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Saturday, May 07, 2005
Genre Playlist: Power Pop
Power Pop was an energetic, melodic, uptempo form of rock that enjoyed its biggest heyday in the wake of the punk/new wave era. Its roots lie in the hard rock of the early Who, the melodicism of the middle-era Beatles, and the guitar flash and power chords of the Kinks.
Power Pop first surfaced in the early 70's and its invention is generally credited to a trio of bands that were fairly underappreciated in their own time: Badfinger (from Wales), Big Star (Memphis), and the Raspberries (Mentor, OH). Todd Rundgren (Philadelphia) also deserves special mention here, as a performer and producer. In its formative years, power pop was not a conscious movement, and the term had not been coined. It was not centered in any specific region, it bubbled up on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was a bridge between pure pop music and hard rock, often with an early twenty-something perspective on things.
Perhaps its very first manifestation ever lies in the 1968 single "Open My Eyes" by Rundgren's first group, The Nazz. Opening with a fake-out intro that is a ringer for The Who's "I Can't Explain" before launching into a punchy, uptempo psychedelic rocker, it contained the essential elements: debt to the The Who, vaguely Beatlesque harmonies, Kinks-like grit, pounding percussive drums, a hooky chorus, and flashy, melodic guitar playing. Badfinger's first self-penned single "No Matter What", from 1970 is arguably the first true power pop single; it definitely was the first to appear in the top-10. Big Star took a different approach, relying a little more on the Byrds than the Beatles, a little more on Memphis tradition than British, but their "September Gurls" single from 1974 is considered an early classic of the genre. The Raspberries, featuring Eric Carmen as an ersatz McCartney and Dave Smalley a quasi-Lennon, mixed sweet pop with crunchy rock; their breakthrough "Go All The Way" in 1972 has the guitar crunch of The Who blended with Beach Boy harmonies.
Those bands went against the heavy hard-rock/metal/prog-rock trends of the time to produce simple, unpretentious, catchy pop-rock. They didn't sell many records in doing so; while Badfinger and The Raspberries managed a few hits apiece, their albums only sold in the fair-to-middling range, and Big Star barely sold any records at all. These bands weren't so much buckers of trends as simply indifferent to them.
Lyrically, these records were straightforward affairs; they could be quirky, but they never set out to signify, or poetify, or artify. Most were love songs, both pro- and anti-.
Still, these early power pop records were influential. The years 1977-1980 in particular was a fruitful era. Cheap Trick deserves special recognition for becoming the biggest power pop band of them all, scoring major and infectious hits like "I Want You To Want Me", "Surrender", and "Dream Police"; they also are by far the longest lived, active to this day. The Romantics, The Knack and others scored major hits with simple, punchy 3-minute songs; in the post punk era, simplicity was back in style again, and these bands benefited. There were a disproportionate number of one-hit wonders among power pop bands; the majority were consumed as disposable commodity, but they and cult favorites of the era live on in memory as well: Dwight Twilley, The Nerves, 20/20, Bram Tchaikovski, and The Records among them. As in the early 70's, these bands were liberally sprinked on both sides of the Atlantic, but as their popularity grew, so did a sense of a genuine movement take hold. For awhile before the term "power pop" gained currency, many of the groups were known as "skinny tie bands", after the ties The Knack, 20/20 and others favored. Even Billy Joel referenced this in his own bandwagon-jumping piano-eschewing power-pop hit "Still Rock 'n' Roll To Me" in 1980.
Power pop remained a viable style until about 1983, but as MTV gained popularity, interests shifted to the new wave of video artists, and the power pop bands vanished from the charts. Yet it wasn't dead, merely dormant. At the start of the 90's many younger bands rediscovered the joys of these immensely fun records and blended them with the new alternative rock ethic; among such bands are the Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Goo Goo Dolls, and Material Issue. The 90's crop of power-poppers, while displaying less overt influence from the first wave's influence, still produce essentially the same thing; tuneful, harmonic rock with a brisk beat and hooks. These days, in an era when indie labels have the maturity and financial stability to nurture niche artists, alternative power pop continues to appear and find audiences; albeit frequently on the fringe.
Some important/influential power pop artist/songs from the 1970's power pop era:
1. Cheap Trick: Surrender
Cheap Trick is the only band on this list who took power pop and turned it into a long-term career. During their 1977-1982 peak they placed five albums in the top 40. "Surrender" was their first chart single; although it only reached #62 on the charts, it gained a huge amount of airplay on rock radio in the two years following its release, and is an excellent example of the genre; loud, crunchy guitars, irresistible melody and harmonies, off kilter lyrics. Led by guitarist Rick Nielsen, Cheap Trick made the most consistently satisfying albums of the genre; well-paced, tightly-played humorous songs, lots of hooks, even on the album cuts. Cheap Trick is still at it after nearly three decades, charting an album as recently as 2003.
2. Big Star: September Gurls
Big Star was formed by Alex Chilton (ex-Box Tops) and Chris Bell in 1971, and almost singlehandedly defined the genre; the Beatles' melody, the Who's guitars, the Byrds' harmonies were recontextualized into something special. Despite never placing a record on the charts, their influence remains huge, their cult rabid. "September Gurls" is their most well-known song, from their second album (after Bell had left), Radio City, later covered by the Bangles. Lead singer Alex Chilton had been the teenaged lead singer of The Box Tops in the 60's. Stung by the utter indifference Big Star's first two albums were met with, Chilton sabotaged the third, Third/Sister Lovers, loading it up with bizarre sound effects; it's worth a listen too, for an example of what manic depressive power pop sounds like.
3. Badfinger: Baby Blue
Badfinger originally recorded for the Beatles' Apple label, and first scored with "Come And Get It", a tune penned by Paul McCartney. Their 1970 follow-up "No Matter What" is frequently cited as the first power pop tune of all. They had 2 other top 40-hits, including their biggest hit, "Day After Day", and this one, both from 1972. Featuring the strong harmonies of Pete Ham and Tom Evans, and the fluid lead guitar of Joey Molland, they served as something of a Beatles substitute for some, although they definitely developed a sound all their own. The original band broke up in 1975 following the suicide of leader Ham.
4. Bram Tchaikovski: Girl Of My Dreams
Originally a member of the Motors, England's Tchaikovski struck out on his own in 1978, and scored the seminal power pop hit "Girl Of My Dreams", his only chart single at #37. Featuring jangly guitars, the requisite Beatles style harmonies, and a killer chorus that arrives late in the song, this has an instantly recognizable quality to it, even if you've never heard it before. It received considerable airplay on both sides of the Atlantic, and for a brief moment, Thcaikovski looked like he was going to be a big star. He never equaled it however, and after two poor-selling follow-ups, he retired from the business in 1982.
5. Marshall Crenshaw: Someday Someway
The ultimate cult artist, Crenshaw has released fourteen albums (some live) since his 1982 debut. That debut was a power pop gem, featuring this top-40 hit. Known for a melodic complexity that surpassed many of his peers, Crenshaw was a critics' darling in his early years, although he has recorded under the radar for the better part of the last two decades. He originally got work playing John Lennon in the Broadway musical Beatlemania!. He also appeared in sevral films as an actor, including Peggy Sue Got Married and La Bamba (as Buddy Holly).
6. The Raspberries: Overnight Sensation
The Raspberries, from Ohio, were perhaps the most obviously Beatle-influenced band of the 70's. Led by Eric Carmen and Wally Bryson, they specialized in ultra-catchy lightweight harmonic pop, which resulted in four top-40 hits, of which "Overnight Sensation" was the last and arguably the best; it peaked at #18 in 1974. Carmen went on to have a few modest hits on his own in the late 70's. Later power-pop bands would draw heavily from the Raspberries template; they turned out to be far more influential than anyone would've guessed at the time.
7. The Knack: My Sharona
Appearing seemingly out of nowhere in 1979, The Knack scored two major power pop hits, "My Sharona" and "Good Girls Don't" Heavily hyped from the start, this LA quartet actually was much better than their reputation would have one expect; although they were promoted as a new Beatles, they had more in common with the Kinks sonically. A backlash soon followed, however; attacked for the misogyny of their lyrics and the hype with which they were promoted, their nearly identical-sounding follow-up tanked; after a third album, they broke up, only to resurface very briefly in the late 90's.
8. 20/20: Yellow Pills
Formed in Oklahoma, 20/20 was active in Los Angeles in the late 70's and were ontemporaries with the Knack. They gained notice with this guitars-and-synthesizer driven song, a huge local hit in 1979 that failed to chart nationally. Quirky, angular, and slightly druggy, it straddled the fine line between new wave and power pop. It's not truly representative of their sound, which is much more conventional, which may be why they never really broke out. The single never charted, but the album reached #132. Renewed interest in power pop and 20/20 led to a brief revival of the band in the mid 90's; they released two more albums, but failed to drum up many sales. "Yellow Pills" is now considered a classic, a highlight of Rhino Records' Poptopia! power pop collection.
9. The Flamin' Groovies: Shake Some Action
Is this the greatest rock 'n' roll song ever? It might be; with its high-energy tempo, tough guy vocals, rolling and rollicking guitars, two mini-jam breaks, and tuneful harmonies, it delivers almost anything anyone could hope for in a rock tune. The Groovies were an anomaly; they date back to the pre Haight-Ashbury era San Francisco, forming in 1965, but they weren't a hippie band; instead, they played tight, gritty rock 'n' roll. After releasing three albums in 1969-1971 that sold poorly, the band reshuffled and moved to England, where they reinvented themselves. "Shake Some Action" is from their 1976 re-emergence, and still sounds tight and fresh today; perhaps the quintessential power pop tune. It never charted, and the album peaked at #142, their only chart action ever in America, but they sold well in England.
10: Nick Lowe: Cruel to Be Kind
England's Lowe had been the leader of pub rockers Brinsley Schwarz, and then worked as a producer for Stiff records. Long a believer in the three-minute single, he had a run of good ones himself at the end of the 70's, including "Cruel To Be Kind" which reached #12 on the charts in 1979. "Cruel To Be Kind" was actually a reworking of a Brinsley Schwarz tune, given a punchier, more radio-friendly kick. In 1980, Lowe would team up with Dave Edmunds and Rockpile, the backing band they shared, for a classic album Seconds Of Pleasure, before returning to solo work. Lowe still records today, and has a sizable cult.
Listen to 20/20: Yellow Pills (1979)