Putting Power Pop in Perspective, Part III

(Editor's Note: This is the final part of a three-part series on power pop. To read the series from the beginning, please go here.)

by Rick Rockwell

If ever there was a musical form that engenders argument, it is power pop.

Often bands that belong to the genre get tagged with other musical categorizations, sometimes to their detriment. Some bands that merely play pop add in one bristling guitar line and their fans want them considered as a crossover power pop act, which not only gives them greater credibility with some of music’s cognisenti but likely wider airplay on FM radio. And then there are musical acts that borrow from power pop and find themselves categorized that way.

Take Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers for example. Back in the 1970s, Petty & the Heartbreakers were wrongly tagged as a new wave act. That kept songs like “Breakdown” off of some radio stations, which stubbornly resisted new wave and punk. It took the band’s platinum breakthrough Damn the Torpedoes in 1979 for the group to shake the new wave tag. Oddly, today, revisionists explain Petty & the Heartbreakers as power pop. Of course, any Petty fan knows that’s not accurate either. (This may be the result of Petty cutting several popular tracks with Dwight Twilley, truly a power pop pioneer and a labelmate of Petty’s on Shelter Records in the 1970s.) Petty’s sound can best be explained as one part Dylan, one part Southern rock, one part power pop (mainly The Byrds influences), add a dash of Springsteen, shake liberally, serve on your favorite stereo set at maximum, and the result is something unique.

The Go-Go’s and The Bangles, breakthrough bands for women, suffered some of the same fate: tagged as new wave, but really power pop acts. Although both were popular, radio formats being what they are, they might have enjoyed wider exposure if properly categorized, because power pop is a sound that is friendly to both Top 40 radio (or whatever that has evolved into these days) and FM rock.

Notable power pop acts from the 1970s and 1980s made this crossover possible. The Sweet in 1974 (Desolation Boulevard is the best example) was like a rich chocolate confection packed with a surprise guitar bite in the center. The irrepressible beat of The Knack’s “My Sharona” in 1979 made that group not only a one hit wonder, but also another example of a power pop guilty pleasure. The Smithereens’ “Girl Like You” in 1989 is yet another example. (And following the example of other power pop bands before them in honoring one of the fonts of this genre, The Smithereens released a tribute album to The Beatles in late 2007.)

Other bands that carried the power pop banner, like San Francisco’s Jellyfish in 1990, went the route of Big Star: little radio airplay but remembered by fans of the genre for adding new layers to the sugary cake that makes up this subcategory of rock.

Power pop also influenced the new wave, which was rippling across music culture at about the same time. The Romantics, Blondie, Squeeze, The Vapors, XTC, and others were all influenced by power pop. Even grunge bands, such as the Stone Temple Pilots (Shangri-LA DEE DA from 2001, especially the song “Days of the Week”) dabbled with power pop and brought power pop acts, such as Cheap Trick, out on tour as supporting acts.

The legacy of power pop is like the genre itself, highly debatable. Groups such as Fountains of Wayne and Weezer prove this type of sound remains vital. Others such as Fall Out Boy sometimes show power pop can be just like its pop roots, fairly transparent and flimsy.

Although past its prime, power pop endures, and like some of the best aspects of rock, that’s to be admired.

(To read this series from the beginning, please go here. To read the previous part in this series, please go here.)

(The promotional photo of Rivers Cuomo of Weezer is from MCA/Geffen Records. To see Weezer's video for the band's new single "Pork and Beans" please check below.)

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Anonymous said...

I find this writer beyond hilarious, considering it appears he is spending a lifetime attempting to pigeon hole - ad nauseam - all kinds of acts - obviously quite diverse - into trite categories such as "power pop","new wave", "punk" etc etc. I also find his tone quite condescending (particularly regarding the DC5). One can easily enjoy a wide variety of style, complexity, and simplicity, without having to make attacks on the merits of one vs the other, as long as they are truly enjoyed. To argue what acts should, or should not be pegged under such contrived terms, seems to entirely compete with simply forming one's own opinions, likes and dislikes.....

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