m so proud of the latest album, King of Power Pop, because it really draws a direct line to what I was doing in the Nerves and the work ethic that we had and the idea of how to put together these little pop songs. I’m really dedicating myself totally now to promoting power pop as a genre and really giving it the exposure it deserves and it’s really an underdog genre. People need to be turned on to it because it really does encompass all the best elements of rock ‘n’ roll: great songs, great songwriting, harmonies, big guitar hooks. It’s fabulous!
L.A. RECORD PRESENTS PSYCHO BEACH PARTY WITH PAUL COLLINS, AUDACITY AND GARBO’S DAUGHTER ON FRI., JULY 1, AT THE BLUE STAR, 2200 E. 15TH ST., DOWNTOWN. 10 PM / $10 / 18+. WIN TICKETS HERE! OR BUY TICKETS HERE. PAUL COLLINS’ KING OF POWER POP IS OUT NOW ON ALIVE. VISIT PAUL COLLINS AT THEPAULCOLLINSBEAT.COM.