Crow-barred in somewhere between pop-rock and post-punk, you’ll have the devil’s own job trying to nail power-pop down.
Maybe it only really started with the new wave of big bang, heralded in by thos clever-dick college boys with severe side partings and too-tight jackets, The Cars? For the ‘power’ bit, do you include the Buzzcocks? Does the ‘pop’ part reach as far as Blondie? It’s all anybody’s guess. The Strokes might claim to be powerpop revivalists, but whose music are they reviving – The Knack? The Vibrators? 20/20?
Power-pop is a genre in which those at one end might have absolutely bugger all in common with those at the other. It’s the nutty, speedy little cousin to pop-rock and pop-metal, the one who shows up reluctantly at family gatherings and then stands in the corner bobbing his head to whatever’s playing on his headphones.
But, wait up, the little fella still has plenty to offer the discerning listener – especially those prepared to blur the edges of strict musical pigeon-holing in search of unfileable hidden gems. For collectors and cultists, obscurists and obsessives, power-pop is the gift that keeps on giving. And unlike most other genres it’s one that has its roots in the 70s rather than in preceding decades.
The term itself is said to have been coined by Pete Townshend in 1967 (“Power-pop is what we play”), although it wasn’t a label that stuck to The Who. Instead it was to be applied to emergent bands such as Badfinger, who began as protégés of Paul McCartney but got heavier and riffier – No Matter What, from their first album No Dice, could well be considered a genre definer.
Their 1971 album Straight Up – which could also have easily made this list – co-produced by George Harrison and Todd Rundgren, was a powerpop landmark too. Rundgren was among those who did run with the baton, accompanied by Big Star, Raspberries, the Flamin’ Groovies and Dwight Twilley.
Cheap Trick encapsulated what most think of as power-pop with their 1979 album At Budokan, and The Cars and Rick Springfield broke through around the same time. By the time Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley wrote Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve), the gates were open – new wave, punk, post-punk, college rock… they would all draw on the 70s power-pop sound.
Cheap Trick: At Budokan (1979) (opens in new tab)
Cheap Trick’s wondrous take on power-pop was one of shimmering, metal-sensible melodies and an outstanding vocalist in Robin Zander. The band had released a couple of studio albums by the time they taped this show in 1978 in Tokyo, but it was this blissful, blissed-out seminal live record that gave them their breakthrough.
And it made the venue almost as famous as it made the band. Often drowned out by the manic crowd, At Budokan perfectly caught the thrill of I Want You To Want Me, Ain’t That A Shame and Look Out, and Cheap Trick never looked back.
Big Star: No.1 Record/Radio City (1992) (opens in new tab)
Built around the partnership of guitarists/singers Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, Big Star made three albums in the 70s: 1972’s #1 Record and 1974’s Radio City, both included on this double-pack, and Third/Sister Lovers, released four years after they broke up.
Chilton is generally credited with the melancholic regret of the likes of Ballad of El Goodo, and Bell with the purer pop of September Gurls. But it’s the partnership that was key – one cut short in ’78 when Bell died in a car crash. Big Star reunited in ’93, with Chilton backed by some Posies, and released a new album, In Space, in 2005. Sadly, Chilton died in 2010.
Todd Rundgren: Something/Anything (1972) (opens in new tab)
A musical polymath, Rundgren could never be restrained by genre, and his music ran the gamut from straight pop to prog. Something/Anything, a tour de force of invention on which Rundgren played every instrument, fitted as much into power-pop as anywhere.
While the sheer diversity of this double set smacked of self-indulgence, sparkling tunes such as I Saw The Light and Hello It’s Me overruled most objections. Big Star later covered Slut, and some of the tracks appeared on the soundtrack to the 2000 film Almost Famous.
The Cars: The Cars (1978) (opens in new tab)
While The Cars had their biggest impact in ’84, with the Heartbeat City album and the downbeat ballad Drive, they were already well established as a new-wave phenomenon. This debut album perfectly summarised their world view. Punk was almost played out, but much of its rasp still appealed, especially when allied to cleverer songs.
The album’s two big hits – My Best Friend’s Girl and Just What I Needed – were peachy examples of The Cars’ gift for succinct tunes and droll delivery. Bravely, they played with virtuosity in an era when that was severely frowned upon.
Rick Springfield: The Best Of (1999) (opens in new tab)
Despite being an Australian, Springfield became the face of a particular kind of US powerpop. Frothier than most, he still had enough chops to ensure some enduring appeal. An unashamed, pretty, boy-next-door who would become a noted soap actor in General Hospital, Springfield straddled the 70s and 80s, shrewdly exploiting the tiny fan base his TV work created.
This Best Of rounds up a career that gave him the classic power-pop hit Jessie’s Girl, plus a stack of throwaway tunes such as Don’t Talk To Strangers and Calling All Girls. You get the idea.
Badfinger: No Dice (1970) (opens in new tab)
Formed by Swansea’s Pete Ham and scouser Tom Evans, Badfinger (a discarded title for The Beatles (opens in new tab)’ With A Little Help From My Friends) signed to Apple Records and released No Dice in 1970. Raw by later standards, it had all their best songs. Without You was later covered by Harry Nilsson, among others, and No Matter What still gets radio play.
Millions of dollars evaporated from the band’s bank account in ’74, sinking them and the label. The subsequent debts, bickering and law suits eventually led both Ham and Evans to suicide.
Dwight Twilley: Between The Cracks: Volume 1 (2004)
Hailed as ‘the Godfather of new wave’ (although that’s probably a bit strong), Dwight Twilley did have a blistering take on pop-rock. His first, and best-known, hit, I’m On Fire, looked sure to break him, but the usual catalogue of music business nightmares knifed Twilley commercially before he even began.
He remains a cultist’s delight, and this grab-bag of stuff that never found a home, much of it recorded ‘between deals’, is a good one, with searing pop music such as Black Eyes, Don’t You Love Her and strong ballads Lullaby and Oh Carrie.
Raspberries: Greatest (2005) (opens in new tab)
Raspberries had come and gone by 1974 but their influence continued to reverberate, especially with Cheap Trick and later R.E.M. (opens in new tab) and Redd Kross. Lead singer Eric Carmen may now be best-known for his soppy solo ballad All By Myself, but Raspberries produced much more potent pop, as this excellent 2005 compilation shows.
The Top 5 hit Go All The Way is a pure bubblegum joy, while later songs such as Tonight and I’m A Rocker show that the band had taken on board some 60s Brit influences of their own, particularly the likes of The Who and the Small Faces (opens in new tab). A neat period album.
Flamin’ Groovies: Groovies’ Greatest Grooves (1996) (opens in new tab)
Their flame was somewhat slow-burning – Flamin’ Groovies formed in 1965, fiddling about with standard Beatles/Stones-inspired rock’n’roll – but it wasn’t until their 1976 union with co-producer Dave Edmunds that their own brand of power-pop got out of the blocks.
Their best known song, Shake Some Action, was raw enough to make plenty of punk compilations in the years that followed. This 25-track compilation album takes in much of their career, but with a strong focus on that mid-70s heyday. Idiosyncratic, sure, but a whole heap of fun too.
Blondie: Blondie (1976) (opens in new tab)
Blondie have probably transcended every genre they’ve been in, with the exception of the catch-all pop. Yet their genesis coincided with punks, rooting them securely in the power-pop/ new wave movement. Built around the glacial Debbie Harry (opens in new tab) – a fantasy figure to every teenage boy in the western world – Rip Her To Shreds was a provocative gem.
This 1976 debut album mixed bubblegum pop with garage rock, and Harry crossed over in a way that Patti Smith (opens in new tab) and Chrissie Hyde didn’t. The hints of reggae, rap and synth-pop were later exploited to full effect on 1978’s Parallel Lines.