The oldest story in the world
Last year, Peter Case sat holed up in a tiny studio in Santa Monica, California, finishing work on the third Plimsouls album--the band's first in 14 years, and one Case didn't think you would ever hear. Clad all in black--from his faded T-shirt and leather vest to his jeans and suede boots--Case listened to playbacks of a handful of already mixed songs and considered a few more still in their unpolished form. As he did, he sang to himself, mouthing the words to such songs as "Playing with Jack," "Pile Up," and "Feeling Strange." A smile crossed a bearded face that looked not much older than it did 15 years ago.
At the time, these songs were two years old, recorded shortly after the band returned from a less than amicable breakup in 1984, but they sounded of tomorrow--and of yesterday. They were sturdy rock-and-roll anthems and ballads built upon Case's gruff holler, Eddie Munoz's wiry guitar lines, and bassist Dave Pahoa and drummer Clem Burke's rock-and-roll-solid backbeat. They sounded as though they were recorded a decade ago or next week in a garage by a band weaned on the Outsiders, Mouse and the Traps, and Chuck Berry, as catchy as pop but as potent as punk.
Time has indeed treated the Plimsouls well, left them not a nostalgia act relegated to Rhino new-wave compilations but a relevant band that has something left in the tank and a few more miles to go. And so, on October 20, the Plimsouls will release Kool Trash, the follow-up to 1983's Everywhere at Once--the band's first for Geffen, and its farewell.
"There just seemed to be some unfinished business with the Plimsouls," Case said during a break from mixing. "The way we broke up was...not great. But for one thing, the band had only made a couple of albums, and the band played tons of these live shows that had been exciting. I always felt our strong suit was playing live, and you can't really explain why the Plimsouls were that great if you just put on the records.
"I mean, you can almost kinda get that from 'A Million Miles Away' or 'Oldest Story in the World' or 'Magic Touch' or some of the stuff on the second record [Everywhere at Once]. It seemed for people who were into the Plimsouls, we'd make another record or two. We had broken a sound and a style during the thousands of gigs we did, and then we never did anything with it."
Not too long ago, Case was ready to ditch these new recordings; he had written them off as a series of failed demos for a label deal that never came to fruition. Recorded in a matter of days, born in the studio during a few late-night sessions, they were almost abandoned there as well, forgotten and unwanted. Most of the tracks were originally cut for Epitaph Records owner (and Bad Religion's founding guitarist) Brett Gurewitz, a longtime fan of the Plimsouls who flirted with the idea of signing them to his label a while back. But Gurewitz ultimately passed, Case said, because the Plimsouls' sound didn't mesh with that of Epitaph's "new punk" ideology. "Brett's got a corporate identity," Case said, "and I guess we didn't fit with that."
Case was left holding the tapes (which also feature Gurewitz on vocals and Sam Phillips-Aimee Mann sideman Jon Brion on organ), forgetting about them and caring less about them every day. He had his own solo career to worry about, and the Plimsouls still seemed a thing of the distant past. Case was torn between writing material for his own albums and touring behind the greatest of the so-called power-pop bands to emerge from Los Angeles, or anywhere, during the early 1980s.
In retrospect, he said with a shrug, balancing his career and that of the Plimsouls "might not have been the right way to do things, to have it all jammed into one season. It was confusing." Indeed, after garnering massive press in Los Angeles, much of it loaded with the stored-up affection bestowed on old soldiers returned home from war, the Plimsouls seemed to let opportunity slip away. The momentum they carried with them even into the spring of 1996, when they played a triumphant show at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, dissipated like late-morning fog. They were forgotten even faster the second time around, and they hadn't even broken up again.
"I've never been so much for good career planning," Case said, smiling. "When we came back, we had some press and all this kinda stuff, but it's hard to say whether we really connected. We didn't get a record out. We did play some cool shows, and some were really strong, but we did this recording and never finished. We just went right by it. We blew it off." Case also became busy booking and hosting his monthly First Flight series at the now-defunct Ash Grove nightclub on the Santa Monica Pier, where such guest performers as John Doe, Austin's Kathy McCarty, Dave Alvin, John Wesley Harding, and Amy Rigby performed in an intimate, round-robin setting.
Two of the songs from the Epitaph demos ultimately surfaced on the soundtrack to the 1996 Liv Tyler film Heavy, the rave-up rocker "Pile Up" and the breakup ballad "Lost." The rest, including a smart Who-Kinks homage titled "Not of This World" (written by Case and Ben Vaughn), sat untouched till now. Until a few months ago, there was no American label even willing to release what would become Kool Trash. As a result, earlier this summer, the disc was released in Spain and France on the band's own Shaky City label, so named for the first song on Everywhere at Once. (According to one source, Munoz was also pressing up copies of the disc and getting them into L.A. record stores, which, of course, annoyed Case.)
But next month, a small Los Angeles-based indie called Fuel 2000--which has distribution through the mighty UNI Corporation, ironically enough the same company that distributes Geffen--will put the album in stores across the States.
Last year, Case wasn't so much bitter about the band's inability to land a domestic deal--though he has every right to be, especially when major labels are clogging up the bins with dozens of bands every month who sound like the Plimsouls, though they're not nearly as pertinent. Perhaps amused is a better word...or maybe bemused.
"It seems like we're doing good work," he said. "It ain't the answer to cancer, but it's a rock-and-roll record--a rockin' Plimsouls record, and a pretty good one. I don't know if this is where we would have gone if we had stayed together, but in a weird way, we did kinda pick up where we left off. But ya know, when we cut this stuff a few years ago, the alternative thing was happening, and a lot of people in the music business really felt like they had their hands on some sort of golden calf. Now they've slaughtered that, and it's like a different period musically.
"The Plimsouls' music doesn't have much to do with what's going on, but even in 1982, '83 we didn't. I didn't feel like we were part of some power-pop thing. The Plimsouls played with absolute conviction. It wasn't about chops. It was about complete commitment to playing with the Plimsouls."
The Plimsouls initially reunited because of a handful of business necessities and happy accidents. The first came in 1994, when they were asked to rerecord "A Million Miles Away" for the Speed soundtrack. It was a move that might have been a bit ill-conceived. To outsiders--especially those who considered Case's solo career an interesting, worthwhile venture that found him wandering blues alleys and folkways--it smacked of nostalgia, of admitting they were a one-hit wonder that had tapped a rich vein and bled it dry. And alongside the likes of Pat Benatar, Gary Numan, and Rod Stewart, the soundtrack move also smacked of bad taste.
"That actual recording was kinda weird, but the sessions for it were cool," Case insisted. "I had some songs, we started playing 'em, and everything fell together." In February 1995, the Plimsouls regrouped again for a Kinks tribute in Santa Monica that also featured Dave Davies, and just a few months later they came together in the studio to record the tracks that make up Kool Trash.
The first time around, the Plimsouls existed at a time when everything seemed fleeting and disposable, when everything came bearing yesterday's expiration date. In their rush to put the new in new wave, stations like L.A.'s powerful KROQ created a brand-new generation of one-hit wonders; everything was a hit for one second, but very little lasted for two. And the Plimsouls had the unfortunate fate to wash up in the Knack's backwash, even being trumpeted in some circles as "L.A.'s next Knack." But where the Knack came bearing Beatles moves, Buddy Holly covers, and trench-coat leers, the Plimsouls seemed infinitely more authentic, more genuine, more sincere. The Knack was out to market history and get rich plundering the closet; the Plimsouls belonged to history, inevitabilities along the time line.
The Plimsouls' greatest songs--"A Million Miles Away," "Hush, Hush," "How Long Will It Take," "Now"--sound old today but not dated. They're old only in the sense that they're timeless, as exhilarating tomorrow as they were 15 years ago. They inhabit the same neighborhood as Chuck Berry or the Rolling Stones or X, a place where music stands as immortal and indestructible. "A Million Miles Away"--released first as a single, then on the band's sole major-label album, Everywhere at Once, which itself has remained a sort of incidental classic--wasn't just a Byrds ripoff. It was an extension of "Eight Miles High," 12-string psychedelic pop infused with punk rock's immediacy, fervor, tension, and desperation. It was something brand-new fashioned out of something well worn and familiar--and it was potent enough to influence the likes of the Long Ryders and Green on Red and many other musicians trolling L.A.'s clubs.
The Plimsouls' self-titled debut on Planet in 1981--rereleased six years ago on Rhino, with the band's 1980 Zero Hour EP and a few rarities thrown in for bargain shoppers--sounds thin only because it was so poorly produced, the guitars muted and whittled down to razor-thin proportions. It sounds like so many records of the time, rock and roll without the rock, everything turned down until it felt flimsy and transparent. (The Rhino version was remastered, but you can only pump up a punctured tire so far.) But both Zero Hour and The Plimsouls showcased a band with a keen sense of its roots, covering both "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" and Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose" without turning either into a bar-band throwaway; you got the sense that Case and the rest of the band had some real connections to the music, that they understood--and loved--their history and their place in it.
For a time, history was all Case really knew: Born in Buffalo, New York, he caught a bus to San Francisco in the early '70s and made his meager living busking on corners for change. He traveled the West Coast, from Portland to Mexico, banging out old Lightnin' Hopkins, Rev. Gary Davis, Skip James, and Mance Lipscomb songs on his acoustic--a young white Yankee learning his way through music by picking out the music of old Southern black men. He eventually fell in with guitarist Jack Lee, who recruited Case with an offer of doubling whatever meager money he was making on the street. With Paul Collins they formed the Nerves, perhaps the first and finest of the power-pop bands of the late 1970s; their "Hanging on the Telephone" off the 1976 Nerves EP was recorded by Blondie just a few years later. (Appropriately, current Plimsoul Burke made his reputation as Blondie's drummer.)
The Nerves busted up two years after the EP: Collins ended up forming Paul Collins' Beat, Lee went his own way with the ill-advised Maiden America record, and Case formed the Plimsouls with drummer Lou Ramirez and, later, bassist Pahoa; guitarist Munoz joined up in 1980, bringing to the band a punk-rock sound as big as the Texas sky he was raised under. But the end came a mere four years later: Too many nights spent drinking and taking speed and too much disappointment came between the band members--that, and too much of doing too little to sustain what remained of their hopes of becoming more than L.A. club heroes. They became the band they portrayed in the film Valley Girl--fantastic musicians relegated to the background.
"We just really fell apart," Case said fatalistically. "It was just everything. It was 1984, during our last tour, and we were going through Texas. I had already started playing solo. I had this new batch of songs, and the band was sorta starting to play them, but it wasn't working. It was a different style of music. But it was a natural thing for me to do at the time, to go back to writing these story songs."
The Peter Case who emerged as a solo artist on such albums as 1986's Peter Case, 1989's The Man with the Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar, 1995's Torn Again, and this year's Full Service No Waiting was a born-again troubadour, a man who left behind the forlorn love songs of his early 20s and turned toward writing about "sin and salvation," as he wrote in the liner notes to Peter Case. They were songs about lost Americans, street-corner castoffs in search of a better anything; he covered Blind Lemon Jefferson and Roy Orbison on his 1994 Sings Like Hell, signed as a solo artist to tiny Santa Monica-based Vanguard Records, and spent some of his solo career trying to recapture what he'd had with the Plimsouls. (1992's Six Pack of Love especially finds Case pushing his all-pro band toward what he now called "big-note...simple" rock and roll--"just like what the Plimsouls used to do, but better," he said, laughing.)
But now he has found that sound again--with that band again. The new record will hit stores in October, though it's already available online (www.lather.com/plimsouls). The band--which may or may not even exist at this point, with Case again concentrating on his solo career--will also continue to play their random Los Angeles gigs at small clubs, yet another band making the rounds and weary of going through the whole damned thing one more time.
"I gave up asking why about this stuff a really long time ago, because I don't get anywhere with it," Case said last fall. "Maybe I'm not that smart. Maybe I don't have the insight. If I was asking why about the Plimsouls, I could ask it for years. I don't really know why.
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