Paul Collins is a Rock N’ Roll warrior. He has been playing his brand of honest, infectious power pop, new wave, Rock N’ Roll, whatever you want to call it for almost 40 years. This man along with his band, are out there fighting for your soul. Traveling the world many times over and making new music using there own blood sweat and tears. Paul isn’t some fat cat making a couple of festival appearances a year waving at his fans like some kind of pathetic mascot, living off his royalties. This man is out fighting a war, dug deep in the jungles of battle, waging combat against all these posturing rock stars. These are the kinds of people that sour so many against guitar rock and driving them to dull, soulless electronic pop music. If in fact Rock N’ Roll was at proper war, and we were all it’s soldiers, then Paul Collins would be our commanding General!
Interview by Jay Castro
I read that as a kid your stepfather was a civilian in the military and you moved all around the world, Europe, Vietnam, Greece. At what age were you first stirred by music? What band or musician made you think, that’s what I want to do for a living?
I remember I was in Vietnam and I must have been about 6 ½ years old and I was in a taxicab, they looked like Volkswagen Bugs but they were smaller and it was pouring rain, which it does there a lot. “Big Girls Don’t Cry” came on by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons and all those vocals really knocked me out. Another song from that time period that really turned me on was “Lightnin’ Strikes” by Lou Christie. Those are my earliest remembrances of listening to music and being really turned on to it.
Later on my dad had Hank Williams and Ray Charles in his collection, which were strong early influences. I especially loved Ray Charles Country and Western Hits Vol. 1 which had like “Take These Chains From My Heart” on it and my mom had “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash which I also really loved.
When we moved back to the states I lived in Long Island and listened to AM radio every night and I would fall asleep with the little transistor radio glued to my head. It was a cocktail of British Invasion, the West Coast sound, the Detroit sound, the East Coast sound with The Rascals and stuff like that. That music really influenced me a lot. I would listen to all of those songs thinking it was so great and how do these guys do this. If I could do something like this it would be really awesome.
So your family finally settled down in New York, what made you want to get up and move across the country and start a band?
Later on when I was 17, I went to Julliard School of music as a composition major/piano minor but that was for you know, more serious honor music. I decided that after a year of that, I wanted to go someplace and be in a rock band. So my drum teacher said, you need to go to the West Coast, this is where the music scene is happening for young people, and so I did. That was the best decision I made. I made it out to San Francisco just before turning 18. On my 3rd day there I saw a notice in a music store that said “Wanted: Drummer for an all original band ala The Beatles.” At that time there wasn’t a lot of bands doing original music in Rock N’ Roll. There were jazz-fusion bands or funk bands but it was really hard to find a band in Rock N’ Roll playing pop songs like the kind I listened to that I wanted to do. So I tore the sign down so no one else could call and it was Jack Lee and he said “Come on over” so I went right over there. In the first 15 minutes I was over there he played the demo that he had of “Hangin’ on the Telephone” and it blew my mind. So I auditioned for him, I had my drumsticks and I started playing drums on a phone book. He started playing all these songs for me on his beautiful cherry finish Rickenbacker. And that’s really where my career in Rock N’ Roll started.
So did The Nerves form before The Ramones and the whole CBGB scene?
Well, I don’t know if we actually started before them, I definitely remember never hearing about all of them when we started. I still remember hearing about this band from New York called The Ramones we hadn’t heard their music at all, and they were playing in San Francisco. So we called up the club they were playing at and we said “So is this band The Ramones playing there tonight?” and they said “Yeah, but they’re playing their last song right now.” And we said “Can you just hold the phone up so we can hear them?” And they did. So the three of us crowded around the receiver and I remember Jack and Peter saying “They aren’t changing, they’re staying on the D, I can’t believe it!” We had never heard anyone attack music in that way which was similar to what we were doing.
So in 1979, The Nerves called it a day. You actually had another band that a lot of people don’t really know about in between The Nerves and The Beat correct?
Yeah it was a short-lived band. When the Nerves disbanded it was pretty catastrophic, I thought we were going to go all the way. I was the youngest in the band and it hit me pretty hard when we disbanded. Peter Case and I did try to carry on with The Breakaways. We did a hand full of shows, at the time in Los Angeles, it was impossible to play anywhere live. There was just no support. No one was interested in booking this kind of stuff and there was no real fan base for it. Especially if you weren’t living in that area or you didn’t grow up in that area and you could have all your school friends support your musical projects and stuff. So it was very difficult. A lot of stuff died on the vine just because there was no way to really do anything. Just no acceptance, we had no money and we were starving.
So after the Breakaways came The Beat. You guys did some television appearances including American Bandstand. Those performances are all on Youtube including the interview you guys did with Dick Clark. Was Dick really as personable as everyone says he was?
Dick Clark was such a professional and he was all-inclusive. If you watch interviews that he does, he talks to everybody. He doesn’t just talk to the lead singer or the cute guy in the band. He was such a pro; I mean you were in and out of there before you even knew what happened. He had the best technicians and cameramen. So you just roll in there and boom, it was over and done with before you even knew what happened. But yeah, he was a pro. We met Benny Goodman too and all the old top pros were all so gracious. They treated us so nice and they didn’t seem to be threatened by what we were doing and they were secure about what they were doing. I was lucky to meet people like that. It made me see that you could be this big star, this big important entertainer and still be very gracious and accepting of other things.
So in the late 70’s and early 80’s the whole punk thing was blowing up. Do you feel that in some way you owed it to that movement, which finally shook everybody, awake and showed everybody what Rock N’ Roll was supposed to be about.
Well, I never really thought of it what way but that’s quite possibly true. The punk movement really historically pin points the “music revolution” that took place. The big difference with the punk stuff and what we were doing is we were aggressive, but not in the same way. They were really confronting to the status quo. We were trying to do this music with our own interpretation on it. We were heavily based in melody and classic song structures. Our staple was much more musical than sociological. The really interesting thing about the Nerves, which I didn’t figure out until much later, is that we were three strong men that went against the establishment, which was normal. But we also went against our peers. We went up against both sides. Our peers were the punkers, which were looking and dressing a completely different way. So we unwillingly became total outcasts. We were three guys in three-piece suits, everyone thought we were from the moon!
Didn’t you guys have your own club out in California for a while?
It was kind of like a roving club. There was no place for us to play, we couldn’t get any gigs at any legitimate clubs so we said, let’s make our own club and we called it The Hollywood Punk Palace. We presented the first shows in Hollywood, at least to my knowledge of The Germs, The Weirdos, The Dils, the Zippers. We knew them all from the rehearsal halls. So even though we were putting own these shows, we would come on and people were still saying “What the hell do these guys have to do with this stuff?” We had to do something; we had to make something happen, so we did it.
I want to ask you about a project you started a few years ago called The Beat Army, what is it all about?
I travel around, and I know a lot of people that say, “Oh I love Rock N’ Roll, I love new wave and power pop” and I said to myself, there has got to be a way to polarize these people to show some kind of numbers. We live in a world where everything is numbers, how many bids, how many likes, how many downloads. So that’s what the Beat Army is all about. It is my attempt to show the numbers so that people can say hey all these people like power pop, that’s encouraging. And to also promote people going to shows and buying a ticket so that these bands can go out and play for more than 10 people at a show. On that end, things have gotten a lot better. It’s past the point it was 10 years ago where people said, “Well it’s over and done with and we’ll never hear of it again.” Then with the advent of Myspace I started seeing all these young bands listing power pop as a reference. I said, “Wait its alive still!” These days power pop is an elastic term; I’m not a purist about it. There are power pop bands, there are punk pop bands, there’s garage. The power pop genre needs awareness. I think if you are a purist and it becomes exclusive and you wind up playing for five people every night, you really haven’t done much. The better thing is getting the scope to be wider: play with garage bands and play with punk bands. Get the fans in the door and expose them to the music and get the bigger base. To me, power pop embodies the best in Rock N’ Roll, great songs, great hooks, great guitar parts and great melodies. That’s what every piece of Rock N’ Roll that I love has.
We were talking earlier about power pop now having the ability to reach a lot more people. Green Day feature the song “Walking Out On Love” in their Broadway production of American Idiot and Def Leopard covered “Hangin’ on the Telephone.” What’s the strangest cover you’ve heard of one of your songs or one of your former band’s songs?
Def Leopard was very, very cool about it. They put out an album of all covers, all their favorite songs, and they say a little bit about each song that they cut. About Hangin’ On The Telephone, they say, “We know that you think this is a Blondie song, but it isn’t. It’s by this little known band called The Nerves from L.A.” So I thought was very cool. A lot of people do think, in fact it’s a regular occurrence, where people are like “Hey great Blondie cover” and I’m like “What the hell are you talking about?” There’s this band from Oakland called Grass Widow and they cover “Walking Out On Love” and it’s such a bizarre version. There was this tribute album put out by this Australian guy that continues to put out tributes. I think he’s doing Dwight Twilley now. There were all these bands and all these versions and some of the bands were surprising. You hear a rock band and they kind of did it the way we did it only they add a few things and that’s cool. But some of these bands did it radically different. One of the bands did an electronic version of “That’s What Life Is All About” or something and it was very, very different. It’s always flattering as a songwriter if someone covers your songs; I’m always like wow that’s cool.
In closing, what projects do you have lined up for the near or not so near future?I’m going to make another record and I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing, the Johnny Appleseed of power pop. Bringing the music to the people at ground level, in the trenches, at Rock N’ Roll clubs, down and dirty style. That’s where Rock N’ Roll lives and breathes. We’re trying to get people to get up off their asses, come to the shows and realize that you can pay just 7 or 8 bucks and have a good time. It’s completely unpretentious and it’s good.