We’re very excited to be media partners with the truly unique online streaming platform and download store Qobuz. The ninth of our monthly bespoke playlists, which take in all manner of genres and sub-genres, scenes and beyond, then and now, focuses on the growth and expansion of powerpop from 1964-2004
To begin with, what is powerpop? Although the term has been used so fleetingly to describe everything from The Raspberries and Badfinger, to Jam-like British mod bands of the late ’70s and, even Oasis, a set of values formulated by two of the greatest songwriters in history has been adhered by songwriters ever since.
The term powerpop is still as ambiguous today as the music is contagious, with writers, players and musical historians all attempting to classify the key elements of the genre. “Imagine a thousand guitars schlanging away in unison, some Rickenbacker 12-string arpeggios… a warm, understated bass line beneath a firm back beat and a chimp-friendly tambourine part. Add vocal harmonies, an uplifting melody and some straightforward words and you may have, in short music that draws its inspiration from the Revolver/Pet Sounds/Younger Than Yesterday lineage” wrote Will Birch in MOJO attempting to ascertain the essence of powerpop.
So in short, powerpop is both infectious and catchy, has ringing guitars ala The Byrds and Beatles inspired melodies that have kissed so many of the best tunes of the past 30 years. Bruce Brodeen of the US record label solely dedicated to power pop Not-Lame exclaims; “There’s so many ingredients and variants of the idiom. There’s no one formula, but there are elements that are consistent like commitment to vocal harmonies, overtly archetypal pop hooks mined from the camp inspired, initially, by The Beatles and an insidious stick-to-the-brain chorus that lingers after its over.”
If the song writing skills of Lennon and McCartney are a mainstay, Greg Shaw in his definitive Bomp powerpop article furthermore expounds the virtues of The Who and The Easybeats. “Their approach to song writing was solidly pop – every song was short, catchy, hook-filled, built on bright, uplifting major chords, and they never shied away from those all-important little “la la la’s”. Certainly, both bands wrote snappily catchy three-minute tunes, and after all it was Pete Townsend who first used the term powerpop to define the music of The Who. Between 1965 and ’67 Townsend penned powerpop hit after hit: ‘The Kids Are Alright’, ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’, ‘Substitute’, and most importantly ‘I Can See For Miles’ which was festooned with chaotic drums and crashing power chords, but never lost track of its underlying melody. The powerpop bands of the early ’70s such as The Raspberries used The Who as a blueprint. Likewise, the lesser-known Easybeats from Australia mined a furious blend of pop and power on their 1966 hit ‘Friday On My Mind’ which made full use of the incessantly catchy “la la la’s” that Shaw talks of.
The beginning of a movement that utilised the key elements of The Who arose in late ’65 springing from young mod bands, who if not solely copying The Who, were just too late in getting recognition. The Creation epitomised the mod/pop sound and style the best and released a slew of fantastic records produced by the man who can be viewed as the first to utilise the powerpop sound, Shel Talmy. The flip of ‘Makin’ Time’, ‘Try And Stop Me’ (June ’66), is a powerpop monster filled with Eddie Phillips’ ringing guitar, lyrics telling the tale of lost love and a smorgasbord chorus that sticks in the brain. Vintage powerpop at its best! In fact, a great deal of records by mod bands that the big time ignored captured the nonchalant energy of powerpop, which has continued ever since. The Smoke’s ‘My Friend Jack’, the pre-fame Herd’s ‘This Boy’s Always Been True’ and Australia’s Master’s Apprentice ‘War Or Hands Up Time’ all shared similarities in approach, even though the bands would not have considered themselves powerpop. The pure up-tempo Beatles pop of ‘It’s Cold Outside’ (’66) by the Cleveland, Ohio based band The Choir shadows what guitarist Wally Bryson would further develop in the ’70s with The Raspberries. The emergence of the genre was apparent.
By ’67 as Hendrix and Cream’s heavy-blues sound was increasingly popular, the powerpop camaraderie of Birmingham’s Move continued to grace the charts; their psychedelic mod hit ‘I Can Hear The Grass Grow’ developed further the sound of The Who. Mike Stax writing in Toffee Sunday Smash claims, “The song had the perfect pop qualities… combined with more than enough hard-edged tension and imaginative touches.” Whereas a great deal of late ’60s chart records offered melodic predictable pop, the forefathers of powerpop consistently added exciting twists.
As the decade drew to a close, the styles of the mid-60s were all but redundant. However, in America a young Todd Rundgren was causing havoc with his smartly, Carnaby Street dressed mod/Who inspired band the Nazz. Rundgren recalls, “There weren’t that many American powerpop bands back then… but we really emulated those English bands.” From their second LP Nazz Nazz (’69) the opening track ‘Forget All About It’ portrays how powerpop would enter the next decade. The high pitched Entwhistle/Townsend styled backing vocals, solid major chords and Keith Moon raging drums, figured strongly, pushing the song along at a mighty rate but never outweighing the beautiful harmony vocals and the chorus-based pop sensibility.
By 1970, rock music was no longer limited by the tight, burnished pop sheen of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but by a longer, improvisational, free-form jamming style that proponents like ELP, Yes and King Crimson took to dizzying levels. The era of progression! To be sure, this music had its followers, but artists like Alex Chilton, Eric Carmen, and the members of Badfinger weren’t among them. Instead, these characters, and many other like-minded pop buffs, took the music they cherished (Beatlesque pop), distilled it down to its basic elements (rhythm, melody, harmonies), and started churning out three-minute pop songs like the future of humanity depended on it. And since they lived in an era where “heavy” meant “good”, they played their new music harder, tighter, with a boost of power, so that the songs would reach the back rows of the stadiums and auditoriums they dreamt of playing.
Badfinger (formerly known as The Iveys) were signed to The Beatles’Apple label in ’69 and recorded a Paul McCartney composition entitled ‘Come And Get It’. This began a Beatles comparison, which dogged the band for their first few years. By ’74, however, having combined more of a heavy-rock styling with their softer Beatles inspirations the band defined the first wave of powerpop. ‘Just A Chance’, taken from the Wish You Were Here LP, shows them in fine form with crunching guitars, catchy vocal harmonies and a driving beat, all capturing the spirit of mid-60s pop without sounding slavish or of the era.
Along with Badfinger, The Raspberries began the ’70s with real songs, which recalled five years before. Greg Shaw wrote in his definitive powerpop article, “The Raspberries were the essence of powerpop, more than any of their proto-types. On their best records every tiny bit was flawlessly designed to create an overall impact that’s never been matched.” And absolutely, one listen to the band’s enticing ’72 gem ‘Go All The Way’ indicates that bandleaders Eric Carmen and Wally Bryson were still in love with the music of their teenage years. Underneath the song’s bastion of Marshall stacks, elements of The Small Faces (Carmen’s “heys” are a dead ringer for Marriott), The Beach Boys, for the teen-dream quality of the melody of the verse, and the gradually rising “c’mons” at the songs end, recall no other than The Beatles circa 1963. So there you have it, one song, tracing the glory days of chart pop in just over three minutes. This was the way for powerpop to go. ‘Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)’ from the final LP Starting Over (“74) at 5:34 mins is a tad longer than your average piece of powerpop, but manages to maintain its direction. Combining the classic Keith Moon styled drumming, some mid-70s lead guitar, and most importantly the type of multi-harmonied vocal arrangements that only Brian Wilson could compete with, The Raspberries blended the key elements of power and harmony. What was to come owed a lot to The, Raspberries!
Big Star’s ‘September Gurls’, from their second LP, Radio City (’74) is described by Brian Hogg in his liner notes of the ’80s vinyl re-issue as “sounding like The Byrds but played with the venom of the early Kinks”. With a tinge of Memphis passion, the unstable Big Star combined The Beatles, Badfinger and Kinks with distinct American harmonies and chiming guitars ala The Byrds circa 1965. Their story is a wrought one, but as with all “unknown legends” their records have stood the test of time and are now listed as a main inspiration by such luminary acts as Teenage Fanclub. ‘September Gurls’ is an icon of powerpop!
As a term powerpop was yet to be used as a collective description. However, a number of new bands sprung up around ’77 in America displaying a penchant for the type of plaintive pop The Raspberries, Badfinger and Big Star produced instead of punk-rock. A deserved mention has to go to Peter Case, Jack Lee and Paul Collins’ The Nerves, who in ’76 released an EP of punk edged ’60s beat. Their ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ is probably known to most readers via its version by Blondie, but for this writer The Nerves archetype packs far more of a punch, and ‘When You Find Out’, from same EP, is the perfect interpretation of early ’60s Mersybeat from the punk era. Members of this short-lived outfit would continue on into The Plimsouls and Paul Collins’ Beat, another two fabulous powerpop bands, but it must be said that what The Raspberries were to ’70 the Nerves were to ’77. If the early ’70s interpretation used hard-rock as a backbone the later version used punk.
Meanwhile, in the UK, American ex-patriots The Flamin’ Groovies had hooked up with Dave Edmunds at Rockfield studios, in South Wales, and recorded the Shake Some Action and Now LPs between ’77 and ’78. As much as an anthem as ‘September Gurls’, ‘Shake Some Action’ vitalises the powerpop spirit with its Byrdsesque guitar and instantly catchy major chord progression. The Flamin’ Groovies wore a ’60s style of dress and adored The Beatles, Byrds and Stones at a time when it was very un-fashionable, proving that powerpop does not convey trends. As Badfinger were deemed unfashionable seven years before, the Groovies were in ’77.
Whilst nihilism and discontentment were preached by the punk bands, the powerpoppers continued to sing of teenage love, joy and rejection. Whereas Sex Pistols swearing on the Bill Grundy Today show caused major controversy and put punk in all of the papers, the clean cut Rubinoos singing ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’, although enjoyably poppy, was just too tame to grab attention. Greg Shaw had noticed that whilst punk was blazing away, a number of bands were dedicating themselves to bringing great pop songs to life and foresaw a new movement breaking. In March ‘78 a whole issue of Shaw’s top selling Bomp magazine was dedicated to powerpop; tracing its routes, its birth, and the bands of the time: powerpop as a collective entity. The genre was neither spontaneous (as it had been clearly occurring for a few years) or as yet a major trend, but it was happening.
In America, what we may in hindsight call the third wave of powerpop, a more ’60s teen-pop orientated stylistic came into being, which was the very antithesis of punk. The Names’ November ’77 single ‘Why Can’t It Be’ and Chris Stamey’s summer record ‘The Summer Sun’ (produced by Big Star singer Alex Chilton) recaptured the teen innocence of Phil Spector’s ’60s girl groups and early Beatles in an inimitable manner. On the other hand, Cheap Trick and The Real Kids kept rock ’n’ roll alive and kicking, but still in the powerpop framework. The “not one approach” Bruce Brodeen mentioned was beginning to become clear.
Amid the punk maelstrom of London ’77, a band in mod suits, playing Rickenbacker guitars, fitted in with the current scene, though with strong differences apparent. The Jam to English powerpop were what The Nerves were to America. Fitting in with punk, but crafting more jangling melodies, The Jam soon won a legion of followers. Singer and songwriter, Paul Weller’s love of Townsend and ‘60s mod was clear, and a slew of “good” to “bad” clones were signed to many labels riding the crest of the wave of The Jam’s success. Of these, The Purple Hearts (‘My Life’s A Jigsaw’ which typified British powerpop of the 1979 era) and the more Beatles based Squire equalled any of the American bands.
It was not surprising at all that a mod revival with powerpop as its signature would happen in post-punk UK. The Jam, by ’79, were a huge success, and Weller consolidated Davis, Townsend and Marriot/Lane for a new audience. Quadrophenia, a harrowing epic, with the mod scene of ’64 as the backdrop was a huge hit in the cinema with The Who’s early work re-appraised because of the film. Powerpop mod style swamped the airwaves and charts but the media typically manipulated the movement and it soon faltered, though for a short while the UK championed a slightly punked-up version of their ’60s pioneers. The Flamin’ Groovies were just a little too early!
Starting out with a strong Beatles sound on their first 45 issued on Bomp (‘Giving It All’), 20/20 ended the ‘70s with a progression mirroring the changing times. In the era when punks were beginning to wear garish make-up and become “romanticised”, and synthesisers bleeped away as young, effeminate, pleated trouser wearing chaps bounced away behind them. ‘Yellow Pills’ (a name borrowed by Jordan Oakes for his magazine and compilation series dedicated to powerpop) blended psychedelic Lennon-like vocals with synthesisers and a new-wave production. Although, far removed from The Raspberries, Big Star and The Flamin’ Groovies, the song typified how powerpop and musical fashions would waltz hand in hand into the next decade.
For just over a year, thanks and no thanks to The Knack’s ’79 powerpop hit ‘My Sharrona’ the major labels were jumping on the roster of Bomp bands and skinny-tie wannabes in the wake of the new pop explosion. However, as with all musical fads it was short lived, and soon disintegrated. Certainly, some great records came out of the brief signing spree – but as the fad died, so did the majority of fame-seeking bands. Powerpop, it seemed, was over.
As with all genres – now that it was apparent that powerpop existed – there were the keepers of the flame, but in all honesty in this writer’s opinion, the ’80s was a very flat era for classy powerpop. It began well with Phil Seymour’s decade opening ‘Baby It’s You’, a jaunty ’60s based strummed melody, with just hint of new-wave. And after the break-up of The Nerves offshoot The Breakaways (‘One Way Ticket’ and ‘Walking Out On Love’) Peter Case formed the most important of the early ’80s bands, The Plimsouls. ‘Zero Hour’ the band’s debut bore similarities to Elvis Costello’s approach at the time, blending spunky new-wave pop sensibilities with the introduction of the weedy sounding ’60s garage bands mainstay, the Farfisa Compact organ. The Plimsouls early ’80s offerings are fantastic and truly involve past influences with a feel for the time, which is the key factor of the genre. The Barracudas from London, not LA, have never received a great deal of recognition for what they did for the post-mod UK era of powerpop. Although lacking the tuneful vocals necessary for powerpop they managed to record some fantastic ’60s Byrds and psychedelic inspired records in ’81. ‘I Can’t Pretend’, ‘This Ain’t My Time’ and ‘We’re Living In Violent Times’ were some of the most powerful songs of the year.
In ’87, powerpop reared its head in a slightly commercial manner when American band The Smithereens appeared on Jools Holland’s and Paula Yates’ TV show The Tube. ‘Behind The Wall Of Sleep’ lyrically recollects the ’60s and quite happily sticks to a guitars, bass and drums formula that most of the music of the decade had not. From Liverpool, Lee Maver’s La’s reclaimed the cities bright pop heritage with their, as John M. Borack, wrote in the liner notes to Poptopia: Power Pop Classics Of The 80s, “Frankie Valli fronting the ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ era Byrds” style of ‘There She Goes’. A song that is as timeless as powerpop can be.
The ’90s continued to carry a jangling ’60s inspired flavour after the La’s and Stone Roses ended ’89. Whilst America went grunge, the UK’s chart was graced by ephemeral bands such as The Mock Turtles, who in a “baggy” manner relived the powerpop vibe. But again, this was short lived, and the term powerpop was never used to describe these bands musical motifs. When the rest of America had Sub-Pop upon their mind, and the slacker generation returned to the roots of rock combined with punk’s emblematic scorn, Jellyfish dressed up in day-glo psychedelic glam fashions and performed an amalgamation of the Beatles/Beach Boys/Raspberries. Their debut LP Bellybutton is definitely one of the ’90s finest pop LPs. Shortly after its release, guitarist Jason Falkner left the band and formed The Grays with Jon Brion (who, ironically, went on to play on Jellyfish’s second LP Spilt Milk). Their Ro Sham Bo LP overflows with sublime pop hooks and Faulkner has since recorded two stunning solo albums which draw heavily from ‘60s, ’70s and ’80s powerpop. Onwards through the ’90s the charts and the music papers would be graced with such purveyors of powerpop as Teenage Fanclub, The Lemonheads and Velvet Crush, but a movement, other than every hip alt.rock band mentioning Big Star, never took off. No doubting it, the Oasis phenomena of the mid-90s garnered awareness in guitar bands with hooks, and Creation signed acts like The Diggers in wake of another pop sensation, but mainstream wise powerpop was a non-starter.
Yet for the past 25 years the sound has evidently lasted, thrilling genre lovers, occasionally charting and taking off to inspire a new generation. The Shazam blasted into the 2000s with an opus of fine albums that showed there were tricks left in the old dog yet. The Shazam supported Paul Weller and had Move singer Carl Wayne perform with them on stage in London. Cotton Mather supported Oasis. Sloan and The Fountains Of Wayne, gained acclaim, whilst Brendan Benson hooked up with Jack White (who has also recently reissued the wonderful Exploding Hearts’ album on Third Man). The last words surely has to go to The Lemon Twigs, who have brought the sort of powerpop rarely heard since Big Star and The Dwight Twilley Band to young receptive audiences worldwide.
Sixty years of powerpop. Three chords and a drum roll.
© Jon ‘Mojo’ Mills /Shindig! magazine in partnership with Qobuz