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My Top Ten Power Pop Acts

Jari Mäkeläinen asked me to contribute a sidebar piece to be used in Manifesti, a fanzine published in Finland. The challenge posed to sidebar contributors: name your all-time top ten power pop acts.

In the words of Micky Dolenz: okay, I will.

MY TOP TEN POWER POP ACTS

by Carl Cafarelli

For me, the challenge of naming my all-time top ten power pop acts is in deciding what parameters of power pop I wanna play within. While many view power pop as strictly a post-Beatles phenomenon, I agree with the view expressed by writers Greg Shaw and Gary Sperrazza! in Bomp! magazine’s epic 1978 power pop issue: power pop began in the ’60s. Greg ‘n’ Gary traced power pop back to the early Who, while I go a little bit further back to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” in 1963. I’ve begun to entertain the notion that power pop predates even that; I don’t think the music of Buddy Hollythe Beach Boys, or the Everly Brothers is quite power pop, but it’s difficult to dismiss the power pop gravitas of some of Eddie Cochran‘s singles, especially “Somethin’ Else” and “Nervous Breakdown.”

But I wouldn’t list the Beatles or the Kinks among my all-time Fave Rave power pop acts, if only because so much of their work falls outside my idea of power pop. The Who were 100 % power pop until Tommy, and really not power pop after that. 

So my power pop Top Ten doesn’t go back to the ’60s. By default, and for different reasons, I wind up agreeing with those who won’t move power pop’s Ground Zero to any date before John, Paul, George, and Ringo settled on separate and individual long and winding roads. I’ve also come to accept the idea that power pop isn’t so much a genre as it an approach, which means relatively few acts are strictly power pop all of the time. With all that said, this list offers ten dynamic rock ‘n’ roll combos I’m comfortable referring to as power pop acts.

THE WHO

Yeah, I was lying. Upon further review, you can’t talk about power pop without talking about the early Who, “I Can’t Explain” through The Who Sell Out. It’s not just because Pete Townshend coined the phrase; it’s because he and his band embodied it. Everything the Who did before Tommy is at least peripheral to power pop, and much of it is the power pop Gospel.

THE FLASHCUBES

Power pop on the radio, where it belongs. The horny singles–“Go All The Way,” “I Wanna Be With You,” “Tonight,” and “Ecstasy”–plus the dreamy “Let’s Pretend” (also covered by the Bay City Rollers) and album track “Play On” combine for a compact summary of the Raspberries’ power pop c.v.

THE RAMONES

A consistently controversial choice for a power pop list, but I side with the Bomp! writers who considered the Ramones an essential part of the power pop story. The first four albums tell the tale: RamonesLeave HomeRocket To Russia, and Road To Ruin, with a little extra oomph provided by the irresistible in-concert document It’s Alive!

BADFINGER

This gets back to the idea that some (many, most) power pop bands aren’t power pop all of the time. Badfinger certainly wasn’t, but then I’ve also gotta get back to that idea of power pop on the radio, where it belongs. “Baby Blue” may be my all-time # 1 favorite track by anybody.

THE ROMANTICS

On the other hand, the Romantics are generally power pop regardless of their intent. It’s their DNA. They tried to make a hard rock album, Strictly Personal, but it came out as hard-rockin’ power pop, and I mean that as a compliment. If you do just one Romantics album, you’ve gotta go with the eponymous debut, which includes “What I Like About You” and “When I Look In Your Eyes.” Their early indie singles are likewise essential, especially “Little White Lies”/”I Can’t Tell You Anything.”

THE GO-GO’S

I continuously waffle on the question of whether or not the Go-Go’s can be considered a power pop act. Their debut album Beauty And The Beat comes close at the very least, and its power remains undiminished forty years on. It’s not just that album’s great singles “We Got The Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed,” but also album tracks like “Can’t Stop The World” and “This Town” that make the case on behalf of the Go-Go’s. Add in subsequent tracks from “Vacation” to “Head Over Heels” to “The Whole World Lost Its Head” to “La La Land,” and it’s difficult to deny the truth that this is pop with power.

THE NERVES

Cheating, but I don’t care. The Nerves’ eponymous 1976 EP inspired Blondie with “Hanging On The Telephone” (written by the Nerves’ Jack Lee), but Lee’s fellow Nerves Paul Collins and Peter Case went on to have significant and prevailing impact on power pop with their post-Nerves work in Paul Collins’ Beat and the Plimsouls, respectively.

BIG STAR

Big Star’s story also sprawls, spills, and bleeds beyond power pop territory, and I’m sympathetic to those who claim the group’s records didn’t have the pure power one would expect from power pop. Nonetheless: “Back Of A Car” delivers, and “September Gurls” transcends our silly little labels to assume the description a rock journalist bestowed upon it decades ago: “Innocent, but deadly.” First two albums, # 1 Record and Radio CityThird, however, is most definitely not power pop.

THE SPONGETONES

North Carolina’s phenomenal pop combo the Spongetones have always taken their love of rock and pop and Beatles and British Invasion and channeled it into something unerringly Fab. You know that can’t be bad.

With a limit of ten acts in this exercise, I can’t go on to tell you about the RubinoosPezbandHolly and the Italiansthe Flamin’ Grooviesthe RecordsShoesthe BuzzcocksGeneration XDirty Looksthe Shivversthe ScruffsSorrowsArtful DodgerBlue Ashthe Knack, and dozens more, then and now. Good thing that, in real life, we’re not limited to just ten favorite power pop acts, right? Play on.

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This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HIT (B-Side Appreciation): Babysitter

THE RAMONES: “Babysitter”
Sire, 1978; A-SIDE: “Do You Wanna Dance”

It may be a tiny bit disingenuous to refer to a B-side by The Ramones as being “the other side of the hit.” The Ramoneswere a pop band, but they were a pop band without any hit records. They never broke into the Top 40, nor did they receive much airplay to speak of. The Ramones somehow pummeled their way into the lower half of Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart with three consecutive singles in 1977 and ’78. “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” made it to # 81. “Rockaway Beach” was the relative breakout, peaking at # 66. “Do You Wanna Dance” was The Ramones’ third and final shot at the top of the pops, and its shot stalled at # 86. The Ramones would never again darken the singles chart with their uncouth presence. Somewhere, Casey Kasem breathed a sigh of relief. And up one from last week, swapping spots with Swedish supergroup ABBA, we have those Forest Hills punk rockers The Ramones with “Teenage Lobotomy.”

Nonetheless: They were all hits to me.

My road to The Ramones wasn’t exactly circuitous, but nor was it necessarily as direct as one might expect. I read about The Ramones in magazines, primarily in the tabloid Phonograph Record Magazine. I had never heard them–as noted, they weren’t quite tearin’ up the airwaves on AM or FM in Syracuse in 1977–but I was intrigued by what I read. Frankly, they scared me, but they didn’t scare me enough to kill my growing sense of curiosity about this elusive, unheard…noise. Noise, perhaps, but potentially transcendent noise. I ached to hear its secret sound.

If you’re a younger music fan in this fantastic world of the 21st century, the very idea of any kind of music, or any conceivable sort of pop commodity, being elusive or unheard is as alien and archaic as stone tablets or immobile, wired entertainment. In the fall of ’77, I heard my first Ramones record–“Blitzkrieg Bop”–by requesting RAMONES!!!! at my college campus radio station. I bought the “Sheena” 45 before I’d even heard the damned thing, and my transformation into a fully-invested Ramones fan was complete. It might not have been as convenient as YouTube or Spotify, but I got there.

By the spring of ’78, I’d added the “Rockaway Beach” single and the Ramones LP to my vinyl library, and I saw a live Ramones show over Easter break. In Bomp! magazine, writers Greg Shaw and Gary Sperrazza! had waxed rhapsodic about The Ramones as a power pop band, listing “Sheena” and “Rockaway Beach” among the all-time great power pop tracks. Shaw was further knocked out by a ballad–a ballad!–called “Here Today Gone Tomorrow” on the Rocket To Russia album, and The Ramones’ then-unreleased cover of The Searchers‘ “Needles And Pins.” I heard “Here Today Gone Tomorrow” played live, pined to hear da brudders warble about needles and pins-za, and reveled in the giddy euphoria of falling in love with a pop band.

None of which really prepared me for “Babysitter.”

As a cash-strapped college lad, I preferred to buy Rocket To Russia on the installment plan, one 45 at a time. Looking back, I’m not 100 % certain whether I purchased the “Do You Wanna Dance” single before or after my introduction to live Ramones. The A-side was just ace, probably my favorite cover track ever, streamlining and energizing the familiar pop classic while remaining essentially faithful to previous templates by Bobby Freeman and The Beach BoysThis is the one, I thought. This is the one that’s gonna get The Ramones on the radio. THIS is the hit!
The B-sides of the “Sheena” and “Rockaway Beach” singles had been Rocket To Russia album tracks (“I Don’t Care” and “Locket Love” respectively). This third single from the album had a non-LP track, “Babysitter.” It was a ballad, The Ramones’ second ballad as far as I was aware. It freakin’ blew me away.

I guess Greg Shaw’s mention of The Ramones covering “Needles And Pins” should have prepped me for “Babysitter.” It did not. When I heard the song for the first time, I wrote My GAWD, The Searchers live on! “Babysitter”certainly shares beaucoup DNA with “Needles And Pins,” its folk-rock riff drawn from the same gene pool that gave us The Byrds and The Beau Brummels, albeit messier, grungier, more exuberant. The scowling countenances of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy notwithstanding, “Babysitter”‘s tale of late-night kissin’ and canoodlin’ with a babysittin’ chickfriend is inherently more upbeat than The Searchers’ lover’s lament. It’s a more leisurely-paced companion to The Ramones’ earlier “Oh Oh I Love Her So,” a joyous and straight-faced celebration of over-the-top, hormonal teen romance. It signifies The Ramones fully embracing a presumed identity as an unabashed, unashamed pop act, America’s rockin’ response to The Bay City Rollers.

If ever a post-1960s record deserved to be a double A-side chart and radio smash, “Do You Wanna Dance”/”Babysitter” would qualify to join the hallowed ranks of “I Get Around”/”Don’t Worry Baby,” “I’m A Believer”/”(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” and a short stack o’ Beatles 45s. I could not believe it when that pop dream failed to materialize. Stupid real world.

Joey Ramone, Bowzer, and Marky Ramone mugging on TV’s Sha Na Na. Sometimes the stupid real world gets a few little things right here and there.

Throughout the rest of the ’70s and all through the ’80s, I never gave up hope that The Ramones would break big, that they’d start selling records in the gaudily massive quantity I felt was their just due. It was important to me. I wanted the world at large to appreciate The Ramones like I appreciated The Ramones; I wanted them to appear on Solid Gold and Entertainment Tonight, to make a delightful blockbuster sequel to their sole film Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, to be household names, to be respected and idolized. I wanted to hear The Ramones on the goddamned radio. They had to die before that would happen. Stupid, stupid real world.

It should have been different. If nothing else, The Ramones should have scored big with an incredible cover of “Do You Wanna Dance,” a distillation of pure bliss that deserved to rule radio and the planet by divine right. Its B-side was an irresistible confection called “Babysitter:” the other side of the hit that never was.

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Our new compilation CD This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 4 is now available from Kool Kat Musik! 29 tracks of irresistible rockin’ pop, starring Pop Co-OpRay PaulCirce Link & Christian NesmithVegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie FlowersThe SlapbacksP. HuxIrene PeñaMichael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave MerrittThe RubinoosStepford KnivesThe Grip WeedsPopdudesRonnie DarkThe Flashcubes,Chris von SneidernThe Bottle Kids1.4.5.The SmithereensPaul Collins’ BeatThe Hit SquadThe RulersThe Legal MattersMaura & the Bright LightsLisa Mychols, and Mr. Encrypto & the Cyphers. You gotta have it, so order it here.

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THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE: I Only Want To Be With You

Here’s another chapter from my eventual book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1)An infinite number of rockin’ pop records can be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!

DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: I Only Want To Be With You

Written by Mike Hawker and Ivor Raymonde

Produced by Johnny Franz

Single, Philips Records [U.K.] single, 1963


There is a persistent temptation (and corresponding peril) in attempting to apply contemporary context to past events. It’s revisionist history, a sparkly thing that’s difficult to resist, even as we just chat about the pop songs that enrich our lives. Please forgive me for the premeditated sin I’m about to commit. Because as I look back, I can’t help but wonder what singing a song called “I Only Want To Be With You” may have meant to a closeted bisexual woman named Dusty Springfield.
It’s plausible to counter that she didn’t even think about the connection between the lyrics of her first big hit record and the love she had to hide away. We look back on the ’60s as a time of cultural revolution, an expansion of civil rights, social conscience, a slow dawning of recognition of the disenfranchised at society’s margins. Gay rights weren’t really seen as part of that at the time. Maybe it started to change, incrementally, with the Stonewall riots in 1969, which served as the flashpoint for the gay rights movement as the ’70s beckoned. But in 1963? The closet. The closet was where one stayed if one was gay in ’63.

British singer Dusty Springfield (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien) was a member of a folk trio called The Springfields. Presaging The Ramones, the members of The Springfields (which included Dusty’s brother Tom) took the group’s name as a surname; combining this with a nickname she’d gained as a soccer-loving tomboy in her youth, Mary O’Brien became Dusty Springfield. Dusty left The Springfields in 1963, and began her solo career with a single: “I Only Want To Be With You.”I don’t know what it is that makes me love you soI only know I never want to let you go’Cause you started somethingCan’t you see?That ever since we met you’ve had a hold on meIt happens to be trueI only want to be with you
A decade later, writer Greg Shaw would note that Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You” explodes with as much pure pop noise as any Dave Clark Five record. The horns propel, the strings soar, the girl-group spirit celebrates, the music leans forward the way a rockin’ pop song outta. Miss Dusty Springfield presides over all of it, dancing by herself at the microphone, singing sweetly of her love, her happiness, her contented fulfillment in the arms of her chosen one. Her only wish, only ambition, is to be with the object of her desire. It can–we hope–really be as simple as that.

Falling in love is an experience. In our pop music, we prefer it to be a giddy, blissful experience, free of the heartache and doubt that may often threaten us in our real-world affairs. Pop songs do recognize that love’s path may lead through temptation, betrayal, misery, to tests of faith and failures in spite of good initial intent, a path that might reach redemption or fall prey to the hazards that cause us to crash, broken and beaten, before we get to that magic place we so wanted to claim as home. Pop songs can reflect the complications and compromises we may face day to day, every day.
But both pop music and love itself can offer the promise of something sweeter to believe in. Joni Mitchell described the love’s illusions she recalled as The dizzy dancing way you feelNeil Diamond (via Micky Dolenz) saw a face that made him a believer. The Temptations had sunshine on a cloudy day, and so many others have used music to express sacred hopes for new love. Wouldn’t it be nice to be together? I’ve just seen a face, I can’t forget the time or place. No matter what you are, I will always be with you. Hey hey, you you, I wanna be your boyfriend.
Nothing has ever embodied that hope and celebration with greater authority than Dusty Springfield and “I Only Want To Be With You.” The song is love, new love, everlasting love. It radiates with the sheer delight of falling in love. Even listening to it again now, you still believe Dusty as she sings about the only thing she really wants.

Some may regard “I Only Want To Be With You” as a relatively minor part of Dusty Springfield’s career. It was her first single and her first hit (# 4 in the UK, # 12 in the States), but “Wishin’ And Hopin'” and “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” were bigger hits in America. “Son Of A Preacher Man” didn’t match the chart performance of any of those, but it’s likely considered the definitive Dusty single, from the definitive Dusty LP Dusty In MemphisThe Bay City Rollers‘ 1976 cover of “I Only Want To Be With You” precisely matched the UK and US chart peaks of Dusty’s original version, and some will speak on behalf of another subsequent cover by The Tourists (with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, who remained together as Eurythmics). I’m fond of the Rollers and Tourists records, too; however, neither of ’em is The Greatest Record Ever Made.
No. Today that honor belongs to a former tomboy named Mary, who remade herself with glamour and taste into a pop icon called Dusty. We don’t know who, if anyone, she had in mind as she sang “I Only Want To Be With You.” Dusty’s life was not as happy as the infectious exuberance of her song. She did not remain closeted, though she bristled at being labeled gay, claiming that she liked sex with men and women equally. But she drank too much. She suffered from emotional problems. She hurt herself. She was (unofficially) married briefly, to a woman, in a relationship marred by physical conflict and injuries. Cancer took her in 1999, a mere two weeks before she was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
We honor Dusty Springfield by remembering the wonder of her music: the pain of her heartbreak songs, the soul of her performances, the visceral thrill of her artistry. Most of all, I remember the transcendent joy of “I Only Want To Be With You,” a triumphant dedication of love and devotion to the only one with whom she wished to be. Whomever that happened to be.

“I Only Want To Be With You” written by Mike Hawker and Ivor Raymonde, Unichappell Music, Inc.
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