Sound Check

Poor power pop. Few genres in rock have been more painfully misunderstood or so unjustly ignored. Over the last three decades, power pop has cemented its endearing underachiever status with an odd combination of timeless songcraft and bad timing. Locked in a perpetual search for a wider audience, this supplier of the ultimate guitar-driven sugar high is, alas, a trend that can't seem to locate its launch window, good for the stray hit single every now and then, but little else. And perhaps the cruelest irony of all is that the music, with its abundance of addictive hooks, soaring two- and three-part harmonies, streamlined song writing and rudimentary rock instrumentation, was largely conceived with radio airplay in mind.

Clearly inspired by British Invasion royalty (though honoring a couple of American bands as well), power pop's mission statement is most clearly defined by the music of England's Beatles and Badfinger and Memphis's Big Star (dubbed the great "B" troika by power pop enthusiasts), plus a few sundry others, including the Kinks, the Hollies and the Who. It was the last's outspoken leader, Pete Townshend, who is credited with coining the term "power pop," throwing it out when asked in a 1966 interview to describe the Who's relentless rhythmic, sonic and melodic union.

The genre's premise is at once simple, escapist and (to a somewhat innocent degree) hedonistic. Its songs -- which commonly address, with varying levels of irony, the interchangeable themes of unrequited love and insatiable lust -- rarely exceed three and a half minutes. Their structure is sleek and predictable, generally along the lines of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge (insert guitar solo and further lyrical reflection here), verse, chorus, repeat chorus and out. In the 26 years since proto-power popsters Eric Carmen and the Raspberries established the formula with the luminescent top ten single "Go All the Way," there's been surprisingly little messing with it. If one of these sweet, pocket-size nuggets has done its job, echoes of its payoff chorus will stay wedged in the listener's subconscious for hours -- even days -- to come.

Of course, determining exactly what is -- and what isn't -- good power pop hinges in part on personal experience and taste. For every self-respecting Knack hater, after all, there's another whose knowledge of power pop begins and ends with that much-maligned '70s outfit. So when Dave Kapp, senior domestic sales manager at Rhino Records, convened a committee of co-workers sympathetic to the genre in an effort to devise a working list of tracks for the label's three-CD Poptopia! set, rest assured there were heated debates galore. The Knack's repellently sexist "Good Girls Don't" was eventually voted on to Poptopia! with little protest, and even the Rembrandts made it -- though I can't help but hope that a few principled souls fought tooth and nail to keep that loathsome 1990's duo out of the running. As far as I'm concerned, their excruciatingly generic "I'll Be There for You" should have earned them lifetime banishment from the Poptopia! sphere. Instead, Rhino compromised by opting for another, less irritating Rembrandts offering, "Rollin' Down the Hill."

All of which means that Poptopia!, while smartly assembled, has some flaws. Two, in particular, are exclusions so glaring they almost pass by unnoticed (Beatlesque '80s powerhouses Squeeze and Crowded House). Then there's also the conspicuous absence of Material Issue, one of contemporary power pop's leading spokesbands. And what of the lack of women artists? To that, Kapp responds, "There just aren't that many good female-oriented power pop acts." Maybe so, but that doesn't excuse the omission of the ones that did exist, particularly Blondie and the Go-Go's. In fairness, though, the most glaring holes can be blamed as much on licensing restrictions as differences of opinion among the participants in Kapp's brainstorming sessions. Certain labels simply weren't willing to hand over their songs -- or at least weren't willing to hand them over for a reasonable price.

Regardless, there's still loads of fun to be had with the music that is included on Poptopia!, and the good times commence with a flourish on Power Pop Classics of the '70s. Almost from the get-go, power pop was saddled with its dark-horse stigma, the genre's AM-friendly pioneers arriving in force just as the bloated, arena-size indulgences of mega-acts such as Led Zeppelin and Yes were taking hold of the FM frequencies. Granted, there was the occasional hit (the Raspberries' "Go All the Way," Dwight Twilley's throbbing come-on "I'm on Fire"), but many of the craftiest works on Power Pop Classics of the '70s -- namely Big Star's "September Gurls," Badfinger's "Just a Chance" and "Couldn't I Just Tell You" by Todd Rundgren (whose late-'60s work with Nazz set the stage for much of the post-Beatles pop to come) -- made little, if any, chart progress in their era. Listening to them now -- all razor-sharp hooks, lush harmonies and exacting choruses -- that's hard to believe. Not that disc one is without some familiar names. In fact, contributions from the Knack, Cheap Trick (the underappreciated "Come on, Come On") and Nick Lowe (the inexhaustibly hip "Cruel to Be Kind") balance out the obscurities quite nicely. (****)

As the '70s gave way to the me decade, power pop's identity crisis was exacerbated further, thanks to the genre's catchy intentions being obscured -- and often confused with -- all things trendy and somewhat slightly New Wave. So it's no surprise that there's a certain disposability prevalent on Power Pop Classics of the '80s -- as evinced on track one, the Romantics' faceless dance-floor/radio staple, "What I Like About You." Still, for every predictable chorus (Holly and the Italians' "Tell That Girl to Shut Up") and throwaway hook (Candy's intolerably cute "What Ever Happened to Fun..."), a classic emerges to maintain an air of respectability. Among the more relevant of the latter are Marshall Crenshaw's unapologetically lovestruck "Whenever You're on My Mind," the Plimsouls' soaring, Byrds-of-a-feather anthem "A Million Miles Away," the Bangles' ebullient rendering of "Going Down to Liverpool" (written by Kimberley Rew of Katrina and the Waves fame) and steadfast college radio ditties from the Hoodoo Gurus ("I Want You Back") and the Smithereens ("Behind the Wall of Sleep"). And for sheer wide-eyed homage to power pop's leading light, it's hard to beat the Spongetones' "She Goes Out with Everybody," which sounds like it was lifted from Meet the Beatles. Ditto the La's' "There She Goes," which could pass for a single off the Fab Four's mythical post-punk reunion release -- if there was such a thing. (***)

The uniform excellence of Power Pop Classics from the '90s certainly bodes well for the genre's future. In yet another testament to power pop's rotten sense of timing, many of the groups included here peaked artistically just as grunge was establishing a grip on mainstream radio. As a result, Jellyfish, the Posies, Matthew Sweet, Redd Kross and the Greenberry Woods -- all vital links in power pop's modern evolution -- were swept under the rug by major labels eager to ride out the Seattle wave. At the same time, many power pop bands began toughening up their sound. They broke out the guitars in full force, tearing through their polished melodies with a barbed aggression befitting the times. It was quite a concept, and one that is best rendered on Poptopia! by the Posies' "Solar Sister," Sweet's "I've Been Waiting" and the sonically overblown epics from Red Kross ("Lady in the Front Row") and the Gigolo Aunts ("Cope"). Each is a breathless slab of feedback and hooks, marked by a distinct undercurrent of restraint. For the most part, the remaining tracks on Power Pop Classics of the '90s follow that bristling lead. (**** 1/2)

So where to now, power pop? At this very moment, say enthusiasts, seeds of a major power pop resurgence are being planted in places such as California and Colorado. Los Angeles is now home to the annual Poptopia! music festival, a melody-driven communion of artists and fans from all over the world, and the West Coast has also become the site of a nascent power pop scene, reflected in the small but significant cache of fresh music on Poptopia!'s '90s CD. Encouraging Southern California newcomers include the Tearaways (whose latest CD, The Ground's the Limit, is worth tracking down) and the Wondermints, whose coolly engaging "Proto-Pretty" joins the Tearaways' "Jessica Something" among disc three's surplus of highlights.

Meanwhile, in Denver, the Not Lame label has stepped up its indie campaign to blanket the country in power pop with CDs from New York's Rooks (whose "Reasons" is another Poptopia! entry) and Martin Luther Lennon (a.k.a. Tony Perkins, founder of the Poptopia! festival). Not Lame can also claim credit for the superb (though hard to find) CD compilation, The World's Greatest Power Pop Compilation ... Really!

All in all, Rhino does the so-called power pop revival proud with its Poptopia! set, despite the occasional lapse in judgment. The label does the commendable job expected of an archival giant -- and in taking a chance on several new acts, perhaps a bit more. The music is enhanced tremendously by liner-note essays from power pop's premier historians and written reflections from some of the genre's more articulate kingpins, among them Raspberries frontman Eric Carmen, Todd Rundgren, the Plimsouls' Peter Case, Jellyfish alumni Andy Sturmer and Jason Falkner and the Posies' Ken Stringfellow. Their insights lend potent historical perspective, validity and form to an often hazy phenomenon.

"I'd say a lack of schmaltz characterizes the genre -- and often a certain immaturity of subject matter," quips Rundgren in the liner notes to Poptopia!'s '70s disc. "It's avoidance of depth and avoidance of schmaltz."

Indeed, such limited aspirations are what sustain power pop and continue to ensure its durability. God bless suspended adolescence.

-- Hobart Rowland

***** Sugar Pops
**** Cheerios
*** Raisin bran
** Granola
* Shredded wheat

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Hobart Rowland