Being There Now

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2002’s front-line misadventures of MAGNET reporter-at-large Jonathan Valania, who mailed us this letter from his foxhole just outside Elliott Smith’s house.

Dear MAGNET,

Well, it’s been quite a year. Beck. Paul Westerberg. Wilco. Which reminds me, a funny thing happened to me after the Wilco cover story was published in May. Actually, a bunch of funny things. First, Jeff Tweedy stopped talking to me. No big change there: He barely talked to me while I was trying to write the damn thing. And it’s not like I’ll shed a tear when I’m not invited to the next Wilco slumber party. I love Wilco’s music, but I’ve had more laughs hanging out with cancer patients. I think you get a sense of this when you watch I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Sam Jones’ Wilco rockumentary. Yeah, that’s me in the movie wearing a hat I’ve been told more than once is “dumb”—but hey, I’m stickin’ by it. (And how about the choppers on Rolling Stone’s David Fricke? Hands down, the best teeth in rock criticism.) I must say, though, I was a little disappointed after I saw the film. I really thought it would be more about me and my life and my troubles with record companies and Jay Bennett (pictured).

But seriously, one of the hard lessons learned from all of this: Never write an unflinching, dirty-laundry-and-all, behind-the-scenes cover story about Bennett getting kicked out of Wilco when the guy sleeps on your girlfriend’s floor every time he and his new sidekick, Edward Burch, play in Philadelphia—which was, like, five times since that story was published. Trust me, it can make for some uncomfortable moments around the breakfast table.

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Q&A With Johnny Marr

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The Smiths couldn’t have been less like the Stones in most ways—sound and attitude, for starters—but don’t fool yourself about the parallels between guitarists Johnny Marr and Keith Richards. Both are impossibly skinny men of few words (Mick or Morrissey never stopped yammering anyway) but verbose, rhythmically intense guitar playing. Vilified by the press when he abruptly ended the Smiths in 1987, Marr—who many predicted would flourish while Morrissey faded into obscurity—kept a low profile for the next 15 years and became the ultimate six-string sidekick, playing with the Pretenders, The The, Billy Bragg, Neil Finn and Beck. He also put out three albums as Electronic, a dancey superduo with New Order’s Bernard Sumner that never quite equaled the sum of its parts. With the Healers—drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo’s son and current member of the Who) and bassist Alonza Bevan (Kula Shaker)—the prodigal Mancunian returns to rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, he sings, with a voice that’s part Sumner and part Liam Gallagher, and his solo debut Boomslang feels like past and future Marr. His trademark 12-string jangle peacefully coexists with backward-guitar leads and groovy percussion in psych-friendly, four-to-seven-minute tracks. While Boomslang may not be privy to the hyperliterate lyricism of Marr’s past vocal collaborators, it’s got a kind of (Northern) soul that words can’t manufacture.

MAGNET sent its Smiths superfan to meet Marr at a New York hotel. Upon spotting Marr in the lobby, superfan admits to hiding behind a potted plant for a moment to collect whatever cool he could muster.
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Doug Sahm: A Lone Star State Of Mind

Doug Sahm is a giant of American music, and he’s even bigger than that in his home state of Texas. But the rebel cowboy hippie who spent his life crossing the borders of Tex-Mex, British Invasion, psychedelia and honky-tonk continues to flirt with obscurity long after his death. By Mitch Myers

In the old days, unless your name was George Bush, Texas kids (even the white ones) would rarely dream of growing up to be president of the United States. Of course, Texas has always had its fair share of idyllic wealth and golden opportunities, but it was one tough place to live in the early 1950s. And for an all-American boy to imagine escaping the pervasive barrenness, narrow-minded intolerance and soul-killing humdrum of everyday Texas life, dreams just needed to be a little bit more down to earth.

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Shake Some Action: An Intro To MAGNET’s History Of American Power Pop

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Of skinny ties and fat guitar hooks, of teenage love songs sung by jaded adults, of heaven-sent harmonies announcing hearts suffering through hell, we have only this to say about that maligned music known as power pop: It’s really uncool. Here’s thousands of words to sing its praise. MAGNET examines the history of American power pop from the Raspberries to the Posies, tells the story of Big Star and offers up four new bands with the kind of guitars and voices that could make you fall in love in three minutes.

MAGNET picks the top 15 American power-pop albums of all time
Spoon, Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney and others choose their favorite power-pop songs
The history of Big Star
The ’70s: Cheap Trick, Raspberries, Flamin’ Groovies
The ’80s: the dB’s, Let’s Active, Dwight Twilley
The ’90s: Matthew Sweet, the Posies, Velvet Crush
The class of 2002: Phantom Planet
The class of 2002: Arlo
The class of 2002: Bigger Lovers
The class of 2002: Mayflies USA
Franklin Bruno looks back at his power-pop formative years

Absolute Power: MAGNET’s Top 15 American Power-Pop Albums

THE BEAT The Beat (Columbia/CBS), 1979
thebeatAfter warming the drummer’s seat in the Nerves, Paul Collins led the Beat through its debut, a dream synthesis of eight important records: the first four each by the Ramones and Cheap Trick. Plus, it has an adolescent let’s-dry-hump-in-the-rec-room, big (but not dumb) rock feel to it. Centerpiece “Don’t Wait Up For Me” is usually mentioned when people discuss the very best ‘70s power pop, which isn’t advisable unless you’re into arguments and tears.

BIG STAR #1 Record (Ardent), 1972
bigstar_big125“In The Street” (a.k.a. “That ‘70s Song”) may now be lodged in TV Land’s unconscious as an anthem for suburban myopia, but the whole of Big Star’s debut is a study in weird ambition. Nobody expected—or even wanted—Alex Chilton and Chris Bell to build a bridge between soul-gritty Memphis and poncey-pop London, but they did it anyway. Tough and beautiful, #1 Record is the sonic equivalent of a girl lipsticking a cigarette and pouting at an imperfect world.

CHEAP TRICK Heaven Tonight (Epic), 1978
cheaptrick125fBefore Robin Zander’s At Budokan introduction evolved into a Beastie Boys sample, “Surrender” served notice that these heartland heavies had arrived. The song stands as the band’s finest moment, putting the lie to any notions of hipness (the singer’s parents get their kicks smoking sess and rocking his Kiss albums) while sporting a hook that could land Moby Dick. Heaven Tonight forged the hair-metal template by welding glam-rock chops to straightforward pop.

THE dB’S Stands For deciBels (Albion), 1981
dbs125The sound of high-school angst bundled up and shipped off to college. Amid brainy variations on the boy-lusts-after-girl theme, Peter Holsapple’s buoyant jangle-garage collides improbably with Chris Stamey’s funkier psychedelic musings, making for the perfect tension-based songwriting partnership. As bolstered by adventurous production detail, the sonic house of cards wobbles but never topples. Import-only at the time, deciBels became a nexus of insiderdom cool in the ‘80s.

FLAMIN’ GROOVIES Shake Some Action (Sire), 1976
056__page_1_image_0003tiffWhen guitarist Cyril Jordan assumed command of the Groovies and dumped their Stonesy pout, they became an altar for his heroes, fusing Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” density, Byrds-like mega-jangle and Fab Four melodic sense. Shake was intended as burnt offering, but its buzzing, 12-string-soaked originals—Jordan’s inflammatory guitar sparking Chris Wilson’s tinder-dry vocals like a match to kindling—stands up alongside anything created by their idols.

TOMMY KEENE Songs From The Film (Geffen), 1986
tommykeene125Though Keene generally disavows the power-pop tag, he’s a melodic god to bands ranging from the Goo Goo Dolls to Velvet Crush. Songs is the biggest reason why. Keene’s sizzling guitar playing, sharp, wistful lyrics (recurring themes: loss, backstabbing, carnivals) and a re-recorded version of “Places That Are Gone” cement the album’s landmark status. The indignity of Songs’ lackluster chart performance was compounded when the 1998 CD re-release quickly went out of print.

THE KNACK Get The Knack (Capitol), 1979
knack_get125Critics may have launched a campaign to “Knuke The Knack,” but make no mistake: The little girls understood. This L.A. band’s coming-out party went gold in a mere 13 days, converting more than five million devotees along the way and making it one of the most successful debuts ever. It’s an overtly sexist, insanely catchy run through the new-wave jungle, highlighted by the invincible “My Sharona” and the Penthouse Letters-inspired “Good Girls Don’t.”

THE PLIMSOULS Everywhere At Once (Geffen), 1983
pimsolsFormer Nerves hipster Peter Case fronted this gritty L.A. combo with one foot in the nocturnal badlands of garage punk and the other in the jingle-jangle morning dew of folk rock. Placement of “A Million Miles Away” in the punk puppy-love flick Valley Girl—and the band’s multi-ethnic personnel—raised hopes that the Plimsouls had the tools to tunnel out from the genre’s college-kid/urban-bohemian musical ghetto into the bright sunlight of mass appeal. No such luck.

THE POSIES Frosting On The Beater (DGC), 1993
posiesfrosting125With producer Don Fleming (Sonic Youth, Hole, Screaming Trees) applying a layer of rocked-up grime to the Posies’ pristine pop, the group’s third LP finds it adrift in the sea of grunge that flooded Seattle during the early ‘90s. But the added toughness does the band a measure of good. The Posies’ once-precious songs turn ferocious (“Dream All Day” and “Solar Sister” particularly benefit from the sonic shagginess), at last achieving harmonic balance on the power/pop scales.

RASPBERRIES Raspberries (Capitol), 1972
raspberriesThis debut is generally regarded as the first fully formed, start-to-finish American example of the genre. The popular Beatles comparisons are overstated; this sounds like 1972, the year it and Big Star’s #1 Record would unknowingly birth the most venerable, unchanged and frustrating style in all of rock ‘n’ roll history. At the nose of Raspberries is “Go All The Way,” a song about Eric Carmen’s white suit lying crumpled next to your 16-year-old daughter’s bed

SHOES Black Vinyl Shoes (Black Vinyl), 1977
shoesFrequently mischaracterized as Shoes’ lo-fi debut album (that would be 1975’s vinyl-only Un Dans Versailles), this contains all the mythic trappings of obscurity surrounding its creation. Recorded to four-track in Jeff and John Murphy’s Zion, Ill., living room and originally intended as a demo, Black Vinyl Shoes captures the magic of Shoes at their best (sparkling melodies, pitch-perfect harmonies) and sounds even fresher today than it did during the Carter administration.

MATTHEW SWEET Girlfriend (Zoo), 1991
sweetgirlfriend125Often thought of as his first album (two substandard earlier LPs deservedly stiffed), Girlfriend saw Sweet come seemingly out of nowhere to establish himself as a new-school melody wizard. A smart, tuneful song cycle featuring achingly catchy tracks like “I’ve Been Waiting” and “I Wanted To Tell You,” Girlfriend is a signpost of ‘90s power pop and offered a brief, if ultimately futile, glimmer of hope that this kind of music might make a dent in the marketplace.

20/20 20/20 (Portrait), 1979
20_20125The hormonal heatwave of a high-school dance. Girls. Piloting your convertible, top down for effect, with the radio up full blast, doing 65 in a 35. Girls. Breathless late-night phone calls professing undying devotion—at least until the next crush comes along. Girls. Guitar riffs that reflexively make you grab a nearby tennis racket, resplendent in the glory of rock poses staring back from the bedroom mirror. A girl named Cheri. Weird simultaneous references to the Creator and “Yellow Pills.” Girls.

THE DWIGHT TWILLEY BAND Sincerely (The Right), 1976
dwight twilleyTwilley’s debut has it all: intricate stealth ballads, note-perfect Zombies/Beatles and Elvis/Jerry Lee pastiches, widescreen Sam Phillips-meets-Phil Spector production. And it sizzles with lust and aches with longing while rocking like a mofo—has there ever been a more exhilarating slab of throbbing sonic Tantrism than “I’m On Fire”?—in stark contrast to the sexless, so-bored bleatings of punk, a category into which Sincerely was inaccurately lumped at the time.

VELVET CRUSH In The Presence Of Greatness (Ringers Lactate), 1991
velevetcrush125Self-proclaimed greatness for a debut album? As Hall Of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean once said, “If you can do it, it ain’t braggin’.” In The Presence Of Greatness sports a thoroughly homogenized mixdown that assigns equal weight to vocals and instruments. Poured from a bar’s Waring blender, the Crush’s teenage symphonies are sweet as pineapple juice with a guitar aftershock like 120-proof vodka—overwhelming evidence to all still upright that these guys certainly could “do it.”