I’m listening to Eric Carmen singing ” All by Myself”. Eric is the lead singer in the Raspberries, a band associated with the Powerpop genre. So what exactly is Powerpop? Pete Townsend coined the phrase to explain the Who’s(and the Small Faces and the Beach Boys) sound, but I wonder what he really meant? I suppose “All by Myself” is a power ballad, with it’s bombastic instrumentation and arrangement, coupled with the sweetest of vocals and melody, not to mention the Beatlesque orchestration. It could be “Overnight Sensation” part two, if you squint hard enough! And the re-formed Raspberries have indeed covered “All by myself”.
Powerpop is usually guitar orientated, with lots of harmony vocals and killer riffs, but what actually constitutes Powerpop?
There’s certainly always a 60’s Pop element in it, and the Beatles influence is usually present, and sometimes a classic Powerpop song will sound like an unreleased Beatles song. For instance, “Yes it’s true” by the Flamin’ Groovies, or “No presents for me” by Pandemonium. In a lot of Powerpop the guitars tend to be raunchy and distorted, the “Power” bit that Mr Townsend talked about. I think that Powerpop is a magic mixture of guitar sounds, vocal harmonies and the all important melodic song, with the appropriate choppy nuances. For instance, the Iveys “Tube Train”, which essentially sounds like an unreleased Who song circa “Sell Out” era. It’s a very aggressive sounding track, clashing distorted Who-esque guitars and drums, with a sweet vocal line. So I think that’s another clue, a kicking guitar track, with an almost too sweet vocal and hook, a distinct contrast between backing track and vocal, one angry, one sweet, emotionally opposite in a lot of instances. The Who’s influence can be heard on a good deal of Powerpop. And I think that their album “Sell Out” is a bench mark.
Another bench mark, and a major favourite of mine since 1976 when I borrowed “Radio City” from my mate Matthew West, is Big Star. And I think their influence on modern Powerpop can’t be overstated. Again, sweet melodies, Byrdsian harmonies, fabulous, melancholic songs, the wet, reverbed drums, in fact pretty much everything is drenched in reverb. Above all, Alex Chilton’s never replicated, metallic, jangling, crystalline, out-of-phase guitar sound, as unique a sound as Townsend’s or Mcguinn’s.
Also, the Chris Bell solo album, “I am the Cosmos” is exceptional. Chris was the founder member of Big Star, and the main writer, and co-writer with Alex Chilton, on their first album, No. 1 Record. Again, the Beatle influence is there, and especially on the title track, which was mixed at Air studios, and engineered by Geoff Emerick, a long time Beatles associate and engineer. If you love Big Star, you really need to listen to “Cosmos”, though I suppose the title track is the most indispensable on the album. “Cosmos” wasn’t available for years, until the good folk at Ryko put it out in 1992. Though I was lucky enough to get a copy of the single on the Car label, around ’79 I believe. I read a review by Bryan Price, which said apparently Chris Stamey(from the Db’s) put Car records together.
“Cosmos” has the melancholic vibe of “Back of a car” or “What’s goin’ ahn” (from “Radio City, both co-written with Chilton, prior to Bell’s departure from the band), with a wall of Chilton-esque guitars, some sounding Leslied, an effect well loved by Abbey Road era Beatles. A Leslie is a revolving speaker cabinet, and the earliest ones were utilised in Hammond organs. The sound is a phased, whooshing effect, and has become a standard Powerpop sound, from Badfinger to the Move, to Cheap Trick and the Flamin’ Groovies. “Cosmos” also has the classic Big Star reverbed drums and almost distant, lower register bass guitar. Apparently Chilton did have limited input on the album,and his backing vocals on “You and Your Sister” (the b-side of the “Cosmos” single) are simply beautiful.
Another major influence on Powerpop has to be the Byrds. Certainly their gorgeous three part harmonies have been emulated many times. The Groovies, the Raspberries, Big Star, and the Posies, have all used the Byrds style harmonies as standard, as have many others. Also Roger Mcguinn’s twelve string Rickenbacker jangle, a la “Mr Tambourine Man” is another Powerpop benchmark. Roger said he’d started playing the Ricky as a direct result of seeing George Harrison playing one in “A Hard Day’s Night”. Roger started out as a folk musician, (as did Gene Clark and David Crosby) and this influence, along with the Beatles and other British invasion bands, led to the Byrds being tagged “Folk Rock”. But everyone who wanted to play guitar oriented Powerpop wanted a 12 string Rickenbacker. Eric Carmen once said that his ultimate aim was to get on stage with Wally Bryson(who of course joined the Raspberries), from The Choir, another fab Cleveland Powerpop band, and play “Tambourine Man” on their 12 string Rickenbackers!!! Its massively full sound and harmonics are a common thread in Powerpop, and here we go back to Mr Townsend with “I Can’t Explain”. It’s like a Rock’n’Roll evolution, a passing of the Rickenbacker baton, from the Who, to the Beatles, to the Byrds,on to the Searchers (though John Mcnally initially used a Burns double six, an English built electric 12 string) to the Choir, then Powder, on to the Raspberries, the Flamin’ Groovies to the Plimsouls, and onto the Smithereens and early REM.
The Smithereens certainly deserve a major plug, because I think that after the flurry of excellent Powerpop in the 70’s, they were the first guitar band to drag it back into the mainstream in the 80’s. They had all the credentials, the Beatle-esque songs, the 6 and 12 string Rickenbackers, the three part harmonies, the tight, agressive Who-like backing, the pop riffs and the sweet melodies. I saw them several times in the USA. At Summers on the Beach, in Fort Lauderdale, in the summer of 1988, they lifted the roof with a killer encore of the Who’s “The Seeker”. They also did “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, not sure why……
And post Smithereens a band that first caught my attention in Sweden in 1993 were the Posies. Their first album “Frosting on the beater” contained all the vital ingredients, with my favourite tracks coming over like a Big Star homage. Fab Chilton-esque guitars, layered, Big Star/Byrds harmonies. And of course their two key members, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow were an essential part of the modern version of Big Star, and on “In Space” proved themselves not only a worthy foil for Alex Chilton, but songwriters of similar calibre. Also, and it’s not unusual for the genre, they have quite a Psyche edge to their sound, backward guitars, phasing etc.
As you may have read in my article about the Ramones, I adore and consider the Flamin’ Groovies top notch Powerpop. This year Cyril reunited with original Groovies vocalist Roy Loney, and played la Beat Bespoke in London at Easter. Of course us hardcore fans would be happier to see the Chris Wilson fronted Groovies reform. Chris joined the band(rather drunkenly apparently!)for several songs in the encore at Easter. And on Chris’ website, he’s talking about him and Cyril(and George Alexander, the Groovies original bass player)re uniting soon. Oh, I hope so!
Perhaps not a familiar name to many Powerpop fans are Powder. I bought a comp of theirs called Biff Bang Powder, probably 3 years ago, put together by a man I consider to have immaculate taste, Alec Paulo ( who played bass in Magic Christian, Cyril Jordan’s last Powerpop excursion), on Distortion records. Though the band went through numerous incarnations, (and also a stint as Sonny and Cher’s backing band) it’s the first few tracks on the cd, the early demos from 1967, are essential to any avid Powerpop fan. They sound like more unreleased gems from the Who’s “Sell Out”. Fabulous songs, sweeter than sweet vocals and harmonies, sledgehammer bass, drums, and what sounds like a Stratocaster running through a Marshall or Sun amp. Slashing guitar, contrasted with melodic quiet picking, very Pete Townsend. And totally unmissable.
I have to give a mention to another mega fave of mine, the Pursuit of Happiness. Think I must have heard them on college radio in the US, in 1989 initially. They are from Canada, again pretty songs and harmonies, with really brutal, sometimes almost heavy metal guitars. And their original line up, and the one that most frequently unites, featured a female lead guitarist and backing vocalist (Kris Abbot and Lesley Stanwyck). They’re the intelligent end of Powepop, but still rock hard, check “Love Junk” as a primer. Beautiful psyche edged, melancholic pop.
Well, I’m not sure any of my meanderings have helped to define the Powerpop genre. Perhaps I’ve succeeded in defining some of it’s nuances? As a further guide, I’d like to list, in no particular order, ten of my favourite Powerpop gems: Enjoy, and as the man called Cyril once said to me, ROCK OUT!!
Just a Smile – Pilot (Great tune, great 12 string guitar sound)
Do I love you– the Powder (Orgasmic Who-like thrash, brilliant vocals and harmonies, quiet/tender then loud/rocking)
Couldn’t I just tell you – Todd Rundgren (Why didn’t you do more like this, Dude?
World of you – Aerovons (great powered up fabs)
Top of the Pops – the Smithereens (Kick ass rawk, great vox and tune)
Tube train – the Ivys (More kicking Sell Out-isms, essential)
Promises– Jumbo (English soft rock, a great tune, fab layered jangling guitars, tres obscure)
Don’t change your mind – The Choir (great 12 string Ricky courtesy of Wally Bryson, covered by the Accidents along with “I’d rather you leave me”, hip kids or what???)
Looking for girls – The Pursuit of happiness (Kick ass rockin’ Powerpop)
Big brown eyes – the db’s (Fabulous, sunny Big Star jangle)
“Ya right Tel?”