Wednesday, January 2, 2008

A History of Power Pop Part One: Something Better Beginning

Defining Power Pop

Everyone has their favourite genres of music. For me that genre has always been rock. And it seems most rock fans have their favourite subgenres of rock. While I have always been a big heavy metal fan, in the end I must confess that my heart belongs to power pop. I was perhaps destined to be a power pop fan, almost from birth. I was born less than a year before The Beatles came to the United States, the band from whom all power pop stems. And by the time I was in junior high and high school there was a new wave of power pop bands filling the air waves, including such notables as Cheap Trick and The Knack.

Even though it has been around longer than many subgenres of rock and even though it maintained a following for the entire length of that time, power pop is not the easiest rock subgenre to define. The term was coined by none other than Pete Townshend of The Who; he said in an interview with the New Music Express in 1966, "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 I preferred." While most people these days would not count The Beach Boys as "power pop (although they certainly influenced the genre)," there are many who would most certainly count the early music of The Who and The Small Faces as such. While the term "power pop" would not become popular for almost another decade, when it did it would be applied to bands that sounded a lot like The Who and The Small Faces.

Indeed, power pop is characterised by the same things that characterised many of the British Invasion bands in their early days. Power pop is a guitar driven subgenre of rock with strong melodies and clear harmonies, often making use of musical hooks. And while power pop can include other instruments, the basic instruments of power pop are the electric guitar (usually a lead and a rhythm), the electric bass, and drums. Of course, this definition of power pop is rather broad and vague. Looking to Townshend's use of the term, a simpler and superior definition of power pop might be that it is any music that sounds like the early work of The Beatles and similar groups of the British Invasion era (The Who, The Kinks, and so on). Ultimately, it may be as Dan MacIntosh said in an interview with Eric Carmen in PopMatters, "You just know it when you hear it..."

To complicate matters, I must point out that in the Seventies and Eighties, the British press included such artists as XTC, Elvis Costello, and Blondie under the heading of "power pop." While particular songs of these groups could indeed be counted as power pop under the American definition of the term at the time, I rather suspect very few Americans then (and certainly very few now) would recognise them as power pop.

Not only is power pop not particularly easy to define, but there really isn't much agreement as to when full fledged power pop emerged. Some people point to such early Seventies bands as Big Star and The Raspberries as the first power pop bands. Others go back just a little bit further to the group Badfinger. Yet others maintain that The Who was the first true power pop band. My own thought is that if power pop can be defined simply as "music that sounds like The Beatles," then The Beatles would be the first true proponents of the subgenre.

That'll Be the Day: Early Influences

Even if one considers The Beatles to be the first power pop band, it is safe to say that they did not invent the music form out of whole cloth. Living in Liverpool, where they were exposed to a good deal of American music coming from across the Pond, The Beatles and other early Sixties British bands were influenced by a wide variety of artists. And some of those artists would prove to be pivotal in the development of power pop.

Foremost among these artists were Buddy Holly and The Crickets. When compared to the music of most of his contemporaries, Holly's songs contained more complex melodies and harmonies. And while most of Holly's songs were dominated by guitar, he used a wide array of instruments rarely used in rock 'n' roll at the time: violins, cellos,the celesta, and so on. In some instances Holly's songs are so close to power pop that they can be transformed into such simply through amping up the guitars (as numerous groups have done so over the years).

Besides Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers would also mark an influential stage in the development of power pop. Like Buddy Holly, the majority of the Everly Brothers' early work was guitar driven, but it was also characterised by clear, crisp harmonies. In fact, the Everly Brothers' harmonies sometimes even served as the melody line. Like Holly, the Everly Brothers would have a large impact on the bands of the British Invasion. Indeed, it is a mark of the Everly Brothers' influence on power pop that in the Sixties they would become among the first American artists to actually adopt the form.

The last group to have an impact on power pop were not a strong influence on The Beatles, more or less being contemporaries to the Fab Four. Like the British Invasion bands, The Beach Boys were heavily influenced by the Everly Brothers, as well as vocal groups such as the Four Freshmen. As a result they evolved a style of music that made use of complex harmonies and strong melody lines. While they may not have had an immediate influence on the British Invasion bands, The Beach Boys would have a lasting impact on the subgenre of power pop.

Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and the Beach Boys were instrumental in introducing to rock music sophisticated harmonies and often complex melodies. All that was needed was a band who would give the guitars a more pivotal position in the music. When that band arrived, they would change the world of music forever.

Catch Us If You Can: The British Invasion

While the United States was amidst a surf music craze led by the Beach Boys in the early Sixties, another kind of revolution was taking place in the United Kingdom. Prior to the Sixties, Britain had very little success when it came to rock 'n' roll. Many of the British rock artists would prove to be successful in the United Kingdom, only to fail here in the United States. There is perhaps no better example of this than Cliff Richard, who was an outright phenomenon in the UK, but never had much impact on the charts in the United States. Around 1960, however, there would arise a new breed of British rock groups who would change all of that. It was in the early Sixties that the British music scene was overtaken by what was then called "beat music."

Liverpool would become the centre of the beat music craze in Britain. One of the UK's most prominent ports, American rock 'n' roll records were often brought to Liverpool by British seamen before they had even been released in the United Kingdom. As a result, Liverpudlian musicians were exposed to a wide array of American rock acts before anyone else in Britain. The Liverpudlian bands then developed a music form that was strong on both guitars and harmonies. They also went a step further than American rock 'n' roll musicians, often incorporating minor chords (particularly in the middle eight). This new music was termed beat music or, as most of the bands came from Liverpool and Manchester, "Merseybeat."

A number of bands would emerge from the Merseybeat scene, among them Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, and The Fourmost. Eventually, one band would become prominent among the various beat groups, a band simply called The Beatles. By 1962 The Beatles would have their first hit single with "Love Me Do." They would have even greater success with their following singles, "Please Please Me," "From Me to You," and "She Loves You." The Beatles would add fuel to the ongoing beat music craze in Britain, at the same time creating a whole new phenomenon--Beatlemania. They were also pivotal in creating a whole new subgenre of rock--power pop.

Although there are those who might argue otherwise, it seems obvious to me that The Beatles' earliest works were also the first manifestations of power pop. In particular, "She Loves You" is dominated by the subgere's chief characteristics: a strong melody, crisp harmonies, prominent guitar, and one of the greatest musical hooks of all time (its "Yeah, yeah, yeah" chorus). Indeed, I must point out that if power pop is simply defined as "music that sounds like The Beatles," then by default The Beatles must have produced, if not the first works in the subgenre, then at least among its earliest works.

Of course, The Beatles were responsible for more than making the already popular form of beat music even more popular in Britain. Ultimately, their arrival in the United States would commence what would become called "the British Invasion," an influx of British bands to the United States in the mid-Sixties. While claims of British domination of American charts in the mid-Sixties are often exaggerated, there can be little doubt that the British had taken the Colonies by storm. In The Beatles' wake other bands would come to the United States and many of these bands would be fundamental in shaping power pop as we know it.

Foremost among these bands were The Kinks. Like The Beatles, The Kinks performed songs with strong melodies, even if their harmonies were not as clean as those of the Fab Four. That having been said, The Kinks went even further than The Beatles in giving the guitar a prominent place in power pop. Their first hit, "You Really Got Me," featured hard driving, distorted guitar that would prove influential in the future of rock music. The lasting influence of The Kinks can be seen in such power pop bands as The Knack and The Jam.

Of course, another prominent band in shaping power pop as we know it was the one to which the man who coined the term belonged--The Who. Influenced by both The Beatles and The Kinks, The Who wrote songs which featured complex harmonies, plenty of musical hooks, and very powerful guitars. The Who was also notable for being one of the first British Invasion bands to write lyrics on a wide variety of topics, from deadly arachnids ("Boris the Spider") to divorce ("A Legal Matter"). The Who would not only be central in the development of power pop, but in the development of heavy metal as well. Their influence would be felt on bands ranging from Cheap Trick to Judas Priest.

Like The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Who, many of the other British Invasion bands could be considered early examples of power pop. Like The Who, The Zombies played songs that were dominated by crisp harmonies and powerful guitars. Heavily influenced by the Everly Brothers, The Hollies' songs were dominated by complex harmonies and jangly guitars. And while they often have not been taken seriously, the Dave Clark Five cannot be discounted as having an impact on power pop. At one time the primary rivals to The Beatles on both sides of the Pond, the Dave Clark Five wrote songs that were not only dominated by harmonies and guitars, but an extraordinarily strong drumbeat as well.

Among the most influential of the early, British power pop bands was The Move. Led by Ron Wood, The Move actually arrived late on the scene, performing their first shows in 1966 and releasing their first single ("Night of Fear") in 1967. Although often considered psychedelic rock, the sound of the early Move may better be classed as power pop. Influenced by The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Byrds, The Move utlilised complex harmonies. Influenced by The Who, the band was definitely guitar driven. Although they made no real impact on the American charts, they would prove to have a lasting impact on future power pop bands, including Cheap Trick (whose sound can easily be described as a cross between The Beatles and The Move), The Replacements, Split Enz, and many others. Beyond their influence on power pop, The Move would also leave their mark in rock history as the band that would give birth to the Electric Light Orchestra.

Of course, not every British Invasion band can be considered power pop. Although they would have a lasting impact on rock music, including power pop, both The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds tended towards a sound that was too bluesy to be counted as power pop. Beginning with a bluesy sound, The Moody Blues would move more towards the progressive rock sound for which they were best known. Gerry and the Pacemakers tended to be among the softest of the beat groups, to the point that they could be considered pioneers of soft rock rather than power pop. Artists such as Chad and Jeremy tended towards more of a folk sound. While most people think of groups such as The Beatles and The Who when they think of the British Invasion, in truth the British groups of the era were a rather wide and varied lot, performing a wide variety of subgenres of rock. Regardless, it was perhaps the early, British power pop bands that would have the biggest impact in the British Invasion. And it would not be long before Americans would adopt the sound for their own.

Dedicated Followers of Fashion: the American Response

In the week of April 4, 1964, the top five singles in the United States according to the Billboard singles charts were all by The Beatles ("Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "Please Please Me"). Such success was not lost on American musicians, who soon adopted the British sound for their own. In fact, it was not new and upcoming bands who initially embraced power pop, but artists who had been around for some time.

Indeed, among the first artists to embrace power pop were two whose early sound had influenced this new subgenre of rock. Starting in 1965 the Everly Brothers recorded songs that could quite rightfully be considered power pop. "I'll See Your Light" and "It Only Costs A Dime" were obviously influenced by the British Invasion, with harmonies reminiscent of The Beatles and jangly guitars not unlike those of The Hollies. The British influence on the Everly Brothers was strong enough that they would eventually go to London to record. Their 1966 album Two Yanks in England even featured The Hollies as their backing band, as well as songs written by the group.

Unlike the Everly Brothers, The Byrds did not predate power pop, being signed to their first record contract in November 1964. That having been said, the band had grown out of the folk music revival of the early Sixties and as a result most of their earliest offerings (such as Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man") were folk rock. Even on their first album, Mr, Tambourine Man, however, there was an unmistakable influence from the power pop of the day in the form of the song "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better." Their second album, Turn, Turn, Turn featured the title single, whose jangly guitars and clear harmonies would seem to mark it as more power pop than folk rock. The Byrds would never fully embrace power pop as the Everly Brothers did, continuing to churn out folk rock songs, but most of their albums in the Sixties would feature at least one song that could be considered power pop. Indeed, both "Eight Miles High" and "So You Want to Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star" could be considered full fledged power pop songs. Regardless, The Byrds would have a lasting influence on power pop, particularly on such power pop bands as The dBs and Teenage Fanclub.

While The Byrds were a fairly young American band who never embraced power pop, Paul Revere and the Raiders were a fairly old band who embraced it wholeheartedly. In fact, save for one other band, they may have been the most successful American practitioners of the form. Paul Revere and the Raiders had been founded in 1958 and adopted the name "Paul Revere and the Raiders" in 1960. Their early music is perhaps best described by the rather vague term "garage rock"--a term also used of their fellow Oregonians The Kingsmen. In fact, like The Kingsmen, Paul Revere and the Raiders also recorded "Louie, Louie." Although the two bands recorded the song at the same time, it was The Kingsmen's version who made the charts.

Despite that setback, Paul Revere and the Raiders continued to record from 1960 to 1964, with little impact on the charts. All of this changed when Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day and legendary record producer) became the band's producer in 1965. Starting with "Just Like Me," Melcher crafted a sound for Paul Revere and the Raiders that drew upon the music of The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, and The Kinks, while at the same time maintaining a touch of American R&B to it. For the next several years Paul Revere and the Raiders would record heavy, guitar driven songs with strong melody lines and crisp harmonies. They would have several hits, including "Just Like Me," "Hungry," "Kicks," and "Good Thing." Unfortunately, as the band underwent membership changes and power pop gave way to psychedelia in the late Sixties, the band's career declined as well.

There are those who would argue that the band who kept Paul Revere and the Raiders from being America's premiere power pop group wasn't really a band at all. The Monkees were hired to perform on the television sitcom of the same name and were not allowed to play their own instruments on their albums until Mike Nesmith led a rebellion against the show's music supervisor Don Kirshner (who would later wind up being fired). To provide music for the show, creator and executive producer of The Monkees Bob Rafelson (yes, Bob Rafelson the movie director) brought in the song writing team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Boyce and Hart not only produced most of the songs for The Monkees' first album, but wrote most of the songs as well. In creating the sound of The Monkees, Boyce and Hart drew upon the sound of such guitar driven British bands as The Who and The Kinks and crossed it with a more American sound. The result was early power pop. Even once The Monkees got control of their own music, they would continue to record songs written by Boyce and Hart and most of their songs would still be in the subgenre of power pop. Sadly, their popularity would take a nosedive once NBC cancelled The Monkees. As to Boyce and Hart themselves, they attempted to launch their own career as rock performers. They released three albums on A&M, all of which could be considered early power pop. Unfortunately, save for the song "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight," they did not make much impact on the charts.

Of course, there were up and coming American bands formed in mid-Sixties that would adopt power pop as their own sound. Among these were The Beau Brummels. Like The Byrds, The Beau Brummels could be considered folk rock. Indeed, they were obviously influenced by the Kingston Trio. That having been said, they were also influenced by the Everly Brothers and the British Invasion bands as well. Their songs tended to be dominated by complex harmonies and were usually driven by guitars. Unfortunately, they would not have a hugely successful career, producing only three top forty hits

If there is a capital of power pop in the United States, it would probably be Chicago. Over the years the Chicago area has produced such bands as Cheap Trick, Enuff Z'Nuff, Shoes, Pezband, and OK Go. Chicago's position as the crown city of power pop did not start in the Seventies with Cheap Trick and Pezband, but actually goes all the way back to the Sixties. The mid-Sixties saw Chicago dominated by bands that were heavily influenced by Van Morrison's Them, such as The Shadows Of Knight and The American Breed. But other bands looked not to Ireland for inspiration, but rather to England instead. A prime example of such a band was the Ides of March. Formed in 1964 as The Shon-Dels, they recorded their first single, "Like It Or Lump It," in 1965. It was in 1966 that the band changed their name to the Ides of March. They would have an early hit with "You Wouldn’t Listen" that same year. As the Sixties progressed the Ides of March moved away from power pop, introducing a brass section to their recordings. They would achieve their biggest success in the Seventies, with the single "Vehicle."

Another band from Chicago influenced by the British Invasion was The Buckinghams. In fact, the band's name was chosen because it sounded British, while at the same time referring to the Chicago landmark, the Buckingham Fountain. The Buckinghams formed in 1965 and had a recording contract by 1966. Their early work, in particular the song "Kind of a Drag," has an unmistakable British Invasion sound to it. Like The Ides of March, The Buckinghams would move away from the power pop sound by introducing a brass section. Unfortunately, they were never able to repeat their early success.

The New Colony Six was one of the many Chicago bands influenced by Them. At the same time, however, they boasted harmonies that bore the influence of such British bands as The Hollies and guitar work that bore the influence of The Who. Like Paul Revere and the Raiders (and many other bands of the era),The New Colony Six dressed in Colonial era garb. While the band never made an huge impact nationally, they maintained a loyal following in the Midwest, where they produced several minor hits.

By 1967 the power pop of the mid-Sixties was giving way to psychedelia and progressive rock. Many of the early British Invasion bands began to change their styles. The Kinks shifted away from power pop to Ray Davies' signature, English flavoured social commentary. The Hollies moved from power pop into a more psychedelic vein. Bands that remained with power pop found often found their careers floundering. The Dave Clark Five's last top 40 hit in the United States was "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby" in June 1967 (perhaps not coincidentally, the month their old rivals released an album called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band...). Paul Revere and the Raiders' singles continued to chart into 1969, but they would not have another smash hit until "Indian Reservation" was released in 1971. The Monkees' career more or less died with their TV show. On the surface it would seem that power pop was dead, but that would be wholly an illusion. Indeed, the late Sixties would see the emergence of two of the most influential men in power pop, Todd Rundgren and Rick Nielsen. Power pop may have been out of style in the late Sixties, but already the groundwork was being laid for a spectacular return in the Seventies...


Jim Marquis said...

Hey, great piece. I've been a power pop fan for decades. One group I always felt should have gotten more attention was The Pursuit of Happiness. Todd Rundgren produced their first two records and they are, IMHO, fantastic.

Bobby D. said...

I am a big fan of power pop--the British Invasion bands were great. After blues and soul music, I probably listen to power pop the most. I loved Cheap Trick-- and I like how pop music rules the world-

Bobby D. said...

I remember way back, sitting on a curb with my oldest sister one summer day, watching the world go by and from somewhere a radio was blasting the song "Sunny Goodge Street" by Donovan. I thought at the time--it doesn't get any beter than this!

Bobby D. said...

--the Judy Collins version!

Terence Towles Canote said...

I always liked The Pursuit of Happiness myself. It's sad that their career never really got off the ground.

fasted7 said...

This History of Power Pop is really great reading- much of it I already know but it fills in the gaps very well.
Thanks so much- great stuff! Love the Cheap Trick stuff- can't wait for Part 3.
BTW- don't forget the Dwight Twilley Band's "I'm On Fire"- it reminds me of a little slower, and a little less psychedelic "Open Your Eyes" by Nazz on the chorus- but it is a very strong tune.