We’re in the age of simplifying things. So how do you explain power pop, a music genre that has ‘simple’ as its middle name? After all, it is supposed to have relatively brief songs with a ‘bright’ catchy melody, a lot of harmony vocals and ‘crunchy’ guitar riffs? Well, you give it a simple explanation to boot – “Power pop is The Beatles meets The Who. That’s literally all there is to it.”
And people seem to ‘simply’ adhere to this explanation, partly due to the explanation The Who leader Pete Townsend gave himself back in 1967, “Power Pop is what we play – what The Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop The Beach Boys played in the days of ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’, which preferred.” Of course, Townsend himself simplified thing a bit omitting The Beatles and say their “Paperback Writer” (or most of their pre-“Rubber Soul” catalog for that matter), or The Kinks and their iconic “You Really Got Me” (and quite a few others), or The Byrds’ jangly guitars, or yet again, the great harmony changes of The Zombies…
Those with a bit more flair and closer to an actual description say that “the hooky yet hard-edged, a guitar-driven musical style known as power pop didn’t generate spontaneously. There were threads and uprisings—disconnected sounds that later combined into something like a movement—as early as the late ’60s when some young rock and roll fans were already starting to rebel against rock’s increasing pretensions and ponderousness.”
Closer, but yet, not really, or almost any explanation gives room for differing interpretations, as John M. Borack explained in his book Shake Some Action – The Ultimate Guide to Power Pop, “that the label has often been applied to varied groups and artists with blissful indifference.” Lumping into power pop almost anything and anybody, from Britney Spears and Green Day to The Bay City Rollers and Def Leppard.
’60s Sources, Late ’70s “True Face”
Yet, power pop as a genre, even as music that begs for a wider audience and that did produce some well-known hits and that up to this day has a staunch cult fan base, never really got the full mass appeal that it could have had. Whether you take into account the ’60s and early ’70s rock music that can be considered as power pop, the use of the term is usually applied to quite a number of bands that came into being in the late ’70s, with an intermittent surge of interest in the decades to come. As writer Michael Chabon wrote once, “Power pop in its essential form… did not come into existence for a number of years after it was first identified. Like so much of the greatest work turned out by popular artists of the 1970s, true power pop is quintessential second-generation stuff.”
The “quintessential second-generation stuff” would refer to the fact that the sound was a reflection of the ’70s bands, particularly in the US, where it picked up on the essence of the so-called British Invasion – further taking those influences and making their own version of that sound.
Like so much of the greatest work turned out by popular artists of the 1970s, true power pop is quintessential second-generation stuff.
The early ’70s is usually pointed at as the true formation of the sound, tied to the sound of the legendary Alex Chiltonand his Big Star, early solo recordings of Todd Rundgren, the ever-present (to this day) Flamin’ Groovies, and The Beatles sponsored Badfinger (one of the first signings to their Apple Records). Still, the defining moments for power pop as a genre came with two particular songs and bands, The Raspberries and their “Go All The Way” and The Dwight Twilley Band and their “I’m On Fire.”
The true rise of the style came in the late ’70s, with more prominent names like Cheap Trick taking, again, a cue from the British New Wavers like Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, or less prominent but to this day cult favorites like Shoes and The Romantics, turning power pop into a genre of its own. The late ’70s, or to be more precise 1979 is also the time when power pop produced what is truly a smash number one hit – The Knack’s “My Sharona.”
By definition, a true one-hit wonder, the song, and The Knack as a band, were at the same time the peak and a sign that power pop will never truly make it into the hearts of mainstream audiences. The incessant radio-play and The Knack’s label policies surrounding the single and the band produced such a backlash that neither the band nor power pop could ever recover.
Things Get A Bit More Complicated
Of course, the former explanation is yet another simplification. The rise of power pop coincided with the rise of two more dominant and prevailing music styles – Punk, and New Wave, another rock style, closely connected to both. It is no wonder that the lines got, and still are blurred, with quite a number of more and less important names in rock history actually crossing the strictly defined genre borders with the likes of Tom Petty, The Cars, Blondie, The Bangles, XTC, and even Ramones and R.E.M – in their early stage – and many others at some point had at least a song or two, if not more, that can easily be labeled as power pop.
Among the artists that epitomized the genre, it was essentially only Cheap Trick that acquired anything that can be called fame (and possibly fortune), with the band’s live album, At The Budokan, becoming a million record seller, and the band was just recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, from Badfinger and Big Star on to many of the more recent examples of power pop artists, the success was, unfortunately, something that was a rare occurrence.
Take the example of critically acclaimed Los Angeles trio The Nerves. They only had a chance to come up with a four-song EP, before ultimately disappearing. Jack Lee (the only member that did not stick with power pop) wrote a song on that EP that did become a hit… but for somebody else – Blondie and “Hanging On The Telephone.” The other two members were Peter Case and Paul Collins, with Case penning yet another iconic power pop song, “Million Miles Away”, with his follow up band, The Plimsouls; while Paul was the only one to really stick with the sound. But his next band, The Beat, was never even able to reach the heights that their British ska namesake reached.
In many ways, that was exactly the fate of many ‘true’ power pop bands through the decades to come to the aforementioned Shoes, The Rubinoos, The Spongetones, The Records, Marshall Crenshaw, the late Tommy Keene, and The Smithereens to name just a few – they never caught on with mainstream audiences and always remained staunch cult favorites.
Quite a few of these names reached their peak in the ’80s, with names popping up and disappearing in the decades to come, being remembered mostly by the fans and followers of the genre. Jellyfish were projected to be a big thing in the ’90s, with their one-time member: Jason Falkner, coming up with some excellent releases with some excellent music from The Posies and Sloan, but yet again, they could hardly reach an audience outside of their devoted fans. The only real ’90s power pop success fell on The Rembrandts when their “I’ll Be There For You” was picked as the title song for Friends – quite possibly the most successful sitcom ever.
The only real ’90s power pop success fell on The Rembrandts when their “I’ll Be There For You” was picked as the title song for Friends…
It is a guess, maybe a slightly educated one, that the choice of that song came from a big power pop fan, and it was this fandom that kept the genre in focus – at least for its fans. This fandom was propelled on during the ’90s and early 21st century by labels like Not Lame and Parasol. Both of which came with a number of exquisite releases like June & The Exit Wounds, with their brilliant, sole album: A Little More Haven Hamilton, Please. Unfortunately however, both labels have now collapsed into oblivion.
Still, true fans have not given up, with a number of power pop-oriented online sites growing, keeping the flame alive and pushing names like Cliff Hills, Eytan Mirsky, Cotton Mather, The Lolas, Michael Carpenter, and others to keep on going, no matter the odds…