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By Kai Flanders
The Nerves |One Way Ticket| Alive Records
Surprise: The longest-awaited album of the season is not Chinese Democracy. In fact, it’s not even the most extensively delayed album by an L.A. band. That honor goes to the Nerves. After nearly 30 years of being transmitted in the form of bootlegs and mixtapes, of being covered by other bands, of becoming the stuff of rock & roll legend, the Nerves’ four-song EP has finally seen a proper reissue on Alive Records’ new One Way Ticket — along with unreleased tracks, demos and live cuts. And guess what? It’s better than Chinese Democracy, and cost $13 million less to record.
The Nerves were the trio of guitarist Peter Case, bassist Jack Lee and drummer Paul Collins. The band orginally formed in San Francisco and eventually moved down to L.A., where they recorded an EP and cultivated a small scene of like-minded pop acts with tiny budgets. They supported the Ramones, and managed to shore up enough bread for a national tour. That lone recorded document of their brief career ended up being regarded as a hallmark of what was eventually termed “power pop.”
The Nerves’ EP is one of those items — like a bootleg videotape of a rare kung fu movie — that gets passed around between friends to get people in the know. “Oh, you like Guided By Voices? Well, wait’ll you hear the Nerves!”
It contains four numbers: “When You Find Out,” “Working Too Hard,” “Give Me Some Time” and “Hanging on the Telephone.” The last track probably looks familiar, and it should: While touring in Japan, Blondie heard the song in their limo and covered it as the opener on their now-canonical 1979 album Parallel Lines. Their version was released as a single and charted at No. 5 in the U.K. The song would be reinterpreted by a number of artists down the line — including Cat Power and Def Leppard — and, like most songs referencing phones, it landed in cell-phone commercials.
Anyone hearing the Nerves’ original recording of “Hanging on the Telephone” might be surprised. Blondie embellished the song with so many new-wave accoutrements (frilly organs, laser-guided guitar parts) that it was rendered into a blanched version of the original. The minimal instrumentation of the Nerves’ version, with the hoarse howl of its vocals and brisk pace, sounds more like the youthful vigor of early Beatles than the stylish sheen of new wave.
The remaining three tracks possess the same jaunty rhythms, deft instrumental interplay, bottled-up enthusiasm, sharp vocal harmonies and unflappable hooks that characterize the first Beatles singles.
But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Shortly after their tour, the Nerves disbanded. Case and Collins attempted to re-form the band with a new guitarist under the moniker the Breakaways, but that turned out to have an even briefer life span than its predecessor. Lee penned a couple more songs for other artists before vanishing from the music industry. Collins went on to form the Beat, while Case carried on with the Plimsouls before creating a rather successful solo career for himself (even garnering a Grammy in recent years). Although these later careers eventually bore more monetarily successful fruits, on purely musical grounds their accomplishments are dwarfed by the influence and ingenuity of the Nerves’ four-song EP. It will endure long after Chinese Democracy is finally buried.