The '70s power pop icon says being teenaged is a state of mind.
Power pop was grown from the most mainstream DNA--Beatles-like pop, garage rock energy--but its heyday is the moment that never happened. The "Shake Some Action"-era Flamin' Groovies wore their Beatles and Stones influences most proudly, but it can be heard in Shoes, Dwight Twilley Band, The Records, and The Plimsouls to name a few. If you hear Todd Rundgren in their sound, you're likely right and wrong. It's more accurate to think of him and The Raspberries as early adopters, though their successes likely emboldened bands and labels alike to think that there was an audience for power pop. One that never materialized in meaningful numbers despite the number of ridiculously catchy songs made by charismatic young men.
Paul Collins was part of The Nerves, a Los Angeles-based trio with Jack Lee and Peter Case. Their biggest song was the surf-tinged "Hanging on the Telephone," which Blondie covered on its Parallel Lines album. But the independent release never caught on, and Case went on to form The Plimsouls while Collins started The Beat--Paul Collins' Beat after the ska band The Beat formed in England, then changed its name to The English Beat.
Collins plays an early show Tuesday night at Siberia, and his albums first two albums particularly--The Beat and The Kids are the Same--are power pop at its purest. The songs could be Ramones songs if they were made harder and edgier, but Collins sang about cars, girls and rock 'n' roll in songs you could shout along to by the second chorus.
But like so many of his contempories, Collins' albums ended up remaindered. The Knack's "My Sharona" was power pop's one-song commercial high water mark. After that, a The [fill-in-the-blank] band couldn't make headway, and if it had a vest or a skinny tie, it fared even worse. Most of his contemporaries split, quit, or changed their sound, but Collins has remained fairly constant. He has dabbled in Americana, but since 2005 he has released three power pop albums including the new Feel the Noise. The songs are the songs of the genre, not a man in his late 50s/early 60s, but he sings and plays them with the same conviction as his twentysomething self did in the late 1970s.
We recently conducted the following interview via email:
The Nerves’ EP sounds like a very teenaged record. How old were you at the time, and how should I understand The Nerves now?
The Nerves were a band that exemplified what can happen when three young men took to the classics with a vengeance, I believe our music has stood the test of time because it was so good, so well done, that it was able to overcome the fact that it was so completely outside the music business and still survive and have the impact that it does today.
The Beat songs--like many power pop songs for me--seem to be about an idealized version of teenaged life, one that maybe only existed in those songs. When you wrote those early albums and used the word “kids,” were you thinking about teenagers or people in their 20s?
One tries to write songs that are universal, the word "kids" is more a state of mind than an age, which allows you to keep it alive for as long as you want. Even though I am not 18 I still feel like a kid in many ways.
Related to that, how did you approach writing lyrics for “Feel the Noise”? It’s hard to imagine that the story in “Little Suzy” is yours now?
The theme to "Little Suzy", for me, is universal and if you are still trying to reach a woman or understand her those things can still happen to you. I know this from actual personal experience. What I feel is that a lot of these sentiments may seem juvenile, but in their universality they can apply to any age group. What one feels today between a man and a woman, for example, can resonate to when you were just starting out--at least for me.
Why do you think power pop didn’t catch on?
That's a tricky question, but the one thing I can say is power pop is back and its here to stay this time!
I think the biggest problem power pop has had over the years is that it wasnt dangerous. It's about good times, girls, work and travel, cool clothes and hot guitar licks, so it wasn't offensive like some other forms of rock n roll have been. But it also embodies all the best elements of rock n roll--good songs, great melodies, and harmonies and great guitar parts.
How do you deal with the irony that you made music in the mode of perhaps the respected band of all time - The Beatles - and made really accessible, immediate music, but it didn’t go anywhere? That has to be emotionally hard to work with.
It was but not now. Now I am enjoying a renaissance in my music, and I am working more now than ever before in my life and I am happy. I work with primarily young, up and coming bands who dig this kind of music and its wonderful. I get to feed off their energy, and they get to learn a few tricks from an old dog.
In interviews I’ve read with you, you’ve been very supportive of contemporary power pop bands. Had you been following new power pop bands, or are these groups you learned about while on the road and performing?
It is really fantastic, I have discovered that there is a whole subculture of bands out there doing this kind of music, guitar-driven, melodic rock 'n' roll. They can be left, right or center, but we all share a lot of the same common goals, and I feel truly lucky that I get to be a part of their world.
The title track from Feel the Noise seems like a step outside your established mode with the broader sonic palate, the unusual structure, and the heavy rock chorus. Where did that come from? Does it have anything to do with the younger bands you’ve played with in recent years?
No. I wrote that song in Madrid a few years back when I was making the record Ribbon of Gold. When we started Feel the Noise, it wasnt slated to be done, but then one morning as I was getting ready to go to the studio I was going through some old acoustic demos I had and there she was in all her glory. I played it for Jim and he said, "Fuck yeah, let's record it." So we did!