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Forty years on, the Nervous Eaters are still talking to Loretta

Paul Blowfish

The present-day Nervous Eaters perform at the Midway Cafe.

By James Sullivan Globe Correspondent 

Woulda-coulda-shoulda. That’s been the lament of countless worthy rock ’n’ roll bands, but few more aptly so than Boston’s Nervous Eaters.

It’s been more than 40 years since the Nervous Eaters debuted at the Rat. Nearly that long since the Cars’ Ric Ocasek produced the band’s demo tape. And it’s been about 37 years since the group’s buffed-and-shined major-label debut — practically unrecognizable as the same band — soiled their hopes as thoroughly as their fans trashed the infamous Rat bathroom.

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Amazingly, Steve Cataldo and his bandmates are still plugging away. In the coming months Ace of Hearts Records plans to release an enhanced version of “Hot Steel and Acid,” the Eaters’ 1986 follow-up to their legendary major-label misfire. The band, featuring early member Alan Hebditch on lead guitar and Boom Boom Band drummer Dave McLean, plays Thunder Road in Somerville on Saturday.

And Cataldo says he’s still writing songs, just as he did when he cooked up the ageless power-pop gem “Loretta” while strolling across the Boston Common one fine day, a much younger man. (“When I talk to Loretta, she makes me feel like number one!”)

“You’ll be walking down the street, and you start a little beat in your head, and you mumble some line until you get it,” he explains. “Sometimes an entire song will come out. It’s like I’m jamming with myself.”

From the mid-’70s until the early ’80s, the Nervous Eaters were mainstays of a very lively Boston scene. They were managed by Jim Harold, the owner of the Rat; he put out their first two singles on his own label.

“People say I favored them a lot,” says Harold. “Yeah, I did. They were really, really good live.”

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The band earned spots on bills with some of the biggest punk and new wave touring acts of their time — the Police, Blondie, the Ramones — and showcased at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City in New York City.

“They were just ferocious in person,” recalls Rick Harte, the founder and owner of the Ace of Hearts label, home of defining local albums by Mission of Burma, the Lyres, the Del Fuegos, and more. But Elektra Records paired the band with the guy who produced the Bay City Rollers and Air Supply, and he soaked their sound in tinkling pianos and goofy backing vocals. The major labels, Harte says, “had no idea how to record something that comes at you like a freight train.”

Sadly, the notoriously reckless Nervous Eaters were perfectly capable of derailing themselves. Before signing with Elektra, they were courted by Miles Copeland, brother of the Police’s Stewart Copeland, who had just launched IRS Records. But the clinching gig, at Max’s, was a fiasco. Cataldo took the stage with the wrong set list, and his band started playing another song.

“The whole set made us look like real amateurs,” Cataldo says. “And I guess we were.”

But Cataldo, who grew up in Hyannis, had already been around the block, musically speaking. A decade earlier, fresh out of high school and working as a studio hand, he helped record the demos that scored a record deal for the psychedelic band Ultimate Spinach. Then he cut his own solo album, “Saint Steven.” At one point, Lou Reed tried to recruit him for his band.

More recently, Cataldo stepped back from the spotlight for a stint in a blues band with harmonica whiz Tony Cagnina, who died in 2011. That setback led indirectly to the latest revival of the Nervous Eaters, who’d been on and off since the death of founding drummer Jeff Wilkinson in 1993. Cataldo took that loss especially hard.

“Jeff would give you the shirt off his back,” he remembers. “Everybody liked him. He was a great rocker, he really was. I miss him terribly.”

Today, the kids at Cape Cod Community College probably have no idea that the white-haired gentleman who’s trouble-shooting the campus computers still plays in a band with an R-rated signature song called “I’m a Degenerate.” Hey, it was a different time.

“We’re not spring chickens anymore, that’s for sure,” Cataldo says. (In fact, Hebditch’s son, Nick, is now the band’s bassist.) “I don’t know how many more times we can take shots at it.”

But they’ll give it at least one more go. Harte says he saw the Who and the Yardbirds in their early years, and the Nervous Eaters at their best had that kind of energy. By adding several unreleased, remixed tracks to the “Hot Steel and Acid” release, he says, he hopes to set the record straight about one band that almost got away.

“I’m trying to right a wrong,” he says. “I want it to be great.”

NERVOUS EATERS

With Watts and David Age and the Regrets. At Thunder Road, 379 Somerville Ave., Somerville, Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. Tickets $10-$12, www.thunderroadclub.com


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com
Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.