In a statement many might find confusing, shocking, outrageous, perhaps even borderline sacrilegious, Nervous Eaters’ frontman Steve Cataldo says that they were never really a “punk” band at all.
“We were only called a ‘punk’ band because we were managed by the Rat where all the punks played, and our songs were fast, tight, and energetic,” he said in a 2019 interview in a reference to the band’s years as house band at “Boston’s CBGB” the Rathskeller, known as the Rat. “And we were rather nasty. But lots of us, Real Kids, The Neighborhoods, Lyres, were really just garage bands or hard-rock bands.”
Though the Eaters seemed to practically live at the Rat and gigged at a plethora of other dark, dank clubs in Boston, greater New England and across the US from 1977 to 1981 – and are typically lumped in with the genre’s earliest purveyors like The Stooges, Dead Boys, The New York Dolls and The Ramones – singer-guitarist Cataldo says his earliest influence was a far cry from eardrum-bursting dissonance and angst-filled lyrical outbursts: 1950s rockabilly great Link Wray. After Wray, he cites bluesmen Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James and what he calls “the big three” – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page – followed by five groups that might make almost every punk purist physically nauseous: The Beach Boys, The Standells, The Yardbirds, The Beatles and Boston’s own The Remains, who were the Rat’s house band in the 1960s when it was a restaurant/bar called TJ’s that catered to college students.
Tight as a fist and as hardworking as any band has ever been, while they were categorized in the press as either “punk,” like Unnatural Axe, or “new wave,” like The Cars, Nervous Eaters defied such oversimplified packaging by having less unshackled rage than the safety pin-pierced mosh-pit pack but infinitely more scrappiness than the skinny tie-wearing synth-enthralled crowd, becoming what producer/critic Joe Viglione called “the Rolling Stones of Boston…hard-rocking, riff-blasting, tongue-in-cheek.”
In the late ‘60s, Cataldo had fronted Boston-based psychedelic-surf band Front Page Review, which recorded their 1968 LP Mystic Soldiers for MGM, and in 1969 Probe Records released his solo album Saint Steven, both produced by Alan Lorber – who also produced Ultimate Spinach, Orpheus and Chamaeleon Church – but the Eaters’ history begins in 1974, when he, drummer Jeff Wilkinson and bassist Robb Skeen were in a group based on Massachusetts’ North Shore with singer Mike Girard and guitarist Rich Bartlett (the latter of whom was also in Front Page Review). Originally called The Rhythm Assholes, the quintet played wherever they could including at parties, in art lofts and in warehouses and opened for local legend Willie “Loco” Alexander, former vocalist-keyboardist for The Lost, while also playing on his single “Kerouac” before changing their name to The Rhythm A’s since the then-highly offensive expletive prevented them from being booked at universities and clubs.
In 1976, Girard left The Rhythm A’s to join The Fools, and the quartet of Cataldo, Skeen, Wilkinson and Bartlett teamed up with harp player Tony Cagnina, playing blues and opening for major acts appearing in the area before becoming Nervous Eaters, with Cataldo the principle songwriter, and recording “Loretta,” their first single, on Rat Records, founded by the Rathskeller’s owner Jimmy Harold, who handled all areas of the band’s business, from booking both Rat and non-Rat gigs to studio time and distribution.
In January 1977, the Eaters debuted at the Rat, followed by a three-night stand there in February and multiple shows per month before debuting at CBGB in New York in September, playing five straight nights. In addition to their standing gig at the Rat, the band debuted at Cantone’s in Boston in October, and in December they played a five-night stand at the El Casino Club in Montreal.
By mid-1978, Alan Hebditch had replaced Bartlett on guitar and the Eaters had established an intensely passionate fanbase, becoming one of the most popular acts on the local scene and getting regular airplay on top station WBCN, for which Cataldo largely credits on-air personality Oedipus. In March, the band debuted at Max’s Kansas City in New York and in May they opened for “Godfather of Punk” Iggy Pop in his hometown, Detroit.
In 1979, while playing gigs at The Mad Hatter in Boston, Inman Square Men’s Bar and The Club in Cambridge, The Space in Worcester and The Living Room in Providence in addition to the Rat, the Eaters released their second single on the Rat label, “Just Head” b/w “Get Stuffed,” which was recorded at Northern Studios in Maynard, Massachusetts, during the same sessions as “Loretta.”
In 1980, when the Eaters added guitarist Jonathan Paley of The Paley Brothers, The Cars’ frontman Ric Ocasek produced a 10-track demo for the group that resulted in a contact with Elektra Records, the same label as his own platinum-selling band. The group’s self-titled debut was a commercial non-event, however, and a major critical disappointment, with reviewers saying it lacked the raw force and integrity of the previously released singles and even admitted fan Joe Viglione writing that the LP fell “somewhere between the Ronettes and the Four Seasons.” Despite their devoted local following and appearing with Iggy Pop at The Orpheum in Boston that year – and having opened for The J. Geils Band, The Pretenders, The Police, The Ramones, The Damned, The Romantics, Split Enz and Squeeze over the previous years – the Eaters’ enviable “critic’s darling” status appeared to have suffered a fatal blow.
In 1981, after playing multiple times a month at The Channel from January to June that year, the Eaters disbanded before briefly reuniting in 1986 and recording the six-song EP Hot Steel and Acid for the New Rose label, which was subsequently reissued by Boston-based Ace of Hearts Records in 2018. In 1991, “Just Head” and “Get Stuffed” appeared on the widely praised compilation Feel Lucky Punk?!!
In 2003, No Tomorrow Recordings released the Eaters’ first full album in 17 years, Eat This!, a collection of 12 originals featuring Cataldo, Real Kids bassist Alpo, The Freeze drummer Lou Cataldo and The Fools and former Rhythm A’s guitarist Richie Bartlett, and in 2004 Penniman Records issued Eaterville Vol. 1, a 13-track compilation Eaters’ songs. In June 2013, the band opened for English rockers The Stranglers at Brighton Music Hall and in 2018 Rat Records released Live at the Rat Vol. 2 on DVD, which featured appearances by the Eaters, DMZ, The Infliktors and others, and the Eaters made several Boston-area appearances, including one at The Cabot in Beverly.
In 2019, the Eaters self-released the 14-track digital album Record 10, recorded at David Minehan’s Woolly Mammoth Sound in Waltham, Massachusetts, and in 2020 Penniman issued the compilation Eaterville Vol. 2. In 2021, the band signed with Wicked Cool Records (founded by Steven Van Zandt), which issued their latest LP Monsters + Angels (produced by Steve Berkowitz) in November 2022 on CD, with the vinyl release scheduled for January 2023. It features the completely revised lineup of Cataldo, guitarist Adam Sherman, bassist Brad Hallen and drummer David Mclean.
Asked in 2019 about the state of the music scene, Cataldo was characteristically frank. “Unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, the female cutesy singers using tuning software and producers writing the same songs over and over again for them have ruined music,” he said.” Thank god for 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 up having to carry one or two guys. Musicians who understand that concept will set a mark for sure.”
(by D.S. Monahan)