Saturday, January 5, 2008

A History of Power Pop Part Four: Flavour of the Month

It's About Time: the Power Pop Boom of the Nineties

When most people think of music in the Nineties, either alternative rock or grunge come to mind. Of course, grunge refers to a subgenre of rock originating in Seattle, known for dirty guitar and angst filled lyrics. While grunge refers to a specific sugenre of rock, arguably "alternative rock" is less a subgenre than it is simply a label that was applied to artists in the late Eighties into the Nineties. The designation "alternative" was applied to groups as diverse as the grunge bands of Seattle to the pop punk bands of the early Nineties. In theory, at least, alternative artists were united in the influence that punk rock had upon their music. That having been said, even in the earliest days that the term "alternative rock" was being used this was not always true. Ultimately, the term "alternative" was simply applied to any artists who did not fit into the mainstream of music of the late Eighties. Perhaps because of this, the term "alternative" had pretty much lost all meaning by 1992, when it seemed as if bands labelled "alternative" had become less an alternative than they had become the mainstream.

Since power pop had more or less been outside of the music mainstream since around 1984, it should come as no surprise that the power pop bands of the early Nineties were often labelled "alternative rock." The fact that, at least in the early Nineties, many power pop bands were counted as "alternative" can be seen that many of the bands of the era emerged on smaller, independent labels. In fact, various power pop bands at the time, such as Sloan, Velvet Crush, and Ash, were also counted as part of the indie pop scene. Like many of the bands labelled "alternative rock," some of the power pop bands of the era were influenced in some degree by punk, some to the point that they are often counted as "pop punk" as well as "power pop." At the same many of the pop punk bands to emerge in this era, such as Green Day and The Offspring, would show some power pop tendencies.

Just as the power pop bands of the Seventies were influenced by the British Invasion bands, and just as the power pop bands of the Eighties were influenced by The Raspberries and Big Star, the power pop bands of the Nineties would be influenced by the Seventies artists, such as Cheap Trick, The Knack, and Marshall Crenshaw. That having been said, the power pop bands of the Nineties did differ from their predecessors in some respects. While still playing songs that owed a great deal to The Beatles and The Byrds, many of the power pop bands of the Nineties would tend more towards intelligent, thoughtful lyrics than the usual power pop subject matter of love and sex.

This was perhaps no truer of any band than The Posies. Sometimes counted as the foremost of the Nineties power pop bands, The Posies were formed in 1986 by Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer in Bellingham, Washington. They released their first album, Failure, by themselves in 1988. Copies of Failure, often copied on tapes at home, fueled interest in the band in the Seattle area. The Posies soon found themselves playing frequently in both Bellingham and Seattle. Towards the end of 1988 Failure was released on vinyl on the Washington indie label PopLlama. Between their live performances and Failure, The Posies soon drew the attention of several major labels. They were signed to DGC Records, Geffen Records' new alternative label in 1989 and released their first album for a major label, Dear 23, in 1990. Dear 23 would provide the band with their first radio hit, "Golden Blunders," which went to #17 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. The album also garnered rave reviews from critics and won a cult following for The Posies.

Their second on album on a major label, Frosting on the Beater, would perform even better. Released in 1993, it peaked at #11 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and produced a radio hit in the form of "Dream All Day." Unfortunately, the band's third album for DGC Records, Amazing Disgrace, would not see the same success. Released three years following Frosting on the Beater, Amazing Disgrace also received good reviews. Unfortunately, DGC Records failed to promote the album and as a result it sold poorly. Ultimately, DGC would drop The Posies. They recorded one last album, Success, on the PopLlama label in 1998 before breaking up.

Although they were gone, The Posies were not forgotten. While they never saw huge success on the charts, The Posies maintained a large and loyal following amongst power pop fans. Their influence would be felt on such bands as Fountains of Wayne, Hopewell, and The Minus 5. Eventually the band would reform and release their first new album in years, Every Kind of Light, in 2005.

While they were not a huge success on the Billboard charts, The Posies signalled power pop's return to the forefront of the American music scene. The following years would see the rise of even more power pop bands, in a boom that matched that of the late Seventies and early Eighties in terms of sheer numbers. And some of the new power pop bands would see success on the charts. Among these were The Gin Blossoms. The Gin Blossoms were formed in 1987 in Tempe, Arizona. By 1989 The Gin Blossoms would release their first album, Dusted, on the small, independent label San Jacinto Records. A local favourite, The Gin Blossoms were signed to A&M Records. Unfortunately, efforts to put out an album proved difficult for the band, and in 1991 they released the EP Up and Crumbling in an effort to buy time. The EP is notable in featuring the song "Allison Road," later a hit for the band.

By 1992 The Gin Blossoms' first album for a major label, New Miserable Experience, was finally released. For both A&M and The Gin Blossoms, the album proved well worth the wait. New Miserable Experience would peak at #30 on the Billboard album charts and would eventually go four times platinum. It would also produce the hits "Hey, Jealousy (which peaked at #25 on the Billboard singles chart)"and "Found Out About You (which also peaked at #25)," as well as the radio hits "Allison Road" and "Until I Fall Away." Unfortunately, The Gin Blossoms would fail to follow up the success of New Miserable Experience. While Congratulations… I'm Sorry, released in 1996, would peak at #10 on the Billboard albums chart, and while it would even produce their second top ten hit ("Follow You Down," which peaked at #9 on the Billboard singles chart--their first was "Till I Hear It From You" from the Empire Records soundtrack), ultimately the album did not sell as well as New Miserable Experience. The Gin Blossoms broke up in 1997, only to reunite for their first album in years, Major Lodge Victory, released in 2006.

Like The Gin Blossoms, The Lemonheads would also see some success on the charts. Formed in 1986 in Boston, The Lemonheads initially began as a pop punk band, although they would evolve to a more varied sound, including power pop. The band released three albums from 1987 to 1989 on the small, independent label Taang!, before being signed to Atlantic. Their first album on a major label, Lovey, failed to chart. It was with their second album for Atlantic, that The Lemonheads saw their first success. It's a Shame about Ray peaked at #68 on the Billboard album chart, largely on the strength of the band's power pop remake of "Mrs. Robinson," their first hit single. Their second album for Atlantic, Come on Feel the Lemonheads, also performed well, going to #56 on the Billboard charts. While their fortunes have declined since that time and the band has seen many membership changes, some incarnation of The Lemonheads has continued to exist to this day.

As with the power pop boom of the late Seventies and early Eighties, some of the important figures in the power pop boom of the Nineties had actually been around for awhile. Danny Wilde had been a part of the short lived power pop band The Quick (whose first album was released in 1974). In the Seventies Phil Solem played with various bands. Eventually the two of them found themselves members of The Great Buildings, a power pop band which released one album on CBS Records in 1981. It was in 1989 that Wilde and Solem became the duo known as The Rembrandts. Signed to Atlantic, The Rembrandts released their self titled debut in 1990. The album did very well, peaking at #88 on the Billboard album charts and producing the hit single "Just the Way It Is, Baby," which went to #14 on the single charts. Their follow up, untitled, also performed well, producing the hit "Johnny Have You Seen Her." The Rembrandts' biggest success would come with a theme song they wrote for a TV show, "I'll Be There for You" for the TV show Friends. The song actually went to #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, despite never being released as a single in the United States. Since then, The Rembrandts have not seen the success that they did in the early to mid Nineties.

Just as power pop was making a comeback in the United States, the United Kingdom saw the rise of the movement known as Britpop. Britpop was influenced by a variety of guitar driven movements in British music from the past thirty years--the British Invasion bands (The Beatles, The Who, The Small Faces), the glam rockers (David Bowie, T. Rex, Slade), mod revival bands such as The Jam, and punk bands such as Buzzcocks. The sound of Britpop bands could vary a good deal, from the northern soul sound of Happy Mondays to the psychedelia of Inspiral Carpets. As might be expected, given the influences of British Invasion bands on the movement, some of the Britpop bands were outright power pop. Among the earliest of these bands were The Charlatans. Their first album, Some Friendly, released in 1990, was a smash hit in the UK, hitting #1 on the British albums chart. Their first single, "The Only One I Know," would reach the top ten on the British singles chart. This not only established The Charlatans as a force to be reckoned with in the British music scene, but established beyond a doubt that there was an audience for Britpop. Although they would not see the success of The Charlatans, Oxford band The Candyskins also released their first album, Space I'm In, in 1990.

Although founded in Bellshill, Scotland, in 1989, Teenage Fanclub was not counted as part of the Britpop movement. Influenced by Big Star, The Byrds, and The Beach Boys, Teenage Fanclub was perhaps destined to be a power pop band. While their first two albums were somewhat chaotic, with their third album Bandonwagonesque, released in 1991, Teenage Fanclub fully embraced power pop. Over the years Teenage Fanclub would see a good deal of success on the British charts. And while they have not seen that same success in the United States, they have developed a large cult following here.

While the vast majority of power pop bands had previously come from either the United Kingdom or the United States, the power pop boom of the Nineties saw several bands emerge from Canada. Among these bands were The Odds. Formed in 1987 in Vancouver, they were signed by Zoo Entertainment (the label Matthew Sweet was also on). Until their breakup they would see a good deal of success, some of it in the United States, particularly with the songs "Heterosexual Man," "Eat My Brain," and "Someone Who's Cool." Another Canadian band, Sloan, was formed in Nova Scotia in 1991. Although chart success has escaped them in the United States, Sloan maintains a cult following to this day.

The next several years would see more power pop bands than had been seen in quite some time. Bands such as The La's, Letters to Cleo, Ash, The Dandy Warhols, Cotton Mather, and The Apples in Stereo all appeared on the scene throughout the Nineties. As might be expected, one of the more important bands came from Chicago. Material Issue was founded in 1985 by Jim Ellison. By 1987 they released a self titled EP on their own label. A favourite in the Chicago area, the band's first album, International Pop Overthrow, was produced by none other than Jeff Murphy of Shoes. The album would produce two radio hits for Material Issue, "Valerie Loves Me" and "Diane." Released a year later, in 1992, Destination Universe did even better, producing what may be their best known song, "What Girls Want." Unfortunately, their next album, Freak City Soundtrack (released in 1994) would not do as well, despite producing a radio hit in the form of "Kim the Waitress." Material Issue left the Mercury label in 1995. Still performing to sell out crowds, the band was shopping for a new label when their leader, Jim Ellison, committed suicide on June 26, 1996. Despite the brevity of their career, Material Issue would have a lasting impact. Indeed, the International Pop Overthrow music festival takes its name from Material Issue's first album.

Another band with a short career but lasting influence was Jellyfish. Formed by Andy Sturmer and Robert Joseph Manning Jr. after the breakup of Beatnik Beatch, Jellyfish released their first album, Bellybutton, in 1990. Bellybutton performed very well, producing the radio hit "Baby's Coming Back" Unfortunately, tensions in the band would eventually lead to changes in membership. The band's second album, Spilt Milk, would be recorded by Sturmer, Manning, and a few studio musicians. Despite this, it was arguably their best album, producing the group's best known song "The Ghost at Number One." Unfortunately, artistic differences between Sturmer and Manning would lead to the breakup of the band not long after the release of Spilt Milk.

By 1994 the power pop boom of the Nineties was winding down, but it would not end with a whimper. The Britpop movement was still under way in the United Kingdom. It was in 1995 that the debut album of a band which epitomised British power pop in the Nineties was released. That album was I Should Coco and the band was Supergrass. Supergrass blended the sound of The Kinks with that of T. Rex, The Jam, and Buzzcocks. I Should Coco hit #1 on the British album charts. Since then, not a one of their albums has failed to hit the British top ten on the albums chart.

Back in the United States two important power pop bands would emerge in 1994. Named for the character Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Veruca Salt was yet another Chicago band, formed in 1993 by Louise Post and Nina Gordon. Their single "Seether" was released in 1994 on Minty Fresh Records. "Seether" managed to crack the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at #53, and peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot Modern Modern Rock Tracks chart. With the success of "Seether," Veruca Salt released their first album, American Thighs (the title being taken from a line in AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long"). The album would peak on the Billboard albums chart at #69. Their second album, Eight Arms to Hold Me (taken from the working title for The Beatles movie Help!) would do even better. Eight Arms to Hold Me peaked at number 55 on the albums chart. The single "Volcano Girls" cracked the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at #59--it went to #8 on the Hot Modern Tracks chart. Unfortunately, things would soon fall apart for Veruca Salt. Although it has never been clear as to what it was about, a dispute between Louise Post and Nina Gordon would result in Gordon leaving the band in 1998. Louise Post would essentially form a new band using the name "Veruca Salt." This new lineup released the album Resolver in 2000. Unfortunately, it seemed the magic was gone and Resolver did not sell well. Despite this, some incarnation of Veruca Salt has survived to this day.

Weezer would have more lasting success. Releasing their self titled debut in 1994, they had a radio hit with "Undone--The Sweater Song" and an even bigger radio hit with "Buddy Holly." Since then the band has had its ups and downs. Their 1996 album Pinkerton not only bombed, but was critically lambasted as well, but their 2005 album Make Believe was a rousing success. Regardless, they are still together and continue to record.

By 1994 the power pop boom of the Nineties was more or less over. The labels would sign fewer power pop bands for the next few years. At the same time, power pop bands would hit the charts less frequently. Over the next few years, several of the important bands in the power pop boom of the Nineties would break up, among them The Posies and The Gin Blossoms. Unlike the power pop boom of the late Seventies and early Eighties, however, power pop would not nearly disappear from the music scene. Many of the power pop bands of the early Nineties (Teenage Fanclub, Supergrass, Sloan, and others) would continue to record into the Naughts. And the coming years would see the emergence of some major players in the world of power pop.

A Fine Day for a Parade: From the Late Nineties into the Naughts

By the mid-Nineties the power pop boom had run its course. Radio airplay was increasingly dominated by post-grunge and, for a short time, even ska (which isn't even rock 'n' roll as far as I am concerned...). That having been said, power pop would play a more vital role in the late Nineties than it had in the late Eighties. In fact, some of the most important bands currently recording power pop would emerge during this period. In fact, arguably the most important band currently recording power pop today formed at this time: Fountains of Wayne.

Fountains of Wayne was formed by Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, the name being taken from a lawn ornament store in Wayne, New Jersey. Influenced by artists ranging from The Beatles to Cheap Trick to The Cars to The Posies, Fountains of Wayne was clearly a power pop band. They were signed to Atlantic Records in 1996 and released their self titled debut that same year. At this point it seemed as if Fountains of Wayne was poised for success. "That Thing You Do," the song Adam Schlesinger had written for the movie of the same name, was a current hit and brought the band some attention. Critics gave the album top marks. They also opened for both The Smashing Pumpkins and The Lemonheads. Unfortunately, while the album and its singles did well in the United Kingdom ("Radiation Vibe" hit #32 on the British singles chart), Fountains of Wayne sold poorly in the United States. Sadly, Fountains of Wayne's second album, Utopia Parkway (released in 1999) also sold poorly in the United States.

In the wake of the failure of Utopia Parkway, Fountains of Wayne took a break. The various members pursued their own projects before contributing a cover of "Better Things" for a tribute to The Kinks titled This Is Where I Belong: Songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks in 2001. The band also appeared as animated versions of themselves on the VH1 cartoon Hey, Joel, where they performed the role of Greek Chorus to plot developments on the cartoon. Eventually they were ready to record a new album. The darlings of critics and power pop fans for years, Welcome Interstate Managers would introduce them to a wider audience. The album featured the hit single "Stacy's Mom," which went to #21 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The album itself went to #115 on the albums chart. Their latest album, Traffic and Weather has yet to produce any hit singles, although it has performed very well.

Scottish band Snow Patrol would also emerge in this period. And like Fountains of Wayne, success for them would come late. Their first album, Songs for Polarbears, released in 1998, failed to chart in the United States, although it went to #143 on the British album chart. Their second album fared no better. With their third album, Final Straw, Snow Patrol hit the jackpot. The album went to #1 on the Billboard album chart and #91 on the British album chart. The singles "Spitting Games," "Run," and "Chocolate" all became radio hits in the United States. Their latest album, Eyes Open, released in 2006, also did fairly well.

While the early work of Fountains of Wayne and Snow Patrol did little business, there were signs that power pop might make a comeback. In 1999 Tal Bachman, the son of The Guess Who's Randy Bachman, released his self titled debut. The album contained the single "She's So High," which went #1 in Canada and went to #14 on the Billboard singles chart. Further proof that the genre would soon return to the forefront could be seen in debut albums from several power pop artists in 2000. The Plain White T's and Hot Hot Heat both released their first albums that year. And while Good Charlotte would skew more towards pop punk in their early work, they would be firmly power pop by their third album. Their debut album was also released in 2000.

Beyond these groups, two other significant power pop bands would also emerge that year. Bowling for Soup had actually been around since 1994. That year they released their debut album on their own label that year. They would release two more albums before their major label debut, Let's Do It For Johnny, was released in 2000. The album featured a minor radio hit in the form of "The Bitch Song." Their second album for a major label would put them on the map. Drunk Enough to Dance, released in 2002, went to #129 on the Billboard albums chart. It also contained the hit single "Girl All the Bad Guys Want," which actually cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at #64. Their next album, Hangover You Don't Deserve, released in 2004, would do even better. It went to #37 on the Billboard albums chart. It also produced the hit singles "1985 (which went to #25 on the Hot 100 chart)" and "Almost (which went to #46 on the Hot 100 chart). Their latest album, The Great Burrito Extortion Case, did not perform as well, although it did go to #88 on the Billboard albums chart. Although often classed as pop punk, given the band's melodies, harmonies, and hook filled songs, it is safe to say that they are power pop.

The other significant band to emerge in 2000 was a Canadian cross between Cheap Trick and The Cars. The New Pornographers first album, Mass Romantic failed to chart in the United States, but since then they have become a major force in the power pop world. Their second album, The Electric Version, sold very well. Their third album, Twin Cinema, did even better. reaching #44 on the Billboard albums chart. Their latest album, Challengers (just released last year) has done phenomenally well. It debuted at #34 on the Billboard albums chart.

Since 2000 yet more power pop bands have emerged: Farrah, Hellogoodbye, Cartel, and The Magic Numbers. What is more, some of these new power pop groups have done quite well. Making their debut in 2000, OK Go (yet another band from Chicago) has produced radio hits in the form of "Get Over It" and "Here It Goes Again." Both of their albums performed well on the Billboard albums chart.

Indeed, by 2003 it could be safe to say we are in the midst of a new power pop boom. It is perhaps significant that old bands such as Fountains of Wayne, Snow Patrol, and Bowling for Soup saw their first hits about this time. Furthermore, since 2003 even more power pop bands have emerged of late: We the Kings, The Magic Numbers, The Click Five, The Hush Sound (another band from Chicago), Boys Like Girls, Cute Is What We Aim For, and Throwback Suburbia. Some of these more recent bands have done very well, too. The 88 released their first album in 2003. Both of their albums performed well and produced such radio hits as "How Good It Can Be" and "Hide Another Mistake." The All-American Rejects, whose first album was released in 2005, have also seen some success. Their single "Dirty Little Secret" went to #9 on the Billboard singles chart, while their song "It Ends Tonight" went to #8. Although often classed as "post punk revival," the influences of The Killers, which apparently range from The Beatles to The Beach Boys to Duran Duran, clearly place them in the category of power pop. Their albums so far have done very well. Their debut, Hot Fuss, went to #7 on the Billboard albums chart, their sophomore effort (Sam's Town), went to #2. Their single "Mr. Brightside" went top ten on the singles chart, while their other singles have performed very well.

It remains to be seen how long the current power pop boom will last. The initial burst of power pop in the Sixties only lasted about three to four years. The power pop boom of the late Seventies and early Eighties lasted around five years, as did the power pop boom of the Nineties. Given this boom appears to be just getting under way, it is possible we could see power pop in the spotlight for the next three to four years. At the very least, one can always hope.

Power pop is perhaps one of the oldest subgenres in rock music. Through the years it has been immensely popular at times and terribly out of fashion at times. At times critics have praised power pop bands for their harmonies and melodies. At other times critics have attacked power pop bands for being derivative of The Beatles. The Raspberries were labelled "bubblegum" in some quarters. The Knack were labelled misogynists in other quarters. Through it all, power pop has survived. It has outlasted such musical fads as disco and ska. From all signs it will outlast rap. So far power pop has been around for over forty years. I rather suspect it will be around for forty more.


Bobby D. said...

I haven't thought about The Posies in ages! I remember when the Rembrants were poised to be THE next big thing , they definitely had a buzz going... it fizzled.

Love Veruca Salt--that is one cd from the period that I still listen to fairly regularly.

The album "Utopia Parkway" does not ring a bell, although I have driven on the actual parkway many times --Utopia is a neighborhood, basically just houses-- sounds like a real estate developer's idea to draw people in. I never realy thought about the name--you're driving thru Queens, the last thing you think is...utopia!

The way you describe Supergrass makes me want to check them out.

Terence Towles Canote said...

The album was named for the street. In fact, the sign on the album's cover is an actual sign on Utopia Parkway. The street itself is named for Utopia, a neighbourhood in Queens. It was apparently set up in the mid-20th century by a developer who thought Utopia would be a good name.

Jim Marquis said...

What a great series. Very informative.

DCB- I highly recommend "Life On Other Planets" by Supergrass. Every cut is a standout.

Unknown said...

Great articles (parts 1-4). I will say, though, your opinion of ska seems rather uninformed... ska music has been around since the late '50s.early '60s, and those popular "ska" bands from the '90s bear little to no resemblance to true ska music...

Terence Towles Canote said...

Oh, I'm well aware of how long ska has been around, but I'm still not sure I would even count the older ska groups as ska, not even the ones I like, such as The Specials!

Unknown said...

Special: That's still a revival, known as "the second wave". the original ska bands were basically Jamaican r&b/jump blues musicians, with influences from Jamaican style like mento (folk) and calypso... ceck out Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, and Derek Morgan. I'd say their music every bit as "rock and roll" as Big Joe Turner, Fats Domino, Little Richard, etc.

Unless you don't count that type of music as proper rock and roll, only an influence, then I can see what you mean.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I would say that the original ska artists like Prince Buster and Derek Morgan were more an influence on rock 'n' roll than they were rock 'n' roll themselves. I can't deny the two genres are pretty closely related.