HIS BENEVOLENT REIGN Paul Collins

Things come full
circle for the once-future, and now firmly established, King of Power Pop.

 

BY MARY LEARY

 

“Power pop is a genre that draws from
1960s British and American Pop and Rock. It typically incorporates strong
melodies, crisp vocal harmonies, economical arrangements, and prominent guitar
riffs. Instrumental solos are usually kept to a minimum, and blues elements
tend to be downplayed. Recordings tend to lean toward compression and a
forceful drum beat. While its cultural impact has waxed and waned, Power Pop is
among Rock’s most enduring subgenres.” –
 (A compressed, economical rewrite of a Wiki
definition that omits any mention of skinny shoes ‘n’ ties.)

 

The headache starts when I hit a YouTube gridlock. The
pay-out jingling in after typing Paul Collins’ name into a search box is much
more complex than the innocent pleasure of slamming a couple quarters into a
jukebox. Instead of slurping a shake and pouring catsup while snapping the
fingers of my other hand to “Don’t Wait Up For Me,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Girl,” or
“When You Find Out” (ooh, those
Beatlesque/Zombiesque harmonies – yeah, this is a dream juke; maybe a reality
in L.A. circa 1979
), I’m overwhelmed by choices. There’s footage of The
Beat, Paul Collins Beat, the more folk/country-skewed Paul Collins Band (which,
to my ears, still sounds mostly like Power Pop), Paul Collins solo, and the
short-lived Breakaways, which helped him ford the dissolution of The Nerves…
which helped sculpt Power Pop’s second coming.

 

The media lode provides some answers to the question
plaguing anyone who hasn’t kept up: What happened to the originators of a song
with which the Nerves will always be associated? Okay, for $10,000… yes, it’s “Hangin’ on the Telephone” (a pole
which Blondie subsequently grabbed for a vault closer to the top). Whatever
happened to Paul Collins is, as it happens, a LOT. The world’s fickle, at times
lukewarm response to his plaintive cries and fulsome bounce has been answered
by solutions like moving from drums to guitar, and his idealistic Beat Army
booking/networking project. Dogged performing has built a sprawling fan base
including Spain, his second home since the ‘80s. He’s penned two fictional
autobiographies, Mi Madre, Mi Mentor y Yo and 8 Million Stories: Pete the Fly. He’s
produced Spanish pop bands. And he runs a few record labels. What the heck is this guy on?

 

Evidenced by the smokin’-new, Jim Diamond-produced King of Power Pop! (released,
appropriately enough by Bomp! sister label Alive, given that Bomp!’s founder,
the late Greg Shaw, was one of the earliest and most vocal champions of Power Pop; the record sleeve is also a nod to the cover of the now-classic Bomp! magazine Power Pop issue from
’78), he’s fueled by an addiction to ringing guitar chords, danceable beats,
and mid-‘60s forms via the late ‘70s. As much as evolving into a Power Pop
despot, Paul seems to rule that shaky cliff where adolescent joy and anguish
intersect – as long as every vignette’s resolved within three minutes, tops. At
the mic, like he’s studied every nuance, he still cocks his head right and left,
a la Paul McCartney. Anyone got a problem with that? 

 

I had the uncertain luck of contacting Paul right before he
started the Canadian leg of his tour. His cheery, enthusiastic responses have
compensated for the truncated nature of our discourse.

 

***

 

BLURT: Are the “we
could not tune our guitars” and “they couldn’t really play so they started
writing songs” lines on the track “Kings of Power Pop” true of you and the
other Nerves, or do they just convey the DIY sensibility of so much seminal New
Wave?  

COLLINS: Both. When we started playing we didn’t even have
tuners. So sometimes it was hard to get our guitars in tune. And we were just
beginning, so we spent hours and hours practicing to get our sound right. There
were a lot of bands like us in L.A. who were just starting. Maybe we didn’t
play that great, but the songs were amazing! Jack Lee was a great guitar player
– you just have to listen to The Nerves to see that. And Peter Case was also a
fantastic guitarist and vocalist. They knew a lot about music theory, which is
evident from the harmonies we had. But tuning guitars by ear is difficult, and
the rows they had over who was flat and who was sharp have always stayed with
me! Since we could not get any industry acceptance, we were able to make our
own rules. By music business standards, they didn’t think we were even
musicians. More often than not, they would throw us out of their music stores
and record shops!

 

What’s the first
music you remember? Did anything make you so excited, you didn’t know what to
do?

My dad’s Hank Williams and Ray Charles records… then in Long Island, as I lay in bed listening to WABC Radio
every night. What I loved about the music was how it seemed to just get right
inside of me, like these guys knew me and everything I felt. I feel lucky that
I grew up in the time period that I did. As I listened to song after song of
great pop music it just floored me…it was like one big hit single,
back-to-back: You had The Buckinghams, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Glenn
Campbell, Mitch Ryder, The Beatles, The Monkees, The Supremes, The Rascals, The
Kinks, The Stones, and Elvis — and on and on! 
It was the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, everything from The Beach Boys
to the Memphis sound and the British Invasion – it was my school of rock ‘n’
roll! I would listen in awe, not
knowing how they did it.

 

I heard “Big Girls Don’t Cry” in a taxi cab in Vietnam and it
drove me wild! Something about how the melodies blended together really drove
me nuts… that’s what really got me in pop music – the way the vocal harmonies
and the music and the words all melted together into one big ball of sound.

 

 King of
Power Pop
has a cover of The Box Tops’ “The Letter.” And it closes with The
Flamin’ Groovies’ “You Tore Me Down.” Assuming you like Wayne Carson and Cyril
Jordan, can you name some other fave songwriters?

There are a lot, but the main ones are The Beatles; Lennon and
McCartney. I have loved that band ever since I was a kid, but I am a huge fan
of the music of the 60’s — Jagger/Richards; Chuck Berry. Actually, I think he
is my favorite. His use of words and melody is unparalleled: “Moving down the sidewalk like a mounted
cavalier…Nadine!  Honey, is that you?”
It doesn’t get much better than that. I never thought that I could do this. When
I was a kid I would listen to the music in awe – I couldn’t understand how
these bands could make the sounds that they did. When I joined The Nerves, I
started to understand.

 

When the New Wave
started, it felt like those of us who’d been too young to dive into the Mod and
Merseybeat scenes got to experience some of that, in a way. For one thing, it
was a fresh, grassroots movement. And a lot of bands – The Nerves, Tina Peel,
Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds, The Jam, The Real Kids, The Romantics — were basically
reworking ‘60s sounds. On King of Power Pop you still have that “We’re doing this!” joy. After 30 years, with stints of
not playing much, poverty, and sucky jobs, how do you do it?

I love music! When things got really bad for me and I wasn’t
sure what I could do, and it seemed like my career was over, and I couldn’t
even get a normal job, and I was looking right into the mouth of poverty and
starvation again, I decided to pick up my guitar and make this happen. A friend
told me once that there is nothing sweeter then taking a lifetime of failures
and turning it into a success. I just could not give up. Something inside me
has driven me to do this ever since I was 17 and I left New York to come to
California to join a rock band. I didn’t have a clue how I would do it – I just
knew that I had to.

 

 Some of the material on KOPP is from older releases – can you do some of my homework? 

I am proud of this record because it has songs from all the
periods of my career. “Do You Wanna Love Me,” “Don’t Blame Your Troubles on Me,”
and “Many Roads to Follow” are from right after The Nerves broke up. “Losing
Your Cool” is from the early 80’s when I was back in New York. “I Go Black” and
“This is America” are a few years old, from when I was living in Madrid. What
makes it important to me is that it connects the dots to my entire career. I’m so
happy that “Don’t Blame your Troubles on Me” has finally come out. I always
thought it was a great song; it just kinda got swept under the carpet until now.
In a way, I’m glad it was, because all the older songs on this record play an
important part on the recording, so it was good timing! Sometimes it seems like
songs are just hanging out waiting for the right moment to come out — same
thing on the last record, Ribbon of Gold.
“Hey DJ” was an outtake from The Beat’s second LP. It sat around for some 20
years before it got recorded, and now it’s one of our big live numbers!

 

 Anything particularly cool or weird about the Canadian tour, so far? 

We’ve had a ton of adventures, starting with the very first
moment we got on the road. Twenty minutes on the highway, and the van broke
down. We had to get it towed, unload all the gear, get a car and a van and get
back on the road…we made the show, though, and it was five hours away! I love
touring in Canada. The bands we’re working with are so cool, we have all become
good friends – it’s what makes playing music so very special. We get to hang
out with these guys and see their country in a way no one else can.

 

It’s the same thing that has been happening all over the
world – we have all these new friends from touring:  Radio Days in Italy, The Yum Yums in Norway,
Los Chicos in Spain. As I am writing this to you, our new buddy Dan from
Zebrassieres is cooking us up a mess of bacon and eggs in his lovely home in
Ottawa! Canada is incredible and the drives have been exquisite — lovely green
countryside and trees, all kinds of different trees everywhere! The Girls!
Canadian women are very, very pretty! Yesterday we went swimming in a river in
a small town called Wakefield. It was amazing, with an old wooden train trestle
bridge. It was delightful to swim in the cool clear water…then we had burgers
and poutain (Quebec-style fries and gravy).

 

  Do you listen to the radio or your mixes on the road?

Today we are listening to Barbara Manning, plus a ton of
other stuff – we have very eclectic taste. It can be anything from Thin Lizzy
or Motorhead to The Real Kids or Tom T. Hall or NRBQ – or stuff I have
never heard of!

 

 Your lyrics often focus on the details of women. That quality of attention
seems, in a way, delightfully romantic; almost chivalrous. Are there a lot of
women at your shows? What’s the audience percentage, more or less?

Nowadays there are a lot more women, thank God. There was a
time not too long ago when the only people who came to these kinds of shows
were record collectors, and they were mainly guys. Now, thanks to the Internet
and all these new bands that play power pop, there are a lot of girls again. And
I for one am very happy about that. Power Pop is still a vibrant form of music,
and it is growing all the time… I am excited to be part of it this second
time around.

 

 A lot of your stuff feels like it’s driven by
a sort of innocent longing. How do you keep writing this stuff, now that you’ve
been married and have a son?

I am twice divorced, and my heart has been broken a number
of times. And I am a romantic. Hopefully some day I will find my
princess/queen/rock ‘n’ roll girl! I have a son, and being a parent is one of
the best things that have happened to me. I have learned so much about life and
about what it is to really be a man by raising my son. This year he is on tour
with me and it is an experience of a lifetime for both of us! I think having a
kid and playing music has kept me young. If you were to ask my two ex wives,
they’d say I act like a child!

 

 Are you ever tempted to do one-night stands,
easy sex, etc., on the road? Does either giving in, or, if not, the inevitable
fantasies, help your songwriting?

I take being intimate with someone very personal, as I have
had my fair share of one-night stands. I am really more interested in falling
in love with someone…that being said, I adore women and the thought of being
up close and personal with a lot of the ones I see or meet is a great fantasy.
But nothing beats being in love with someone who loves you back….nothing. Of
course, thinking about girls or the things that happen with them, both good and
bad, is fuel for great songs! I am crazy about girls…especially their smiles
and sparkly eyes, their necks, and legs and thighs and… mmmmmm… I would like to be able to settle down one of these days
with the woman of my dreams…I hope she comes to me soon!

 

“King of Power Pop” is
quite a claim – why are you the king?

Because I am pretty much the only one still standing from
back in the day that actively plays this kind of music. And after investing my
entire adult life in doing this, some 35 years, I said to myself, “What the
hell  – I am the king of Power Pop!!!” I
know it’s ballsy, but what the hell? As the guy at my record label said, “In
marketing you have to have balls.”

 

 In the late ‘70s you said, “We’re just
four guys playing music – no trickery, no bullshit, just rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a
whole new ball game now. All of a sudden, people who had their fingers on the
pulse of what was going on – no longer do. All of a sudden, groups that were
the definition of the times – no longer are… What we’re doing is no big deal to
us, we’re doing what comes to us naturally… the difference is that we’re not
trying to be the stuff that’s going on now. We think we are what should be now.”  Do you still think you are what should be
now?

Yes, I do. In a weird way, things have come full circle. The
mainstream radio sucks. A lot of new bands play homogenized music that has no
originality. We are playing music that is vital and real and based on solid
musical principals. Fortunately, it’s not just us; it’s most of these new bands
we are playing with. They are young and vital and right at the core of what
rock ‘n’ roll is all about!

 

Paul Collins’ Beat is
on tour during August and September throughout the Midwest
and West Coast. Tour dates can be found as his official website.

 


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