Will Birch

Will Birch, writer and lyricist, drummer and songwriter with the Kursaal Flyers and
The Records, author of No Sleep Till Canvey Island - The Great Pub Rock Revolution
and Ian Dury - The Definitive Biography

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Home Taping: Power Pop

Imagine a thousand guitars schlanging away in unison, some Rickenbacker 12-string  arpeggios and a dearth of improvised soloing.  Imagine a warm understated bass line beneath a firm backbeat and chimp-friendly tambourine part.  Add vocal harmonies, an uplifting melody and some straightforward words and you may have, in short, music that draws its inspiration from the Revolver/Pet Sounds/Younger Than Yesterday lineage.

What would you call this?  Power Pop?  You might, but that would be to imply that other forms of pop lack power.  The term also conjures up images of skinny ties and boy-meets-girl naivety.  Therefore, just as sheriffs' outfits and yee-hawing DJs alienate the potential country fan, many potential listeners are turned off.  But, for the sake of expediency, Power Pop is the term resorted to for the purpose of this piece.

After the first wave in the '60s (The Beatles, The Byrds, The Who, The Move…) power pop lay dormant until a number of new (mainly American) groups appeared in the early '70s, e.g. Raspberries, Big Star, The Wackers.  Frankly, these were groups out of time and none of them enjoyed lasting commercial success.  A third wave emerged post-punk.  In America: Chris Stamey and the dBs, Pezband, 20/20, The Knack (My Sharona!) and Blondie, while in the UK, who can forget The Autographs, The Pencils, The Pleasers or The Dodgers?  Today, there are many new groups mining this rich seam, but the world steadfastly refuses to ignite.

The following tape compilation is a personal selection which I believe encapsulates the best of the Power Pop genre.  Lack of space prohibits inclusion of Stories, The Beckies, The dBs, The Plimsouls, The Smithereens, Game Theory, Red Kross, Jellyfish, Beagle, The Gin Blossoms, Adam Schmitt, Material Issue, Martin Newell, The Pribata Idaho and Chopper, while failing memory prohibits the inclusion of many others.

Modesty forbids me from including a track by The Records, but not from giving my former group a plug.  Back then we were trying to champion the music of the early power pop pioneers.  Thankfully today, names like Big Star and Badfinger drop from the mouths of young musicians, I'm sure with all sincerity, but still very few people have actually heard much of this music.  It is deserving of a bigger audience, but seems destined to forever bear the stamp: Top Secret!

John Fogerty
Almost Saturday Night
Album: John Fogerty (Asylum) 1975

What an opener!  Not typical Fogerty and quite unlike his Creedence rockers, this countryish item mixes 'good old boys' and a guitar figure reminiscent of Cliff's only (unwitting) venture into the groove, Don't Talk To Him (1963).  Fogerty's lost classic was covered by Rick Nelson, The Searchers and, at your correspondent's behest, Dave Edmunds.  This scorching track sets things up nicely.

Marshall Crenshaw
Cynical Girl (2.32)
Album: Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros) 1982

To be fair, Capital Radio gave this song much exposure.  It follows the Fogerty selection perfectly.  I remember being in a rehearsal space filled with musical equipment that was stencilled 'Marshall Crenshaw'.  This included an electrical fan, perhaps to cool their drummer.  A wag in our party cruelly remarked: "Look, Marshall Crenshaw's only fan."

The Byrds
The World Turns All Around Her (2.12)
Album: Turn Turn Turn (CBS) 1965

This song has all the ingredients of classic Byrds: a mediaeval guitar part, airy harmonies, a twisting Gene Clark melody and a brilliant middle eight; components that form the blueprint for a quarter-century of influence, imitation, and tribute.  Magnificently leads into...

Tomorrow Night (3.10)
Single (Bomp) 1978

Their best song.  Originally a 45 that bridged the gap between their DIY commercial debut, Black Vinyl Shoes, and their first major label album, Present Tense (Elektra), for which Shoes re-recorded the song, leaving its wonderfully concise guitar break intact.  As is often the case, the 45 wins out, picking up The Byrds' gauntlet with ease.

Lovin' You Ain't Easy (2.48)
Single (Pye) 1971

Canadian Michael Pagliaro saw his 1971 Power Pop classic released on Pye in the UK.  It charted!  (#31 in February 1972).  Pagliaro's John Lennon fixation is best heard on  Some Sing Some Dance ('63 Beatles meets '67 Love) from his album, Pagliaro.  Even better though, is Lovin' You Ain't Easy, a Beatles pastiche that rolls along on sustained aahs and oohs.  May I now suggest two seconds silence to fully flatter the intro to...

Baby Blue
Album: Straight Up (Apple) 1972

The Badfinger story is a tragedy waiting to be told.  Where's the book?  What other pop group can boast two suicides by hanging?  How could it have been that bad for Badfinger?  Either they were mismanaged and exploited beyond the bounds of human decency, or Pete Ham and Tommy Evans had become just a tad bitter and twisted.  Sorry guys, we're not talking genius here; merely an extraordinary melodic gift and an uncanny ability, on occasion, to weave Beatle-scale magic, as on the magnificent Baby Blue.

The Paley Brothers
Ecstasy (2.28)
Single (Sire) 1977

Andy Paley is a pop chameleon who'd moved comfortably between drums (for Jonathan Richman), keyboards (for Patti Smith), singing and co-writing (for Brian Wilson, no less) and scoring an alternative movie soundtrack (for Madonna).  In 1977, with his brother Jonathan, he formed The Paley Brothers and signed to Sire.  The art department promptly airbrushed the duo's features into Frampton-like youthful innocence, but the music remained tough and this big beat ballad captures the spirit of Spector, plus guitars.

Dwight Twilley
Looking For the Magic (3.12)
Album: Twilley Don't Mind (Shelter) 1977

How did Twilley fail?  Frequently given a leg-up by early label mate Tom Petty, Twilley possessed a sexy Southern rock'n'roll voice, above average looks and the right hand man that Paul McCartney would kill for, but it's too late - Twilley's former partner, Phil Seymour, died in August 1993.  Despite holding all the aces and enjoying an early hit with I'm On Fire, Twilley met with massive public resistance and cut-out bin infamy, save for his dedicated, almost obsessive, cult following.  Looking For The Magic is prime Twilley.

Phil Seymour
Precious To Me (2.48)
Album: Phil Seymour (Boardwalk) 1980

After leaving Twilley and turning down an offer to join Toto, Seymour went solo and scored a US and Australian hit with this gorgeous slice of pop.

Cheap Trick
I Can't Take It (3.24)
Album: Next Position Please (Epic) 1983

Back in 1978 Cheap Trick had the World at its feet.  With the LPs In Color and Heaven Tonight, the group looked unstoppable; singer Robin Zander had the voice of an angel and the face of a saint, while leader Rick Nielsen was writing classics (Downed, Surrender...) and shaking hands at a ferocious rate.  Consequently, they did rather well, but then spent several years in the wilderness until this Zander original, produced by Todd Rundgren, marked a creative return to form.

The Posies
Dream All Day (3.01)
Album: Frosting On The Beater (Geffen) 1993

It's the old Jesus and Mary Chain trick.  Write brilliant pop melodies and bury them under a million distorted guitars.  The upside: approval from boys who paint their bedrooms black.  The downside: the milkman does not whistle your tune.  The difference here is The Posies put their brilliant melodies on top of the filthy guitars.  Clever stuff.  With a contemporary sound and some of the best tunes in pop, the guys who get to be Big Star For A Day may well find a wide audience in the '90s.

Blue Oyster Cult
(Don't Fear) The Reaper (5.05)
Album: Agents of Fortune (Epic) 1976

After the heavy metal rush of BOC's first three studio LPs (dig those song titles), Agents Of Fortune was MOR by comparison.  So much did I love this record and its standout track (Don't Fear) The Reaper, that I dutifully bought every successive BOC LP, with ridiculous names like Cultosaurus Erectus and Fire Of Unknown Origin, in the vain hope that it might contain The Reaper's worthy sequel.  Don't bother looking, it's doesn't exist.

The Rubinoos
I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend (3.14)
Album: Back To The Drawing Board (Beserkley) 1979

After the other-worldliness of BOC, The Rubinoos bring welcome relief with this light slab of teen angst.

The Wackers
I Hardly Know Her Name (1.46)
Album: Hot Wacks (Elektra) 1972

The Wackers, featuring Bob Segarini and Randy Bishop, were the brave second wave's Canadian wing.  Devoid of more info, please allow me to quote from their illuminating liner notes: 'In Montreal, Wackering Heights and London, the Wacks, their ladies, and I spent The Fall of '71 pursuing a circus over the rainbow, armed only with our changes... '  Mmmm.

Bob Segarini
Gotta Have Pop (3.29)
Single/Album (Bomb) 1978

Already a veteran of the beat group wars (The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes), Bob Segarini summoned the energy in 1978 to release this self-produced mini-classic, decrying the then current pop scene.  'It's a synthesised mess,' opines Bob, and goes on, 'I loved The Beatles up to Sgt Pepper..."  Picky.

Side Two

The Searchers
When You Walk In The Room (2.18)
Single (Pye) 1964

You could say, if pushed, that The Searchers, guided by the spirit of Buddy Holly and the hand of Tony Hatch (before he became 'Mr Music'), invented the whole thing.  You could also say that this is The Searchers' greatest.  Written by song goddess Jackie de Shannon, it pre-dates Ticket To Ride and Mr Tambourine Man by some six months.

Tom Petty
Feel A Whole Lot Better (2.44)
Album: Full Moon Fever (MCA) 1989

As the Searchers' final chord fades, Tom kicks in, as they say, like John Wayne encountering a bar room brawl.  Gene Clark's monumental Byrds classic is the pinnacle of the genre, but Tom Petty's lovingly crafted facsimile sounds even greater in the context of this collection.  Produced by Jeff Lynn, whose post-ELO motto must be: keep it simple and then simplify it.

Stone Roses
She Bangs The Drums (3.35)
Single (Silvertone) 1989

At the time of writing, we eagerly await new Stone Roses material.  It is unlikely that their new songs will be in this style as they will have moved on, matured.  This cracker, together with Mersey Paradise from the same disc, shows great 'pop sensibility' and makes you wonder if the Stone Roses have ever heard our next selection…

Blue Ash
Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her?) (3.01)
Album: No More, No Less (Mercury) 1973

The Searchers on speed, as covered by The Records.  Apart from minor indiscretions such as wailing guitar and busy drumming, Blue Ash were classic power pop.  Their debut LP also includes Dusty Old Fairgrounds (an obscure Bob Dylan song) and Smash My Guitar, which is pure English whimsy in a Keith West/Syd Barrett/Village Green-era Kinks kind of way.

The La's
There She Goes (2.42)
Single (Go-Discs) 1988

Live, the 1988 La's were a hot proposition, vindicating Go!Discs' belief in the group as this, their most commercial song, was remixed and reissued relentlessly until it became a hit.  New product from the maverick talent of Lee Mavers is long overdue.

Aimee Mann
Fifty Years After The Fair (3.39)
Album: Whatever (Imago) 1993

It would be politically incorrect to include a girl for girl's sake and, apart from The Bangles, it is hard to think of many young ladies who have entered this musical arena.  A recent Mojo interview with Aimee Mann suggests an artist angry at not gaining wider commercial acceptance but it can only be a matter of time before the hits keep coming.

Bram Tchaikovsky
Girl Of My Dreams (3.48)
Single (Radar) 1978

Formerly of The Motors, victims of Virgin's 'faces not fit for public viewing' dictate, guitarist Bram (Peter Brammell) broke away and recorded Girl Of My Dreams, a hook-laden, guitar-driven US hit.  And now:

Play On (3.00)
Album: Starting Over (Capitol) 1974

If swimming against the tide were a crime, in 1972 the Raspberries were caught bang-to-rights.  Their perverse, almost wilful approach might be viewed as heroic, even if leader Eric Carmen's bouffant and satin cummerbund combination remains rock's best example of punter alienation.  How did they hope to survive?  Most of the Raspberries' early 45s (big guitar intros edited onto smooth MOR-land melodies) were a bit like The Who meets McCartney in ballad mode.  However, on their fourth and final LP, with revised line-up, they really hit their stride, despite their strides.  New boy Scott McCarl's Lennonoid vocal on Play On is a high point and almost my favourite Raspberries song.  Christ!  Scott McCarl!  Where Are You Now?

The Scruffs
My Mind (2.07)
Album: Wanna Meet The Scruffs? (Power Play) 1977

What I know about The Scruffs could be written on the back of a postage stamp, and I do mean the Bolivar State 10 cent green of 1863.

The Pop
Down On The Boulevard (2.40)
Single (Back Door Man) 1977

This cracking little item put The Pop near the top, but their glory was short-lived.  The name maybe?

Cherry Baby (3.28)
Single (Capitol) 1977

With sub-Boston guitars and veering dangerously close to the big hair and stadium-faced genre known as Pop Metal, the anthemic Cherry Baby has a place in this collection if only for its guitar intro and Hollies-style harmonies.  The B-side, Rock Six Times, is a bit of a corker as well.

Big Star
September Gurls (2.42)
Album: Radio City (Ardent) 1973

Invariably, when we meet our heroes, our feet and mouths connect.  Your correspondent's Surreal Encounter with Alex Chilton involved the kind hospitality chez Brilleaux, Sunday lunch with several bottles of The Host's Fine Claret and a Surprise Guest.  The socially relaxed conversation went something like: "well Alex, now that you've got Like Flies On Sherbert under your belt, how about a major record deal?"  Perhaps cushioned by imminent royalties from his Bangles' cover of September Gurls, our hero scratched his head, looked at the floor and mumbled a reply of the "aw shucks, I don't really know" variety.  We will never know how many major deals, if any, Alex Chilton has had to turn down to maintain his impeccable cult status but, back in 1972/3, his group Big Star made two of the greatest pop LPs of all time.  The tragedy is that sales figures suggest few people have actually had the  pleasure of hearing them, even if Big Star remains the name to drop.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Listen to Her Heart (2.58)
Album: You're Gonna Get It (Shelter) 1978

"You think you're gonna take her away, with your money and your cocaine..."   When Tom Petty and co emerged in 1977, the rock world was besotted with punk.  Petty somehow managed to gain immediate acceptance, despite extravagant hair length.  His early songs were short and snappy, and this is one of the best, with its easily-plundered Byrds-style intro.  Petty remains one of the few to bring this sound to a wider audience.

The Byrds
Lady Friend (2.27)
Single (Columbia) 1967

We are now on the home straight with David Crosby's finest moment.  Along with Eight Miles High and So You Wanna Be A Rock'n'Roll Star, this is one of The Byrds' most exciting recordings.

Flamin' Groovies
Shake Some Action (3.28)
Single (Sire) 1976

Inspired by 1966 Rolling Stones, Cyril Jordan and his 1976 fans-as-musicians outfit were really wearing their hearts on their velvet sleeves.  They had the right look, the right instruments and probably the right mains leads.  They certainly made the right sound and Shake Some Action (their own composition) is a classic of the genre and a fitting way to close this tape.

Special thanks to Stuart Batsford, Paul Bradshaw (Mod Lang), Ken Sharp (author of Overnight Sensation: The Story of The Raspberries) and Jason Oakes of Yellow Pills magazine.

Will Birch © willbirch.com
First published in Mojo, June 1994