Although it would be a mistake to get carried away with labels, power pop, pure pop and just plain pop are all very convenient catch-phrases for fans of melodic rock ‘n’ roll, and the cognoscenti know what it all means. As contemporary, self-avowed pop artist Chris von Sneidern once put it, “When you look in Billboard and they talk about pop singles, they’re not talking about Raspberries or Chris von Sneidern, they’re talking about Whitney Houston or Atlantic Starr. But actually what we’re talking about is pop music which started with the British Invasion and worked its way out.”
John King is an unsung hero in the saga of Big Star. A promo man for Ardent, King prevailed upon Chilton, Stephens and Hummel to reunite for a convention of rock writers that was to be held in Memphis. The group agreed, and proceeded to just plain knock ‘em dead at the convention. They even did a version of The Box Tops’ biggest hit, “The Letter,” as an encore. By all accounts of the show, Big Star was a smash.
The enthusiastic response at the convention was sufficient to convince Big Star to give it one more try. The band adjourned to Ardent to begin work on another album. Chris Bell even returned briefly, but whatever work he may have contributed to the record will remain a matter of speculation (in the liner notes Chris Bell’s posthumous album I Am The Cosmos, his brother wrote that Bell worked on the songs “O My Soul,” “Way Out West” and “Back Of A Car” for Big Star’s second album; we’ll never know for sure). Bell was gone again in the blink of an eye, and he would not allow his name to appear on the new Big Star album, Radio City.
“September Gurls” was and is the sine qua non of power pop, a glorious, glittering jewel with every facet cut and shined to absolute perfection. While The Raspberries’ “Go All The Way” provides a definitive encapsulation of what power pop is, “September Gurls” goes even further, not so much as the embodiment of a genre, but as a peerless, aching distillation of love and longing. “September Gurls” may not actually be the greatest song ever recorded, but for the duration of its 2:47 running time, you can be forgiven for believing it is.
While The Raspberries and Big Star were each seeking their own separate fortunes, a number of other lower-profile groups were also pursuing pure pop and power pop goals. The Flamin’ Groovies, a San Francisco band who’d started in the mid-‘60s and later issued a few manic, Stones-influenced LPs (best exemplified by 1971’s Teenage Head), had transformed by 1976 into a group with an overt ‘60s Mod approach. By this time, the Groovies seemed intent on creating their own style of pop, based on a mythic vision of The Beatles, Stones, Byrds and Beach Boys heading into the studio for a session with Phil Spector.
And there were still others: Los Angeles’ The Quick (originally The Young Republicans), conceived by would-be Svengali Kim Fowley—it’s impossible to write a history of rock or pop music without eventually getting around to Kim Fowley--as a male counterpart to Fowley’s jailbait rockers The Runaways; The Quick had potential and some good songs, but the power of their pop was compromised by Danny Wilde's off-puttingly precious, Sparks-influenced lead vocals (though Wilde went on to better things later, as a solo artist and as a member of Great Buildings and The Rembrandts). The Poppees, from New York City, were diverting but too slavish in their attempt to recreate 1965 Merseybeat; they released only a couple of singles.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the above pop acts toiling away in relative obscurity, there were also some ‘70s teen idols making records that occasionally fit into this broad category of pure pop and power pop. The Hudson Brothers, while perhaps not teen idols per se, did host a Saturday morning kiddie TV show while simultaneously cutting some nifty pop rock records. 1980s recording and TV star Rick Springfield also got his start in the ‘70s, both as a TV cartoon character (on the Saturday morning series Mission: Magic) and as a recording artist.
While there were pop elements in the work of each of the acts mentioned above, I submit to you that the world’s first avowed all-female power pop group was The Poptarts, a still-unknown quintet that formed in Syracuse, NY in 1978. They were inspired by The Flashcubes, and Poptarts songwriter/guitarist Meegan Voss (aka Debbie Redmond) actually was Flashcubes guitarist Arty Lenin’s girlfriend at the time, but their goals were always clearly stated: to become the female Raspberries, with their faces on a lunchbox, proudly and perkily perched at the toppermost of the poppermost.
The Go-Go’s started as a ragged L.A. punk band in the late ‘70s, and it’s likely that no one who saw them then could have ever predicted their eventual stardom. But they cleaned up real good--in fact, they wound up looking an awful lot like The Poptarts-- and they wrote terrific pop tunes. If the members of The Go-Go’s were initially dismayed by the pop sheen given them by veteran producer Richard Gotterher on their debut album Beauty And The Beat, they got over it quickly, as the album exploded (# 1 for six weeks in 1981) and singles “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got The Beat” stormed radio, retail and MTV.
The pop buzz of the early ‘90s inspired the birth of Yellow Pills, an essential power pop fanzine started by Jordan Oakes and Rich Osmond circa 1991-92. As Oakes later recalled, “I was first attracted to power pop by The Beatles, who are pre-power pop, but who, of course, laid the blueprint. I went straight from them to Cheap Trick, and have never been the same since. I started Yellow Pills because I just wanted to write about pop. I sensed a void out there. I had no idea it would be so well-received and would lead to so many good things.”
As Poptopia sought to spread this Gospel of California pop, a California-based writer named David Bash wondered if perhaps there might be room for another pop festival, one that spotlighted pop bands, past and present, from all over the world. Taking his cue from the Material Issue tune, Bash began his International Pop Overthrow festivals in 1998. IPO has been an annual event in Southern California ever since, and has expanded to additional annual events in Chicago, New York City (later bundled with Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore as IPO East Coast) and even Liverpool, England.
Yep, that’s it, and Not Lame has done an admirable job of bringing that home over the last ten years. Not Lame has released wonderful work from such artists as The Rooks (one of the most compelling pop acts to emerge in the ‘90s), The Shazam, Myracle Brah, Michael Carpenter, Starbelly, The Model Rockets, The Sun Sawed In 1/2, Ken Sharp and Bobby Sutliff, plus archival boxed sets of The Posies and Jellyfish, and thoughtful, well-executed (and fun!) tribute albums honoring Gene Clark, Teenage Fanclub, Jeff Lynne, The Cars and bubblegum music (the latter compiled by that John Borack guy again).
Even if power pop never again makes a credible run for the top of the pop charts, the music seems certain to continue in some form forever. If nothing else, it will remain as a reference point and a reminder of a cherished memory; it may yet survive as something more than that.
COMING TOMORROW: AN UNPUBLISHED HISTORY OF POWER POP BONUS!
The Secret History Of Power Pop, by Carl Cafarelli and Gary Pig Gold