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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.

Friday, February 19, 2016

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT! The History Of Power Pop, Part 6

The dB’s were perhaps the first, and certainly the highest-profile, of the post-Big Star groups to perfect their own quirky strain of self-conscious underground pop.  Though subsequently classified as a power pop group, The dB’s were never really “power pop” in the sense that The Raspberries, The Plimsouls or the dreaded Knack were power pop.  No, The dB’s were always too clever, too self-aware, maybe even too smug to surrender themselves to purer pop styles.  This may have been both their greatest weakness and their greatest strength, as it may have prevented them from achieving greater notoriety, but it succeeded in making them all the more distinctive.

Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple were the core of The dB’s, with Gene Holder and Will Rigby completing the line-up.  The group had begun as Chris Stamey and the dB’s, and had released the single “(I Thought) You Wanted To Know” in 1978, before Holsapple joined.  Stamey had previously been in a group called Sneakers, and had released a solo single (“The Summer Sun”) produced by Alex Chilton.

With Holsapple in the fold, The dB’s made their album debut with 1981’s Stands For Decibels.  Though both Stands For Decibels and the 1982 follow-up Repercussions were essential pop purchases, they were only available as imports, as no American company would deign to sign The dB’s.  Stamey split at this point.

Holsapple piloted The dB’s through 1984's Like This, one of the best pop records of the decade, and the first dB’s record to be issued in the U.S.  Sadly, the company that did release it, Bearsville, was falling apart at the time, crippling the record’s retail potential.  The remains of the group switched to the IRS label for 1987’s The Sound Of Music, then called it quits.

Stamey has released several solo albums since leaving The dB’s, and Holsapple has worked with R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish and The Continental Drifters, among others; The Continental Drifters also included Holsapple’s wife, Susan Cowsill, once and future member of ‘60s hitmakers The Cowsills.  Stamey and Holsapple reunited in 1991 for an acoustic album, Mavericks.

Mitch Easter, Stamey’s former partner in Sneakers, also established his own pop pedigree in the ‘80s, both as an in-demand producer (most notably for R.E.M.), and as a member of the pop trio Let’s Active.  Let’s Active debuted with 1983’s effervescent Afoot EP, featuring the group’s signature tune, “Every Word Means No.”  A full album (1984’s Cypress) followed, at which point the original trio broke up.  Easter retained the Let’s Active moniker for 1986’s Big Plans For Everybody and 1988’s Every Dog Has His Day.

Marshall Crenshaw released his first album in 1982.  Although not power pop in the strict sense, Crenshaw has deservedly become an icon among pop fans for his consistently catchy material.  His eponymous debut album sparkled with Beatles/Buddy Holly charm, and many subsequent releases maintained that enviable melodic spark.

The Barracudas were a British group who scored a # 37 U.K. hit in 1980 with “Summer Fun.”  Bomp!s Voxx imprint picked up the group’s flawless first album, Drop Out With The Barracudas, for Stateside release in 1981.  Drop Out With The Barracudas offered non-stop aggressive pop with a death wish, and it remains a transcendent, rockin’ delight.  Chris Wilson, former lead singer of The Flamin’ Groovies, joined The Barracudas for their next two (import-only) albums, by which time the group had already forsaken the bone-crunching pop style of Drop Out in favor of a sort of garage/folk vibe.  The group broke up by the mid-‘80s, then reconfigured briefly (sans Wilson) in the ‘90s.  At this writing, a new incarnation of The Barracudas has been gigging again (retaining original mainstays Jeremy Gluck and Robin Wills, with Chris Wilson occasionally joining in), and we enthusiastically wish ‘em the best.

And then there were The Spongetones.  The Spongetones!   A four-man band of Beatles enthusiasts from Charlotte, North Carolina, The Spongetones--Rocko, Jumpy, Stiff and Pud (hereafter drummer Rob Thorne, guitarist Jamie Hoover, bassist Steve Stoeckel and guitarist Pat Walters)--debuted in 1982 with the indie Beat Music album.

Beat Music was an astonishing assimilation of Beatles, Hollies and DC5 influences, dynamically recreated as something new, with nary a trace of nostalgia-mongering nor smug condescension.  This was a band for pop fans to embrace without reservation.

The ‘Tones followed Beat Music with the even-better Torn Apart six-song EP in 1984.  However, there was a noticeable shift in stylistic gear for 1987’s Where-Ever-Land album, which did not include participation from Stoeckel.  Perhaps mindful of (blockheaded) criticism that the group lacked originality, Where-Ever-Land scuttled the obvious Beatlesisms.  It also scuttled a lot of the assured pop poise that made The Spongetones sound so beguiling in the first place.  Only “Anna” and “Talk To The Girl” (and, to a lesser degree, the title track) retained those qualities on Where-Ever-Land.

Although the overt Beatlemania moves are probably gone for good, Stoeckel returned for 1991’s superb Oh Yeah!, issued on Shoes’ visionary Black Vinyl label.  Two more albums have followed--Textural Drone Thing in 1995 and Odd Fellows in 2000--and The Spongetones are said to be working on another new album as this is written.  Jamie Hoover has also done two albums with Bryan Shumante as The Van deLecki’s, and a 2004 collaboration with Bill Lloyd, Paparazzi.

The above-mentioned Bill Lloyd has proven to be yet another key act for pop fans, and his career path offers the strongest link between power pop and modern country.  Lloyd first got noticed in the ‘80s with his partner Radney Foster in the country duo Foster and Lloyd.  Foster and Lloyd were as much a pop band as they were a country act, and their 1989 Faster And Llouder album provides ample evidence of that (especially on Lloyd’s subtly Beatley, super-charged “Suzette”).  As a solo artist, Lloyd generally leans more to pop than country, but basically does whatever he wants while thumbing his nose at the narrow categorizations promulgated by (gulp) essays like this one.  Bill hasn’t made a bad move yet.

Fools Face, a stunning quintet based in Springfield, Missouri, was the most criminally-overlooked pop band to emerge in the ‘80s.  Fools Face debuted in the late ‘70s with a single (“I Could Tell”) and a so-so album (1979’s Here To Observe), but hit the ‘80s running with 1981’s Tell America, one of the finest albums that (seemingly) no one ever heard.  Tell America includes the best break-up song ever, “Nothing To Say,” which encompasses casual heartache (or heartlessness?) and a matter-of-fact recognition of the need to just move on.  John Borack prefers 1983’s just-as-swell Public Places (and its perfect pop gem “Even Angels Fall”), and we’re both right--so there!  Fools Face reduced to a four-piece by the time of an eponymously titled cassette release (aka “The Red Tape”) in 1984, before succumbing to massive, exasperating industry indifference.  The five original guys regrouped for one more fantastic album in 2001.

Sex Clark 5 also began its reign of quirky brilliance in the ‘80s, commencing with 1987’s Strum & Drum! album.  Masters of short songs with unconventional titles (e.g., “Too Much Mongol Business,” “The Men Who Didn’t Know Ice,” “The Wreck Of The Ella Fitzgerald”) and hook piled upon hook piled upon hook, this Huntsville, Alabama foursome have remained consistent purveyors of intelligent, catchy pop tunes that are utterly, uniquely Sex Clark 5.  They continue unabated today.

And there were lots of other prime pop acts doing fine work in the ‘80s:  Holly and the Italians (whose sole LP The Right To Be Italian was described favorably in Creem magazine as sounding like Lesley Gore or The Angels backed by The Ramones), The Bongos, The Taxi Boys (an outgrowth of The Real Kids, on Bomp!), The Lambrettas (UK Mod revival band, whose “Da-a-a-ance” is one of the greatest pure pop tracks ever), Redd Kross (then-teenaged brothers Jeffrey and Steven MacDonald and an ever-changing line-up of ‘70s hard pop/arena rock acolytes, equally beholden to KISS and The Bay City Rollers), Parthenon Huxley, The Producers, The Reducers, Dirty Looks, The Sunnyboys, Tommy Keene, Richard X. Heyman, The Hoodoo Gurus, Squire, The Stems, the late, great Jimmy Silva, and so many others, far too many to list here.  And there were The Smithereens, perhaps not a power pop group per se, but nonetheless a winning amalgamation of killer hooks and rock ‘n’ roll buzz (come to think of it, that is power pop, innit?).

The garage revival of the mid-‘80s also had an undeniable pop element.  While the predominant barometer of a garage band’s worth was how convincingly it could ape such grungedelic forebears as The Sonics and The Chocolate Watch Band, groups like The Cheepskates (whose leader, Shane Faubert, would go on to record the little-heralded 1993 pop gem San Blass, among others), The Mosquitoes (the title tune of whose 1985 That Was Then, This Is Now EP was covered to Top 20 success by the partially-reunited Monkees), The Vertebrats, The Mystic Eyes and the all-female Pandoras each incorporated identifiable pop moves into their own individual garage-bred approaches.

One other ‘80s pop act worthy of individual note was Candy, from Los Angeles.  Armed with a major-label deal with Polydor and a marketing machine that seemed poised to push Candy as a newer, tougher version of The Bay City Rollers (and I mean that in a good way), Candy looked to be a can’t-miss pop proposition.  Instead, the group is remembered primarily (if at all) because guitarist Gilby Clarke went on to play with Guns N’ Roses, and lead singer Kyle Vincent went on to some solo success (and an ardent fan following of his own).  Of course, no one had yet heard of Gilby Clarke or Kyle Vincent in 1985, when Candy’s only album, Whatever Happened To Fun..., was released.  At that time, the key reference point for Candy was the Raspberries connection:  both Raspberries guitarist Wally Bryson and Raspberries producer Jimmy “Teeth” Ienner worked on the album.

Kyle Vincent acknowledged The Raspberries’ influence on Candy.  “Of course, The Beatles, Beach Boys and Four Seasons were the fathers of the genre,” said Vincent, “but to me, power pop began with Wally Bryson’s opening riff on ‘Go All The Way’ (which, incidentally, I made him play live for me about a zillion times when we worked on that Candy record!).  That is the essence of power pop at its purest.”

Whatever Happened To Fun... made excellent use of its Raspberries-flavored roots.  The title track, a thoroughly engaging discourse on what a bummer it was to grow up and leave the good times behind, was issued as a single, and both the album and the single should have charged up the record charts.

But 1985 was apparently still too early for a power pop renaissance, and the record died an ignominious death at retail.  “The mid-‘80s were a vast wasteland for power pop,” Vincent recalled.  “Back here in L.A., ‘big-hair’ rock was the thing.  Ironically, Candy posed the same dilemma to a marketing guy that I have in my solo endeavors:  we were too pop for AOR/Corporate/Ratt/KLOS radio, yet too rock for the Laura Branigan/Hall and Oates/KROQ/pop-CHR-dance world.

“I remember [Poison guitarist] C.C. DeVille in the front row at a big Candy show, throwing his fist in the air, rocking out.  Little did I know that two years later Poison would be multi-platinum and Candy would be, well....

“I think our lyrics weren’t dumb enough, our timing was wrong and we didn’t wear enough makeup!  It’s all Gilby’s fault!,” Vincent concluded with a laugh.

Since the Candy days, Vincent and Clarke have each made several solo albums, and both guested on A Tale Of Gin And Salvation, a 1994 album by former Candy bassist/songwriter Jonathan Daniel’s group, The Loveless.  An archival set of Candy demos and live tracks was issued in 2003, including some new studio work.  A Candy reunion is not out of the question, and would be welcome news indeed.

(In the discussion of pop in the ‘80s, the 800-pound gorilla would be R.E.M., a group that went from indie obscurity to massive popularity to eventual status as elder statesmen, kinda.  Much of R.E.M.’s early material—“Radio Free Europe,” “Wolves (Lower),” “So. Central Rain,” “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” among others--was certainly engaging pop music, influenced palpably by both The Byrds and The Velvet Underground, and I’m pretty sure rock critics introduced “jangly” into their lexicon specifically to describe R.E.M.  The R.E.M. story borders on the power pop story--R.E.M. had an enormous influence on many pop acts in the ‘80s--but ultimately falls outside power pop’s parameters.  The same could be said of The Replacements, hyped as “the last, best band of the ‘80s,” a thrashy bar band that evolved into something much more, although they were known as much for their alcohol consumption as for tunesmith Paul Westerberg’s songcraft.  The ‘Mats made some great records, and arguably jump-started the Big Star revival with their tribute tune “Alex Chilton,” but, like R.E.M., The Replacements stand slightly outside the power pop story.)

International Pop Overthrow?

Or do they?  By the 1990s, “power pop” had itself become an increasingly generic catchphrase for melodic rock ‘n’ roll, and the new decade brought fresh speculation regarding the possibility of a new power pop explosion.  The parameters had clearly changed over time, and the Bomp!-prescribed power pop prototype had fallen into disuse.  At the same time, however, there seemed a sudden surge of young rock ‘n’ roll bands willing, even eager, to call themselves “pop.”

One of the most promising acts was Chicago’s Material Issue, who even had the nerve to call their 1991 debut album International Pop Overthrow.  Each of Material Issue’s three Mercury albums (the first two co-produced by Shoes’ Jeff Murphy, the third by Knack/Sweet/Blondie/Suzi Quatro veteran Mike Chapman) offered a plethora of indispensable pop gems, from the rallying cry of “International Pop Overthrow” to the radio-ready cover of Green Pajamas’ “Kim The Waitress” on 1994’s Freak City Soundtrack.  (Granted, virtually 100% of Green Pajamas’ fan base absolutely detested the cover, and still refer to it now as “the song Material Issue ruined.”  Can’t please everyone....)

But Material Issue was dropped by Mercury after Freak City Soundtrack failed to move the desired units, and the group’s career came to a permanent, tragic end when lead singer Jim Ellison killed himself in 1996.  A posthumous album, Telecommando Americano, was issued by Rykodisc in 1997; the Rykodisc set also included all six songs from the group’s eponymous 1987 12” EP.

Another odds-on favorite was Jellyfish, an almost defiantly pop act, wallowing in trashy retro chic, but delivering the goods with unparalleled pop panache on wax.  Jellyfish’s 1990 debut album Bellybutton is loaded with willful cops from the Beatles/Beach Boys bag o’ tricks, notably on the MTV faves “The King Is Half-Undressed” (a killer tune that deserved as much airplay as it could get, and more) and “Baby’s Coming Back” (a catchy hybrid of The Foundations and ‘70s AM radio, accompanied by an animated video tribute to Hanna-Barbera cartoons).  After a lineup change, Jellyfish recorded one more album, 1993’s Spilt Milk, before ceasing to exist.  (A Spilt Milk track, “Joining A Fan Club,”was much later covered by Japanese pop sensations Puffy AmiYumi, a group with whom Jellyfish’s Andy Sturmer has worked extensively.)

The Posies likewise seemed poised for great things.  With a glorious vocal blend that calls to mind the magnificence of The Hollies, The Posies--basically Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer--were partially screwed just by the bad timing of being a pop band in Seattle at the dawn of the grunge era.  (Not that the two styles couldn’t co-exist, of course; Kurt Cobain was an avowed pop fan, and you can hear odd glimmers of The Raspberries’ influence in some of Nirvana’s material.)  Some Posies fans are themselves divided over the merits of group’s early, smoother pop albums (1988’s Failure and 1990’s simply gorgeous Dear 23) and the sharper edge added to later albums, though 1993’s Frosting On The Beater seems to be the favorite overall.  As noted previously, The Posies have also achieved an additional footnote in power pop history as latter-day members of Big Star.

Speaking of Big Star, Chilton & Company were an oft-noted influence on Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub, and the relative success and hype-worthy buzz of TFC was a major boost in Big Star’s transition from underappreciated cult heroes into...um, appreciated cult heroes.  Teenage Fanclub actually pulled off the task of being a pop band with alt-rock cred in the grunge era; the group’s second album, 1991’s Bandwagonesque, captured the attention of critics and MTV's weekly “alternative rock” showcase, 120 Minutes.  The Big Star comparison soon grew to be something of an albatross for the group, but Teenage Fanclub never stopped making interesting records, and I hereby encourage you to go out and get ‘em all.  The Teenage Fanclub story intersects with that of BMX Bandits, with whom TFC shared some personnel; BMX Bandits’ sole American release (Theme Park, issued by Big Deal in 1997) includes an irresistible bubblegum pop tune called “I Wanna Fall In Love.” 

An earlier BMX Bandits track, “Serious Drugs,” was also covered by Gigolo Aunts, a group which began in the ‘80s as a relatively low-key power pop combo (cf. 1988’s Everybody Happy album, an overlooked but ace exercise in a-boppin’ and a-poppin’).  In the ‘90s, Gigolo Aunts cranked up the amps and raised the grunge quotient just a touch for 1994’s Flippin' Out, which featured the dreamy, wonderful “Where I Find My Heaven” (a tune featured in, of all the things, the movie Dumb And Dumber.  Sometimes you can find great pop music in the oddest places...).

NEXT:  The '90s!  The 21st century!  And the thrilling conclusion of THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT!