Genre of the Week: Power Pop


Usually it's a term that means that the music is merely great and possible to cover across generations. A lot of pop music aspires to it, the best stuff usually ends up there by accident.

But then there's music that's actually without a time - whose characteristic sound doesn't limit it or pin it to any one musical period. I guess country music fits but within the rock'n'roll idiom you'd be hard pressed to find something quite as universal as power pop.

Not only does it sound pretty much the same in 1971 and 1991, but in neither age does it feel conciously retro. There was never a power pop revival movement. (A few revitalisation movements, sure, but not a major gap followed by a historically accurate revival.) Nor does it feel outdated at either time, in fact I don't doubt a lot of people would identify the Teenage Fanclub sound as being typical early nineties just as The Raspberries are typical early seventies!

Of course, you could (trivially) say that the combination of sweet vocal harmonies and jangly Rickenbacker guitars (as borrowed off The Byrds) with the empty "power chords" (of The Who or The Small Faces) is a fairly natural one with the combination of sweetness and bite. But that doesn't explain why the sense of melody and chord progression suggested by those bands (and some Beatles songs) also survived in the power pop world for over twenty years, only being majorly influenced by other music some time in the mid nineties. Today, "power pop" sounds significantly different in many ways - mainly due to the influence of the closely related genre of pop punk, itself once clearly influenced by power pop.

But for most of it's history it's been almost too consistent. Starting out in the hands of The Raspberries and Badfinger in the early seventies as a kid of counterreaction to the heavier rock sounds and insipid pop of the time, it was quickly supplanted by the similarly hard-sweet glam in the UK and became a very clearly US-centered phenomenon. Then while those two originator bands were imploding in insipid commerciality and drug-fuelled suicide respectively, a series of awkward, off-the-map squares appeared to take on the reins.

In Memphis, Tennesee, gawky former child star Alex Chilton and his band Big Star created perfect little pop symphonies to practically no audience. In Berkeley, California, a bunch of bands on the tiny Beserkley label (including the increasingly weird Jonathan Richman,
the well-haired Rubinoos and the puntastic Greg Kihn) barely charted despite some of the sweetest pop ever created. Virginia foursome Brat became Artful Dodger and struggled in vain on a bad major deal and folded below a non-comprehending audience. A group called Cheap Trick consisting of a fat man with a moustache, a silly-hatted guitarist, a fair-haired girly man and a ludicruous 18-string bassist didn't chart anywhere but in Japan.

But then suddenly the genre, still sounding pretty much the same, broke through commercially. With the advent of New Wave, it was suddenly hip to be square. Cheap Trick was probably first (with live classic "At Budokan"), but The Knack's My Sharona was probably the biggest hit. If you feel that's a touch too New Wave, listen to one of their other songs:

That coupled with other hits by great groups like the dB's, Nick Lowe, The Records, The Romantics etc. created what's seemingly one of the greatest period combining good music with commercial viability in history. Strangely, this period barely had time to die through overproduction before it got a new shot in the arm through bands like the aforementioned Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, Material Issue and the Posies, and that carried it into the nineties. Still not really cool, but this time helped by a new sweet-and-hard genre, indie rock...

It's so interesting to see how the genre has always had a fruitful relationship with other softish, sensitive lower-middle-class white male genres, influencing and being influenced by glam, new wave, indie and pop punk in turn. Power pop has always run through as a universal streak and now it's turning up again in bands like The New Pornographers and Babyshambles. Perhaps the answer as to why the sound stays the same is that it's actually truly timeless, buried deep down in the collective conciousness and always sounding fresh because it's always the sound of the young, awkward, slightly feminine boy whose image is deeply ingrained in our minds.

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