This piece was commissioned by John M. Borack and S.W. Lauden for Big Stir magazine # 6, a special edition asking that musical question, IS THIS POWER POP? The magazine is still available and highly recommended, and I was damned proud to participate. Here’s my contribution to the discussion.
Pop With POWER!
By Carl Cafarelli
“After all, power pop means pop with POWER! Not some whimpering simp in a Beatles haircut.”
–Gary Sperrazza!, Bomp! magazine
It was a straightforward sequence of events. I broke up with a girl just before my 18th birthday. Just after my 18th birthday, I saw my first power pop band.
That band was the Flashcubes, soon to be called Syracuse’s own power pop powerhouse, and quickly perched alongside the Beatles and the Ramones in the trinity of my all-time Fave Raves. When I saw them in January of 1978, few (if any) were calling them “power pop,” a phrase which was just beginning to work its way into the lexicon. The Flashcubes were a punk band. A punk band that covered the Kinks, the Who, the Searchers, the Hollies, and the Yardbirds, sure, but still a punk band.
And they were absolutely power pop. Loud, proud, and hook-laden. Pop with power.
Many deny any relationship between punk and power pop. Yeah, punk’s angry clatter is certainly a breed apart from Badfinger. But within punk’s first wave, groups like the Ramones, Generation X, Eddie and the Hot Rods, the Buzzcocks, and the Jam were applying battered hearts to tattered sleeves, running AM radio influences through a primal DIY aesthetic. Some pop fans require jangle and harmonies as power pop prequisites, and dismiss, say, “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” for its lack of either. But man, it ain’t power pop if it doesn’t have power.
My idea of power pop came from writers Greg Shaw and Gary Sperrazza!, via the power pop issue of Bomp! Magazine in 1978. The phrase predates them; “power pop” was coined by Pete Townshend in 1966, describing what the Who were playing, what the Small Faces were playing, what the Beach Boys had played prior to getting all sober and mature with Pet Sounds. Shaw and Sperrazza! saw the sound of the early Who as the Ur-Example of power pop. Bomp! put forth a simple power pop equation: the punk energy of the Sex Pistols plus the catchy pop of Shaun Cassidy equals the power pop of the Who.
(And, whether we start power pop’s shot clock with the Beatles [my choice] or with the Who [Bomp!‘s pick], it’s clear that the style existed in the ’60s. I reject the notion that it was created in the ’70s as an attempt to recapture the excitement of the British Invasion. The latter view reduces power pop to mere revival, no more vital than freakin’ Sha Na Na. Power pop is not a revival. Revivals are well-behaved. Power pop explodes.)
Bomp!‘s power pop issue also extolled the unassailable cred of the Ramones as power pop touchstones. The Ramones wed the promise of AM radio with the 1-2-3-4! ferocity of velocity, pure pop for punk people. When I was corresponding with Shaw in the ’90s, he still maintained that no discussion of power pop could have any meaning if it didn’t include “Rockaway Beach.”
The discussion has continued, long after Shaw and Sperrazza! have departed. As power pop fans, we are passionate and confident in our individual, often contrasting points of view. That’s okay. We’re friends here. Friends can disagree and remain friends. (Except for the guy who called me a ninny for regarding the Ramones as power pop. That guy can take a hike.) Squeeze and Marshall Crenshaw don’t fit within my idea of power pop; I love ’em just the same. You don’t agree that the Ramones are power pop? I won’t let my conviction that you’re wrong prevent you from buying me a beer. Cheers!
My own POV can shift over time. But I have a pretty good idea of how I define power pop, and it goes back to that Bomp! equation: Punk + Pop = Power Pop. Still, there are shades and subtleties to consider. And how many power pop acts are really 100% power pop all of the time? Raspberries did the country-flavored “Last Dance.” Big Star did “The India Song.” The Ramones did “Warthog.” The Who did…well, the Who did a lot of stuff, didn’t they? On the other hand, Styx is certainly not a power pop band, no way, no how…except with “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye,” which is as power pop as anything ever. Musician Marty Ross recently suggested that power pop is an approach rather than a genre. Bomp! said otherwise, but I think Marty’s right on this count. Hey, this means we can have it all!
Do the definitions matter? Yes. And no. Yeah, we should have recognized parameters, common ground to understand what the hell we’re going on about when discussing power pop favorites (or ska favorites, rockabilly favorites, et al.). Power pop’s just a label, a tool to help identify sounds that may appeal to us. Recommended If You Like Cheap Trick. Or, as AM radio told me when it turned me on to Badfinger, “These guys sound like the Beatles.”
My favorite music had a name. I didn’t know that name until I was in college.
“Power pop’” is a misunderstood genre, and there will never be a true consensus on its meaning and parameters. It’s my favorite music. It’s not my only favorite music–I adore so many sounds that fall outside my strict definition of power pop, even many that fall outside a broader, nebulous approximation–but it’s my primary boppin’ raison d’être. My awareness of power pop, my understanding of its meaning, began in 1978 with an incredible magazine called Bomp!
I wrote the above a few years back, introducing a reminiscence about how important Bomp! was to me, particularly in developing my understanding of power pop. Bomp! is still my go-to reference in that regard. Greg Shaw’s equation still holds. Gary Sperrazza!’s statement still rings true: “Power pop means pop with POWER!”
Pop with power. Whimpering simps need not apply. No matter what kind of haircut they have.
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.
I’m on Twitter @CafarelliCarl