Scene Spotlight: Power-Pop

In the context of music, the word “pop” is short for “popular”, and is often used to encompass both anything that actually achieved widespread success, or seems like it could or should have. In this post, we’ll focus on a guitar-based variant.

“Pop”, as an adjective applied to guitar-based music, usually also implies a more melodious composition, with fewer sharp edges or dark corners, and a generally bright or optimistic sound. While it can be, and often is, deceptively-complex in its design and execution, pop music has to sound effortless and go down easy; if the listener is made too uncomfortable by the lyrics or music, if it’s not “catchy” – it might not be pop, but something else.

To drag out a hoary old cliché just once more: while both were “popular” bands, it is the (generally) sunnier and more melodically-complex sounds that descend from bands such as The Beatles that to me still signal “pop”; while it is the (arguably) simpler, more rhythm-focused and darker sounds of bands that take more after the Stones that move the needle towards what I think of as “rock”.

(And of course, those bands, and many others such as The Who and The Kinks, crossed back and forth freely).

The grandaddies of melodic guitar-based pop are the “Big B’s”: the aforementioned Beatles, and their American contemporaries in The Beach Boys and The Byrds, amongst many, many others.

From these patriarchs came descendants like Badfinger and Big Star and Cheap Trick (dang, broke the “B” streak) and The Raspberries.

And from these, a whole constellation of bands that were forever chasing the ideal three minutes of electric melody and harmony came. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson famously described his album Smile as a “teenage symphony to God”; this is what these descendants sought to make with each cut.

These descendants are often tagged with the term “power pop”; the prefix of “power” denotes the fact that there should be some crunch in the guitars, just a little bite of jangling abrasion and volume and distortion to keep the melody and harmonies from swamping the composition and rendering the song unpalatably sweet. It needs some some rhythmic drive forward; the guitars and drums need to “pop” in the onomatopoetic sense.

This is music for finding (or losing) your first love; for cruising past the Stop ‘n’ Shop with the radio on. And while it is on the surface upbeat, it’s also painfully aware of its own ephemeral nature. There is often a shade of sadness in it; of the implicit knowledge that just as soon as a perfect moment is experienced, it’s also gone forever.

Power pop is littered with innumerable same-sounding records and one-hit wonders; but amongst the dross, countless gems may be found by the patient seeker.

The subject of the track at the top of the post, “Starry Eyes” by The Records, is a little unusual for power pop; rather than the usual lyrical fare of cars, love (usually unrequited), and rock and roll, it’s a tirade about record company shenanigans.

Luckily, all that sweet melody makes the bitter go down easy.

This is a a formalist, classicist genre, obsessively focused on the single; there is no real drive for innovation or reinvention or change, just a respect for craft and a desire to recreate that instant when they (and maybe you) fell in love with music. A recording made 35 years ago, and one made yesterday, will probably sound much the same. But hybrids and cross-pollinations are legion, blurring the lines between power pop and punk rock, r&b, garage rock, psych rock, and plain old pop and/or rock.

“Shake Some Action” is by San Francisco’s Flamin’ Groovies, who often straddled those lines. That exhilarated and seemingly-spontaneous “whoooo!” interjected at 2:15 thrills me every time.

Flamin’ Groovies – Shake Some Action

This one you might know, from its more famous cover version:

The Nerves – Hanging On The Telephone

As the Nerves/Blondie connection shows, power pop bleeds into much punk and new wave. Featuring the greatest-named-singer-ever in the quavering-voiced Feargal Sharkey, this was John Peel’s favorite song. Nothing with handclaps is truly punk, is it?:

The Undertones – Teenage Kicks

The Only Ones – Another Girl, Another Planet

A good power-pop single may naggingly sound like you’ve always known it; like its melody was plucked out of the eternal aether or collective unconscious; like it’s just been waiting for someone to finally sing it.

The Greenberry Woods’ “Trampoline” music video is a fully ’90s affair.

But the song’s hints of darkness and melancholy, contrasted with the joyously weightless chorus, sum up the genre’s timeless appeal. It’s complete escapist teen fantasy; yet for 3 perfectly happy/sad minutes, while guitars ring like sky-blue bells, that fantasy can be the only thing that desperately matters:

Now we’re young, but we’ll get old, say that’s alright
‘Cos it’s a life
Yeah, it’s a life
We can be, what we want, when we try
Well, that’s a lie
But so am I

Greenberry Woods – Trampoline

Material Issue – Diane

Plimsouls – A Million Miles Away

And of course, some ur-texts. When it comes to American bands that turned out to have lasting influence infinitely larger than their record sales at the time would ever have predicted, Big Star’s legacy is right up there with The Stooges and The Velvets:

Big Star – September Gurls

In this next track from Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, the way lead singer Alex Chilton sarcastically spits out the word “prob-a-bull” can be read as bitterness at his own formative experiences as the youthful singer of The Box Tops, or the failure of Big Star to make any commercial waves in the band’s lifetime; or as prescience, since music like his would prove through the years to be often synonymous with “also ran” and “almost was”:

Big Star – Thank You Friends

Feel free to hold forth in comments about: pop music; your perfect three-minute melody; why it is that a “happy” music like power pop has so many notable suicides; or anything else that strikes your fancy.