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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.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT! The History Of Power Pop, Part 3

Continuing my history of power pop, as written for John M. Borack's 2005 book Shake Some Action.

You can read Part 1 here:  http://carlcafarelli.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-kids-are-alright-history-of-power_11.html

You can read Part 2 here:  http://carlcafarelli.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-kids-are-alright-history-of-power_12.html


Punk Goes Pop

While all of the above neo-pop groups and teenybop acts alike were pursuing their individual pop goals, the rock and pop world was being shaken by a new music that threatened to turn everything upside down.  Pundits had dubbed this new music “punk rock,” and it looked to be pop’s antithesis:  loud, fast and angry, with a sneering promise of Anarchy in the U.K.  At first glance, it seemed there could be little common ground between this new primal noise and classic pop.

Well, never trust your first impression.  While the media seized upon the shock and outrage of punk’s obvious visual elements, some fans viewed the movement as a long-overdue wake-up call.  British groups like The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned may have been short on chops and melody, but they had energy to spare, energy that sparked the souls of diehard rock ‘n’ rollers who’d never quite given up hope that the music they loved would return, its spirit intact.

And, hidden beneath the angry clatter and nihilist posing, punk incorporated nascent pop moves from the start.  Most of the songs were almost absurdly concise, all hooks and rhythm, with no room for extraneous clutter or boring solos (solos most of the punks wouldn’t have been able to play anyway).  These short, catchy tunes observed the traditional pop verse-chorus-bridge song structure, even while The Clash chanted a demand for a riot of their own, and The Sex Pistols warned that there’d be no future, no future for you.

Meanwhile, American groups like The Ramones and Blondie (and forerunners The Dictators and The New York Dolls) were always upfront about their affection for pop and junk culture in general.  The Ramones even acknowledged that they were influenced by The Bay City Rollers, and they weren’t kidding.
The Ramones’ power pop credentials are seldom recognized, but are nonetheless undeniable; even over and above the belligerent brilliance of the group’s first four albums, The Ramones’ singles reflected their own warped AM radio sensibilities.  The string of (paradoxically) non-hit hit singles The Ramones released in the ‘70s—“Blitzkrieg Bop” (with its Rollers-inspired “Hey Ho, Let’s Go!” chant), “Swallow My Pride,” “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker,” “Rockaway Beach,” the unfairly-maligned “Don’t Come Close” and covers of The Rivieras’ “California Sun,” Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” and The Searchers’ “Needles And Pins”--revealed the group’s unabashed pop aspirations and surf-and-sun roots.  Add such LP tracks as “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” (which Dee Dee Ramone once claimed The Bay City Rollers wanted to cover, but that’s just Dee Dee for you), “Oh Oh I Love Her So,” the neo-bubblegum classic “I Wanna Be Sedated,” virtually the entire Rocket To Russia album, and even the glue-sniffin’ confessional “Carbona Not Glue,” and a picture emerges to show The Ramones as one of the greatest power pop acts ever.

Somewhere in this late ‘70s time frame, that phrase “power pop” was introduced into the discussion.  The term was first used (fittingly!) by The Who’s Pete Townshend in an interview years before (speaking of his own band, plus The Small Faces and The Beach Boys circa “Fun, Fun, Fun”), but it came into more general use after punk’s initial onslaught.  As punk rock tried to parlay its initial shock value impact into something bigger (and more profitable), music-biz types groped for new phrases to describe the music without conjuring up the negative, safety-pinned image of The Sex Pistols.  “New wave” was seized upon as one such phrase.  “Power pop” was another.

To punk purists, both new wave and power pop were seen as corporate attempts to dilute punk’s power.  While that charge is partially true, some of the power pop that emerged from the punk movement was both legitimate and possessed of a power all its own.  In England, The Jam appeared as a group consciously influenced by and emulating the early Who, both in musical approach and in neo-Mod fashion style.  Groups like The Buzzcocks, Generation X (with future solo star Billy Idol on vocals) and The Rich Kids (featuring ousted Sex Pistol Glen Matlock, and future Ultravox maestro Midge Ure, who had himself already been a pop figure of sorts, as a member of UK boy scout pinups Slik) gleefully mixed punk and pop to spectacular results.

In the midst of all this, some British veterans of the pre-punk pub rock days found themselves swept up in the new wave.  “Do Anything You Wanna Do” by pub-rockers Eddie and the Hot Rods was one of the defining moments of power pop on 45.  Nick Lowe, pub rock veteran and producer of The Damned’s first album, released a stellar solo debut variously titled Jesus Of Cool and Pure Pop For Now People.  Lowe’s flawless assimilation of vibrant pop styles made him a pure pop icon, an image he retained long after he himself had lost interest in the style.

 As power pop appeared to be shaping itself into a bona fide movement, Bomp! Magazine’s Greg Shaw and Gary Sperrazza! took due notice.  Bomp! had long championed the virtues of classic rockin’ pop, both in the pages of the magazine and with an attendant record label, a label which had been launched in 1974 with a 45 rpm release by The Flamin’ Groovies.  (That first Bomp! single, “You Tore Me Down” backed by a cover of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Him Or Me—What’s It Gonna Be?,” led directly to the Groovies’ major label contract with Sire Records.  Bomp! was an influential player right from its start.)

Sensing a subject worth getting worked up over, Shaw and Sperrazza! devoted the March 1978 issue of Bomp! to power pop, chronicling the genre’s history and speculating on the inevitable juggernaut success of the burgeoning power pop movement.  Wrapped in a gorgeous William Stout cover illustration that encapsulated power pop’s gut-level appeal, the power pop issue of Bomp! was like a rallying cry for any who cared to listen.

“The power pop issue of Bomp!,” Shaw later recalled, “was an attempt at something rarely done in the magazine world:  to lead people’s taste, rather than reflect it.  Of course it was for the most part ‘preaching to the choir,’ but it does seem to have had some effect, especially on the U.K. music press, which corrupted the idea and spawned a plethora of gutless bands.  Gary Sperrazza! deserves a lot of credit for pushing the concept; he was even more of a zealot than me, with a special fetish for Cheap Trick (whom I also loved, of course).”

But, as a movement, power pop was essentially stillborn.  It was done in, in part, by the corrupting forces that Shaw referred to.  In the U.K., power pop became a bandwagon for lame acts to hop on and claim trendy cachet.  A case in point was a group called The Pleasers, a quartet of Beatle-tressed Mersey-wannabes peddling a diluted distillation of Beatlemania they dubbed Thamesbeat.  The Pleasers were not a bad group--they made some decent records, including a very nice cover of The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright,” one of several Pleasers tracks produced by former Monkees producer/songwriter Tommy Boyce--but they were too obviously derivative, too slavish in their skinny-tied attempt to be Beatles ‘78.  And they were just the kind of act that the British music press thought embodied power pop.  No wonder the British punks rejected power pop!  (Or, as Sperrazza! put in Bomp!:  “After all, power pop means pop with power!!!, not some whimpering simp with a Beatles haircut.”)

Gotta Have Pop

In spite of the backlash inspired by such media forces (who’ll get their reward some day in Hell), there were nonetheless a lot of eminently worthy acts mining the power pop vein by the end of the ‘70s.  One of the most notable (and durable) of these groups was Shoes, an exquisite four-man band from Zion, Illinois.  Shoes took their first step with an album that was literally homemade, recorded in guitarist Jeff Murphy’s living room and released on the group’s own Black Vinyl label in 1977.

That album, Black Vinyl Shoes, was an instant pop classic, bursting with understated gems, songs simultaneously Beatlesque yet not strictly derivative of anything.  Black Vinyl Shoes brought the group to Greg Shaw’s attention, and Bomp! released a non-LP 45 of  “Tomorrow Night”/”Okay,” which still ranks as the best 1-2 punch of Shoes’ always-distinguished recording career.  (Shoes actually recorded two albums prior to Black Vinyl Shoes:  Un Dans Versailles was an extremely limited-edition record from 1975, while an album called Bazooka was recorded in 1976 but not released at that time.)

In any case, Shoes went from the Bomp! single to a record contract with Elektra, commencing with 1979’s Present Tense album.  The “Too Late” single made the charts but stalled at # 75 (the album reached # 50).  Shoes made two more albums for Elektra in the early ‘80s, then returned to indie-land.  The group continued to record into the ‘90s, on their re-activated Black Vinyl label, but now appears to be dormant.  This book’s very own John M. Borack organized a splendid Shoes tribute album, Shoe Fetish, for the Parasol label in 2001.

Another act that graduated from the indies to the majors was The Romantics, from Detroit.  The Romantics made their recording debut with a 1977 single on their own Spider Records label.  “Little White Lies”/”I Can’t Tell You Anything” was a two-sided winner, and probably the toughest-sounding record The Romantics would ever make.  They followed that with a great single (“Tell It To Carrie”/”First In Line”) and a couple of compilation-album contributions (“Let’s Swing” and “Running Away”) for Bomp!, and then signed with Columbia’s Nemperor imprint.

The Romantics, the group’s ace 1980 debut album, included inferior remakes of some of the Spider and Bomp! songs, but was fully redeemed by a number of other fine tracks, including “When I Look In Your Eyes” and a little ditty that would become The Romantics’ signature tune, “What I Like About You.”  As a single, “What I Like About You” peaked at a mere # 49, but has since become indelibly branded on the public consciousness via rock videos and Budweiser commercials.  The fact that the song still retains its original appeal is testimony to the power of its pop.

The Romantics eventually did have a # 3 hit with “Talking In Your Sleep” in 1983, but to many they’re remembered as a one-hit wonder, and “What I Like About You” is the "hit" these folks remember.  Well, it is the more memorable song, after all.  The Romantics made a total of five albums of varying quality for Nemperor, but the debut remains the best.  An incredible live set from 1983 was later exhumed as a King Biscuit Flower Hour CD release, and it provides lasting documentation of just how great The Romantics were live.  They’re probably still great live; they’re still with us, and their most recent album, 61/49 (with Blondie’s Clem Burke now on drums), shows they still have it.

A British band called The Records also managed a near-hit (# 56) with “Starry Eyes,” a sublimely Byrdsy track reminiscent of Eddie and the Hot Rods’ “Do Anything You Wanna Do.”  The Records’ 1979 debut LP (Shades In Bed in the U.K., re-titled as The Records in the U.S.) included more wonderful pop stuff in “Teenarama” and “Girl,” and The Records seemed sure to hit big.  The group even covered Tim Moore’s “Rock And Roll Love Letter” as a non-LP single (an able cover too, though not as good as The Bay City Rollers’ version) and wrote a great song called “Hearts In Her Eyes” for The Searchers’ comeback album.

Alas, The Records never quite made it.  Following a change in guitar personnel, 1980’s perennially-underrated Crashes album had lots of wonderful tracks—“Man With A Girl Proof Heart,” “Hearts Will Be Broken,” “The Same Mistakes,” and a decent version of “Hearts In Her Eyes” that still paled beside The Searchers’ definitive reading--but was poorly received.  The band reconfigured again, without lead singer John Wicks, and the version of The Records that recorded 1982’s Music From Both Sides was definitely not the same Records that fans had once cherished.  The Records broke up thereafter, though John Wicks resurfaced with a new Records line-up in the ‘90s.

And there were scads of others.  There was Squeeze, a British group whose low-key style lacked flash but was unerringly agreeable.  Squeeze went on to have chart hits in the ‘80s, but always really seemed a breed apart from the power poppers.

There were The Scruffs, a spunky pop outfit from Memphis with a superb 1977 power pop LP cheekily titled Wanna’ Meet The Scruffs?  Scruffs tracks like “Revenge,” “Break The Ice” and “She Say Yea,” plus the non-LP “Teenage Girls,” cried out for the kind of mass attention that The Scruffs never came close to getting.  There was Van Duren, another Memphis resident, whose essential Are You Serious? album sounds uncannily like Eric Carmen at his pop finest.  Moving north to Boston, there were The Real Kids, an irresistible punky-pop combo whose radio dial was permanently set on whatever station played The Ramones, The Kinks and Eddie Cochran in constant rotation.

In Canada, there was Bob Segarini, a veteran of pop group The Wackers, who sang on the title track of his Gotta Have Pop album that, “I loved The Beatles up to Sgt. Pepper/Then they ruined pop for what could be forever/But it’s never to late to hope.”  There was Stanley Frank, whose “S’cool Days” single was an incomparable cross between the best qualities of The Sweet, Slade and The Bay City Rollers.  There were The Diodes, a Toronto post-punk band who pulled it all together for a perfect power pop single called “Tired Of Waking Up Tired.”

And there were still countless others, miscellaneous power pop groups from local scenes across the U.S.A. and elsewhere, acts with unlimited potential who never got beyond the indie single stage:  The Jumpers in Buffalo, New York; The Names in Chicago, Illinois; The Flashcubes in Syracuse, NY (my favorite power pop group; man, you should see these guys live!).  There was probably a cool power pop act plying its trade in your home town at that time too.

But the greatest hopes for power pop’s conquest of the record charts were pinned on four Southern California groups.  Each of these groups had all the essential goods to some degree--the songs, the approach, the awareness of pop’s power.  Three of the acts seemed sincere in their fondness for the genre, while one of ‘em was widely suspected to hold a more crass, cynical view.  Guess which one topped the charts.