Power Pop: The ’80s, Style Over Substance

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As the early ‘80s unfolded, it seemed the spring in our pogo was perceptibly flagging. In fact, a none-too-subtle indicator a hangover was about to crash down like the proverbial grand piano came in the ‘83 teen flick Valley Girl. “That techno rock you guys listen to is gutless,” says Nicolas Cage (as punk Randy) to his new-wave paramour in a club scene that neatly outlined the encroachment of synth pop at the expense of guitar-driven music. Playing in the background, of course, is the revved-up power pop of the Plimsouls.

The post-Knack feeding frenzy had coaxed every skinny-tie-wearing, Rickenbacker-toting hopeful out of the woodwork, but bonafide swipes of chart-action excellence—the Romantics’ “What I Like About You,” Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny”—were fleeting. Plus, upstart MTV was already busy reshuffling music-biz priorities, the style-and-visuals-friendly likes of Duran Duran and A Flock Of Seagulls leaving a lot of talented outfits no choice but to capitulate (remember the Red Rockers’ transformation from punk-poppers to poofy new-wavers with the hit song “China”?) or go underground. Journalist/pop archivist Ken Sharp wryly notes how “groups like 20/20, Plimsouls and Three O’Clock issued some very high-quality power-pop records despite not achieving the heights of mass success a la the Knack.”

That said, when a left-field entry became an MTV smash in 1984, the fact it came from a ‘70s power-pop holdout was all the sweeter. In the summer of 1975, a dark-eyed, handsome, 24-year-old Okie with a Sun Records/British Invasion jones had burst out of nowhere to storm the charts with the chiming, throbbing anthem “I’m On Fire.” But neither Dwight Twilley nor songwriting partner Phil Seymour was that concerned with how the music biz operated; the Dwight Twilley Band rarely performed live, and in its youthful arrogance, the group presumed 1976’s Sincerely would be boffo enough to sell itself.

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Power Pop: The ’90s, Attack Of The Clones

matthew-sweet360By the dawn of the ‘90s, the U.S. music scene felt like something out of Blade Runner. With the lockstep forces of rap and grunge assuming total control of hip tastebuds (and record sales)—and clattering indie-rock helicopters crisscrossing the landscape looking for stragglers—the few remaining pockets of power-pop resistance seemed a mere footnote to the obituary of a genre in hiding. Then, without warning, came the distant rumble of a pair of retaliatory shots: the Posies’ harmony-laced 1990 album Dear 23 and Matthew Sweet’s heart-wrenchingly majestic Girlfriend a year later. Was the pendulum about to change directions?

A Lincoln, Neb., native, Sweet (pictured) cut his musical teeth in the bubbling hotbed of Athens, Ga., in the early ‘80s, first as guitarist for Oh-OK, a jangly outfit co-helmed by singers Linda Hopper and Lynda Stipe (Michael’s sister), then with his own similar combo Buzz Of Delight. The precocious Sweet signed a solo deal with Columbia in 1985, provoking resentment from local scenesters who pointed to the grassroots path R.E.M. had followed to stardom. “I was young and didn’t know what I was doing,” Sweet told me in 1993, “and I was hated for it.”

Still trying to find his sea legs after two uneven major-label albums—1986’s Inside and 1989’s Earth—Sweet knew immediately Girlfriend was the one. “I always felt I’d been getting away with murder,” he admits, laughing like a nervous school kid. “I never thought my records would make it with a major label. But I had a sense that something special was happening with Girlfriend. I had this real breaking-free, fuck-you kind of attitude. I didn’t care if the label didn’t like it. I was doing it for me.”

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Power Pop Class Of 2002: Phantom Planet

phantomplanet550Phantom Planet singer/guitarist Alex Greenwald is a young man but far from an angry one. Even when defending the quintet—which includes guitarist Jacques Brautbar, bassist Sam Farrar, guitarist Darren Robinson and drummer Jason Schwartzman—against the mistaken perception that they’re just Hollywood actor kids undeserving of major-label status, the 22-year-old does so calmly.

“I haven’t had anyone come up to me and tell me I’m some sort of asshole who’s had it easy,” says Greenwald, who appeared in the 2001 cult film Donnie Darko; Schwartzman, of course, starred in Wes Anderson’s beloved Rushmore three years earlier. “If someone thinks that we’ve had it easy, let them keep thinking it. It’s not true. We’ve spent eight, almost nine, years making this band a band. Whether we’re good or not, we’ve been doing it for a long time.”

Written with what Greenwald calls “intentional optimism” during a time of atypically inclement West Coast weather, Phantom Planet’s second record, The Guest (Epic), is loaded with cheery pop songs. The best of the solid lot—the soaring “California” and the aptly titled “Anthem”—are unapologetically hopeful, and silly as it seems, even lyrically downcast tunes like “Lonely Day” positively beam.

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Power Pop Class Of 2002: Arlo

arlo350When you kick off an album with a flurry of Tommy-era Pete Townshend windmill guitar chords, it’s like opening a jar of strawberry jam at a picnic table. You’re bound to attract wasps. Arlo’s rocking new pop longplayer, Stab The Unstoppable Hero (Sub Pop), would’ve kept the record-shop staff in the film High Fidelity busy arguing over influences that run the gamut from Creedence Clearwater to the Knack, from Nilsson to Nirvana. The Los Angeles group—guitarists Nate Greely and Sean Spillane, bassist Ryan Maynes and drummer Tom Sanford (all four sing)—are fully aware they’re an attractive nuisance for record-collecting geeks. They, too, are record-collecting geeks.

“It’s a disease,” says Greely, admitting he’s “stuck on classic rock. I spend as much money on records as a junkie would on heroin.” The only way to feed his addiction, he says, was to spend thumb-numbing hours sifting through dusty cartons of vinyl at garage sales and record stores. Greely was convinced his stash of 500 albums was hot stuff until he ran into a die-hard collector recently. “We played with this older guy in Buffalo,” he says, “this pack rat whose house was cluttered with accordions and strange instruments—thousands of records and CDs everywhere. And I’m like, ‘Oh no, this is where I’m headed.’”

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Power Pop Class Of 2002: Bigger Lovers

bigger-loversh“Isn’t it every kid’s dream anymore?”

That’s how Bigger Lovers singer/bassist Scott Jefferson justifies four grown men chasing the perfect pop song like 30-year-old rookies. Huddled around a cluster of pints at a local bar, the Philadelphia quartet is fielding questions and running the perfunctory band drill of discussing locations for a new practice space. It may be a brilliant career on a smaller scale, but the Bigger Lovers—Jefferson, singer/guitarist Bret Tobias, guitarist Ed Hogarty and drummer Patrick Berkery—don’t really question their assignment.

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Power Pop Class Of 2002: Mayflies USA

mayflies360Most bands rightfully despise comparisons to other ones. But when it came time to make their third album, Walking In A Straight Line (Yep Roc), Chapel Hill’s Mayflies USA found a specific make and model to emulate: the Stones’ Exile On Main Street.

“They made it with a mobile unit and had a siege mentality about it,” says bassist/vocalist Adam Price.

“We’re sort of aiming high by saying that,” says guitarist/vocalist Matt McMichaels with a laugh. “But it sounds like they would have made the record even if no one had put it out. And it sounds like they were on top of each other at the time they recorded it. You can actually hear the proximity of people to each other.”

During the recording of Walking In A Straight Line in Chicago earlier this year, the Mayflies were able to learn something about proximity and personal space; Price, McMichaels, guitarist/vocalist Matt Long and drummer David Liesegang all lived in a single room.

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L.A. Story: As A California Youth, Franklin Bruno Dreamt Of Power-Pop Glory

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Growing up an hour east of Los Angeles, I was too young and protected to witness the city’s early-‘80s power-pop explosion at close range. But in my secondhand way, I was weaned on the scene. Most Sundays, while my mother and grandmother worried over the family’s lunch, I was in the living room poring over the club listings in the Los Angeles Times. In those days, the Times gave local music generous coverage, but the ads were even better, listing shows at now-vanished clubs like the Starwood and Madame Wong’s (a converted Chinese restaurant) and still-extant ones like the Roxy and the Whisky A Go-Go. The Whisky had the best, most mod-looking ads: alternating stripes of black-on-white and white-on-black, announcing a parade of bands—the Unknowns, Real Impossibles, Gary Myrick & The Figures—that I romanticized like mad.

Los Angeles had one other big thing going for it: KROQ. Long before becoming a template for alt-rock stations nationwide, KROQ was an independent oasis in a town dominated by dinosaur rock. Glam scenester Rodney Bingenheimer spun rare imports and drooled over girl groups on weekend nights; the rest of the week, the station made concise, exciting songs like the Kingbees’ rockabilly-tinged “The Big Rock” and Great Buildings’ soaring “And The Light Goes On” into regional hits, alongside an Anglophilic diet of Joe Jackson and the Police. Early on, of course, came “My Sharona” by the Knack (pictured), which was to Los Angeles in 1981 what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was to Seattle a decade later.

What’s noteworthy is how closely this music co-existed with other local trends. Power pop was the radio-friendly lodestar of a constellation that spanned glorified bar rock (Naughty Sweeties) and arty outsiders (Suburban Lawns), with the so-called Paisley Underground (Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, Salvation Army) just beginning to be noticed. I’m sure I’ve idealized the amount of infighting there must’ve been, but from my vantage point in Upland, it looked pretty idyllic.

This isn’t the chapter of Los Angeles rock history that people mythologize, but it’s never been forgotten here. Major players like 20/20 and the Plimsouls have mounted the odd reunion, while the Poptopia and International Pop Overthrow festivals bring together the city’s new-wave-inflected style and more ‘60s-centric variants. If Weezer didn’t learn something from these bands then I never walked down Melrose Avenue in a sharkskin sportcoat.

Paul Westerberg: The Man Who Wasn’t There

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After his wild life with the Replacements, Paul Westerberg learned to disappear. But when St. Paul returned, he found his down-and-out disciples waiting for him. By Jonathan Valania

And then one day, long after anyone bothered paying attention, he just disappeared. He simply wasn’t there anymore. There was no puff of smoke or trapdoor involved. He just slowly faded away while we were looking right at him or through him or past him. And nobody even blinked.

He went back to the house, somewhere on the sunny side of Minneapolis, to be alone with his headaches and cigars and the mother of his child, with her diet pills and her barbells, and the son who learned to crawl watching daddy’s skin. And he was happy to do nothing, padding around in the middle of the night in his slippers and his sunglasses and all his hair. And he waited until somebody noticed that he was gone, and he waited and waited. And nobody ever did.

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My Noise: Novelist George Pelecanos Stands Up For The Replacements’ Falling Down

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Rewind 16 years. I’m nearing the end of my 20s, newly married to Emily Hawk, still passionate about music, movies and books. There are bills to pay and responsibilities to own up to. As this is the ‘80s, it doesn’t take a genius to move up the ladder. If you can fill up a suit, you can get promoted. That is, if you conform and buy into the whole mousse-and-Vuarnet trip. I like to work, but I can’t conform. So there I am, the general manager of a chain of major appliance stores, working 60-some hours a week. What I want, more than anything, is to be someone else. Remember the cover of Pleased To Meet Me, with the Rolex-and-diamond-horseshoe-ring hand shaking the hand with the frayed sleeve? Mine is the arm on the right and the left.

In that job, I have to be in my office by 7 a.m. I park my Ford pickup outside the building at 6:45, my Windsor knot strangling my throbbing neck, and turn up the v of my tape deck. “Bastards Of Young” comes forward at full volume, the bass vibrating the windows of the truck. That raging, volcanic music somehow gives me the courage to face another day. At work, “Unsatisfied” is constantly running through my head; Westerberg’s howl is my own. In the evenings, Emily and I talk, party and listen to music. Nights with Green On Red, the Dream Syndicate, X, Minor Threat and the Pogues, but always it comes back to the Mats. “Little Mascara” is Emily’s favorite song. I’m into “Left Of The Dial” and “Sixteen Blue.” There are tunes like “Favorite Thing,” “Hold My Life” and “Alex Chilton” for driving, “Here Comes A Regular” for drinking, “Kiss Me On The Bus” for love. The music of the Mats sounds like chaos, but to me it sounds like peace.

OK, here’s another middle-aged guy, getting stupid. Maybe. With rock ‘n’ roll you never know if it was really that transcendent or if it just seems that way in the golden glow of the rearview. Nostalgia clouds your judgment and often makes you unwilling to enjoy the new. “The Strokes are OK, but I’ve got the New York Dolls on Mercury vinyl, and anyway, when I want to hear the Ramones I put on Rocket To Russia.” Etc. But trust me, the Replacements really were that great.

Fast-forward 16 years. I’m in Paris, ending a two-month book tour. Friday night, my final commitment done, I return to my hotel room to relax. I open the balcony doors to get a view of the street, pour a double Four Roses neat, slip Westerberg’s Stereo into my Walkman, put my feet up on the coffee table and touch fire to a Marlboro Red. It’s the most memorable moment of my trip. Listening to “We May Be The Ones,” I’m moved like it’s 1986. And then, a few days later, I’m back in the States, hugging my daughter Rosa, rubbing her back, as “No Place For You” fills the room. Thinking that this music is just as powerful, and yeah, important, as it ever was.

—George Pelecanos