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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.

Monday, February 15, 2016

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT! The History Of Power Pop, Part 4

Continuing my history of power pop, as written in 2005 for John M. Borack's 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

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

Part 3:  http://carlcafarelli.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-kids-are-alright-history-of-power_13.html

 Image result for "Nerves""Hanging On The Telephone"
Image result for "20/20""Yellow Pills"Image result for "Plimsouls"       Image result for "Paul Collins Beat"

A Million Miles Away

The Nerves were an L.A.-based trio who released a four-song EP in 1977 before vanishing.  The EP itself was engaging enough, but The Nerves are best remembered for what its members went on to accomplish.  Guitarist Jack Lee never made much of a name for himself as a performer, but he did have some success as a songwriter; Blondie had a # 5 British hit with his “Hanging On The Telephone” (the original version of which appeared on The Nerves’ EP).  Both “Hanging On The Telephone” and another Lee composition, “Will Anything Happen,” were included on Blondie’s mega-successful Parallel Lines album.  An Akron, Ohio group called The Rubber City Rebels also recorded “Paper Dolls,” a magnificent Ramones-influenced Lee song originally done live (but never recorded) by The Nerves.

Ah, but the other two ex-Nerves--drummer Paul Collins and bassist Peter Case--subsequently achieved power pop immortality after trading in their original instrumental roles for rhythm guitar/frontman spots with their own respective groups, The Beat and The Plimsouls.

The Beat, later renamed The Paul Collins Beat to avoid confusion with the British act called The Beat (who were renamed The English Beat to avoid confusion with...oh, skip it), were a solid pop act from the word go.  The Beat, the group’s 1979 debut album on Columbia, was loaded with fab originals, with “Rock ‘n’ Roll Girl,” “Don’t Wait Up For Me,” “You Won’t Be Happy” and “Walking Out On Love” worthy of particular note.

The follow-up, 1982’s The Kids Are The Same, was similarly engaging, but the public passed on both outings.  A final Beat EP, To Beat Or Not To Beat, drew the curtain on The Beat’s brief but promising career in 1983.  (Collins has since recorded sporadically, including a 1993 album, From Town To Town, credited to The Paul Collins Band; this edition of Collins’ band included Will Rigby of the dB’s and Arty Lenin of The Flashcubes, creating a veritable power pop supergroup.)

To many fans, The Plimsouls remain the definitive post-punk power pop group.  Following the dissolution of The Nerves, Case had originally hung together with Collins in a group called The Breakaways.  The Breakaways’ demo tape included a Nerves remake (“Working Too Hard,” which Collins also redid for the first Beat LP), the superb “Walking Out On Love” (subsequently issued as a Paul Collins solo track on a Bomp! sampler, and also redone for The Beat) and Case’s “Everyday Things,” among others.

By 1979, Case had joined forces with bassist Dave Pahoa, drummer Lou Ramirez and (eventually) guitarist Eddie Munoz to form The Plimsouls.  In 1980, the group made its recording debut with Zero Hour, a five-song EP released on the independent Beat label.  Zero Hour helped the group snare the interest of Elektra’s Planet Records subsidiary.  Planet released the group’s debut album, The Plimsouls, in 1981.

The Plimsouls was an extraordinary effort, the kind of album no self-respecting pop fan could bear to live without.  But, in spite of irresistible tracks like “Now,” “Zero Hour,” “Hush, Hush” and covers of The Easybeats (“Woman”) and Wilson Pickett (“Mini-Skirt Minnie”), the album stalled at # 153, and the “Now” single didn’t chart at all.  Planet and The Plimsouls soon parted company.

Without a label, The Plimsouls self-released their next single in 1982, and guaranteed the group’s place in power pop history.  “A Million Miles Away” was simply one of the greatest power pop singles ever, a succinct blast of chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, fist-in-the-air rocking and swooning, swooping heart-on-the-sleeve hooks.  In the  history of power pop, “A Million Miles Away” remains one of the genre’s finest moments.

The buzz surrounding “A Million Miles Away” landed The Plimsouls a contract with Geffen, leading to 1983’s Everywhere At Once album.  Geffen reissued the “A Million Miles Away” single (which peaked at # 82), but the album never got past # 186.  The group appeared in the popular film Valley Girl, lip-syncing to “A Million Miles Away,” “Everywhere At Once” and “Oldest Story In The World.”  This was as close as The Plimsouls ever got to the mass popular recognition that should have been theirs.  The group broke up in 1985.  Case went on to a series of low-key solo albums; The Plimsouls reunited (with Blondie’s Clem Burke on drums--jeez, this guy gets around) in 1998 for an awesome album called Kool Trash, and have since called it quits again.

Remember The Lightning

20/20 was formed by guitarist Steve Allen and bassist Ron Flynt, both Tulsa natives who subsequently moved to L.A.  They befriended fellow Tulsa expatriate Phil Seymour, and played on the demos that helped Seymour get his own record deal.  Bomp! Magazine’s Gary Sperrazza! recommended drummer Mike Gallo to the group, completing 20/20's initial configuration.

The first 20/20 release was the Bomp! single “Giving It All,” which was actually a Steve Allen solo track that predated the group.  Guitarist Chris Silagyi joined 20/20 in time for the group’s eponymous debut album, released by Portrait in 1979.

Though perhaps a bit too dominated by new wave synthesizer styles in spots, the 20/20 album was still a triumphant melange of catchy music with an occasional dark edge.  The single “Cheri” was pretty good, but “Yellow Pills” and “Remember The Lightning” were the real standouts.  The album got no higher than # 138 on the Billboard chart, but it remains a pop classic.

Mike Gallo had left the group by the time of 1981’s Look Out!, replaced on drums by Joel Turrisi.  Look Out! was not quite the equal of the debut, but it came very close (and charted slightly higher at # 127).  The leadoff track, “Nuclear Boy,” offered a signal that the band was delving further into the dark side hinted at on the first album, while “The Night I Heard A Scream” deftly mixed its downbeat tale with a gorgeous, buoyant melody.

20/20 was dropped by Portrait after Look Out!, and released a final record, Sex Trap, on the Mainway label in 1982.  Although the group itself faded away, its legacy didn’t; the fact that pop fan/writer Jordan Oakes named his essential pop fanzine Yellow Pills should be read as a compliment that is both sincere and appropriate.  Allen and Flynt later reactivated 20/20 for two more albums in the ‘90s.

Get The...Knack?!

While The Beat, The Plimsouls and 20/20 each made memorable records and earned followings that still exist today, their chances for retail success were mercilessly overshadowed by the blockbuster sales of yet another pop group, The Knack.  Paradoxically, all of the above groups probably owed their own major label contracts to The Knack, yet the subsequent backlash against The Knack also served to torpedo their careers.

Even all these years after the fact, it’s difficult to articulate exactly what the problem was with The Knack.  They really weren’t a bad group; their debut album, 1979’s Get The Knack, was a damn fine record, loaded with damn fine pop tunes like “Good Girls Don’t,” “Let Me Out,” “That’s What The Little Girls Do,” the excellent “Your Number Or Your Name,” and one much-maligned but still agreeable monster hit single (“M-m-m-m-m-m-m-my Sharona”).  Sure, they weren’t the next Beatles, or the next Big Star, but what was so wrong about The Knack?

The short answer:  everything was wrong about The Knack.  (Short answers are rude, disrespectful and have terrible personal grooming habits.)  The long answer is a bit more complicated.

The Knack’s own swift, gargantuan success was a large part of the problem many people had with the group.  Much of this was due to simple jealousy.  The Knack became so big so fast--a mere six months passed from the band’s formation to its signing with Capitol--that many were understandably chagrined by the group’s apparent paucity of dues-paying.  Add in the general consensus that there were many acts more deserving of the kind of success The Knack enjoyed, and you’ve got fertile breeding ground for a backlash.

The Knack’s Doug Feiger has claimed many times that if The Knack hadn’t hit big, if Get The Knack had only sold as many units as, say, Radio City, The Knack today would be revered as a visionary cult act.  And there is probably some truth in Feiger’s claim.  As Feiger said in a 1994 interview with Yellow Pills magazine, “What happened is that suddenly we weren’t hip and cool anymore.  And it surprised the hell out of me.  We probably played 150 times in the general area from San Francisco to San Diego before the album came out.  Then we went in the studio and recorded our first album live, just like we did our shows.  We basically put our live show on record.

“And the very people who praised us were now knocking us for the very thing that they had loved--just because it had gotten successful!  And to have the finger of cynicism pointed at us by the most cynical element of the community--which is the journalist who’s making a political statement--is just foolish.”

Foolish or not, that charge of cynicism was leveled at The Knack with numbing frequency.  The Knack were repeatedly accused of cynically exploiting the image of the early Beatles, of cynically exploiting the aftermath of the punk movement, of cynically exploiting the press with a strict no-interviews policy that created an artificial mystique, of cynically exploiting sexist attitudes with their sexist lyrics, and ultimately of just being irredeemably cynical, cynical, cynical.

“Well, you’ve go to remember that at [that] time, it was the post-punk era,” Feiger told Yellow Pills.  “People still felt that it was politically incorrect to be commercial.  And by commercial, they meant to sell records.  If you committed the sin of being popular, and actually selling the records you made--rather than just having five critics like you--then you were somehow suspect as an artist.  And we always knew that was bullshit.

“And the Beatle thing in some aspects was cynical.  But really it was just one picture--the one on the back of the first album.  And it was hard to believe that people actually thought about this and cared about this, and there were articles about it--a lot of articles.”

In a separate Yellow Pills interview, 20/20’s Steve Allen commented on the effect The Knack had on the then-emerging pop scene:  “For me, The Knack pretty much killed the validity of a lot of different bands, they kind of milked it for all it was worth, with Capitol and the marketing--it had nothing to do with the music, it was all marketing.  They were using The Beatles in ways that just didn’t seem right; the music, it seemed, was really secondary to that.

“And we knew before they came out, we had an agent say, ‘I’m worried about The Knack, what they’re going to do to the validity in the rock world.’  And then when they wouldn’t do interviews at first, it really turned the press against them, so by the time we came out, it really hurt our credibility, especially in L.A. and New York.  It’s just a weird set of circumstances that that group came up through marketing devices kinda hurt the credibility of it all.

“...I mean, definitely they had a hit song, but the marketing and the whole campaign was mega; and it shot them up like a skyrocket and then it hurt people that immediately followed that.  Who knows, if there hadn’t been a fallout, we and the other bands may have been able to grow and develop in ways that, who could predict?”

Although it’s tempting to pillory The Knack for perceived wrongdoing, Knack-bashing is ultimately unfair.  If we can separate the band from the hype, and think of The Knack as just another pop group from L.A., then they really weren’t bad at all.  Get The Knack was a pretty good record, actually; the follow-up, 1980’s ...But The Little Girls Understand, was a bit less interesting, but 1981’s Round Trip (which I once dismissed as “unlistenable”--mea culpa!) has aged very well, and is an album ripe for rediscovery.
After all that, The Knack have had the last laugh; the band is still with us (albeit with a different drummer...and it’s not Clem Burke, believe it or not).  1991’s Serious Fun album was seriously no fun at all, but 1998’s Zoom was a stunning effort, an immediately captivating piece that made a believer outta me (it was my favorite album of that year).  2001’s Normal As The Next Guy and a fabulous live DVD (The Knack Live From The Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun House, which lovingly emulates ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll TV showcases like ShindigHullabaloo and Ready, Steady, Go) have continued to make the case on behalf of The Knack.

And The Knack’s initial success did inspire major labels to snap up pop bands left and right.  Regardless of whatever subsequent effect the Knacklash may have had, it’s  possible that such worthy acts as The Romantics, Off Broadway USA (an outgrowth of Pezband that released two agreeable albums on Atlantic), The Pop (friggin’ fantastic L.A. group), Great Buildings and, yes, The Beat, The Plimsouls and 20/20, may not have gotten their record deals if not for the pop-band feeding-frenzy inspired by Get The Knack's monster success.  So score that as another point in The Knack’s favor.

But be aware that the Knacklash did indeed exact a price.
The Power Pop Implosion

Whether a negative reaction to The Knack was fair or unfair, it was a fact of life nonetheless.  In the minds of critics, The Knack came to be viewed as representative of all the so-called “skinny-tie bands,” so dubbed in honor of their affection for a post-punk look based (very loosely!) on mid-‘60s Mod fashion.  “Skinny-tie bands” was used as a derogatory reference, not just to power pop groups but to virtually all new wave acts at the turn of the decade.

By the early ‘80s, punk had evolved (if that’s the right word) into hardcore, and the lighter, synth-happy new wave acts found a new home on some kooky thing called MTV.  But power pop, as an identifiable commercial entity and a cultural movement, was dead.  The Knack (and The Romantics, to a lesser degree) proved to be the only groups of this ilk to garner any bona fide hit records, and even these groups found their success short-lived.

Greg Shaw, who’d played such a pivotal role in introducing the phrase “power pop” into general discussion, summed up the disappointing results of the power pop implosion:  “The golden age of power pop was probably 1965 to ‘67, with bands like The Beatles, Kinks, Easybeats, etc.  There was a minor upsurge around ‘73-‘75 with Raspberries, Big Star, et al., and of course the marketing scam of the late ‘70s that produced a lot of crap and a couple of decent bands like The Plimsouls.  I have forgotten most of the others.”

But this was hardly the end of the power pop story.  If power pop couldn’t reclaim the airwaves, then it could return to the pop underground that had nurtured it for so long. 

NEXT:  The Girls Are Alright!

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