By Matt Hanson
Luckily for us, after playing the occasional electrifying concert date over the years, Nervous Eaters is reuniting once again.
When it comes to rock history, Boston tends to be a place that has a long history of being the first to love the great bands. Due to our plethora of schools and the hip, intellectual crowds they tend to bring, our city has the distinction of being the place where the legends come to get the appreciative audiences they were often hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the country. The Velvet Underground, The Doors, U2, and The Clash have all testified to loving to play in Boston in their early days since they could always count on a receptive crowd as they cut their respective teeth.
Our local talent has tended to bloom mostly on its home turf, with some exceptions — Aerosmith, The Cars, and The Modern Lovers all come to mind. But it’s equally important, if not more so, to pay some overdue attention to some of the bands who made their names as local legends but, alas, never quite broke big. One of the most beloved of these bands was Nervous Eaters, the house band of choice for the gloriously gritty club The Rathskeller in Kenmore Square, colloquially known as The Rat. Those who survived that seventies-era scene with their hearing still intact still speak reverently about the many jubilantly sweaty nights spent at that mecca of Boston rock.
Nervous Eaters are headed by principle singer/songwriter Steve Cataldo, along with his high school friends from the Cape. Opening for the likes of The Police, The Ramones, The Pretenders, and Iggy Pop, Nervous Eaters made quite a memorable ruckus with their mix of old-school R & B and Stones-esque swagger, with a punchy punk sensibility thrown into the mix. Cataldo’s rough and ready vocals ride the beat with confidence and style while the band cooks on tracks like their flagship single “Loretta.”
After making a name for themselves playing constantly around Boston, generating a passionate cult following, Nervous Eaters only put out a few proper recordings in their heyday. The critics didn’t quite catch on at the time, but there was plenty of street cred. Despite well-connected fans like Sting and Ric Ocasek vouching for them, there was some confusion among the record label brass about how to properly manage and package the group for a mass audience. As with so many talented bands, the combustible mixture that made them great in the first place wasn’t deemed ready for prime time.
Listening to them now conjures up a semi-lost world of Nuggets-like irresistibly primal garage rock and the raw but tuneful celebration of teenage kicks. Nervous Eaters were misleadingly labeled “new wave” by the trendy press, but they definitely had more scrappiness up their sleeves than the average skinny tie and synth crowd. “Just Head” kicks with the force of early Stooges and “I’m A Degenerate” could easily hold its own with some of the better-known classics by The Dead Boy or The New York Dolls.
Luckily for us, after playing the occasional electrifying concert date over the years, the band is reuniting once again. Last year saw the rerelease of their record “Hot Steel and Acid” and to showcase their new set of songs they will be playing a show (chosen by The Arts Fuse as one of this week’s can’t miss concerts) at 9 Wallis in Beverly on April 27 with the fabulous blues-rock duo Mr. Airplane Man and Corolla Deville.
Via the good offices of guitarist and singer Al Hebditch, The Arts Fuse caught up with recuperating Cataldo to talk about the Boston rock scene in the 70’s, playing at the legendary NYC club Max’s Kansas City, the advantages of Pat Boone getting lost in the desert, and which contemporary singers need to be eaten by aliens from Planet 6.
Arts Fuse: How and when did you guys start forming together as a band?
Steve Cataldo: Forty years ago basically, though it seems like yesterday. Alas, time continues on. However, it continues to be an interesting ride.
AF: Who were your heroes starting out?
Cataldo: Link Wray and his Ray men come first to mind. Then the big three: Beck, Clapton, and Page, all the British invasion groups. But my earliest records outside of Link Ray were my collection of old blues singers: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James.
AF: Where did you play most of your gigs? Did you have a specific club that you played at the most?
Cataldo: Depends what time period you’re talking about. We started playing high school and local parties. Ee also snuck our way into clubs being underage, but still got in there, teen halls, then later on I moved to Boston, via the Surf Nantasket who had a booking agency. They liked my original songs and hooked me with one of their bands called the Front Page Review, where I met Rich Bartlett, who has been the lead guitarist for the North Shore band The Fools. Half of that band played with what was to become the Nervous Eaters. We split at one point — they became the Fools, and we became the Nervous Eaters.
AF: Tell me about what the Boston music scene was like in the ’70s? Is there something about it that was significantly different?
Cataldo: Only that an out-of-sight scene sprung up out of the Rathskeller club in Kenmore Square, and that lasted for many years spawning many great original bands. Everyone had a great time, the time of their life. After Barry and the Remains left as the house band, the Eaters became the house band of the Rat and were managed by them as well, also put out two 45’s records, “Loretta” and “Just Head.”
AF: You played at the infamous Max’s Kansas City in NYC as an audition for a record label. Would you like to tell that story a little bit?
Cataldo: It was for A&M records. We had done a number of gigs with The Police and they sometimes reported back to their management what good bands they saw and then their talent scouts would go check them out.
We did have a fine audition the first night at Max’s and they were ready to sign us, but second night we had trouble with the set, only that one half of the band had the wrong set list, and in those days we fired the songs right off- –1,2,3, boom — so it was a collision of sound to say the least and we did not get signed to the label. Limited vision on their part.
AF: What was the inspiration for the new record? What got you back into the studio?
Cataldo: We had a lot of songs piling up and rather than have them go to waste we thought we might pool our money and do an album ourselves. It turned out rather good, and we are in the process of sending them around to record companies with vision. Some of the band members agreed to it, the others just wanted something to give to all their friends, either way it all worked out. They helped with the bills, they can do what they like……free world.
AF: When you were playing live at the Rat all the time and recording your first record, what kind of musical style did you have? Al told me you were compared to the early Kinks, and that some people called you a punk band. How would you describe your sound, at least in the early days?
Cataldo: We are very into British invasion, as I said, and before that the only worthwhile music was Link Ray, The Ventures, Beach Boys, and classic garage rock one-hit wonders, like The Seeds’ “Pushing Too Hard,” The Standells, Barry and the Remains. Groups like that. I remember the day Al and I were practicing, learning songs, and saw a British music festival on his 12″ black & white TV. All the British groups were trying to break out: Yardbirds, The Beatles. We stopped right there, got two Beatles albums and that was it. Then came The Zombies, The Searchers. America didn’t have much. Later on you had The Byrds and bands like that, and the whole deal just took off. Thanks to AM radio, you heard singles, quick, loud, fast, and over and over. The day Pat Boone got lost in the desert was a great day for American music.
AF: How has the music scene changed now, or has it?
Cataldo: Unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, all the female cutesy singers using tuning software and producers writing the same songs over and over again for them have ruined music. But they will be gone soon, stuck in little kid land where they belong. Women like Pink can really sing and dance, and I give her credit because she is the real deal. I don’t have any of Pink’s records, but she can smoke a lot of rock bands. Thank god for the Foo Fighters, and other such bands, who try to have a united look and all the musicians are top notch, so you don’t end having to carry one or two guys. Otherwise you have two or three guys developing a look and the nitwit who shows up looking like he came to fix the heat or paint the house. Musicians who understand that concept will set a mark for sure. Still a lot of crap out there but, with any luck, Aliens from Planet 6 will show up and eat them.
AF: Are there any lyrics you wrote that you are particularly proud of, or that explain your attitude towards playing?
Cataldo: Personally, I’m from the Little Richard, James Brown school for lyrics — let the fans hear it and figure out what it means to them. You need a preacher, go to church. Too bad Jesus H didn’t play guitar or harp, hah, maybe he did?
AF: You guys were friends with The Cars, back in the day. Any stories you’d care to share?
Cataldo: Rick O[casek, Cars’ lead singer/songwriter] produced the demo that got us signed to Elektra records. Too bad we didn’t take the demo straight to the vinyl pressing plant, but we didn’t. We got an LA-based producer who did Bowie’s Young Americans, but it just didn’t work out. He had never heard us so had no idea who we were, and the record tanked. However, almost all of The Cars came in and played on the demo. They are one hell of band, and still are.
Each player is just a strong as the other, which is what I was talking about before, and those are the groups that make it out of the minor leagues and into the majors — they will always keep knocking their songs out of the park.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.