Friday, January 4, 2008

A History of Power Pop Part Three: On Top of the World

That's Entertainment: The Power Pop Boom of the Late Seventies and Early Eighties

Over ten years after Pete Townshend had coined the term and several years after the music press had adopted it, in 1977 the term "power pop" had finally entered common usage. In fact, it can be argued that it was one of the buzz words of 1978, appearing in such media outlets as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Hartford Courant. It was that year that the phrase first appeared in Time, in the June 26, 1978 issue, in an article on Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, and Rockpile. That power pop should finally enter common parlance at this point in history should come as no surprise. After being out of favour for many years, power pop was finally making a comeback.

In many respects, power pop was overdue for a comeback. The music of the early Seventies had been dominated by progressive rock and heavy metal. Both glam rock and punk represented backlashes against some of the excesses of progressive rock and even some of the heavy metal of the era. Later in the decade, just as new power pop bands were in the process of forming, an entirely different genre of music came to dominate the airwaves--disco. And while disco was undoubtedly popular in many circles, most rock fans hated it with a passion. The time was ripe for rock music that was simpler than progressive rock and yet still had a beat one could dance to.

In fact, a group often classed as punk may well have been a harbinger of power pop's return. Although they were one of the first American punk rock bands, in many ways The Ramones were simply good, old fashioned, American garage rock. Indeed, it can be argued that they had much more in common with Shoes and Rockpile than they ever did with Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, or The Sex Pistols. Can anyone actually picture Black Flag or The Sex Pistols remaking "Indian Giver" by The Ohio Express? The Ramones did. From their first album in 1975 to their final album in 1995. The Ramones played old fashioned rock 'n' roll. The Ramones' desire to return to the basics was reflected in the power pop bands as well.

At the same time that The Ramones were bringing back the glory days of early American garage rock, another band was shaping up to bring back the hey day of Sixties power pop. Since Epic Records had dropped Fuse, lead guitarist Rick Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersen continued to perform. Initially, this was with a new version of Fuse, which included Nazz veterans Robert "Stewkey" Antoni on keyboards and Thom Mooney on drums. This version of Fuse would evolve into Sick Man of Europe, which can quite rightly be considered Cheap Trick in its earliest stages. Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersen were already in place as the band's lead guitarist and bassist respectively, while Bun E. Carlos took over the drums from Thom Mooney. Like Nielsen and Petersen, Carlos (born Brad Carlson) was a Rockford, Illinois native. And like Nielsen and Petersen, Carlos was not new to the music business. In the Sixties his band, The Paegans, had actually released a remake of The Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine." Sick Man of Europe would tour incessantly, even opening for Foghat. Unfortunately, they failed to win a recording contract and Robert "Stewkey" Antoni left the band.

In 1973 Nielsen, Petersen, and Carlos then regrouped, taking on Randy "Xeno" Hogan as their new lead vocalist. The band played under such names as "The Grim Reapers" and "Sick Man of Europe" before settling on the name by which they would become known--Cheap Trick. Xeno would eventually left the band by 1974, whereupon he was replaced by lead singer Robin Zander. The classic lineup (which has not changed much in the past 34 years) of Cheap Trick was then in place. The band continued to tour relentlessly, finally being signed by Epic Records (the label that had also signed Fuse) in 1976. It was that same year that Cheap Trick's self titled debut was released. This was power pop as had never been seen before. Cheap Trick combined the melodiousness of The Beatles with the guitar work of The Who or The Move. Like Badfinger and The Raspberries, Cheap Trick sounded like The Beatles, but they sounded like a cross between The Beatles on "She Love You" and The Beatles on "Helter Skelter." Arguably, Cheap Trick brought real power to pop. Cheap Trick was not simply revolutionary in their sound, however, but in their lyrics as well. On that first album the subject matter ranged from serial killers ("The Ballad of TV Violence") to suicide ("Oh, Candy"). Unlike Badfinger and The Raspberries, Cheap Trick was not simply content to write love songs.

Cheap Trick's self titled, first album received over all good marks from critics. Unfortunately, it also failed to sell. Their second album, In Color, released in 1977, took a softer approach and was also well received, even getting a sterling review from Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone. Unfortunately, it did not sell well either. At this point it might well have seemed as if Cheap Trick might go the way of Big Star and Artful Dodger, but in the end good word of mouth and the band's incessant touring finally paid off. Released in 1978, their third album Heaven Tonight returned to the harder sound of their first album. Like their first two albums, Heaven Tonight received good notices from the critics, but unlike either Cheap Trick or In Color, Heaven Tonight actually sold quite well. In fact, the album actually cracked Billboard's album chart, peaking at #48. Much of this was due to the album's single "Surrender," which received enough FM airplay to hit #62 on the Billboard singles chart. Cheap Trick were not superstars as of yet, but all of that was about to change.

Already wildly popular in Japan, Cheap Trick performed at Budokan on April 28, 1978. This concert was recorded for the live album At Budokan. No one could have predicted the reception the live album would receive. Released in the United States in 1979, the album produced two hit singles for the band. The live version of "I Want You to Want Me" peaked at #7 on the Billboard singles chart, while their remake of "Ain't That a Shame" peaked at #35. The success of At Budokan marked the beginning of Cheap Trick's golden years and helped establish them as the quintessential, American power pop band. Alongside the Dwight Twilley Band's "I'm on Fire," the success of "I Want You to Want Me" established that there was still an audience for power pop and helped inaugurate the power pop boom of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Cheap Trick continued their success with the albums Dream Police (featuring what may be their most famous song, the hit song "Dream Police") and All Shook Up. Unfortunately, All Shook Up marked the beginning of a slow decline in popularity for the band, peaking only at #24 on the Billboard album chart. The album's first single, "Stop This Game," only peaked at #48 on the singles chart. Cheap Trick would not see anything approaching the success of the years of At Budokan and Dream Police until the release of Lap of Luxury in 1988. Regardless, the band has remained together all these years and still has a fiercely loyal following. Long ago they established their place in rock history, influencing bands from Enuff Z'Nuff to The New Pornographers to OK Go. If they are sometimes called the greatest power pop band in the world, it may well be because they deserve it.

Of course, before Cheap Trick hit the Billboard top forty with "I Want You to Want Me," Dwight Twilley had already done so with the single "I'm on Fire" four years earlier. The Dwight Twilley Band had formed in 1967 when Twilley was only 16 years old. Eventually the band would be signed to Shelter Records in 1975. That same year they released their first single, "I'm On Fire." In an era when the charts were largely dominated by disco and AOR bands, "I'm On Fire" rose to #16 on the Billboard singles chart. The band's first album, Sincerely, followed in 1976. Unfortunately, the Dwight Twilley Band was unable to build on the success of "I'm On Fire." Shelter Records was experiencing problems in distribution at the time and eventually collapsed completely. The Dwight Twilley Band would release another album, Twilley Don't Mind, in 1977, which only peaked at #70 on the Billboard albums chart. The Dwight Twilley Band dissolved in the wake of the album's failure. As to Dwight Twilley himself, he would see chart success again in 1984 with his solo album Jungle and the hit single "Girls." Although he has seen little success on the charts since then, Twilley has maintained a cult following and continues to release albums to this day.

Even as the Dwight Twilley Band and Cheap Trick were touring and later recording albums, other power pop bands were being formed. The Midwest seemed to be particularly ripe for the growth of power pop bands. Remaining relatively conservative when it comes to music, power pop had never quite gone out of style in the central part of the United States. And, as might be expected, Chicago was one of the epicentres for the power pop boom of the late seventies and early Eighties. Formed in 1974 in Zion, Illinois, Shoes would never see the chart success of Cheap Trick, but became a cult band that has lasted to the present day. They even founded their own recording studio, Short Order Recorder, where Local H and Material Issue recorded some of their earliest material. Influenced by The Raspberries and Badfinger, Pezband was a local favourite in the late Seventies. Their self titled debut album, released in 1977, received high marks from critics. Unfortunately, Pezband had signed with Passport Records, a small label that could not promote the band as they should be promoted. Failing to make a significant dent in the charts, Pezband released their last album in 1979, just as the power pop boom was reaching its peak. Just as Badfinger had been groomed as the heirs apparent to The Beatles, so too it would seem Off Broadway usa was being groomed as the heirs apparent to Cheap Trick. In fact, they were managed by Cheap Trick's manager, Ken Adamany. Off Broadway usa was hardly a Cheap Trick knockoff, however as they possessed their very own style. Their debut, On!, released in 1979, even met with some success. Sadly, its follow up Fun, Fun, Fun, did not do nearly as well and Atlantic dropped the band. To this day, however, Off Broadway usa maintains a cult following and there are those who believe they were the best Chicago band of the era besides Cheap Trick.

Of course, Chicago was not the only place producing power pop artists in the mid to late Seventies. Nick Lowe was born in Walton-on-Thames in England and started his recording career all the way back in 1966. Playing with the band Brinsley Schwarz for much of his early career, Lowe eventually joined Dave Edmunds and formed a new incarnation of Rockpile in 1976. Lowe and Edmunds being on different labels prevented the band from releasing an official album until 1980's Seconds of Pleasure. That having been said, Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe's solo albums of the era should probably be regarded as Rockpile albums given the band played on them. While Dave Edmund's albums tended more towards rockabilly, Nick Lowe's albums tended more towards power pop. Nick Lowe's solo albums did respectfully well in the late Seventies and he would even produce a hit in the form of the song "Cruel to be Kind," now regarded as a classic of the era.

The Boston band The Cars should perhaps not be considered a power pop band, but they would have a lasting effect on the subgenre. From their self titled debut in 1978 (reaching #18 on the Billboard albums chart) to their 1987 album Door to Door, The Cars were one of the most successful bands in America in the Eighties. They would have a lasting impact on power pop, influencing such bands as Fountains of Wayne (whose hit single "Stacey's Mom" was a tribute to the band) and The New Pornographers.

Just as the power pop boom was getting under way in the United States, a mod revival was developing in the United Kingdom. Began by the release of the motion picture Quadrophenia (based on The Who's concept album of the same name), the mod revival saw the return of mod fashions and culture to Britain. Strangely enough, many of the bands to emerge from the mod revival did not emulate the mod bands of the Sixties, such as Small Faces and The Who. That having been said, there were a few who did. In fact, the band which brought the mod revival to music, The Jam, is identifiably power pop. Heavily influenced by bands such as The Who and The Move, The Jam dominated the British charts from the late Seventies into the early Eighties. Like The Jam, The Chords were another mod revival band whose music drew upon the mod bands of the Sixties. Unfortunately, they would not meet with the same success as The Jam. The Records were formed prior to the mod revival and they were not counted as a part of it, yet their songs sounded more mod than many of the bands labelled as part of the mod revival. Influenced by The Beatles, The Kinks, and Badfinger, The Records were one of the few British power pop bands of the era to see success on both sides of the Pond. Their debut album peaked at #41 on the Billboard albums chart in 1979.

While success in the United States eluded many of the mod revival bands, this was not always the case. Influenced by both the mod revival and New Wave music, The Vapours released their first album, New Clear Days, in 1980. The album produced the hit single "Turning Japanese," a top 40 hit in the United States. Sadly, they were not albe to follow up the single's success and the group broke up in 1981. While The Vapours would become a one hit wonder, the British band Squeeze would see more lasting success on both sides of the Pond. Formed prior to the mod revival, Squeeze was nonetheless counted as part of it. The band saw success in Britain starting with their very first single, "Take Me, I'm Yours," released in 1978. While they would not see the same success in the United States, they did develop a cult following here and had a hit in the form of the song "Tempted," now considered an Eighties classic. Squeeze would also have one of the longest careers of any of the British bands of the period. In various incarnations they have continued to exist to this day.

While many of the power pop bands of the late Seventies and early Eighties emerged from Chicago and Britain, Los Angeles would also produce their share of power pop groups. The Nerves toured with The Ramones and released only one self titled EP in 1976. That having been said, they would leave a lasting legacy in the form of the song "Hanging on the Telephone," remade by Blondie among others. From the ashes of The Nerves would rise two other power pop bands, The Beat (called The Paul Collins Beat in Europe) and The Plimsouls. The Beat would see little chart success, but lasted in some form until nearly the Nineties. The Plimsouls would not have the long career that The Beat would, forming in 1978 and breaking up around 1983, but they would have some success on the charts with the song "A Million Miles Away (featured on the Valley Girl soundtrack). Other California power pop bands of the period included The Cretones, The dBs, and Red Kross.

While success escaped the grasp of many of the California power pop bands, this was not the case for one formed by Doug Fieger in the late Seventies. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Fieger was not new to the music business. In the early Seventies Fieger had been part of the country rock band Sky. Sky opened for acts ranging from Traffic to The Who. When Sky broke up, Fieger remained in Los Angeles where he formed The Knack in 1978. Heavily influenced by Buddy Holly, Phil Spector, The Beatles, and especially The Kinks, The Knack was firmly cast in the power pop mould--their name was even taken from Richard Lester's classic film portrayal of Swinging London, The Knack …and How to Get It. Late in 1978 the band found themselves courted by no less than thirteen different recording companies. In the end they signed with Capitol Records.

Recorded in only eleven days, The Knack's first album, Get The Knack, proved to be the smash hit of 1979. Get the Knack took only 13 days to be certified gold. It went platinum in a little less than seven weeks. Much of this was based on the strength of the album's first single, "My Sharona." Released on June 18, 1979, "My Sharona" hit #1 on the Billboard singles chart the week of August 25. In the end it was the best selling single of 1979. It has gone on to become one of the quintessential power pop songs. The success of The Knack brought with it a backlash from critics, who attacked everything from the misogyny in their songs (apparently missing the misogyny in many of The Rollings Stones' from the Sixties onwards) to the songs themselves (claiming they were derivative of The Beatles, although The Knack honestly owed more to The Kinks than any other British Invasion band).

If the critics' attacks upon the band were not enough, The Knack failed to capitalise on the success of their first album. Their second album, ...But The Little Girls Understand, was recorded in only two weeks and released only eight months after Get the Knack. It was perhaps for this reason that ...But The Little Girls Understand did not perform nearly as well, going only to #15 on the Billboard album chart. Perhaps realising why ...But The Little Girls Understand failed, The Knack would wait a whole year before recording their third album, Round Trip. Released in 1981, Round Trip produced no hit singles and only managed to hit #93 on the Billboard albums chart. The Knack would not get another chance to repeat their previous success. They broke up only three weeks into the tour to support Round Trip. Despite the brevity of their career in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and despite a backlash from critics, The Knack continue to be regarded as one of the quintessential power pop bands. Their influence would even extend beyond power pop into other subgenres of rock.

The Knack were perhaps the most phenomenal success of the power pop boom of the late Seventies and early Eighties. While they did not come near The Knack's success, The Romantics were another power pop band whose songs hit the Billboard singles chart. Formed on Valentine's Day in 1977 (hence the name), The Romantics hailed from Detroit, Michigan. Despite coming from the same area as Mitch Ryder and MC5, The Romantics played a softer variation of power pop than either Cheap Trick or The Knack. Signed to Nemperor Records, The Romantics' self-titled debut album was released in 1980. The album managed to reach #61 on the Billboard albums chart, while their single "What I Like About You" received a good deal of FM airplay and hit #49 on the singles chart. While their second and third albums did not match the success of the first (their third album, Strictly Personal, only managed #182 on the Billboard album chart), The Romantics would have a hit on their hands with their third album, In Heat, released in 1983. The album produced the hit singles "Talking in Your Sleep" and "One in a Million" and itself went to #14 on the Billboard albums chart. Unfortunately for The Romantics, by 1986 power pop was well on its way out, pushed aside by heavy metal and other subgenres of rock. Their next album, Rhythm Romance, would not do nearly as well. By this point The Romantics had discovered that their management had been mismanaging money, and the resultant lawsuit would keep them from recording for another eight years. For The Romantics, success was short lived.

Marshall Crenshaw would not see the chart success of The Romantics, let alone The Knack, but he would make up for it with a long career. Crenshaw would draw upon the whole of rock 'n' roll history, from rockabilly to Motown to the British Invasion. Signed by Warner Brothers in 1981, he released his self titled debut album in 1982. Although it was not a hit on the charts, that album would be hailed as one of the great power pop albums and Crenshaw developed a cult following. His second album, Field Day, released in 1983, would do no better on the charts than the first album. That having been said, it is perhaps better regarded than even the first album and would also be considered a power pop classic. Although Crenshaw would never see huge success on the charts, he has maintained a cult following and continues to record to this day.

The power pop boom reached its peak in 1979 and 1980 with the success of Get the Knack by The Knack and At Budokan and Dream Police by Cheap Trick. Thereafter power pop gradually lost favour with listeners. The Knack would be unable to repeat the success they had experienced with Get the Knack. Cheap Trick's albums would perform more and more poorly on the charts. Their 1983 album, Next Position Please, would only spend a scant 11 weeks on the Billboard album charts. Worse yet, many of the power pop bands of the era would break up in the early Eighties, while at the same time the labels were signing no new power pop bands. By 1984 one could truly say that the power pop boom of the late Seventies and early Eighties was over. After several years of popularity, power pop found itself pushed aside for a return of heavy metal and dance music of the sort recorded by Madonna and Michael Jackson. While the power pop boom of the late Seventies and early Eighties had ended, power pop would not be gone for long.

Only a Memory: the Late Eighties

While the power pop boom of the late Seventies and early Eighties was finally over, this did not mean that there were no new power pop artists to emerge in the late Eighties. While not as popular as it once was, power pop did see a few new acts emerge in the later part of the decade.

Indeed, The Smithereens had formed in 1980 in Carteret, New Jersey, when the power pop boom was in full swing. Like many power pop bands, The Smithereens were heavily influenced by Buddy Holly, The Beatles, and The Who. That having been said, they were also influenced by such latter day power pop bands as Cheap Trick, utilising a heavier, guitar driven sound. The Smitheerens would release their first EP, Girls About Town, on the tiny D-Tone label in 1980. Another EP, Beauty and Sadness, would be released in 1983. Finally signed to Capitol's alternative label, Enigma Records, in 1985, their first full length album, Especially for You, was released in 1986. The album would produce the band's first hit singles, "Blood and Roses" and "Behind the Wall of Sleep." The band reached their peak with the album 11, which actually hit #41 on the Billboard album chart in 1990. The album also produced their biggest single, "A Girl Like You," which went to #38 on the Billboard singles chart. While The Smithereens would not see the success of the power pop bands of the late Seventies and early Eighties boom, they would have a long career (they are still recording to this day) and would have a lasting influence on rock music. Indeed, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana counted The Smithereens as being among his favourite bands.

Another power pop band from the late Eighties was The Pursuit of Happiness. Formed in Toronto, Ontario in 1985, The Pursuit of Happiness released their first single, "I'm an Adult Now," in 1986. The song became a hit all across Canada. Strangely enough, rather than sign to a label, The Pursuit of Happiness simply released another single, "Killed by Love," in 1988. It was that year that they were signed to Chrysalis Records. Their first album, Love Junk, was produced by none other than Todd Rundgren himself. Love Junk went platinum in Canada. While the group did not do nearly as well in the United States, they develop a cult following here. While The Pursuit of Happiness has seen membership changes since then and a switch in labels (from Chrysalis to Mercury Records to the now defunct Iron Music), the band remains together and remains one of the more popular bands in Canada.

Among the power pop bands of the late Eighties was yet another band from Chicago. Enuff Z'Nuff would not only be influenced by The Beatles, The Move, The Raspberries, and Badfinger, but the Chicago bands of the power pop boom of the late Seventies and early Eighties as well--Cheap Trick, Off Broadway usa, and Pezband. Founded in 1984 by Donnie Vie and Chip Z'nuff, Enuff Z'Nuff quickly developed a strong following in the Chicago area. Their song "Fingers on It" would be featured in the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer before they were even signed to a label. Eventually Enuff Z'Nuff would be signed to Atco Records, something which in retrospect may have been a mistake.

Even though Enuff Z'Nuff was clearly a power pop band, sounding more like Cheap Trick than any other band around, Atco Records chose to promote Enuff Z'Nuff with a glam rock image not unlike the pop metal bands Motley Crue and Poison. As a result many people who might have become fans of the group were probably driven away. Regardless, Enuff Z'Nuff's self titled debut album would sell well, producing two singles that almost hit the Billboard top 40--"New Thing" and "Fly High, Michelle." Their second album, Strength, released in 1991 was stronger than their first. Strength received high marks from critics and Rolling Stone even went so far as to name them "Hot New Band of the Year." For the album Enuff Z'Nuff did away with the glam image that had been foisted upon them. Despite raves from critics and a good deal of promotion, Strength did not do as well as the first album. It may well have been the case that the glam image had hurt them enough that no amount of good reviews and promotion would help them. To make matters worse, Enuff Z'Nuff would fall victim to mismanagement, Eventually the band would have to leave Atco Records and file for bankruptcy.

Despite this setback, Enuff Z'Nuff would recover. Despite changes in membership (including the death of drummer Vikki Foxx) and shifting from label to label, the band remains together to this day and continues to record. Although they would never have the success that their first album brought them, Enuff Z'Nuff continues to garner good marks from critics and maintains a cult following to this day.

Matthew Sweet was another power pop artist to emerge in the late Eighties. Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Sweet had even played with Michael Stipe of REM by the time he was signed to Columbia Records in 1985. His first album, Inside (released in 1986), garnered very good reviews, but sold poorly. Dropped by Columbia, Sweet moved to A&M Records and it was on that label that he released his second album, Earth in 1989. That album also failed. A&M released Matthew Sweet from his contract. Signing with Zoo Entertainment, Matthew Sweet would finally have success with his third album, Girlfriend, released in 1991. The title song proved to be his first hit single, followed by minor hits from the album in the form of "I'll Be Waiting" and "Divine Intervention." Although not as successful as Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet's following albums (Altered Beast and 100% Fun) would also do well. Although not as popular as he once was, Matthew Sweet still continues to record to this day.

The late Eighties were a rather barren period for power pop. Considered somewhat passé by many and overshadowed by other subgenres at the time, power pop was not particularly popular during the period. Indeed, this could be much of the reason that Atco decided to market Enuff Z'Nuff as a glam metal band, despite the fact that Enuff Z'Nuff sounded more like Cheap Trick than LA Guns. It was also probably the reason that success would come late for Matthew Sweet. When Sweet's first album was released in 1986, power pop was at the lowest point of its popularity that had been for some years. By 1991, however, power pop was set for a comeback. In fact, the early Nineties would see more power pop bands than even the late Seventies and early Eighties had.


Squirrel said...

the entire album New Clear Days was good (I liked it a lot anyway) but when I tried to find it on Cdit didn't exist--it was sort of a greatest hits deal instead.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Right now I think New Clear Days is available in the States only through import. )-: