Try Again: The Calm Before the Storm
In the early Sixties power pop was born in England, in the industrial cities of Liverpool and Manchester. It was brought to the United States by The Beatles and the legion of other British bands who followed them across the Pond. With the success of the British bands, American bands soon adopted the sound for their own. From 1964 to 1967, power pop was arguably the most popular subgenre of rock on either side of the Atlantic.
By 1967 new subgenres of rock had developed that would ultimately overtake power pop. Chief among these was progressive rock. The roots of progressive rock can be seen in the work of The Beatles, The Byrds, and other artists, who had started experimenting with recording techniques and song structure as early as 1965. By 1967 progressive rock had nearly emerged as a full fledged subgenre of rock. It was that year that The Moody Blues released their influential album Days of Future Passed and Pink Floyd released their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. For the next several years, progressive rock would be a force with which to be reckoned in the world of rock music.
At the same time that progressive rock was emerging, so too was psychedelia. The roots of psychedelia are to be found in the American folk music revival of the early Sixties, American garage rock of the early Sixties, and the British Invasion. It was in 1965 that Bob Dylan went electric, and many other folk artists followed suit. At the same time British Invasion bands and American garage rock bands began experimenting with song structure and recording techniques. By 1966 psychedelia had emerged in the form of such songs as "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" by The Yardbirds, "Tomorrow Never Knows" by The Beatles, and "Sunshine Superman" by Donovan. While the British recorded many of the first psychedelic songs, however, it would be California that would become the centre of psychedelia. It was there that such bands emerged as Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and The Grateful Dead all emerged. Psychedelia did not mean the death of power pop. In fact, many songs from the era could quite rightfully be considered both power pop and psychedelia. Examples of such are "I Can Hear the Grass Grow" by The Move and "Open Your Eyes" by Nazz.
Regardless, there can be little doubt that psychedelia and, perhaps more importantly, progressive rock pushed power pop aside as the dominant form of rock at the time. Even so, in the late Sixties three bands would emerge that can be counted among the earliest practitioners of power pop. One of these bands originated in Philadelphia with a young man named Todd Rundgren. With Carson Van Osten, Thom Mooney, and Robert "Stewkey" Antoni, Rundgren formed Nazz. Although often considered psychedelic rock, Nazz are more accurately termed "power pop." Influenced by British bands from The Beatles to The Who to The Move, Nazz had a guitar driven sound with clean harmonies.
Unfortunately, emerging in an era dominated by progressive rock and eventually falling victim to disagreements between members, Nazz never really had a chance. Their self titled debut, released in 1968, received good marks from critics, particularly for the songs "Open My Eyes" and "Hello, It's Me (later a hit for Todd Rundgren)." Unfortunately, it did not sell very well. Their second album, eventually titled Nazz Nazz, was meant to be a double album. Eventually, the album was shortened to a single LP which sold no better than the first. By this time internal strife was taking place in the band, and Todd Rundgren left shortly after the release of Nazz Nazz. The band released one last album, Nazz III, in 1970.
Although he would become better known for his more experimental work with Utopia, Todd Rundgren never completely abandoned power pop. His first three solo albums (Runt, Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, and Something/Anything) contained a good deal of power pop. Even once Rundgren moved more towards progressive rock, many of his albums would contain songs that were pure, simple power pop.
While Rundgren was pioneering power pop in Philadelphia, yet another young man would pioneer power pop in Rockford, Illinois. Rick Nielsen, who would later go on to found Cheap Trick, formed his first band, The Phaetons, all the way back in 1962 (he was all of 16 at the time). That band would evolve into The Grim Reapers. At the same time that The Grim Reapers were playing various venues, so too was another band called Toast and Jam. Among its members Toast and Jam featured a bassist named Tom Petersen (later the bassist of Cheap Trick). Eventually, Rick Nielsen would propose that The Grim Reapers and Toast and Jam merge, resulting in the band called Fuse. Managed by Ken Adamany (yes, he would later manage Cheap Trick...), the band released a single in 1968 ("Hound Dog"/"Crusin' for Burgers") on Smack Records to little notice. It was in 1969 that the band was signed by Epic Records (the same company who released Cheap Trick's first many albums). That same year they released their self titled, debut album. Sadly, it would be the only album that they ever released. Fuse did not sell well. While Fuse continued playing various venues and even opened for REO Speedwagon, behind the scenes things were falling apart for the band. In the end, Epic wound up dropping Fuse. As to Rick Nielsen, he would go onto found Cheap Trick (more on that later).
Interestingly, the histories of Nazz and Fuse are tied together in more than the fact that they were contemporaries who both played power pop. Following the breakup of Nazz and the departure of members from Fuse, Thom Mooney and Robert Antoni would join Fuse in 1970. In their early days Cheap Trick opened for Utopia on various dates. Later Todd Rundgren would produce the Cheap Trick album Next Position Please.
The third important power pop band to emerge in the late Sixties did not emerge from the Untied States. Instead they emerged from Britain, and from under The Beatles' wings at that. The Iveys were founded in Swansea in the mid-Sixites by Peter Ham and Tom Evans. The Welsh band was influenced heavily by the bands of the British Invasion, in particular The Beatles, The Who, and The Yardbirds. In 1966 they moved to London and began playing there. It was there that The Iveys caught the attention of Mal Evans, road manager and assistant to The Beatles. Evans convinced the Fab Four to sign them to their Apple label. It was under the name The Iveys that they released their first album, Maybe Tomorrow. Although released in Japan, West Germany and Italy, the album was not released in either the UK or U.S.
Nearly from the beginning, The Iveys had been confused with the band The Ivy League due to the similarity in names. It was then in 1969 that the group changed their name to Badfinger. That year also saw Paul McCartney give the band what could have been the biggest break of their career. He gave them a song he had written called "Come and Get It." Featured on the Magic Christian soundtrack, it was their first big hit, reaching #7 on the United States' Billboard singles chart. Their first album as Badfinger, No Dice, released in 1970, would produce another hit for the band, "No Matter What." Their third album, Day After Day, would produce yet another hit--the title track went to #4 on the Billboard chart. Although Badfinger was not the next Beatles as they were often touted, they were on their way to becoming a very successful band.
Unfortunately for Badfinger, things would soon fall apart for the band. The group did not get along with Allen Klein, who had been put in charge of Apple in late 1969. As a result the band moved to Warner Brothers. As if switching labels was not enough, internal strife was growing within the band. This was complicated by mismanagement on the part of manager Stan Polley. Any hope that Badfinger would return to its former prominence was squashed when their leader Pete Ham committed suicide in 1975. Although Badfinger never achieved the heights they might have because of poor circumstances, their legacy on power pop would last. Their influence was felt on bands ranging from Pezband to Enuff Z'Nuff. As to Pete Ham and Tom Evans, they would leave a lasting legacy in the form of one of the most successful ballads of the Seventies. That song was "Without You," which would provide Harry Nilsson with his biggest hit.
Go All the Way: Power Pop Reemerges
The late Sixties and early Seventies were an era dominated by progressive rock and later heavy metal. With songs sometimes extending beyond six minutes and solos (guitar and otherwise) that sometimes lasted nearly as long, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a backlash. One response to the excesses of the progressive rock came in the form of glam rock. Popularised by such artists as David Bowie, Gary Glitter, and T. Rex, glam rock returned to poppy songs of two to three minutes in length. Another response would come in the form of punk rock, which centred on short songs with the least instrumentation possible. With its concentration on short songs filled with hooks and generally using basic instrumentation (lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, and drums), another natural response to the excesses of the progressive rock of the era was power pop.
Indeed, what may have been the most successful power pop band to emerge was not even recognised as power pop at the time. In the press of the era, Sweet was most often classified as a glam rock band. This may have been due in part to the fact that the term "power pop" had not yet came into common usage, as well as the fact that Sweet utilised the same trappings as the various glam rock acts (T. Rex, Slade, David Bowie, and so on). That having been said, it seems clear that while Sweet may have looked like glam rockers, their music sounded like power pop.
Sweet was founded in 1968 by Brian Connolly and Mick Tucker as The Sweetshop. Signed to the Fontana label, they shortened their name simply to "Sweet" upon learning of another band called "The Sweetshop." They released one single on Fontana, "Slow Motion," in 1968. The single failed and Fontana dropped the band. It was in 1969 that Sweet was signed to EMI's Parlophone label. Sweet released three singles at Parlophone, none of which charted. When it came to record deals, however, the third time was a charm for Sweet. They signed with RCA in 1970 and found themselves aligned with the writing team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. Like their earliest songs, their initial output for RCA was essentially bubblegum, with songs such as "Lollipop Man" and "Funny, Funny." It would not be long before all of that would change.
Quite simply, Sweet disliked playing bubblegum music and soon demanded that Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman provide them with better material. Beginning with singles such as "Wig Wam Bam" and "Little Willy," Sweet's sound shifted from bubblegum to a blend of the sound of the Boyce/Hart songs of The Monkees with the guitars of The Who. It was following this that Sweet would enter their golden age, releasing songs that would be hits on both sides of the Atlantic: "Little Willy," "Ballroom Blitz," "Teenage Rampage," "Fox on the Run," "Action," and "Love is Like Oxygen." Sadly, as the Seventies wore on, Sweet would decline in popularity--"Love Is Like Oxygen" would be their last hit in either the United Kingdom or the United States.
In their time Sweet was labelled "glam rock," perhaps largely because the term "power pop" had not yet come into popular usage. The same would not be true for a band some have claimed to be the first true power pop band (although, as I pointed out in Part One, that honour should go to The Beatles). The Raspberries may well have been the first band to be labelled "power pop (an example being an article in the February 1975 issue of Beetle Magazine)."
The Raspberries emerged from two Cleveland bands: The Choir (a few of whose singles actually made the lower half of the Billboard Hot 100) and Cyrus Erie (who had a good deal of local success). When the two bands disbanded for various reasons, the remaining members formed The Raspberries in 1970. Playing music that drew upon the sounds of the British Invasion, the music of Phil Spector, and The Beach Boys, The Raspberries were courted by several labels. They eventually signed with Capitol Records. Their self titled debut album was released in 1972 and The Raspberries soon found themselves the darlings of critics. They also saw their first taste of success. While the first single, "Don't Want to Say Goodbye" only hit #86 on the Billboard singles chart, their next single, "Go All the Way" went all the way to #4. It seemed The Raspberries were poised for stardom. The Raspberries' second album, Fresh Raspberries, was also released in 1972, producing the single "I Wanna Be With You," which went to #18 on the Billboard singles chart.
Sadly, following the release of their second album, The Raspberries found themselves torn apart by internal strife. The band fought amongst themselves throughout the recording of their third album, Side 3. Complicating matters, Side 3 would be the first Raspberries album to produce no hit singles. Internal tension eating away at the band, bassist Dave Smalley was kicked out. Drummer Jim Bonfanti left of his own accord. They were replaced by bassist Scott McCarl and drummer Michael McBride. They recorded their fourth and final album Starting Over, which produced the hit "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)." Despite this, The Raspberries still found themselves at odds. In June 1975 the band announced their breakup.
The Raspberries were not the only American power pop band in the early Seventies. Big Star was formed in Memphis in 1971 by Chris Bell and Alex Chilton (they took the name from the Big Star Markets grocery store chain). Like The Raspberries, Big Star drew upon British Invasion bands such as The Beatles, The Kinks, The Zombies, and The Who, throwing in influences from Badfinger, The Beach Boys, and the Stax Records catalogue for good measure. Fittingly, their first album, #1 Record, was released on the Stax label in 1972. #1 Record received a good deal of critical acclaim. Unfortunately, at that time Stax's distribution was not exactly efficient, so that #1 Record sold very poorly.
Following the release of their first album, Chris Bell found himself suffering from depression and left the band, although he would continue to write for them. The band regrouped and released their second album, Radio City in 1974. Radio City brought Big Star even more critical acclaim. Indeed, it features one of their most famous songs "September Gurls." Sadly, it sold no better than #1 Record. Despite this and more changes in their lineup, Big Star moved forward with plans for a double album. Upon completing the album in 1974, Big Star broke up. As to the album itself, Third was not released until four years later in 1978.
Big Star was one of the many critically acclaimed bands who failed on the charts. What set them apart from other critics' darlings is that their music actually stood the test of time. Big Star would prove to be an influence on such bands as The Posies, Teenage Fanclub, and The Replacements. They may have received their widest exposure when Cheap Trick remade their song "In the Streets" as the theme song for That Seventies Show.
Badfinger, Sweet, The Raspberries, and Big Star were not the only power pop artists in the early Seventies. Nor were the United Kingdom and United States the only sources of power pop. In the Sixties Australia had produced The Easybeats (best known for the song "Friday on My Mind"). In the early Seventies they would produce Rick Springfield. It was in 1969 that Springfield joined the popular Australian power pop quartet called Zoot. Following their break up, he went solo and released a song called "Speak to the Sky," which went to #1 on the Australian singles charts. Springfield then emigrated to the United States. Signed by Capitol Records, he recorded his first album, Beginnings. "Speak to the Sky" went to #14 on the Billboard singles charts.
Unfortunately, two problems would develop for Springfield. First, he found himself cast in the mould of "teen idol," even though his music was a bit more sophisticated than that of Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett. He was even featured in a Saturday morning cartoon, Mission: Magic, which ran on ABC for the 1973-1974 season. Of course, being a teen idol was the least of Springfield's worries. Rumours emerged that Capitol Records was paying people to buy Springfield's album Beginnings. As a result, radio stations ceased playing the album. Capitol Records denied the rumours and promptly dropped Rick Springfield. He signed with Columbia Records and released a second album, Comic Book Heroes, in 1974. Although receiving good reviews, it failed to chart. A third album, Wait the Night, released in 1976 also bombed. Taking a break to concentrate on acting, Rick Springield would not have another hit until the album Working Class Dog and the single "Jesse's Girl," both released in 1981. For the early part of the Eighties, Rick Springfield would regularly hit the charts.
Big Star and Rick Springfield were hardly the only power pop artists whose careers faltered during this period. Artful Dodger (not to be confused with the British band of the Naughts) was formed as Brat in Fairfax, Virginia in 1973. The band was heavily influenced by the British Invasion, in particular The Beatles and The Small Faces. The band was eventually signed to Capitol Records, but had to change their name to Artful Dodger because there was already another band named Brat.Their self titled debut was produced by Jack Douglas (who has worked with both Aerosmith and Alice Cooper), and was released in 1975. Unfortunately, the album failed to sell. The same held true for Artful Dodger's next two albums. The band left Capitol Records and signed with Arista, releasing one last album in 1980. Unfortunately, that album, Rave On did no better. Not long afterwards, Artful Dodger broke up.
More than anything else, Artful Dodger appears to have suffered from ill timing. Their failure was hardly due to their music, which compares favourably to both The Raspberries and Big Star. Instead, they entered the market at a time when disco ruled the airwaves and punk was emerging. The bitter irony was that Artful Dodger came about just shortly before power pop would become more popular than it had been since the days of the British Invasion. Indeed, the first volley in a new invasion of power pop bands would be fired only a scant year after Artful Dodger released their first album. That shot would come from the most unexpected of places, the city of Rockford, Illinois...