Paul Collins’ Beat
The Nerves was the gift that kept on giving, but it had to die in order to collect the rewards. The first of these was when the band’s song “Hanging on the Telephone,” written by Jack Lee, became one of the early hits for Blondie. The second and third came when Paul Collins and Peter Case moved on to form The Breakaways with Mike Ruiz (drums) and Steven Huff (bass). One thing led to another, Case jumped ship and formed The Plimsouls. The Breakaways turned into The Beat, which according to a few sources, was a band name decided upon under time duress.
It is an often-voiced opinion that the choice of the name was a burden for The Beat. In the U.K. the Brit-ska band also known as The Beat was starting to pique interest on American shores, but these were two very different-sounding musical outfits. (You’ll recall the U.K. iteration’s “March of the Swivel Heads” being the soundtrack to Ferris Bueller’s frantic footrace back home before being found out.) To stop the confusion, the lawsuit that was being aimed at Columbia Records (Collins’ label at the time), and to prevent missed opportunities, one became Paul Collins’ Beat and the other The English Beat.
The “burden of The Beat” is that Paul Collins’ legacy gets wrapped up in these politics more than the lasting qualities of the music that was produced. Focusing on that debut record, it is clear what The Beat intended to be. Yes, it is power-pop in its most dynamic form, but what does that mean, especially in the late-70s and early-80s?
Power-pop crossed two distinct boundaries: the unbridled energy of punk along with its “let’s put on a show” energy without the pretensions, and the good time atmosphere of classic rock ‘n roll borne out of rhythm and blues. These songs weren’t the long, languid rock operas of the prog rock world that ignited the punk scene out of protest. This was dance music that wasn’t interested with disco balls and blow. The energy was there, but so were melody and tons of hooks all crushed down into compositions that almost never exceeded three minutes. Don’t bore us — get to the chorus.
The Beat had consiglieri in the form of Eddie Money who helped the band get signed to the Columbia label and attached to producer Bruce Botnick and engineer Rik Pekkonen. Money gets a co-write on the track “Let Me Into Your Life.” There are two other co-writes on the album, with Huff on “Different Kind Of Girl” and, notably, Peter Case on “U.S.A.”
“You Won’t Be Happy” was a modest hit for the band and has shown up on several compilations which highlight the era. Perhaps to Collins’ chagrin, it is frequently mistaken by those not in the know as a Plimsouls tune. Such was the misfortune for The Beat (now Paul Collins’ Beat). The U.S. was creeping into the Eighties, the MTV and new wave eras. Ruiz left, replaced by Dennis Conway who was also Alice Cooper’s drummer from 1980 to 1983. The band attempted a reversion to “The Beat” when The English Beat disbanded and transformed, in part, into General Public. The American edition never quite got their due in the mainstream.
Why does Paul Collins’ Beat deserve a spot in the Power Pop Hall of Fame? There are several reasons, with the chief point being that the band was built by rock ‘n roll true believers, and they worked it out in a time period when that was slowly becoming less hip, less cool. But much like what’s said about The Velvet Underground — didn’t have any real hits but everyone that experienced them had to go form a band of their own – this can also be said of The Beat. Believe it: the power-pop underground that exists today would not be nearly as well-established without Paul Collins and without those tunes.
Another reason goes right back to the debut album. An old and very tired statement critics love to aim at any vintage record they praise is that “it isn’t dated; it’s just as fresh as the day it was released.” You cannot say that about The Beat. It sounds entirely like the year it came out and dates itself pretty severely. All the instruments, the guitars, bass, drums and vocals all sound like they were played by humans, letting it fly, not worried about being so pinpoint precise as to throw the listener into some fake imperfect perfection. There’s a pulse in the heart, blood in the veins, and feet on the floor. We, as an audience, will get back to that place when the digital audio plastic surgeries get boring.
Whether they will achieve the same degree of liveliness Paul Collins’ Beat had or not is a question for another day.
Dw. Dunphy is a writer, musician, and Senior Editor for the pop culture website Popdose.com.