Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The History Of Peter Case Part 2: The Plimsouls

Originally published in Teenage Kicks #2 (Fall 1997)
By Devorah Ostrov

Back cover of the "Zero Hour" EP
In our last issue, we traced Peter Case's career with seminal power pop band the Nerves, whose lineup included Jack Lee on guitar and Paul Collins on drums.

After the Nerves disintegrated in early 1978, Case and Collins continued to work together as the Breakaways. Although short-lived ("It lasted about a month," states Case. "We played the Whisky once, that was it.") the band did record "eight or nine" tracks. Two Breakaways' tunes, "One Way Ticket" and an early version of "Walking Out on Love," can be found on the excellent Bomp Records compilation The Roots of Powerpop. "Walking Out on Love" would later turn up on the Beat's debut album along with "U.S.A.," another song originally by the Breakaways.

Amongst other things, the Breakaways suffered from an unstable lineup. "We had a bunch of different guitarists," acknowledges Case. In his opinion, the rhythm section was also weak. "I wanted to get off bass and I wanted Paul to get off drums," he says. At Case's urging, Collins switched to lead guitar, becoming the group's true frontman. Case took up rhythm guitar, Mike Ruiz and Steve Huff were recruited on drums and bass respectively, and the group's name was changed to the Beat.

Still, tension between the two principle band members led to Case's departure before the Beat was signed to CBS Records. According to Case, "Some problems went down, and I didn't want to work with Paul anymore. I just wanted to do my own thing. I let him have the Beat and I went off and put my own band together."

Except it wasn't really that easy. For a year, Case kicked around LA, writing songs, painting houses, working "weird jobs." He even joined 20/20 "for a day." And he ran ads in music papers. "I knew Carla Olson [from the Textones] and Kathy Valentine [ex-Textones, soon-to-be Go-Go]. We were all running ads trying to start bands. We were going through thousands of people, and we'd always compare them."

Geffen Records publicity photo
Although he didn't know him well, Case was also acquainted with drummer Lou Ramirez. "He'd been over to my house a couple of times," recalls Case. "I think I might have met him through a want ad." Ramirez and his bassist friend Dave Pahoa had a regular gig backing a blind guitarist named Doc at a bar in El Monte. One night Ramirez invited Case to join them.

Things went brilliantly for several shows, with Case mixing in some rock 'n' roll and rockabilly with Doc's usual country repertoire, and alternating sets allowed the threesome to work out some originals. Plus, they got free beer.

Legend has it, one night they answered a request for "Polk Salad Annie" and delivered a rave-up version. "Hell-bent, lying on stage!" was how Case once described it. The bar's owner, sober for a change, freaked when he saw the guys going nuts and fired them.

In reality, only Case was fired, but the rest of the story holds true. "We did get way outta hand on 'Polk Salad Annie' quite a few times. We used to do a lot of feedback and noise... smash stuff! The boss came in one day and said, 'Pete's on acid.' He told David, 'We can't have Pete anymore.' David said, 'Well, we quit.'" For the record, Case wasn't on acid — that night.

Publicity photo
Case, Ramirez, and Pahoa stayed together, debuting as the Plimsouls for a performance at the Camarillo State Mental Institution (as openers for the Angry Samoans). Gigs in LA proper soon followed — at Club 88, Madam Wong's, and the Hong Kong Café. 

The group's moniker, a British expression for sneakers, was Case's idea. (He mentions having put together another outfit called the Plimsouls shortly after leaving the Beat, but that long-forgotten lineup never played live.) However, he's somewhat ambivalent about the name these days. "It's lightweight. It doesn't really mean anything, except that we like soul music. That's all it means. We named it that because the other groups were like the Cars — real obvious. And we hated that! So, we called it the Plimsouls. I guess it's a cool name."

Even though he can't remember exactly when it was, Case does know where he met guitarist Eddie Munoz. "It was at a Flamin' Groovies show at the Starwood." (He also recollects that the show was in promotion of the Groovies' Now album, which puts it sometime in 1978.) And according to Case, Munoz was considered a Plimsoul as early on as their first rehearsal. But Munoz, an Austin native who repaired guitars for a living, had to postpone joining the group while he worked as a guitar roadie on the Elvis Costello/Nick Lowe Armed Forces tour. His first appearance with the Plimsouls wouldn't be until they played Gazzarri's a year later.

Meanwhile, the three-piece group (reportedly on a budget of "something like $300") entered the studio to record the "Zero Hour" EP, released in 1980 on the very indie Beat label. "The label was this guy Steve Zepeda," says Case, "who lived with his mother in Long Beach. He lived in the garage, y'know."

Beat Records advertisement for the "Zero Hour" EP
Produced by the band's manager, Danny Holloway (introduced to them by Zepeda, his prior production credits included the Heptones' Night Food), the five-song EP featured the effervescent "Great Big World" and a nifty cover of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose" as well as the way-rockin' "Hypnotized" and "How Long Will It Take?" The bopping title track was written while Case was sitting in a car waiting for his girlfriend. "I was trying to catch a train," he says of the song's inspiration. "So, I was mad!"

The EP sold well in Los Angeles and KROQ's Rodney Bingenheimer played "Zero Hour" repeatedly, turning it into a regional hit. Overnight the Plimsouls became local superstars! "Before the EP we were making $150 a night playing pubs," muses Case. "We would take the bus to Santa Monica, with our amps, to play this pub called the Londoner. Then all of a sudden we were packing the Starwood!"

And the Plimsouls appealed to all types, as Case told one rock 'zine: "We get everybody at our gigs: punks, skinny-tie college-types, bi's, tri's. You never have to worry about what to wear to a Plimsouls' show..."

Planet advertisement for the "Now" 45
"That was true," he confirms. "There would be punk rock people... I know the Circle Jerks were Plimsouls fans. And I just found out that Brett from Epitaph Records was a Plimsouls fan. All kinds of people were Plimsouls fans. On a lot of different levels, people were into it."

With all the hoopla surrounding the EP, their decision to sign a two-album deal with small-time Planet Records (an Elektra offshoot whose roster included, says Case, "nobody you've ever heard of") was a strange one. Case still can't explain how it came about: "It's a good question, really. I'm not sure, y'know. They just got real interested. They really wanted to sign some new bands. After [the success of] the Knack, they probably wanted a 'new wave' band and thought we fit the bill."

In 1981 Planet released the group's self-titled debut, with Holloway again acting as producer.  The opening R&B infused "Lost Time" featured a horn section arranged by New Orleans great Harold Batiste while other tracks bounced ("In This Town" and "Hush, Hush"), swaggered with a country tinge ("I Want You Back"), and provided a rush of adrenaline ("Everyday Things"). Combined with the mid-period Beatles feel of "Now," the finely crafted "I Want What You Got," and the note-for-note remake of "Zero Hour," the album showcased their exceptionally wide-ranging skill. Meanwhile, two covers — the Easybeats' "Women" and Wilson Pickett's "Mini-Skirt Minnie" — neatly highlighted the Plimsouls intertwined pop and soul influences.

Planet issued "Zero Hour" as a 45 (b/w a live cover of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and a live take of "Hush, Hush"), which did okay in LA but went nowhere nationally. A follow-up single of "Now" b/w an instrumental version of the old Nerves' tune "When You Find Out" (sounding very surfy), didn't fare much better. But it did garner an appraisal from Trouser Press' celebrity guest reviewer Billy Idol, who grumbled: "I don't really like this kind of American-sounding record... It's very professional — or sounds it." And, possibly due in large part to a lack of promotion by the record company ("There was no promotion, absolutely none," says Case), outside of a few major California cities, the LP didn't sell at all. Through sheer force of will, it climbed to #153 on the Billboard chart.

Nevertheless, a cross-country tour went well. (A live recording of their Cleveland show, dubbed One Night in America, is perhaps a better document of the group during that period than the studio album. "It's a lot more exciting!" asserts Case.) And they got some favorable write-ups in the national rock press.

Live! Beg, Borrow & Steal (Alive Records - 2010)
In his Trouser Press article, Jim Green enthusiastically described the Plimsouls' sound: "Ah yes. The ringing guitars, simple rocking beat — definitely American but with a twist of Limey-philia."

But he also brought up some sore spots. One was the evil Knack and the enormous hype build-up/backlash which was sucking up all other LA pop bands in its wake. "We ain't just another Knack," Case seethed back then. "We're real different — in motivation, content, approach... Sure, you can make superficial comparisons, and people do it before they hear us, see us live."

Sixteen years later, Case recalls a proposed anti-Knack photo shoot: "We were gonna take a picture of the Plimsouls with machine guns and call it Get the Knack!" With a vicious chuckle, he adds, "Would've been good."

Point number two was the slick sound of the LP, which Billy Idol had referred to in his review of the "Now" 45. Green treated the dilemma delicately, saying that the band was "displeased... inasmuch as it was cut in the conventional, fragmented manner of laying down backing tracks and then overdubs, making for less spontaneity than they would prefer." He then immediately stated that "some of the album retains their live R&B grit, and onstage the Plimsouls are hotter than ever."

Today Case can be more candid in his assessment: "It got ruined in the mastering. Planet had really taken the guts out of it. Somebody was afraid of how it sounded, and they ruined it right before it came out. Which was a real great surprise! They said, 'Here's your record.' And I remember me and Eddie were both holding our chests, we were both doubled over in pain. We were having dual anxiety attacks, going, 'Oh my God! They've ruined it.'"

(The Rhino Records CD reissue, Plimsouls... Plus, includes a re-mastered version of the entire first album, and features a much superior sound quality. "I was pleasantly surprised when I got the tapes," comments Case. "They redid it, really made it a lot better.")

Photo from Trouser Press - August 1981
Once back from the tour, Case asked Planet to release the group from its deal. Although there was one more album to go on the contract, the record company didn't argue. Planet clearly thought the Plimsouls were a lost cause; for his part, Case didn't trust Planet to handle something new the band was working on called "A Million Miles Away."

The song actually dated from some months earlier. Case and his friend Chris Fradkin had gone to see the Germs (one of Darby Crash's last shows). Afterwards, they stopped off at a bar and Case, still reeling from the death of John Lennon and a recent break-up with his girlfriend, poured out his feelings of loneliness on a napkin:

"Friday night I'd just got back
I had my eyes shut
Was dreaming about the past
I thought about you while the radio played
Should've got moving
For some reason I stayed
I started drifting to a different place
I realized I was falling off the face of the world
And there was nothing left to bring me back..."

Later, the two went to the apartment of another friend, Joey Alkes, where a massive hook of a chorus...
"I'm a million miles away
A million miles away
I'm just a million miles away
And there's nothing left to bring me back today..."

was paired with an exuberant rhythm track and a Ventures-meet-the-Byrds guitar riff to finish a rough mix of the destined-to-be classic tune.

The prolific threesome (who had previously collaborated on "Now" and "Hush, Hush") wrote several other songs that evening — and then forgot about the tape "for quite a while." Finally, Munoz got ahold of the tape and chose "A Million Miles Away" as the one they had to learn.

Planet Records publicity picture
Released in April 1982 as a 12" single (backed with the equally wonderful "I'll Get Lucky") on the group's own Shaky City label (with distribution through Bomp Records), "A Million Miles Away" blasted forth from radios across the country. "It was a huge radio hit!" exclaims Case. "It was a hit in San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta, Boston, New York, Texas..."

And in Los Angeles, the Plimsouls pretty much ruled the airwaves. "I remember driving to a gig in LA," says Case, "and I turned on the radio — it was playing on all four of the stations I turned to!"

The band was selling out the Roxy night after night, and it quickly became apparent that they needed help handling the monster they'd created. "We felt like we just couldn't meet the demand that was going on with the record," explains Case, adding that releasing an LP on Shaky City was, at most, a brief consideration. "I didn't wanna be in the record business," he states.

On the strength of "A Million Miles Away," the Plimsouls were picked up by Geffen Records, then seen as a small label. "They only had a few acts, like John Hiatt, who was a friend of ours. And we thought that it might make sense to be with John. Of course, it didn't. But that's what we thought."

Case terms the months preceding their Geffen signing as "the winter of our discontent," but maintains that it was "actually a really good period for the Plimsouls. We were just hanging out, writing, playing music all the time, rehearsing five or six days a week." During this interval, Case wrote most of what would become the Everywhere at Once LP, and "half or more" of the songs were recorded through Shaky City.

Photo used for Beach Town Confidential 
(Live at the Golden Bear) - Alive Records 1983
So, with the inclusion of one track lifted from the "Zero Hour" EP (a re-recorded version of "How Long Will it Take?"), both "A Million Miles Away" and its B-side, plus two carefully selected covers (the Equals' "My Life Ain't Easy" and Mouse and the Traps' "Lie, Beg, Borrow, and Steal"), it should have been straightforward for Geffen to rush-release the Plimsouls' second album while "A Million Miles Away" was still selling like hotcakes.

Instead (or as Case quips, "what sank the ship"), Everywhere at Once wasn't issued until July of '83, and by then the song had finished its run. Geffen then reissued the exact same recording (supposedly the EQ of the mastering was slightly different) of "A Million Miles Away" as the album's first single. Were they hoping lightning would strike twice? It didn't. In fact, the reissue only reached #82 on the Billboard Hot 100. "They underestimated what we'd done on our own label," states Case. "They had no respect for underground stuff at that point."

The record was accorded a modicum of publicity and it received some good reviews. One noted that the tunes all "bubbled with undiminished fire and melody, while the lyrics showed signs of frustration." But Case claims the reviewer was reading too much into it: "My frustrations were huge, but the Plimsouls were probably the least frustrating thing in my life at that point. Those songs were mostly about relationships, just being alive."

However, it was too little too late and Everywhere at Once stiffed.

A video of "A Million Miles Away" (using "fake actors, fake scenes, and fake singing") was made for MTV, but it was rarely shown. "The big thing was Flock of Seagulls, all that New Romantic stuff," observes Case. "That's what we were up against on MTV."

A second 45, the rhythm-driven "Magic Touch," with its echoes of "I Fought the Law" and "Pipeline" guitar riffs, never made it onto the radio. It was "too primitive," says Case, quoting KROQ. "I thought it was a hit single," he remarks, "but they didn't."

Publicity photo by Craig Dietz
A minor role as a bar band in the teen-fad flick Valley Girl (they got the job through fan Nicholas Cage) has proved to be unforgettable (if hard to live down), but it didn't boost album sales. "They didn't tell me it would be called Valley Girl," sighs Case. "They said it was like Romeo and Juliet set in modern LA."

One day David Geffen asked Case, "What happened?"

"I said, 'You're David Geffen. You tell me what happened.' That was the last conversation we ever had about the Plimsouls."

Officially, the Plimsouls broke up at the tail end of '83. Ramirez had already wandered off, and Case announced that he was going solo. "I told 'em I was gonna go back to my folk roots, or what have you." However, he was coaxed into staying for one more cross-country tour to pay off the band's tax bill. "Of course, nobody used the money to pay off their tax debt," Case laughs. "They just accrued more tax debt!"

The Plimsouls with Clem Burke circa 1997
               Photo: Greg Allen
With a lineup that included a third guitarist and Charlie Quintana (ex-Plugz) on drums, the Plimsouls raged through some of their most legendary concerts. "It was a great tour!" enthuses Case. "I remember playing Liberty Lunch in Austin. We set the attendance record, there were thousands of people there. And the band just rocked out! We were just blazing as we went through Texas that summer."

Following the split, Case didn't see much of Pahoa. "I think he fronted a band called Psycho Witch," he says. But Case and Munoz (who emerged with the Walking Wounded) remained friends. "Me and Eddie were always the closest," he reflects. For the next decade, Case concentrated on his solo career, releasing five primarily folk albums. There were no plans to reunite the Plimsouls. Until...

An offer to re-record "A Million Miles Away" for the Speed soundtrack brought Case, Munoz, and Pahoa together again for a series of live shows. Case is vague about Ramirez, saying only that he spoke to the drummer when the group first got back together, but that his rejoining the band "is just not gonna happen." The lineup now includes ex-Blondie/ Dramarama drummer Clem Burke.

And while Case intends to carry on performing as a solo artist, a new Plimsouls' album has just been released (currently only available as an import through France's Musa label and Big Star in the UK). Titled Kool Trash, the ten songs (including "Playing with Jack," "Falling Awake," and "Dangerous Book") are as strong and catchy as ever. More US live shows also look certain.

★ ★ ★

Some intriguing trivia: When Case had some momentary doubts about being a full-time frontman, power pop icon Phil Seymour was offered the post. "I was trying not to be the singer," says Case, "because it seemed cooler to just be the guitar player — like Pete Townshend. We asked Phil to join, but he wanted to call it Phil Seymour and the Plimsouls. We said, 'No!' So, he wouldn't join." The group did record a version of "Now" at Shelter Studios with Seymour on vocals, which has yet to surface.

* You can read part 1 of my interview with Peter Case about the history of the Nerves here: devorahostrov.blogspot.com/2017/01/peter-case-part-1-nerves.html

4 comments:

  1. The bit of Phil Seymour trivia at the end was, all by itself, worth the price of admission. Great read, Devorah!

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  2. Thanks so much, Steve. So glad you enjoyed it!

    ReplyDelete