Power Pop: Big Star, All The Way From Memphis


It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, and you look like a star but you’re still on the dole: The true story of Big Star, Alex Chilton’s rematch with musical glory. By Corey duBrowa

Paul Westerberg once proudly proclaimed that he’d “never travel far without a little Big Star.” Teenage Fanclub owes any career momentum it was ever able to attain to the style codified on Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City, the first of which was released 30 years ago. The Fanclub’s fetishistic obsession was deep enough to inspire the naming of its third album in honor of a favorite Big Star track (“Thirteen”), a song upon which Elliott Smith would later put his own wounded imprint. Cheap Trick—a band that clearly cribbed a move or two from the Big Star playbook—recently resurrected its career from irrelevance by re-recording Big Star’s “In The Street” as “That ‘70s Song,” the opening theme to Fox’s retro sitcom That ‘70s Show. (The original’s “Wish we had/A joint so bad” couplet has, of course, been surgically removed for the TV version.)

Musicians from all over the alt-rock kingdom have chased down Big Star’s producers, John Fry and Jim Dickinson, in an attempt to tap into the vein of beautiful loserdom they so perfectly captured on tape—the Afghan Whigs, Replacements, Primal Scream and Mudhoney foremost among them. Despite Herculean efforts, none has really ever gotten it quite right.

The Memphians known as Big Star forged the template for the genre that would come to be known as power pop: a mash-note mélange of sweet and sour that would be emulated by nearly every band that ever attempted to write a love song for the radio. If you ever sat in your car transfixed as 3:35 of jingle-jangle guitars, wobbly harmonies and lyrics putting a face to teenage confusion poured out of your speakers and down your spine in a cascade of chills, you have Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel to thank for it.

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Power Pop: The ’70s, The Birth Of Uncool


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.

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Power Pop: The ’80s, Style Over Substance


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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