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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 20, 2016

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT! The History Of Power Pop, Chapter 7

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

Part 1:  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

Part 4:  http://carlcafarelli.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-kids-are-alright-history-of-power_15.html

Part 5:  http://carlcafarelli.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-kids-are-alright-history-of-power_18.html

Part 6:  http://carlcafarelli.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-kids-are-alright-history-of-power_19.html


Give It A Try, Open Your Eyes And Feel Free

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.”

One of the best things to spring from Yellow Pills was a series of fabulous pop compilation CDs that shared the fanzine’s title.  Four such CDs were issued on the Big Deal label in the ‘90s, presenting  (then-) new, rare or previously unreleased tracks by the likes of Dwight Twilley, 20/20, Shoes, Material Issue, The Rubinoos, The Cowsills, Kyle Vincent, John Wicks of The Records, Bill Lloyd, Chris von Sneidern, The Spongetones, The Flashcubes, The Posies, Redd Kross, et al.  The series ended prematurely when Big Deal itself went belly-up.  On the plus side, there have been many worthy subsequent CD compilation series inspired by Oakes’ work, including Pop Under The Surface (on Sweden’s Yesterday Girl label), Hit The Hay (on another Swedish label, Sound Asleep) and David Bash’s International Pop Overthrow (initially on Del-Fi, and since then on Not Lame), plus more fab efforts from Australia’s Popboomerang label and Japan’s Wizzard-In-Vinyl.  (Oh.  And [ahem] This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, which my co-host Dana Bonn and I compile for JAM Recordings as companion CDs for our weekly radio show.)  Still, one hopes Oakes himself will come back with more Yellow Pills discs at some point.  (And maybe even more issues of the magazine...?)

Another entry in the specialized field of power pop journalism was the short-lived Audities, which billed itself as “The Journal Of Insanely Great Pop,” and later inspired an on-line power pop mailing list after the magazine’s demise.  Magazines like Pop Sided and Pallid Pilgrim were also short-lived, though Amplifier magazine has shown admirable tenacity, expanding its scope beyond just pure pop and continuing to this day.  Also essential is Pat Pierson’s Yeah Yeah Yeah, a passionately-written mag that encompasses pop within its broader rock ‘n’ roll beat.

The growing pop buzz in the early-to-mid ‘90s was biggest in L.A., where an honest-to-God pop scene developed.  Centered around a disparate group of bands willing to be identified as some permutation of “pop”--Cockeyed Ghost, The Wondermints, The Jigsaw Scene, The Negro Problem, Baby Lemonade, Spanish Kitchen, etc., etc., etc.--the L.A. scene was vibrant and exciting, and even seemed capable of maybe launching a pop revival that was actually...popular.
Seeing a need to spread the gospel of Southern California pop in the 1990s, a musician named Tony Perkins (aka Martin Luther Lennon) decided to spotlight the scene with an annual festival called Poptopia.  Perkins was primarily concerned with promoting California-based pop acts, though he did bring in some acts from outside the Golden State to sweeten the bill.

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.

As the potential for a pop renaissance coalesced in the ‘90s, there needed to be some sympathetic labels to release the product itself.  But the first power pop label, Bomp! Records, declared pointedly that it would be sitting this one out.

“Bomp! hasn’t been known for pop since about 1981,” said Greg Shaw at the time.  “And even then we lost money on every single project we did.  In my view, pop music rarely (if ever) succeeds without major label muscle behind it.  As an indie, it’s always been more profitable to cater to specialized markets like punk, blues, jazz, etc.  Punk rock always sells...just look at billionaire labels like Epitaph.  There’s an ironic sense to indie ‘pop’ because it’s never been popular.  Okay, Stiff launched a few careers, but that’s the rare exception, and they had the equivalent of major label marketing at their disposal.

“There does seem to be some kind of resurgence of the genre, but I have to wonder if these records are selling more than a few hundred.  Then again, it could be that Teenage Fanclub have opened the door for other tasteful indie pop, but I think they’re a unique case.  The majors aren’t looking for that kind of thing; they’d rather have some clean, conservative band doing catchy music without the retro baggage.  At that point, is it pop anymore?  Most of what they have on MTV these days (apart from the metal and rap) isn’t punk, it’s college pop, quirky, average, cute.  I guess this stuff is popular, but it’s so far from anything I was talking about that it hardly belongs on the same table.”

The owners of the New York City-based Big Deal label shared some of Shaw’s skepticism regarding power pop’s commercial prospects, but forged ahead with several pop projects nonetheless.  Chief among these were the Yellow Pills CDs, plus individual releases by pop acts like Chopper, The Vandalias, Gladhands, Devin Hill, Hannah Cranna and Cockeyed Ghost (a group which evolved through different line-ups from an irresistible, irrepressible punk-fueled pop combo on its first two albums to a mature pop group on 1999’s delightful The Scapegoat Factory, and on its post-Big Deal swan song, Ludlow 6:18; head Ghost Adam Marsland--one of the fiercest, hardest-working proponents of the California pop scene in the ‘90s--has since formed a new band and released a solo album).  But Big Deal was not built to last, and it went pfft in a flurry of bad feeling by the end of the decade.

More resilient was Not Lame Recordings, which debuted in 1995 and remains with us today.  Founder Bruce Brodeen explained his label’s mission statement at the time:  “Not Lame Recordings is a power pop-exclusive label, dedicated to promoting and preserving the power pop idiom.  It’s a lot of things:  a labor of love, certainly, that desires to focus on providing an on-ramp for today’s pop bands to be heard by more people, and also a neighborhood recycling project that unearths great pop classics from the past.

“In a way,” Brodeen added, “a discussion of what is or what is not power pop is really not the primary concern of the true pop fan--unlike a punk purist, who has an ideal, an aesthetic way of life that must be continually embraced.  All we really want is another chunk of sugary hooks to be embedded into our consciousness.  That's it.”

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).
Other pop-centric labels of note have included JAM Recordings (headed by singer/songwriter/instrumentalist/pop fan/superguy Jeremy Morris, and home to such fine acts as The Lolas, Phil Angotti, Ed James, Chris Richards, Cool King Chris and Jeremy himself), Rainbow Quartz (incredible label with a taste for pop from all over the world, with a slew of fine releases by Cotton Mather, Outrageous Cherry, The Singles, Rockfour, The Rhinos, The Singles, The Winnerys and The Grip Weeds, among many others), Rev-Ola, Parasol, Tall-Boy, FDR, Air Mail Recordings, Wizzard In Vinyl, Popboomerang, Teenacide, Kool Kat Musik, Paisley Pop, Off The Hip and the late, lamented Permanent Press.  This is not an exhaustive list, and is therefore all the more impressive as an indication of how wide a support system is out there for pop-starved hookheads in need of a jangle fix.  As it turns out, the promised power pop explosion of the ‘90s never came to pass; but the pop underground thrived as never before.

Starting Over:  A New Century

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.

“I think the notion of ‘power pop’ survives as an archetype,” said Greg Shaw, “that bands may attempt to reach, or more likely, add to their palette of influences, as they have other purist styles like garage punk, rockabilly, surf, etc.  You might say that a truly pure form of anything is more likely to be an influence than a trend in its own right, I suppose.”

“Of course, all it’s going to take is one act to break big a la The Knack in ‘79,” said Kyle Vincent, “but rather than wait for that, I think the only way to survive as a pop/power pop artist is to make your own record and sell it as a finished product.”

“Unlike punk and grunge acts,” added Bruce Brodeen, “I think there is little pretension among pop bands as to whether they want to make it big.  Certainly they make this music because they love it for themselves, first and foremost, but few would have a Kurt Cobain-ish angst attack about being pure to an independent do-it-yourself ideal.  And I don’t find fault with that.”

This has barely scratched the surface of all the wonderful stuff that’s out there somewhere, old and new.  We’ve not mentioned, say, Chris von Sneidern (one of my favorites!), nor Fountains Of Wayne (who achieved bona fide popular success in 2003 with the cool novelty tune “Stacy’s Mom,” even earning a Grammy (tm) nomination for Best New Artist...for their third major label album), nor the entire phenomenon of Britpop (which can trace its genealogy directly to The La’s in the late ‘80s, through underrated La’s offshoot Cast and the more widely-celebrated Blur and Oasis in the ‘90s).

 As if that weren’t enough to omit, we’ve also not really discussed The Cowsills (‘60s hitmakers perennially shrugged off as “the real-life inspiration for TV’s The Partridge Family blah blah blah,” yet a group also responsible for the terrific Global album, one of the best undiscovered pop treasures of the 1990s).  We’ve not given any mention at all to The Jellybricks, Mr. Encrypto, Eytan Mirsky, Kelly’s Heels, The Charms, Spinning Jennies, Fireking, Lisa Mychols, The Dipsomaniacs, The New Pornographers, Kenny Howes and roughly 27 gazillion other worthies.  We’ve not mentioned former child actor Robbie Rist, famed for his stint as Cousin Oliver on TV’s The Brady Bunch, but beloved by pop fans as a musical wunderkind (make that Wonderboy—it’s an in-joke) who seemingly plays with every pop band in L.A...including pop bands just visiting L.A.

We’ve also not mentioned older, unheralded acts like The Limits, The Heats, Hawks, The Deal and others, re-discovered and reissued in the CD age.  We’ve not mentioned Green Day, a successful punk band that’s always been as much of a power pop band as anything, who accomplished the unthinkable in 2004:  they released an album, American Idiot, that was solidly punk, solidly power pop, yet it was also a concept album, an interesting concept album, and a # 1 best-seller.  There is hope--great hope-- for pop music in the 21st century.

An on-line acquaintance of mine used to complain frequently that there was no more great rockin’ pop music being made, a conclusion he reached solely because he never heard anything new he liked on the radio. While I disagreed with him, he did have a point:  great pop music should be played on the radio, and very often it does not get played on the radio.  But just because commercial radio’s head is lodged so firmly and securely up its own doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of great pop music out there.  You just have to seek it out yourself.

Right now is always the best-ever time to be a pop fan.  There is always great new music to discover, always great old music to re-discover.  Unmoved by the ebb and flow of pure pop and power pop’s popularity (or oxymoronic lack of same), the music’s fans will remain faithful and diligent in their pursuit of uncompromising melody.

Maybe the world we live in has grown too jaded to believe in pop’s promise.  Some say we’ve grown up.  Some say we’ve just become a world of cynics, immune to the ephemeral appeal of heartache and harmony. 

But if you prick the skin of a cynic, the blood of an idealist will break the surface, leaving a scar but cleansing the wound.  Few of us are as jaded as we claim.  In each of us beats the heart of a would-be romantic, a Romeo longing for a Juliet, a lost soul saved by a pervasive faith that love is for lovers.  We’ve been battered, we’ve been bludgeoned and bloodied, but we will never be bowed.

To the faithful, the power of pop offers a fitting soundtrack to life and love.  In less grandiose terms, great pop can be a source of cathartic comfort, enabling one to sing and sway along, or to simply dance with tears in your eyes (or, alternately, to punch the air with manic glee as you jump up and down all over your problems).  Its appeal transcends time and fashion.

Audities Gary Littleton offered a summation of how much great pop music means to all of us:  “All my life I’ve searched for those perfect pop songs that would get into my brain and make me want to play them over and over.  In addition to the pop Nirvana I get from hearing them the first time, those are also the songs that, hearing years later, will transport me back to when I heard the song, and help me remember in vivid detail the sights, smells and even the way I was feeling when I heard the song.  When I look back into my past, it’s a winding trail of events marked by great songs.”

As that trail winds on, an ever-changing world allows some things to remain constant:  December boys still got it bad, tonight’s still the night, and the kids are still alright.

The Secret History Of Power Pop, by Carl Cafarelli and Gary Pig Gold