Sunday, May 20, 2012

45 Years Ago Power Pop Received Its Name

It was in an interview in the 20 May 1967 issue of The New Music Express that Pete Townshend gave the subgenre of rock known as "power pop" its name. In describing the sort of music The Who then played, Pete Townshend said, "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." Today very few people would consider The Beach Boys to be power pop at any point during their career, although they certainly had an impact on the genre. That having been said, both The Who and Small Faces in their early days characterise the genre perfectly.

As to exactly what constitutes power pop, that can vary according to which side of the Pond one is on. In the United States and Canada power pop can be defined as an electric 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 published on the web site Pop Mattters on 28 August 2007, “You just know it when you hear it."

Here it must be pointed out that while this definition holds true for Canada and the United States, the term "power pop" has been used much more loosely in the United Kingdom. Artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, XTC, and the American band Blondie have been called “power pop” in the British press. A perfect example of this is an article published in the 26 August 2010 issue of The Times in which Blondie’s song “Dreaming” is described as "power pop." The looseness with which the term power pop is still used in the British press was also characteristic of the American press in the late Seventies and early Eighties. As late as 1980, The Boston Globe described Blondie as a power pop group in its 25 December issue. While the British would continue this freer usage of the term power pop to this day, however, in the United States the term would come to be used only groups that, well, sounded like The Beatles, or The Who, or The Kinks, or any of the early British Invasion bands.

Regardless of precisely which bands can be considered power pop, the term would take some time before it caught on. Despite the fact that Pete Townshend coined the term "power pop" in 1967, it would not be until 1975, when the term "power pop" was used of the music of The Raspberries, that it would be used with any frequency. Even then, it would not be until 1977 that the term "power pop" would enter common usage.  Indeed, it can be argued that it became one of the buzz words of 1978. That year it even appeared in Time, , in its June 26, 1978 issue, in an article on Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, and Rockpile.

Of course, while Pete Townshend coined the term "power pop" in 1967 and the term would not come into common usage until 1978, the genre had already existed for some time when the 20 May 1967 issue of New Music Express was published. There will probably always be arguments as to what was the first power pop song, but if one determines that power pop is music that sounds like the early Beatles, then it follows that The Beatles essentially invented power pop. If this is the case, then the first power pop song would be a Beatles song. The Beatles' first single, "Love Me Do," relied rather heavily on harmonica as its primary instrument, so it would not seem to be a power pop song. This is not the case with their second single, "Please Please Me," in which electric guitar is the primary instrument. We can then say that power pop came into existence on 26 November 1962, the day "Please Please Me" was recorded. It was released on 11 January 1963 making it the first power pop single.  Of course, this also means that in my humble opinion power pop will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year.

To celebrate the anniversary of Pete Townshend giving power pop its name, here are three songs. The first is the primordial power pop song, "Please Please Me" by The Beatles. The second is one of the most influential singles in the genre, "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks. The third is a song by the man who named the genre, "I Can't Explain" by The Who.

1 comment:

Jim Marquis said...

I love power pop, especially the Raspberries and Big Star.