by Peter Lindblad
Before Blondie came along and tarted up “Hangin’ on the Telephone” with the airbrushed desire of Debbie Harry’s vocals and polished it with spotless production, the now-classic power-pop number was destined to be forgotten by history.
Recorded originally by a San Francisco power-pop trio named The Nerves, “Hangin’ on the Telephone” would become Blondie’s first U.K. Top Ten hit. And what of The Nerves?
After one EP of punchy, thrilling garage-rock bursts that boasted more hooks than a meat locker, The Nerves called it a day. Peter Case (bass/vocals) and Paul Collins (drums/vocals) formed two-thirds of The Nerves. Jack Lee, the guitarist/vocalist who penned “Hangin’ on the Telephone,” rounded out the group, which formed in the mid-’70s and was done by 1978. Blessed with three members who had an uncanny ability to write irresistibly catchy songs that bristled with punk energy, The Nerves were gone in a flash. But they did go out with a bang, appearing on the infamous “Magical Blistering Tour” with fellow punks The Ramones and Mink DeVille before bowing out.
After the split, Lee had a brief solo career, Case moved onto soul-punk heroes The Plimsouls — who would record Case’s classic specimen of jangle-pop “A Million Miles Away” — and Collins wound up with The Beat.
Now, 30 years after their demise, comes The Nerves’ first proper LP, One Way Ticket. Put out by Alive Records in association with Bomp, the release packages the EP’s “Hangin’ on the Telephone,” “When You Find Out,” “Working Too Hard” and “Give Me Some Time” with a clutch of bruising live tracks and sketched-out demos.
How did this compilation, One Way Ticket, come together and why did it take so long to put out?
Paul Collins: It originally started when Get Hip records wanted to do a comprehensive Nerves package some six or seven years ago. There were different ideas as to which label would be best suited for the project, but all of the group seemed to be in agreement that it should come out.
Time went by, and no one could agree on a label. That’s when Patrick from Alive Records contacted me about putting out a Nerves compilation. I said, “Double the offer on the table and it might happen.” And he did. That very same week all members of the group were paid a generous advance on royalties, and I turned over all my archives thinking it was a done deal.
Time went by, and as I was living in Madrid, Spain, and thinking that one day soon I would receive the finished product in the mail, I was very surprised to find out that not only was the deal not done, it had gotten very near to being terminated due to conflicts within the group. Thanks to the unbelievable patience of Patrick, he saw the project through, and thanks to him, and him alone, we all have the pleasure of seeing a very small but influential group’s work documented for all time.
With regard to the previously unreleased live stuff and the demos, where did you find these recordings, and why was it important to release them?
Peter Case: They were all over. Boxes stashed in garages and basements. I don’t fool myself into thinking it’s too important. But it did seem like a good idea.
Paul Collins: Peter Case should take most of the credit for the track listing as he was in Los Angeles and able to work closely with Patrick on the release. I think he did a good job presenting the musical world in which we lived. As with most compilations, things get left out. In this case, I think Peter himself overlooked some of his own gems.
You guys formed in 1975, coming out of San Francisco. What drew the three of you together?
Paul Collins: I think it was 1974. That is a long story. I came onto the scene last, and as I was the baby of the group, there were things between Jack and Peter that I was not privy to. Basically, we came together for the same reasons that any rock band came together: We wanted to conquer the world. To some extent we were successful.
At that point, were all three of you songwriters?
Peter Case: I was writing songs in 1965. I wrote songs that my bands played and performed solo around town in Buffalo, N.Y., by the time I was 15. Jack was writing, too, but I think he started in San Francisco later. You gotta ask Paul. He’ll tell you his story.
Paul Collins: No. Jack had the most songs, and Peter was coming [into] his own, and I had yet to write my first song ... finally, I wrote “Working Too Hard” and “You Won’t Be Happy” in the back of Jack’s bus.
What were early rehearsals and your first show like?
Peter Case: Drunken brawls. Humiliation. Jack freezing up. It took a while to get it halfway together.
Paul Collins: The rehearsals were very intense, but they were also some of the finest musical experiences I have had to date. Our first show, I am not sure about, but it had to be a bust. We gave everything we had, but only on a few occasions did we ever get anything back.
How much did the ’60s British Invasion stuff, and, of course, The Beatles, influence you?
Paul Collins: In every way. We studied all the records from the late ’50s and early ’60s like they were the Bible. It was a glorious time in music, and we reaped as much as we could from it. Harmony, structure and above all the incredibly high criteria of the music produced at that time, I can safely say that I pretty much learned everything I know about music during that time.
A year after getting together, you recorded your self-titled debut EP. It’s still beloved by power-pop fans. Hearing it all these years later, what strikes you about it?
Peter Case: How strong the production sounds. How’d that happen?
Paul Collins: That it was really good, and the principles involved in making it were sound.
While recording “Hanging on the Telephone,” did you take an instant liking to it, and did you think it would have such a lasting legacy?
Peter Case: I liked other songs better, me and Paul’s. Some of Jack’s best were never recorded.
Paul Collins: The first time I heard “Hangin’ ...” in Jack’s flophouse room on Pine and Gough in San Francisco, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
What did you think when you heard Blondie’s version?
Peter Case: Jack’s rich now.
Paul Collins: That finally The Nerves were going to get their due.
Now, while “Hanging on the Telephone” is the song you’re remembered for the most, “When You Find Out” is an incredibly catchy number as well. Talk about how that song was created.
Peter Case: I wrote [it] in 1974, after a frantic hitchiking trip to Portland. Just came out in a burst. I don’t know how I came up with those chords, but they somehow worked.
Paul Collins: Peter wrote that song, and I will never forget listening to him as he recorded it in that little 16-track Chinese studio on Union Street in San Francisco. It still brings goose bumps. He is without a doubt one of rock’s finest singers.
This new release, One Way Ticket, not only features the EP, demos and previously unreleased live recordings, but it features two songs that were destined for a Nerves full-length LP. Hearing the rough, punked-up energy of [the song] “One Way Ticket,” was that the direction you were going as a band at the time?
Peter Case: It just came natural; after being on tour all year, we got more aggressive.
Paul Collins: We were trying to do anything we could to get the acceptance that we would never get while we were a functioning band. We operated in a complete vacuum.
“Thing of the Past” is a Plimsouls song performed here by an early incarnation of that band. But, Peter, it’s a song you wrote while with The Nerves, and this version sounds like a Nerves song. Did it always feel like a Nerves song to you?
Peter Case: To me, yes. I always liked that one. I wrote it on piano. To the others, [I’m] not sure if they ever paid attention to it.
Talk about “Walking Out on Love.” Why was it such an integral song for The Nerves?
Peter Case: One of Paul’s best, just a driving rocker.
Paul Collins: Not really sure. I wrote it, and the band liked it; that was enough for me, as I thought if I could get it past Jack and Peter, it had to be good. Also, Jack magnanimously threw in the bridge … which is great!
What do you remember most about the “Magical Blistering Tour” and being on the same bill with The Ramones and Mink DeVille?
Peter Case: Seeing America. Meeting people. Speed. Hanging with Dee Dee.
Paul Collins: Everything. It was one of the most exciting times of my life. We did something that no one had ever tried to do before in our generation, and we knew it and it was hard, but it was also very exciting. We knew what we were doing, and it was great; plus, we got to experience the birth of a scene, and how many times in life do you get to do that?
It’s been said that all three of you being songwriters and having your own ideas helped cause the breakup. What caused the friction?
Peter Case: Mental illness causes friction (laughs) ... and we had very different ways of seeing things.
Paul Collins: Personally, I never understood why the band broke up, except for the fact that we did everything a band could possibly do, and we could not get any industry acceptance. So we had no choice but to break up. I am sure each member will have their own opinion as to why what happened, happened. For me, personally, I was devastated. It took me completely by surprise, and I felt like my arms had been cut off … I learned a lot from that experience.
One thing that has come up in several of the reviews on this release is what would have happened if the band had stayed together and reaped the benefits of the collective output of all three songwriters. I never thought of it that way until now, and it does make me pause to think. It gives a lot of credence to what Jack used to say … “The greatest band that never was.”
After The Nerves, you formed The Breakaways and The Plimsouls. As you see it, how were those groups, especially The Plimsouls, different from The Nerves?
Peter Case: The Plimsouls were more dynamic, explosive. The Nerves were more teenage.
Paul Collins: The Nerves was a brief moment in time when three young men bonded together as one, really as one. I feel fortunate that I was a part of it. My subsequent musical endeavours fortunately have all had their merit, but they are not anything like what The Nerves was, which is why, after 34 years, it gives me great pleasure to see this release come out, and why I have nothing but the highest regard for Patrick of Alive Records for making it happen.
The Nerves are still seen as an influential group in power-pop, despite having such a short life. Do you ever think about what would have happened if you’d stayed together longer?
Peter Case: Somebody might’ve had to go to jail. But seriously, we should’ve recorded more. One Way Ticket is all we have to show. But I’m proud of the way it still sounds fresh. It stands up.