If there is a guy who quintessentially sums up the idea of “Mature Hipster”, Paul Collins is it.
Slogging away at the fine art of power pop for more than 35 years Collins has been become not only an icon, but the writer of some of the greatest power pop songs ever. From penning as a member of The Nerves the seminal Blondie single “Hanging on the Telephone” to his own defiantly perfect hit “Don’t Wait Up For Me”, to the fact that Collins continues to tour into even now in his mid-50’s there is nothing that doesn’t say cool about Paul Collins.
This month (October 2011) fans can catch up with Collins and his band while on tour in Spain and Portugal while in November they will flying the flag of power pop in Germany. To find out where Paul Collins Beat will next appear, keep on top of his Facebook page for The Beat Army, Paul Collins Beat, Paul Collins’ website and of course Rocker Magazine’s Tour Listings page.
Rocker: One thing I didn’t know was that you were trained at Julliard.
Paul: I went to Julliard for a year when I’d just got out of high school, I was a composition major and a piano minor, which meant that I got to do whatever I wanted to do.
Rocker: When you started at Julliard, did you think you’d be doing some classical thing?
Paul: No, actually, what happened was my mom and I were sitting at the breakfast table one day and she had the New York Times, and she said, “Today’s the last day for auditions at Julliard, get ready, we’re going in,” and I said, “What are you talking about?” My mother’s a professional artist, and I had done a piece with her where I did the music and she did these abstract slides, it was really quite beautiful, and she said, “Take the tape with you and go in,” and I said, “I don’t even know how to read music,” and she said, “Come on, you’re going.” It was really kind of funny, because Julliard is a very prestigious and very difficult school to get into, and I was accepted the same day. Usually kids audition there and wait a year to find out of they’ve been accepted, but because I was going in as a composition major, they said, “Go to the head of the composition department, go to his house, play him your tape and see what he says,” and he really liked it, so he said, “Yeah, I’ll take him as a student,” so I got accepted.
Rocker: Was the tape rock music?
Paul: This was not rock and roll at all, this was a tape I had made experimenting. I had a four-track tape recorder, and it was with flutes and organ and drums and guitars; experimenting with tape speeds and crazy stuff like that. After a year of studying composition and piano I decided that I really wanted to be in a rock band, because I was really quite taken with rock and roll music from the radio. I used to listen to WABC radio, which was the New York rock and roll station every night, going to sleep with the radio glued to my ear, hence the song “On The Radio” which I’ll be playing tonight. So a friend of mine from school was going to California and she said, “Do you want to go?” and I said, “Yeah,” and on my third day in San Francisco, I met up with Jack and joined The Nerves.
Rocker: Were your parents cool with you abandoning the life of Julliard for the rock and roll thing?
Paul: I left home at a pretty young age, when I was 17, and I don’t know what they thought. In those times, it was 1973, ’74, kids, as soon as they became of age, they got out of the house. I had a driver’s license and I was gone.
Rocker: So you were in San Francisco, but how did you find your fame in Los Angeles?
Paul: In retrospect, the work that I did with The Nerves was really a very important time in my life and I learned a lot about music, which I still draw on today. The problem was, at that time, in San Francisco, there was really nothing going on. You have to understand, there was no youth culture like you have today, no DIY scene, no independent music scene. There were just the big record companies, which were completely out of reach and out of touch to us, and everything was discombobulated, we didn’t know of any other bands. In fact, the whole time we were in San Francisco, I really don’t think we saw any other young people, there were no clubs to hang out at.
Rocker: But where did all those Sixties things happen then?
Paul: That wasn’t our scene, we were too young for that, and so we didn’t feel a part of that. That had already been established and we weren’t really accepted into that, and neither did we want to be. We were rebelling against that whole thing, and there was no club scene. The day we left San Francisco to go to L.A. was the first night that they had a show at [5:35] Gardens, and it was a friend of mine, Mary Monday, who has since passed on, a very lovely, dear friend. There were only two other bands in San Francisco that were doing anything, and we weren’t really connected with either of them, Crime and The Nuns. They were doing something completely different from us and we weren’t friends with them or anything like that, so there was no scene to identify with, and there was no internet, no way to connect with other people, so we really operated in a vacuum then. San Francisco, for as pretty and as nice as it is, we did not feel at home there at all.
Rocker: Were the other guys in the band from the east?
Paul: Peter was from Buffalo, and Jack was from Alaska, and so we were fish out of water, and we didn’t know anybody. Most of the bands that we later hooked up with in Los Angeles had an infrastructure, they grew up there and they had their friends from school that would go to their concerts, but we knew nobody. So it was very difficult for us to get anything going on, because it was just the three of us, and that’s what made that band kind of amazing, the fact that we were so on the outside we were able to get as much done as we did. In Los Angeles we really put on the very first punk shows. We presented The Dils and The Germs first show in Hollywood, that was put on by us, The Zeroes, The Zippers, The Weirdos, all these bands that we met in rehearsal halls. There was no place to play, the Whisky-a-Go-Go was not booking this kind of music.
Rocker: What was The Whisky booking at that time?
Paul: When we were there, the other club, Gazzarri’s, which was down the street from the Whisky, that’s where Van Halen was playing. The Whisky, was all metal… Joan Jett would play, The Runaways were running their course, but it was definitely not this kind of music, it was more established. Basically, in Hollywood, if you were going to get a gig, you had to have a record deal, and if you had a record deal, that meant you were on a major label – you were on Columbia or A&M or RCA – and they would have nothing to do with our kind of music, so really, these bands were left up to their own devices to come up with places to play. We started this club called the Hollywood Punk Palace, which was a club that we’d just book in rehearsal halls or theaters or whatever we could find and put on these shows.
It was pretty funny, one of the shows we put on was at SIR, that’s Studio Instrument Rentals,… I’m talking about in the day where there would be $50,000 showcases to get record labels to come see a band, with the managers and all this stuff, and SIR was the premier rehearsal soundstage in Los Angeles, and they had these huge rooms, which were very expensive, with the mini bar and the whole thing. We went in there and rented them out and said, “Yeah, we’re doing a showcase,” and the guy’s looking at us like, “What are you showcasing?” and we’d put on shows, and we’d collect the money across the street, there was no box office, we’d just stand on the corner, and anybody we saw who was looking kind of like a punk, we’d say, “Are you going to the show? It’s five bucks.” And they’d pay us. The funny thing is that we’d stand there in our three-piece suits, and it was like the Twilight Zone. Nobody ever questioned it, “OK, it’s five bucks,” and they’d give us the money. “What are you guys doing, standing on the corner collecting the money, how do we know it’s for real?”
It was really difficult to get anything going, and it took a huge amount of effort. Then we did that for a while and realized that wasn’t going anywhere, and that’s when we decided to tour, which was really a very pivotal moment, and an influential moment in that whole scene. Nobody thought you could do that, and basically, we jumped in a station wagon and drove across the United States. We booked it ourselves.
Rocker: How did you even know where go to?