While it is very easy to dismiss this sub-genre of music, the fact remains that power pop (even at its most commercially manipulated) had a longer history than many people realise, producing some terrific bands and absolutely classic music.
The musical source for nearly all power pop is The Beatles. Virtually all stylistic appropriations begin with them.
Distinctive harmony singing, strong melody lines, catchy guitar riffs, lyrics about boys and girls in love – they created the model that power poppers copied for the next few decades.
Which brings up a subtle but essential facet of nearly all American power pop bands – they seem vaguely British.
That is, they sing with a slight English lilt to their voices, are likely to cover songs by British bands and, as was especially the case with British mod bands, they dress up rather than down. Even the most prominent American power pop influence, the jangly folk-rock of the mid-60s Byrds, had a British tinge to it a la The Searchers and The Hollies.
American power pop’s first heyday (before it was even called power pop) was the early 70s. Few American bands encapsulated the commercial popularity and influenced cult status of early power pop better than The Raspberries and Big Star.
Both recorded great records, and while Big Star’s entire recorded output (thanks mainly to the talents of Alex Chilton) remains inarguably the best of the bunch, both bands approached their craft with a similar intent: To write smart, punchy, hook-filled songs.
By the mid-to-late 70s, power pop’s lifeline continued with fluke hits like Dwight Twilley‘s 1975 Top 20 smash I’m On Fire. Twilley, a native of Tulsa, recorded a wonderful debut record, Sincerely (with partner Phil Seymour) that along with containing the aforementioned hit, is an excellent example of ebullient, tuneful, rockabilly-tinged power pop.
Around the same time, Cheap Trick, a hard rock/pop band from Rockford, Illinois, capitalised on the strong vocals and good looks of lead singer Robin Zander and the bizarre antics and surreal narrative of guitarist Rick Nielsen, recording some of the finest pop/rock of the time.
Power pop was not solely the province of American bands who wanted to sound British. There was a British power pop “invasion” of sorts in the 70s.
Loaded with lush guitars, instantly recognisable melodies and two fine singers in Pete Ham and Joey Molland, Badfinger was the model of a great power pop band. Sadly, guitarist and songwriter Pete Ham committed suicide in 1975 effectively ending the band’s career.
By the mid-70s, English power pop was essentially the music of Glam Rock: Stiff, boot-stomping rhythms that sounded like football (soccer) chants. Glam rock cranked up the guitars while sweetening the melodies, thereby making loud bubblegum fodder perfect for radio.
With artists such as Gary Glitter, The Sweet, Slade and Suzi Quatro leading the way, glam rock produced a handful of great songs, one great band (Slade) and the obsequious marketing of negligibly talented teen idols (eg: The Bay City Rollers) that would become common practice in the early 80s power pop sweepstakes.
Power pop’s nadir was reached, ironically, during an amazingly fertile period in its history. In the wake of Cheap Trick, excellent mid-western power pop bands like Pezband and The Shoes (both from Illinois also) made great records.
On the west coast, Jack Lee, Peter Case and Paul Collins formed the punk-pop The Nerves, in Boston The Real Kids released their debut LP and in New York, Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple formed The dB’s and released two of the smartest and most ambitious power pop records ever made.
Although most people are loathe to use the term these days, power pop still exists. Alternative bands like The Posies, Elastica, Jellyfish, Urge Overkill and The Lemonheads were not too far removed from the power pop days of yesteryear. There were flashes of it in Nirvana, and even retro-punk bands like The Offspring, Foo Fighters and Green Day.
Ultimately power pop is much better than the term implies, and it seems as though it’s not willing to go away anytime soon. Which is fine, just as long as skinny ties never make a comeback . . .