The Origins Of Power Pop by Ric Menck
What is power pop? You’ll be forgiven for not coming up with an easy answer. Lately I’ve seen everyone from Green Day to the Backstreet Boys referred to as power pop, which signifies the definition has obviously changed and expanded over the years, but what is it really?
Pete Townshend appears to be the first person ever to utter the words “power pop” in attempt to describe the sound of his group, the Who, and their song “Pictures Of Lily”, which was released in 1967. If his description is to be taken literally, power pop is to be played by a rock & roll group containing at least one electric guitar, a bass guitar, and drums. These instruments should be performed with maximum intensity so as to sound like they’re literally exploding from the speakers of a hi-fi system. Guitar amplifiers should be loud to the point of distortion, yet clean enough so the guitarist can jangle and chime. Drums should propel the momentum of the performance, driving it with splashy cymbals and pounding tom-toms. Power pop songs must contain an irresistible melody that is instantly memorable, and power pop lyrics usually deal with teenage concerns, specifically, matters of the heart. This is the music Townshend was describing when he coined the term “power pop”, and therefore, this should probably constitute the ultimate definition of power pop music.
Greg Shaw certainly thought so. Shaw appears to be the first creditable rock & roll journalist to align himself with power pop music, and the first to treat it with complete sincerity and respect. In March 1978 he published a special power pop edition of his legendary fanzine, Bomp, in which he wrote a thorough essay describing and expanding upon Townshend’s original concept of power pop music. Along with this essay Shaw included a list of what he considered to be the defining power pop groups, including 60’s bands like the Kinks, the Easybeats, the Creation, and of course, the Who.
As it happens, all of these groups were produced by an American ex-pat living in London called Shel Talmy, but there were others like Small Faces and the Move who created incredible power pop records independent of Talmy’s guidance. In the first installment of the Origins Of Power Pop let us briefly explore the music of these bands, as well as handful of American bands that were also early practitioners of the power pop sound.
“You Really Got Me” by the Kinks is probably the first true power pop classic. The term “power pop” hadn’t actually been invented when it was recorded in 1964, but the song and the sound of the recording established the criteria by which all authentic power pop music would ultimately be judged.
The Kinks began life playing supercharged versions of R&B standards in London clubs until Shel Talmy got ahold of them. They had already released several singles of pleasant beat group pop, but Talmy upped the ante on “You Really Got Me”. Credit guitarist Dave Davies for coming up with the song’s gargantuan guitar riff, and also for stabbing a sewing needle into the cone of his amplifier to create a distorted, overdriven effect. For teenagers it must have felt totally exhilarating hearing “You Really Got Me” for the first time. There was simply no precedent for it. The Kinks churned out other riff heavy rockers like “All Day And All Of The Night”, “I Need You”, and “‘Til The End Of The Day”, and the group’s principal songwriter, Ray Davies, also began crafting stunning power pop ballads like “Stop You Sobbing”, “Tired Of Waiting For You” and “Set Me Free”. While these songs weren’t as blistering sonically, the softer side of the Kinks still packed a heavy emotional wallop. By the end of 1965 the group began to move away from the simplicity of power pop in favor of multi-dimensional studio creations. Ray Davies was keen to explore a wider range of lyrical subject matter, and the group wanted to employ more instrumental variation on their recordings. In other words, the Kinks began to mature, although they would never totally abandon their proclivity for rocking power pop numbers completely. A stroll through their extensive back catalog reveals some stunning late inning power pop classics.
The Who is probably the archetypal power pop group. From 1965 to 1968 they released a series of records that literally define the sound of power pop music. Starting with “I Can’t Explain”, their early singles exploded from transistor radios like little sonic time bombs, and Shel Talmy is at least partially responsible for helping to shape the band’s early sound in the studio. Before joining forces with Talmy, the Who performed raucous covers of R&B songs for amphetamine-fueled teenage modernists, but Talmy, who had recently scored big with “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks, realized they would have to come up something original if they hoped to reach a wider audience. For his part, guitarist Pete Townshend seemed to intuitively understand how to write perfect three-minute pop ditties, and when he presented the group with a song called “I Can’t Explain”, Talmy knew all he had to do was harness the Who’s explosive energy in the studio and they would have a hit on their hands. The song did ultimately reach the upper echelon of the British charts, and from there the Who were off and running. “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”, “My Generation”, “The Kids Are Alright”, “A Legal Matter”, “Substitute”, “I’m A Boy”, “Happy Jack”, “Pictures Of Lily”, “I Can See For Miles”, and “Call Me Lightning” followed, and all are beautifully crafted power pop symphonies aimed directly at the heart of a teenage audience grappling with the awkward realities of adolescence. Onstage the Who were one of the first groups to play through banks of amplifiers at excessive volume, and maniac drummer Keith Moon always seemed like he might spontaneously combust. When Townshend began smashing guitars at the end of each live performance their early auto-destruct power pop dictum was complete. After 1968 the band would continue to make brilliant rock & roll music, but their focus turned away from three minute pop songs toward more complex album oriented concepts.
The most brutal of the early British power pop groups was the Creation. This isn’t to say there wasn’t some finesse involved in their music, but in fact, most of it was explosive and over the top. For many purists the Creation is probably the greatest power pop band of them all, and perhaps this is because they are also the underdogs. As great as their music sounds, they never did managed to achieve the universal acclaim of the Who and the Kinks. They were certainly a presence in Great Britain, and they also achieved a degree of notoriety in places like Germany and Sweden, but they never made any impact in the United States, except with clued-in critics and rock & roll heads obsessed with the most obscure anglophile sounds. Success notwithstanding, nearly every song the Creation ever recorded is a stunning example of power pop perfection. Like the Who and the Kinks, the Creation also started out playing rhythm & blues, but when producer Shel Talmy got his hands on the group he turned them into an unruly power pop beast. Their first two singles, “Making Time” and “Painter Man”, are stunning pop blasts featuring slashing guitars and thundering drums. History proves these are also some of the earliest examples of an emerging British “hard rock” sound that would eventually crystalize with the Jeff Beck Group, featuring a young Ronnie Wood, who was actually in the Creation for a brief period, and later of course, Led Zeppelin. Beyond their records, a huge part of the Creation’s appeal was their live act, which featured the band splashing buckets of paint across huge white canvases, and guitarist Eddie Phillips scrapping a violin bow across his guitar to produce otherworldly effects (a trick Jimmy Page would eventually adopt as part of his own stage act). Listening to the Creation now it’s difficult to understand how they never became hugely popular, and in fact, when filmmaker Wes Anderson featured “Making Time” in the movie Rushmore a younger generation of music lovers finally did embrace the band’s high-octane power pop music.
Great Britain was certainly not the only area of the world to produce early examples of power pop music. In fact, one of the greatest of all the early power pop groups was the Easybeats, from Australia, who were so popular down under their success rivaled that of the Beatles. In actuality, all five members of the group were born to families who migrated to Australia from different parts of Europe, but the Easybeats will forever be remembered as Australia’s favorite sons.
In terms of style, they seemed to hit the perfect middle ground between raunchiness and commercial accessibility, and the string of singles they released throughout the middle to late 60’s contains some of the finest beat group music produced by any band in the world at that time. Unfortunately, prior to October 1966 none of the Easybeats records made much of an impact outside of their home territory. This would change when the band upped stakes and moved to Great Britain in attempt to finally obtain international fame and fortune. Once established in the UK they hooked up with Shel Talmy, who didn’t have to do much to help them achieve commercial success.
If ever a band was primed for stardom in 1966 it was the Easybeats. They had the look, the songs, and an incredible stage act centered on hyperactive singer Stevie Wright. All Talmy had to do was help them select the proper song and turn the tape machine on. Of the band’s new material, “Friday On My Mind” caught his attention immediately, and sure enough, when released as a single it began an immediate assault on the charts in Australia, Great Britain, and most importantly, America. An album called Good Friday was released in the UK in the spring of 1967 (retitled Friday On My Mind in America), and with it came the international stardom the Easybeats craved.
In retrospect, Good Friday might just be the first truly perfect power pop album. Whereas the Who and the Kinks loaded their earliest long players with covers of the R&B songs that were popular with their concert audiences, the Easybeats chose instead to feature mainly original material on Good Friday, which isn’t to say they didn’t include a few covers as well. The album opens with a stunning version of “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner, which is quite an auspicious song to present in a beat group context, and the only real misstep is a cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog”, which pales in comparison to the group’s original compositions. And by this point they were churning out one killer song after another. Guitarists George Young and Harry Vanda were responsible for writing the band’s original material, and the quality of songs they were writing in 1966 rivaled that of Jagger & Richards and Lennon & McCartney. “She’s So Fine”, “Women (You Make Me Feel Alright)”, “Come And See Her”, “Sorry”, “Saturday Night”, “Heaven & Hell” and “Good Times”. Each one is a brilliant slab of power pop gold, and I’m barely scratching the surface. Despite the success of “Friday On My Mind”, American music fans probably weren’t as familiar with the Easybeats as they should have been, but that began to change when writers like Greg Shaw started hyping the band and their albums were finally reissued.
Every group I’ve discussed so far has been produced by Shel Talmy, so you’d think he cornered the market on the British power pop sounds in the 60’s, but in fact, there were other groups working independently of Talmy that created groundbreaking power pop music as well.
The Move were certainly one of the best British groups of the golden era, and their records laid the groundwork for power pop artists that would become popular in subsequent decades (Cheap Trick, Matthew Sweet, etc.). Roy Wood was the group’s dominant musical personality, and he was also their principal songwriter. Throughout the Move’s lifespan Wood created sounds that were both commercial and cutting edge. In Great Britain they had one hit after another, but their records barely made a dent on the charts in America. It was only after the success of Electric Light Orchestra, which was actually an offshoot of the Move formed by Wood and band mate Jeff Lynne, that the Move began receiving much attention in the United States, and even then it was mostly from critics and hardcore music freaks. Now to be clear, not everything they recorded can be categorized as power pop, but some of their greatest Move songs feature thundering bass runs, pounding drums, and slashing guitar lines. “I Can Hear The Grass Grow, “Cherry Blossom Clinic”, “Fire Brigade”, “Wild Tiger Women”, “Omnibus”, “Hello Susie”, “Brontosaurus”, “Ella James”, “Down On The Bay” and “Do Ya”, are all certifiable power pop classics, and the visceral impact of these songs has not diminished one iota over the ensuing years. Wood would go on to create plenty of incredible solo material, as well as stellar recordings with his subsequent band, Wizzard, but never again would he achieve the power pop glory he accomplished with the Move.
Just as The Who were initially popular with a movement of sharp dressed British teenagers known as “mods”, so was Small Faces, a group of young R&B fanatics who quickly became one of the most popular groups in Great Britain thanks to their undeniable charisma and extraordinary live performances. Steve Marriott was the group’s lead singer and guitarist, and despite being diminutive in stature he could belt out an R&B tune with the best of them. Like the Kinks, it took Small Faces awhile to find their commercial footing.
Their initial single releases were inspired, but seemed to lack undeniable hit potential. It wasn’t until “Sha La La La Lee” that the band started breaking in a big way, and with the song “All Or Nothing” they recorded their first certifiable power pop classic. Initially the band was signed to Decca Records, who promoted them to a young and mostly female audience, but the group quickly grew tired of the screaming girls and longed for more artistic freedom. It was Andrew Loog Oldham, the former manager of the Rolling Stones, who finally came to their rescue. Oldham was starting a new record label called Immediate, and he promised Small Faces all the artistic freedom they could possibly desire. The result was a series of singles and several albums that are regarded by many as the group’s finest artistic achievements. “Here Come The Nice” was their first release on Immediate, followed by “Itchycoo Park”, and with these two records the group took a gigantic artistic leap forward.
On Decca they recorded roughhewn R&B tinged power pop that served as an accurate representation of their live performances. On Immediate they were allowed time to explore the limitless possibilities of the recording studio. As a result they started making music that had more depth and dimensions, which isn’t to say they abandoned raucous sounding material altogether. “Talk To You”, “Green Circles”, “Tin Soldier”, “Rollin’ Over”, “Afterglow Of Your Love” and “Wham Bam Thank You Mam” are stunning examples of power pop from the Immediate period, and this material would ultimately prove extremely influential to American bands like the Nazz and the Raspberries.
And speaking of America, yes, there were a few early practitioners of power pop in the United States, most notably a band from Philadelphia called the Nazz, who during their brief tenure released three albums that are loaded with power pop gems, including the song “Open My Eyes”, which was a minor hit in 1968. Astute followers of pop music are undoubtedly aware this is the group in which Todd Rundgren got his start.
Over in Cleveland a band called the Choir were performing songs by the Who and the Byrds at their concerts, and in 1966 they released a seminal power pop single called “It’s Cold Outside”, which established them as one of the hippest “mod” bands on the American scene. Members of the Choir would eventually join forces with a singer called Eric Carmen from another great early Cleveland power pop group called Cyrus Erie, and together as the Raspberries they would become one of the most influential power pop bands of all time.
Out in San Francisco a combo calling themselves Powder were also doing their best to recreate the sounds they heard coming from across the pond in Great Britain, and although they never put out any records during their existence, a posthumous album called Biff Bang Powder is a testament to the fact that they were one of America’s earliest and best power pop groups.
In the next installment of The Origins Of Power Pop we shall move into the 70’s, at which point power pop music really starts coming into it’s own, especially in the United States.
All of these are greatest hits collections, but they contain most, if not all, of the essential power pop recordings by each of the bands mentioned.
- The Kinks – Greatest Hits
- The Who – Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy
- The Creation – Action Painting
- The Easybeats – Absolute Anthology
- Small Faces – Greatest Hits (Immediate)
- The Move – Magnetic Waves Of Sound