It’s Gotta Be Pop
Interview with Peter Case
By Kurt Baker
When the late great Jerry Lee Lewis sang about “Great Balls of Fire,” he may have been alluding to a sound that a group of fine tuned enthusiastic musicians from LA named the Plimsouls would emulate in stereo form some 30 years down the road of rock n’ roll history. White hot blazin’ fire can best describe the sound of this largely influential Power Pop group that not only played in a style that borrowed from the licks and hooks of the Mersey Beat, but also put forth the soul and passion that harkened back to the classic sounds of Stax and Motown records, and even adding the kind of introspective tendencies of American folk rock. All this and more can be heard on Beach Town Confidential, a live record that will be released on Alive Records on Feb. 7th. Beach Town Confidential was recorded back in 1983 at the height of the Plimsouls’ popularity and just might be one of the best live records I’ve heard in quite some time. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to talk to lead singer and founding member Peter Case about the release of Beach Town and much, much more.. enjoy!
Hello Peter! I must say, I’m a huge fan of all your work and I’m very excited to have the opportunity to ask you some questions. Let’s start with the latest – On February 7th, The Plimsouls, along with ALIVE records will be releasing Beach Town Confidential, a live recording extracted from the vaults. Can you take us back to that night in 1983 when you guys recorded this record? What was going through your mind as you guys tracked this blazing performance? Was this just another normal Plimsouls gig or was it special in anyway?
Great to be talking to you! Look, the night we cut Beach Town Confidential we knew there was a 24 track recording being made, and that it would be broadcast across the country on the radio. We’d been on tour across the nation for our second album Everywhere At Once and this was the wrap up for that tour, sort of a homecoming party, and also a chance to make a great recording of our live show at the time, which everybody wanted us to get down on tape.
We’d played that club, The Golden Bear, a number of times, and it was always a blast: it was right across from Huntington Beach and Pier, so a lot of surfers and their girlfriends would come to the shows there… they rocked hard, and there was always a lot of drinking going on throughout the club, so that added to the atmosphere in a way.
We were road-tuned, wide awake, well rested, some new songs had been rehearsed, and the show was sold out way in advance, so we were really up.
Judging by the audience participation and the truly energetic performances on tracks like “Jump Jive and Harmonize”, the show featured on Beach Town Confidential must have been a whole lot of fun to not only play, but to watch from the audience. You guys even brought up some good friends from The Fleshtones and more.. How do you compare the live recordings and band performance of Beach Town to other Plimsouls live recordings like One Night In America or Beg, Borrow and Steal which was recorded a couple years prior at the legendary Whiskey A Go-Go?
Beach Town Confidential is the third in a series of live recordings of the band. I dig them, and they’re all different. Chronologically: One Night In America was the band on stage in Cleveland on our first national tour, early 1981. We were explosive, held nothing back, gave our all even though the place was less than half filled. People out there (it was Cleveland) hadn’t heard of us much yet, and we had a lot to prove. I love the covers on that one: The Outsiders “Time Won’t Let Me” done with punk intensity, Marvin Gaye’s “One More Heartache” played like a Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmy Reed’s “Help Yourself,” a blues song I’d learned when I was a teenager.
The next one, the first released on Alive Records, is Live! Beg, Borrow, and Steal. It’s recorded at a gig sent out as a radio show from the Whisky A Go Go from late ’81. Every year back then seemed like ages… the five years the band was together seems like an epoch of time. Late ’81 we were really sailing into the high period of “A Million Miles Away” and all that. It was right before that one came out. Hometown crowd at our home club, Halloween, people screaming, over the top energy!
Beach Town shows the band at one of their peaks, ready for their close up, or prime time moment, whatever. It never really happened, for various reasons, business screw jobs etc… the career didn’t go down like we wanted, exactly, but we were ready…for absolutely anything!
While listening to Beach Town I was so excited to hear the band bust through an incredible version of the Creation’s “Making Time”! Obviously, the sounds of British Invasion were highly influential to your songwriting, but what initially drew you to the sounds of those 60’s pop groups? What other acts do you list has a big influence on your writing in the late 70’s and early 80’s?
The Plimsouls always showed our big influences, wearing what we loved on our sleeves. When I was growing up in Buffalo, most of the music I dug was getting played on the radio: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, and the Animals, loved all of them… Bob Dylan was on top 40 radio with the hit songs “Like A Rolling Stone’ and “I Want You.” I was crazy about Stax, especially Sam & Dave, and Motown, including early Little Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations. James Brown was a hero. Aretha Franklin was in the mix every day on your transistor radio! And let’s not forget the great American bands like the Byrds, and Paul Revere and The Raiders (both produced by the great Terry Melcher) (The Raiders should be in the R+R Hall Of Fame!) and of course the Beach Boys. It was all on the radio, ALL THE TIME, and everybody was diggin’ it. I was already familiar and loved the greatest of ’50s rock and roll, my big sisters had been blasting it in the house my whole life: Chuck Berry, Link Wray and the Wraymen, Little Richard, Elvis pre-army when he was totally rockin’, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, the Everly Brothers. A little Hank Williams was in the air. I loved folk stuff like Joan Baez, and The Kingston Trio at a really tender young age. Those murder ballads broke my heart, and blew my mind. And later, blues, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, all of which I got into ’cause of Elvis, the Stones and Dylan.
So that’s where I was coming from. My songwriting heroes were John and Paul, Mick and Keith, and Bob Dylan. The Stones were so great, they had great songs. Dylan pointed out a whole world to discover. And the Stax and Motown writers, like Issac Hayes, and Smoky Robinson. By the time of the Nerves we were digging Burt Bacharach’s more garage-y stuff (Little Red Book, the Manfred Mann version) and great garage songs like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by the 13th Floor Elevators, and “Dark Side” by the Shadows Of Night. (the B side of “Gloria,” check it out).
One of the greatest things to happen in the ’70s was Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets collection, of American Garage -Punk hits. A huge record for me, and for most people getting in bands.. I already new about half the songs, they killed me. The songs were so great. It wasn’t the obscurity I loved, it was the greatness of the songs.
Let’s talk about the scene in Hollywood during the late 70’s.. Power Pop became a huge phenomenon and you were smack dab in the middle of it. What factors can you contribute to the fact that this music became so hot? Who were some of your favorite groups to share the stage with back in those days?
The LA scene was exciting in the late 70′s/ early 80′s. The bands that made it to the top of the local scene were all happening, you had to be good: The Blasters, the Plimsouls, X, and The Go-Go’s, were all pretty much at the top of the scene there. Tom Petty’d already gone national. The Nerves got there in the infancy of the whole scene, we put on a lot of the first punk shows with bands like The Zeros, the Germs, and the Weirdo’s on the bill… that was before Doug Fieger’s band, but we broke up before the whole thing totally took off. We were ahead of our time!
I wasn’t so into allegiance genres: I liked the best of punk, power pop, rockabilly, blues bands: all that stuff. I was into the artists, the bands: whatever was dynamic and great. All those bands I mentioned above crossed genre lines.
Do you feel that the culture of Los Angles had a big impact on the Plimsouls’ style, sonically and aesthetically?
LA was a great home then, though. The Nerves were so excited when we pulled in, January 1, 1977. We got off the freeway at Vine Street, after driving all night. “It’s the Capital Records Tower!” There was such a rock and roll legacy there, history everywhere: Gold Star Studios were all the great Phil Spector singles were cut, United Western Recorders was still going strong, home of Brian Wilson’s great Beach Boys sessions. When we got to town we went to Tiny Naylors Drive-In, where cute waitresses brought shakes and burgers out to your car. We couldn’t believe it. We knew that Brian had written hits there in that parking lot, with Roger Christian and others, 12 years or so previously. The clubs were still there, a lot of the people were still there. We met Kim Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer just walking down the street on Sunset, and talked to ‘em, gave ‘em our record. And it wasn’t too long ’til The Plimsouls cut their first LP record at RCA Studios on Sunset, in the same room where the Stones had cut “Satisfaction,” “Last Time,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” and “Paint It, Black.” The week we got there, Tom Waits was in studio C and Frank Sinatra was in studio A! Wow…
And Louie and Davido had grown up in the LA area, down in Paramount… a lot of aspects of our style and outlook were a result of what was in the air then. It was a rock and roll world city. It was so much fun to be in a band there and then. We ‘d helped to rebuild the scene there ourselves and then we got to enjoy it. The fans were great, we loved the other bands, we had so many friends, it was one of the best times ever, while it lasted…
Predating the Plimsouls you, along with Paul Collins and Jack Lee, formed the seminal power pop punk act the Nerves. What lead to the dissolution of the band and what promoted Paul and yourself to “Breakaway” and form the Breakaways?
The Nerves began in a different period: the scene was dead. In SF, in the Seventies, the hippie bands had still ruled, and no one wanted to hear rock and roll out of young guys like us, it was a lost art. I used to wonder “where is my generation?’ This was back in 1975, when we really got going. There was no one around to make a scene with. We started with our own ideas, and built everything from scratch. This was before punk, before the Ramones first came west. When Patti Smith came out we were already going, had cut our first record on our own label, the “Hanging On The Telephone” EP. I remember the day a truck delivered tour records from the factory, 5000 of them, stacked up boxes in our cellar on Folsom and Third… “how are we ever gonna get rid of these things?” It was very slow going at first.
Wish I had a few of them now, they’re worth a hundred dollars apiece!
We had a vision, based on pure teenage rock and roll, without all the extra phoney jive that was weighing it down then. It was ‘sposed to be like a hot-rodded, stripped-down super-version of everything we loved. We shared that, the three of us, great songs without the fake gimmicks, just the excitement, please! And that’s what we stood for, but after a while, Jack got scared and wanted to water down the concept, and I wouldn’t go for it. That’s the short version. He wanted to start chain-sawing the amps, and writing down to the audience, and I had to buck it, the original idea was too great.
So after trying to work it out for a while me and Paul started the Breakaways without Jack. It was basically the Nerves with a new guitarist. Paul and I had always worked well together. I was into making the band sound good, I loved coming up with parts that made the other guy’s songs work, like that bass line and harmony on “Working Too Hard.” That’s what a band member does; he’s always trying to make everybody else in the group look good. That what it means to be in a band, everybody moving in the same direction.
I’m extremely interested in the songwriting dynamic between yourself and Paul Collins. How did you guys collaborate in songwriting back in the early days? While the Beats’ first album features many tunes that the Breakaways originally recorded, the Plimsouls’ debut was chock full of new material. Had you been working on this record by yourself for a while, or was it a group effort to make the album when you joined up with Eddie Muñoz, Dave Pahoa and Louie Ramirez?
It was fun writing together, never difficult, the ideas just came. I don’t remember ever beating our heads against the wall or anything like that. ‘Tho I know we both worked hard on our own, long hours sometimes coming up and fleshing out ideas. For a while we lived in the same building, and I’d be in my pad working, and when I’d stop, I’d hear Paul up the well, in his pad one floor up, pounding away on an acoustic guitar, wailing, working on one of his. And then Paul & I started the Beat together, but I quit as they got signed to Columbia, for various reasons, you know, the old ‘musical differences.’ I felt like we needed to go our separate ways.
So Paul made the CBS record and I painted houses in Hollywood for a year and worked on songs, auditioned players, hung out with my girlfriend, and made friends with people, like the guys in 20/20, and Carla from the Textones. And eventually, I got my band together, and by January 1 1979 the Plimsouls were playing their first shows: five sets a night daily in El Monte California at a dive bar called The Place. And the songs came out of that period. I tailored the songs to what was going on with the band, so most of the older material was left behind then. I probably should’ve taken better care of it. But back then I was mostly just into the latest thing I was doing. I was always looking forward, wasn’t into looking back in any way.
You guys self-financed the original release of a “Million Miles Away,” a single that eventually got you signed to Geffen with “Everywhere at Once,” the Plimsouls’ second release. The album features some of my favorite Plimsouls tracks like “I’ll Get Lucky” and “Shaky City.” This, however, would be your last release as the Plimsouls til reforming in 1998 for Kool Trash. What happened to the Plimsouls after the release of this record and what eventually lead to your reformation?
And the Plimsouls were a great team… everybody contributed, and we were all on the same wave there, all through that time. Eddie, Louie, Davido and me… The Plimsouls could project rock and roll, it was very natural and believable with us, and that’s just the way it was. The whole was more than the parts, and when we were good, it was ’cause we were playing over our heads! That’s the way I always felt about it. It was like the ’69 Mets, if you know about baseball. We would play and play and play, gigs and more gigs, and then… it heated up, we’d get on a roll, and then: watch out! We could rock the place. That’s the way it was.
We continued through one more wild period after Beach Town… the 1984 tour. It was an explosive sound and show by then, but we were just getting no support in the business. The shows were packed, but we never got ahead, there were just so many problems, we were buried in trouble. We were all a little crazed by then, maybe me more than anybody. And other musical ideas were calling me. It became clear that the band wasn’t gonna go on the musical trip with me, we were kind of played out. At least it seemed that way. The songs I was writing were telling stories in a different way, it was a return to a thread I’d been on even before the Nerves. So I split… and some of the fans went with me and some didn’t. Now I’ve got a whole world of people who dig my solo music and don’t even know the Plimsouls. Maybe the band shouldn’t have broken up, nowadays people have side projects, but back then it wasn’t really done. I felt I had to make a choice, so I did. The end of one thing and the start of something else, that was late 1983, and then 1984, when all that went down.
Ten years later we got back together for a benefit, a tribute show to the Kinks, in Santa Monica. Clem Burke was on drums. Dave Davies (of the Kinks) was at the gig, and he said “wow, you guys sound just like my old band out there!’ And we kept playing after that, and still play whenever we feel like it: no sense in breaking up a perfectly good rock and roll band twice!
I’ve heard a rare demo of Phil Seymour covering your tune “Now,” a classic song on the Plimsouls’ debut album. For those readers who don’t know Phil Seymour, he was a contemporary of you during the early 80’s LA power pop boom, and a talented singer and session drummer. Did you ever share the stage with Phil, or have any anecdotes about him?
Okay, one detail: when the Plimsouls started, I wanted to be like the Who… guitar, bass, and drums, with a lead singer, and I wanted that singer to be… Phil Seymour. I didn’t want to front it, I just wanted to write the songs and play guitar, ‘make-show’ with the guitar, maybe sing some harmonies. It seemed like a great way to go. We were friends with Phil and asked him, and he thought about it for a while. During that time I wrote “Now” with my pals Joey Alkes and Chris Fradkin, and we had Phil in mind. We demo’d it at the Shelter Records studio, with the Plimsouls backing up Phil, and I thought it was great. I wish I had a copy of that! Phil liked it too, but wanted top billing: “Phil Seymour and the Plimsouls,” And I wouldn’t go for it. And he wasn’t gonna work under another band name after getting kinda left high and dry in the Dwight Twilley Band breakup. (People didn’t know he was the lead singer on so much of the DTB material.) So it didn’t happen, and I had to get off my ass and front the ‘Souls. It all worked out. But it would have been cool. I always loved Phil’s voice, he was a great rock and roll singer, no doubt about it.
After the Plimsouls split you went on to release a solo record in 1986, which would lead to a successful career and a slew of other records.. but the sound was much different than your work in the Plimsouls, opting for more roots oriented folk/blues sound. What lead you to develop this new sound? In performance, do you enjoy the intimacy of performing your songs solo acoustically and how do you compare it rockin’ out with a full band?
People wondered what was up when I went solo, but that music was in my head, and had been brewing there for years. My heroes when I was a kid were rock and rollers, but also the Beats, and deep blues singers, the super intense solo ones, like Lightnin’ Hopkins. When I was 16 I hitched rides from Buffalo to Boston in a blizzard to see Lightnin’ play… and it was a big part of my scene when I was street-singing in SF before the Nerves. I fell in with Mike Wilhelm from The (SF) Charlatans about 15 minutes after I got to San Francisco in 1973. He taught me about fingerpicking the guitar, about Robert Johnson, Reverend Gary Davis, and Mance Lipscomb: the pantheon of the great blues musicians, and all that stuff just killed me. It still does. Mike went on to join the Flamin’ Groovies, and he was always their mentor. And he was mine too. Now there’s a seminal musician: Mike Wilhelm. And my solo music is still rooted in that. It’s like that stuff, mixed with the rock and roll I dig, and it’s my own style of it. And the words are influenced by Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, Burroughs, all those guys, the really far-out-tellers-of-truth: the Beats. I’m into it like crazy, and audiences seem to be really into it, too. It’s intense as the Plimsouls, but in another way: it’s different, and it’s the same… when it’s happening it transcends all normal considerations. I dig the communication I get with audiences. And I like the life of playing solo, seeing the world, travelling with whoever I want to travel with, singing for people, getting it across to them. It’s kind of a dream come true. And I keep writing… I’m always most into the next thing, whatever it is.
At the beginning of March, you’ll be heading out on the road for an extensive US tour with Paul Collins to perform all the classic songs from the past. How did this tour come about and are you excited to play these songs again with your old band mate?
And now I get to rock out with my pal Paul Collins, and the band, and well, it’s going to be great, ’cause all those songs, they’re so fun to play. We rock because we can! We’re gonna play everywhere! And there you go…
Thank you so much Peter!
All the best.