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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT! The History Of Power Pop, Part 1


From the archives:  hey, it's one of my greatest hits!  The first version of my history of power pop was published in the January 5th, 1996 issue of Goldmine.  I re-used a bit of it in my liner notes to the Rhino Records CD compilation Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s.  And in 2005, I went back and re-worked the whole thing for John M. Borack's book Shake Some Action.  Although time has, I guess, not stood still since then, I've resisted any attempt to update the information.  Here's my complete original manuscript of the 2005 version.  

If you read a lot of rock writing, then you’ve no doubt run across the term power pop on several occasions.  The term may seem self-explanatory, but when it’s applied with blissful indifference to acts as diverse as The Knack, The Ramones, R.E.M., Def Leppard, Green Day, The Bay City Rollers and (Lord help us) Britney Spears, one can be forgiven for wondering what power pop really means.

If only the answer were that simple.

Like rock ‘n’ roll itself, power pop has come to mean many different things to different people.  Just as rock ‘n’ roll (or rock, if you must) is commonly used in reference to Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, KISS and Duran Duran, with little consensus among fans of the individual, contradicting styles, so too has the meaning of power pop been diluted over time.

 In strictest terms, power pop is literally pop music with power, catchy tunes with an attitude.  It refers to an energetic interpretation of pop rock, based in equal parts on melodic hooks and killer instinct.  It takes obvious inspiration from mid-1960s rock ‘n’ roll, especially from groups like The Beatles, The Kinks and the early Who.  From about 1977 onward, it has frequently absorbed a recognizable influence from the ragin’ rhythms of punk.

Power pop also incorporates an inherent innocence, its physical presence sometimes derived simply from the power of pure pop itself.  At the end of the day, power pop is best summed up in the words Phonograph Record Magazine once used to describe Big Star’s sublime “September Gurls”:  “Innocent, but deadly.”

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.”

Who cares about power pop, anyway?  Well, while pure pop and power pop have rarely seemed poised to really capture the hearts and minds of the great unwashed, an informal but vocal pop underground has existed since at least the early ‘70s.  Ill-served by the vapid fare of AM Top 40 and the self-consciously hip drone of progressive FM, those disaffected by the heavy vibe of capital-R Rock as capital-A Art longed for a return to the engagingly simple charm of mid-‘60s pop.

This may have begun as mere nostalgia, but then someone got the bright idea of combining those halcyon pop hooks with contemporary power.  The resulting power pop sound garnered some hits and lots of worthy stiffs and near-misses.  Whether a hit or a miss with the mass audience, the sound and approach attracted its own rabid devotees.

This essay will examine the joint histories of both power pop and its more precious twin, pure pop (or pop-rock).  The two terms are often used interchangeably; if one wishes to be a stickler, pure pop generally refers to anything that draws on the tradition of the early Beatles or Hollies, and/or such jangly folk-rockers as The Byrds and The Beau Brummels; power pop, on the other hand, tends to be more aggressive, its parameters defined by the early work of The Kinks, The Who, The Easybeats and The Creation.  The distinctions blur easily.

Don’t worry too much about the labels, though; just imagine it’s 1965, or 1977, or even 2005, and the car radio is playing some new song that’s just got to be the greatest thing you’ve ever heard.  Feel free to get excited, and feel free to sing along and pound your fist on the steering wheel in whatever rhythmic fashion you can muster.  If it’s a tale of heartbreak, don’t be afraid to cry.  And if it’s a power pop celebration, then let the thrills go unabridged.  Either way, my friends, you gotta have pop.

Roots:  The Toppermost Of The Poppermost

Although the power pop story has its proper start in the early '70s, the story really begins circa 1964, with the commercial ascension of The Beatles in America.  The roots stretch back farther, of course--it would be ludicrous to claim that Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys, Del Shannon and Phil Spector weren’t enormous influences on the development of power pop, as were early Motown, doo-wop, rockabilly and the power chords of Link Wray--but it’s plain to see that pop mania begins in frenzied earnest with John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The ripple effect, on both music and pop culture in general, of The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and subsequent film debut in A Hard Day’s Night is beyond measurement.  Seemingly overnight, hair got longer, folkies went electric, and pop music became fab
When The Barracudas sang “I wish it could be 1965 again!” in the early ‘80s, they weren’t kidding.  For right or wrong, the mid-‘60s are still regarded by many as pop’s golden era, when unforgettable single sides by the likes of The Yardbirds, The Beau Brummels, The Four Tops, The Kinks, The Searchers, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Supremes and scads of other worthies crowded the Top 40 listings, co-existing happily within a single radio format (something unimaginable today, except on oldies stations playing those same songs).

Contrary to what that Rolling Stones song said, it was a case of the song, not the singer.  Pop radio was ruled by the hit single, defined in increments of two to three minutes.  An act was only as good as its latest record, so each record, each song, had to be perfect.

While The Beatles embodied the ideal of what a pop band could be, it was The Who that provided the working prototype for power pop, combining undeniably pop moves with a genuinely violent musical approach.  As writer Greg Shaw recalled in the pages of Bomp! magazine in 1977, “Any way you look at it, power pop began with The Who (The Easybeats started around the same time, but unfortunately we didn’t hear them until two years later...).  Their approach to songwriting was solidly pop--every song was short, catchy, hook-filled, built on bright, uplifting major chords, and they never shied away from those all-important ‘la la la’s.’  And behind it all, that explosive , violent, rebellious sound.  The Who in 1965 sounded a lot more dangerous than 90 percent of the  punk bands in 1977!”

(Though frequently slighted in rock history, the role of The Kinks in the creation of power pop should also be noted.  After all, The Who’s debut single “I Can’t Explain” was an obvious, though triumphant, attempt to ape The Kinks’ sound.  And The Kinks’ early singles—“You Really Got Me,” “All Day And All Of The Night,” “I Need You,” “Tired Of Waiting For You,” “Till The End Of The Day”--were short on neither pop nor power.  The Kinks soon went on to a different (though no less compelling) sound altogether, but they deserve some credit as innovators of the original power pop sound.

Another often-neglected early influence was--wait for it!--The Dave Clark Five.  Yeah, yeah, nobody takes this one seriously, but hear me out here.  The Tottenham sound of the DC5 was dismissed, then and now, as crassly commercial, gimmicky and artless, but the group’s best singles—“Glad All Over,” “Bits And Pieces,” “Do You Love Me,” “Any Way You Want It,” “Catch Us If You Can,” et al.--were loaded with meaty hooks and AM radio savvy, and they rocked like hell.  Sounds like a legitimate power pop prototype to me, mate.)

As the ‘60s wore on, however, the sun began to set on pop’s golden era.  Following the release of the Sgt. Pepper album in 1967, The Beatles went from being the Fab Four to being the spiritual statesmen of an emerging counterculture.  Set against the unsettling backdrop of racial strife, student unrest and an increasingly unpopular war in Southeast Asia, pure pop seemed to have become passe.  The audiences fragmented.  A schism developed between “serious” artists who came to eschew pop, and crassly commercial acts that embraced the ephemeral appeal of teenybop pop.

(An aside:  this risks over-simplifying the ‘60s, a decade that continues to resist all facile efforts to tidy its legacy.  But the palpable “Us vs. Them” vibe of this era  certainly did spill over into the realm of popular music; for example, even though the two acts briefly toured together in 1968, relatively few fans of the psychedelic guitar transcendence of The Jimi Hendrix Experience had any use for the prepackaged commercial product of The Monkees, while fans of The Monkees’ brilliant, beguiling pop craft literally booed Hendrix off the stage.  While one can now comfortably claim devotion to both Hendrix and The Monkees, The MC5 and The Archies, The Grateful Dead and The Jackson Five, that divide could not be bridged at the time.)

With the popular music landscape shifting, British Invasion-style pop went semi-underground.  That is, it surrendered its claim to the top of the pops, but continued to survive and thrive in the hearts and garages of young America.  Bands like Cleveland’s The Choir (mark that name for future reference; we’ll be coming back to them shortly) and Philadelphia’s The Nazz (featuring future wunderkind Todd Rundgren) kept the faith, albeit to little financial reward.

Which brings us to the 1970s.  The Beatles had broken up.  Although the group had certainly evolved far beyond the pop mania of “Please Please Me” and “She Loves You,” The Beatles had remained the sine qua non of pure pop music’s highest aspirations--artistic, commercial, what have you--and their demise was inevitably taken as symbolic of the void many fans found in the rock of the ‘70s.  For some, the music scene as a whole was becoming bloated and sterile, bereft of life or feeling.

As singer-songwriter Shane Faubert (of the 1980s garage-pop band The Cheepskates) recalled, “I grew up listening to singles.  Whether it was The Beatles, Turtles or Buck Owens, artists said what they needed to in two-and-a-half wonderful minutes, and then released you to the next song.  I never ‘progressed’ to the point where I could listen to one 15-minute song instead of listening to five or six mini-masterpieces by all sorts of people.”

Relief was on the way.

NEXT:  Relief!