Unknown Pleasures Chapter 14: Steady Nerves

A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.

Nervus Rex – S/T [Dreamland Records 1980]


The trouble with music criticism is it’s easy to tell what’s good but hard to tell what’s bad; music is good by its very nature –  come on, it’s music.  Certain people spend such time, energy and thought on the enormity of music as art/culture that we easily lose track of plain old enjoyment.

We routinely lose track of music as pleasure and try to attach Big Issue significance to everything we hear, which is why all those reviewers and NPR types spent last year trying to convince you that Taylor Swift and Beyonce actually make music that’s Important [they don’t, but that doesn’t mean enjoying is is a bad thing]. It feels inadequate to say “hey, I just like that song” when you’re trying to convince people they should listen to music on your say-so. Film snobs [of which I’m one] tend to rely on the “guilty pleasure” concept – which is becoming less and less necessary as hollywood embraces tentpole culture [pretty much any Hollywood movie is a guilty pleasure].  It’s harder to do with music, as it’s still fashionable for critics to wonder aloud where the next ________ is going to come from…While everyone else simply views music as “my song” and/or “I hate that song.” When it comes to loving music, the Important is often the enemy of the Good, and always the enemy of the enjoyable.  

Which brings us to Nervus Rex and their lone, self-titled record.  There’s nothing Important or Genre Defining of Seminal or Life Altering on this record.  It’s not the sound of a movement starting or walls coming down.  It’s really just a good pop record with a stack of cool tunes on it, some of which you could even dance to if you want.  So why are we even talking about it here?  Well because there aren’t nearly as many good pop records around as we like to think – remember those critics from earlier hanging on to Taylor Swift?  If that’s as good as pop gets, then maybe this record actually is important.

Nervus Rex began in typical NYC fashion when Lauren Agnelli answered an ad in the Village Voice about starting a band.  Agnelli had been freelancing as a music critic herself writing under the nom de guerre Trixie A. Balm.  She and guitarist Shaun Brighton clicked from the start, having similar taste  in the New Wave bands that were crowding the CBGB scene. After settling on a rhythm section of bassist Diane Athey and drummer John Gildersleeve, Nervus Rex started playing local clubs and building a following.  The band self-released a single in and toured the east coast supporting Squeeze and the Pretenders. Eventually legendary pop producer Mike Chapman signed the band to his boutique label, Dreamland Records, producing their debut record himself.


Nervus Rex is practically a concept album about the post- Beatles, pre-hippies swinging 60s era, that nobody can prove ever actually existed.  Brighton’s father was Nicholas Krushenik, an abstract painter, associate of Andy Warhol and forerunner of the pop art movement, so the fascination with the 60s that manifests in Nervus Rex’ songs is understandable. Besides, 60s fetishim was the best way to be a romantic while fitting into the New Wave/Post-punk thing [look how well it worked for Blondie].

The songs on Nervus Rex are loaded with surf/spy/merseybeat guitars that fit perfectly for Brighton’s cooing tenor and Agnelli’s salty-sweet harmonies.  For all that, it’s Gildersleeve who most impresses: If there was ever an award for the most musical drumming around, this guy would have won it. His hi-hat/snare work turns throwaways like “The Incredible Crawling Eye” and “Nobody Told Me” into veritable music lessons; He’s definitely the unsung hero around here.  Chapman’s production gives the band a hi-gloss finish that still leaves a little crunch to sink your teeth into, which keeps the songs – rife with go-go girls in paper dresses, spies with suitcase airplanes, love goddesses and assorted first world boy-girl problems from feeling mawkish or silly.  The B-52s and Go-Gos were good at this sort of thing too.

Some of the few people that even remember Nervus Rex believe Chapman’s polished production obscures the band’s punk/new wave edge, but it was definitely a harbinger of the artists that would be getting huge over the next few years via exposure on MTV [If you think Bananarama was the first group to think of covering Shocking Blue’s “Venus” guess again].  No matter who’s idea it was, someone definitely had the thing sussed; The primary-colored dance floor pop of Nervus Rex was perfect…Too perfect for critics and radio while arriving too soon for a marketplace that still equated Dancing with Disco.  Critics basically ignored Nervus Rex and their album as the CBGB scene they rose from veered back and forth between downtown noise and uptown label battles. Worse, as Dreamland records was slowly sinking into a sea of red ink, a tour pairing Rex with labelmates Spider had to be cancelled when a member of the latter band contracted typhoid fever, forcing both bands off the road and into quarantine. Nervus Rex soldiered on a bit longer, but with  momentum gone, they finally split in late ‘81. Agnelli would resurface as one third of the cult-folk act Washington Squares while Brighton achieved some success in the Synthopop outfit the Puppets.  Nervus Rex has since been reissued on CD [like everything else], so I suppose that makes it history, but listening to the pristine sound, you can’t help wondering if  it could have been much different, were the band dealt a different hand.  While it may not be a Lost Classic, it’s cool and fun and you can definitely dance to it, which is actually more than I can say for a lot of actual Classics.

NEXT:  Fashionably Late….


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