Defining power pop is the ultimate argument-starter. Explaining the genre without inciting fisticuffs, tears or yearlong grudges is a mountainous socio-cultural accomplishment. Pop is supposed to be fun, beautiful and, if done right, the flame underneath transcendent human desire. The well-written hook is the world’s most underrated aphrodisiac, right? You’d be sorely mistaken if you think any of that entered into the two months of e-mail discussions between MAGNET staffers as to what is and isn’t power pop. The real point, for writer and reader, isn’t to set boundaries or fish for phantom discrepancies—it’s to be turned on to this music of holy grails, doe-eyed dreamers and out-of-time progenitors.
Along with American power pop’s inception in the ‘70s came its almost immediate tendency to perpetually approach the puckering lips of failure. Ken Sharp, author of books on the Raspberries, Cheap Trick (pictured) and power pop itself, says it best: “Power pop is the Rodney Dangerfield of rock ‘n’ roll. It is the direct updating of the most revered artists—the Who, the Beach Boys, the Beatles—yet it gets no respect.”
But if you take away the extreme gender imbalance (there are more females making death metal), power pop—when broken down to its variables—is very cool. The makers and lovers of it tend to dress well and look healthy, and the fan base actually features real live women. The music is sexy and about girls. By comparison, the great unwashed and unlaid of today’s math-rock, laptop and noise scenes are a far more depressing, slovenly and uncool demographic.
Appropriately enough, the zillion-dollar term was coined by Pete Townshend. It popped from his tea hole in 1967 when asked by a journalist what the Who’s next single, “Pictures Of Lily,” would sound like. “Power pop is what we play,” he said. British bands in the ‘60s would plainly shape the American sound of the ‘70s: the Who, Zombies, Hollies, Easybeats, Move, Small Faces, Creation and, of course, Beatles. As for the U.S., Gene Clark’s compositions on the first two Byrds LPs, the Left Banke and the Nazz (Todd Rundgren’s Anglophilic pop group) provided some glaring precursors, but the real power in the pop was on the other side of the Atlantic.
While the ‘60s saw many of our nation’s teenagers at work in the garage emulating the Stones, 1972 would obliterate this bad period for tight songs and harmonies. American power pop year zero knocked the world sideways with the debuts of Big Star (see page 52) and the Raspberries, Rundgren’s solo album Something/Anything? and the recording of “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies.
The Raspberries were America’s first power-pop band—and something of an anomaly. The quartet not only looked and sounded like a punched-up Small Faces in early-‘70s Cleveland, it achieved what many of its musical followers would not: chart success. “The only ones who broke through were the Raspberries and, interestingly, as a live act,” says Greg Shaw, founder of Bomp! Records (home to a proud crop of early power-pop bands) and Bomp! magazine. “Though they looked completely pop with those white suits, they always tried to come across as rockers. Their theme song being ‘All Right Now,’ with all the posturing you’d expect from Humble Pie or Free, which I believe they saw as their rivals.”
The band’s methodology was mapped out in one of frontman Eric Carmen’s early gig posters, which read: “When you come to hear the Raspberries, what you expect not to see is: Hair down to our waists. Beards. Torn jeans. Mustaches. Here’s what you expect not to hear: Long boring drawn out guitar solos. Long boring drum solos.”
The Raspberries’ self-titled debut stitched together ‘60s harmonies with the introspective lyricism of Big Star and Rundgren. “Go All The Way,” the Raspberries’ second single, entered the top-five and the hearts of a gazillion girls, thanks to Carmen’s teen-dreamy mug, which was plastered everywhere due to the label’s bubblegum/pinup campaign. The Raspberries released four LPs in two years without a gray moment in the lot. Fresh moved the debut’s grace forward, but inter-band bluster and lineup changes peppered 1973’s excellent Side 3 (copies of which were doused in dimestore raspberry-scented perfume) and 1974’s Starting Over. By the third album, the Raspberries desperately wanted to shed the poster-boy image, initiating a makeover from prom-dance dandies to rock ‘n’ roll badasses. “The group had deteriorated to the point of being each other’s sidemen,” says Carmen. “We couldn’t stand each other. They thought I was king of the teenyboppers, and when the album didn’t go top-10, it was my fault.”
Starting Over was exactly that, with half of the band being new recruits, but the Raspberries really weren’t starting anything over. The group dissolved the same year. Carmen wasted no time going solo and lodging 1977’s overblown ballad “All By Myself” in the brains of every cognitive human being with a car radio.
The three albums the Flamin’ Groovies released in the late ‘70s should’ve made them stars, but no pop combo lasted longer (25 years) and sold fewer records. When Groovies frontman Roy Loney jumped ship in 1971 after three Stones-fueled LPs, guitarist Cyril Jordan overhauled the San Francisco band’s sound. Along with a dazzling new paint job that blended Beatlesque melodies, Byrdsian 12-string jangle and a sonic density unheard since the heyday of Phil Spector, the Groovies also unveiled babyfaced, leather-lunged vocalist Chris Wilson.
With a British record deal in their hip pocket, the Groovies cut “Shake Some Action” and six other tracks at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, Wales, in 1972. They would return in 1975 to finish the album, titled Shake Some Action, now a unanimous power-pop landmark. Jordan giddily describes the first sessions with Shake’s producer, Welsh rocker Dave Edmunds: “Dave got so excited about ‘Shake Some Action’ that I immediately wrote ‘You Tore Me Down’ in 10 minutes, and we finished recording that about an hour later.”
Shake Some Action—finally issued by Sire in 1976—boasts one jagged, heartbroken Jordan/Wilson classic after another: “Yes It’s True,” “I’ll Cry Alone” and “Please Please Girl.” The cover photo displays our heroes in fancy matching suits, lounging near somebody’s Jaguar—certainly not theirs, since the band’s sales figures never amounted to much.
With 1977’s Now and 1978’s Jumpin’ In The Night, the Groovies found a champion in Kris Needs, editor of venerable U.K. mag Zig Zag, who labeled the band “ecstatic, breathtaking rock ‘n’ roll.” Jordan told Needs in 1976 that he walked around with his eyes closed, “hearing this group which sounds incredible, and we’ve gotta do it because nobody else is doing it.” Jordan further nailed the band’s unique vibe in the Cream Puff War zine in 1991: “We do what people love: the lead-break, the intro, the harmonies, the chorus. We were probably the biggest underground band in the world, because there isn’t a DJ or a guy who owns a record store that didn’t say, ‘Hey, music’s fucked, except for the Flamin’ Groovies.’”
If they only could have sold some records.
Compared to the Groovies, the three-year career of the Nerves was over in a heartbeat, although their influence lingered well beyond their 1978 demise. Since Jack Lee, Peter Case and Paul Collins all wrote jittery-yet-concise pop flagwavers, the San Francisco trio was a victim of its own surfeit of songwriting talent.
Lee discovered Case busking in the S.F. streets in ‘74, signing him up full-time the next year to record the four-song Nerves EP. “I remember having the record delivered to the apartment,” says Case, “and standing around on New Year’s Day 1976 looking at 2,000 records and sleeves and going, ‘What the fuck are we going to do with all these things?’ Back then, you just took the record to a station or two, then to the stores, and I remember going back to the record store two weeks later and we had sold one copy, which was actually a pretty big deal.”
The lull wouldn’t last. Says Case, “By the end of ‘76, it was getting airplay on (local) radio, Greg Shaw had picked up some copies for distribution and an ad we placed in the back of Rolling Stone sold a lot of copies.” Minimal and clear, Nerves is legendary on two counts: It’s anchored by Case’s—and, quite possibly, power pop’s—greatest minute and a half, “When You Find Out”; and Lee’s “Hangin’ On The Telephone” would be covered by Blondie, becoming Deborah Harry and Co.’s first top-10 hit in the U.K.
Relocating to L.A. at the beginning of ‘77, the Nerves saw no difference between what they and fledgling punk bands like the Weirdos and Germs were doing. The city was also home to a simpatico power-pop scene that revolved around Shaw, who midwifed seven-inch treasures by 20/20, the Last and the Pop! (which featured drummer David Robinson, formerly of the Modern Lovers and soon to be in the Cars), bands that went on to make inferior full-lengths and sweat it out at DIY venues like Madame Wong’s.
“[The L.A. scene] was all a reaction to Whisky regulars like Van Halen, who, little did we know, were about to go huge with their dinosaur rock,” recalls Case. “We toured the U.S. behind the four-song EP in a station wagon, and we were probably the first totally independent band to do something like that.” The acts the Nerves would play with while on the road read like a short list of ‘77 rock-nerd stroke fodder: the Ramones, Devo, Pere Ubu, DMZ.
Having three distinct songwriters in a trio—as well as Lee’s increasingly erratic personality quirks—eventually took its toll on the Nerves. “Jack was really obsessive,” says Case. “He would get the idea in his head that we needed a tour bus, so he would obsess over fixing up some piece-of-shit van and forget about the band. I’d be back playing guitar on the street. He made a lot of Blondie money and blew it all doing these types of things. The Nerves broke up in early ‘78, I painted houses for a few months and then assembled the Plimsouls on New Year’s Day 1979. They were a bar band that I took over, basically, but before that, I put together the Beat for Paul (Collins). I played in the original Beat, and my idea was to get Paul off of the drums and on vocals and rhythm guitar where he belonged.”
The Beat (sans Case) moved back to San Francisco with a major-label deal and released a burning self-titled LP in 1979. Lee released a solo LP in 1981, Jack Lee’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1, before disappearing from music altogether. The Plimsouls, meanwhile, wrote themselves a pop-culture footnote by placing an outstanding song (“A Million Miles Away”) into the ears of the masses by performing it in the 1983 movie Valley Girl.
A quintessential cake-and-eat-it-too band, Cheap Trick—Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos—defines good American rock ‘n’ roll. Problem is, what the Trick’s music points back to is anything but American.
“They were quintessentially British in terms of their influences, everything from the Beatles to the Move, Small Faces, Family and ELO,” says Ken Sharp. “They are giving us back what they took from the British bands that they loved so much.”
Cheap Trick made its name by touring relentlessly, playing 200 shows a year and earning a healthy following based solely on live performances. “Most of the bands in the Midwest had a similar work ethic to that of English musicians,” says Nielsen. “We weren’t trying to be something other than working players. The radio and music scene was pretty dismal. I really liked [the Raspberries], and we played some shows together, but we were always a bit more quirky. They had more of an English accent than even we could or would fake.”
Though it’s common practice now, one of Cheap Trick’s early stunts was to bring arena-sized theatrics and showmanship down to an everyman’s nightclub level. In 1976, Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas was persuaded to fly to a Wisconsin bowling alley to check out a gig. Douglas, along with Epic Records’ Tom Werman, produced and groomed Cheap Trick for radio, much in the same way the two men did with Aerosmith, Boston and Ted Nugent.
Cheap Trick’s self-titled 1977 debut was a spiked, erratic and wickedly smart big-rock LP. In Color (also from 1977) and 1978’s Heaven Tonight are an unbeatable pair of accessible-yet-seminal power-pop albums. “Cheap Trick makes really good albums and always has, but I still think we’ve got a long way to go,” says Nielsen. “We still haven’t made the ‘best garage band in the world’ masterpiece.” With the group’s astonishing acceptance in Japan (documented on 1979’s Live At Budokan) and hits “Surrender” and “I Want You To Want Me,” the Trick took power pop to an arena level and attained a degree of success that the genre had never seen, nor would ever see again.
At least not on a sustained level. The Romantics, a Detroit band with two excellent late-‘70s indie singles (one was on Bomp!), would saturate the airwaves with “What I Like About You” (from their 1980 self-titled debut). A year earlier, L.A’s the Knack was gladly consumed by a major-label feeding frenzy. The resulting Get The Knack and its megahit “My Sharona” would complete a short-lived but almighty power-pop chart triumvirate of Cheap Trick, the Romantics and the Knack.
But the words “new” and “wave” were to be power pop’s Dutch elm disease, infecting everything into a blur as the decade came to a close. “New Wave was the only way to refer to anything made after 1976, if you were in the industry, without getting laughed out of the room,” explains Shaw. “But I must say the term power pop was shoved in our faces by record companies desperate to align themselves with the ‘safe side’ or whatever new was happening, with the view that punk couldn’t last. It seemed manipulative, and it was.”