Paul Collins cut his teeth during a strange time in American music.
When his band, the Los Angeles power-pop trio the Nerves, released its one and only four-song 7-inch in 1976, the radio waves were dominated by Peter Frampton types riffing on 20-minute guitar solos. The hippies had come and gone and punk rock was still a few years down the road. No one knew what to make of three guys driving to gigs in a station wagon, wearing suits with skinny ties and playing three-minute pop songs.
"People thought we were from another planet," Collins laughs. "We got kicked out of every music store in L.A. and San Francisco because people thought we were jerks and that we weren't playing real music."
Along with his bandmates Jack Lee and Peter Case, Collins' one near brush with fame happened when Blondie scored a hit with a cover of the Nerves' song "Don't Leave Me Hanging on the Telephone" in '78. But to this day when Collins performs the song, people approach him after the show and say 'Hey man, great Blondie cover.'
Since then the group has existed as little more than a footnote in the annals of pop history, but its influence on indie music culture is incalculable.
Before Black Flag got in the van and led the punk charge across the country in the 1980s, the Nerves had already blazed the DIY trail nearly a decade earlier. "People told us we couldn't make our own record, and we said 'Fuck you, yes we can,'" Collins declares. "They said you can't book a tour without an agent, but nothing stopped us from putting gas in the car and going. We even started our own club, called the Hollywood Punk House. The first shows in Hollywood by the Germs, the Zeros, the Zippers, the Weirdos, the Dils were at our club that we booked. No one else would do it, so we said yes."
When punk finally did break, Collins and Co. chose not to go that route. "We thought it was too juvenile," he adds. "We didn't want to wear safety pins and torn-up clothes; we wanted nice clothes. But philosophically we epitomized punk."
Rarely does a band go against both the establishment and its peers, but the Nerves did both.
Since those early days Collins' has remained on the fringes of mainstream success. In 1979, he signed with Columbia Records to release the self-titled debut from his band, the Beat, which later became the Paul Collins Beat. But despite critical praise the record went largely unnoticed. After a few more releases received the same lack of public interest, the group broke up.
After disbanding the Beat, Collins fell into obscurity, and the changing face of popular music didn't help his case. He continued, working mostly in Europe, to produce bands here and there and occasionally tried his hand at country songwriting with the Paul Collins Band. But writing short, sharp, raw and honest pop songs has always remained his forte.
As the '80s turned into the '90s, grunge took over the radio and like a virus it infected everything. "Everything else just kind of took a nose dive, especially the kind of '80s pop music that I was doing," Collins admits. "Nobody wanted to hear it."
Rather than point a finger at the changing face of popular music for stifling his livelihood, Collins blames the establishment like he has always done.
The rise of the Internet, however, has sparked new interest in Collins' career. "The Internet broke the stranglehold," he says. "Corporate radio is so boring that people had to find a way around it and now people have podcasting and their own radio shows and they're really cool and eclectic."
The shift in dissemination has churned up a lot of music that was lost in the shuffle over the years. Both the Nerves' and the Beat's recordings have been reissued and, ironically, are now considered power-pop classics. "People are discovering a lot of timeless music that was lost the first time around," he says. "That's the power of rock 'n' roll and that's the power of the Internet."
The cultural change is visible in the scores of young bands popping up on Myspace every day, claiming '70s-'80s power-pop as an influence, and Collins is paying attention.
In 2006 he released Flying High (Lucinda) to the same critical praise his albums have always received. The following year he released Ribbon of Gold on the obscure Spanish indie label, Rock Indiana.
Over time Collins has further honed the art of crafting the perfect pop song. Ribbon of Gold portrays the same balance of raw honesty and short, sharp pop arrangements that put him on the map more than 30 years ago. And over time he has adhered to the same DIY philosophies.
"Every day I ask myself the same question, 'Why am I doing this?' And at the end of the day, I always have the same answer – because I love rock 'n' roll."
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