Michael Chabon on Power Pop
Print Friendly and PDF
Here's a nice bit from novelist Michael Chabon's review of a compilation album from the American early 1970s power pop band Big Star, whose singer Alex Chilton died recently. "Power pop" is a term coined by Pete Townshend of the Who in 1967 to denote their early Beatles-influenced hit singles like Can't Explain and The Kids Are Alright: big, jangly electric guitars, melodic hooks, supporting vocal harmonies, and a fast backbeat. On paper, it always sounded like a surefire winner as a genre that would appeal to both sexes. After 1970, however, that seldom worked out as planned, and power pop became largely a nerd niche:
Finally, power pop at its purest is the music of hit records that miss. Pick up any of Not Lame’s International Pop Overthrow collections, or the numerous sets that Rhino has issued over the years–Shake Some Action and Come Out and Play, or the three volumes of Poptopia–and you will find that from about 1970, when Badfinger released the first true power-pop record, ”No Matter What” (which admittedly went to #8 on the U.S. chart), an astonishing amount of effort and genius and chops has been expended by the practitioners of power pop to create a large number of equally well-crafted, tightly played, buoyant-yet-wrenching surefire hit songs that went nowhere, moved no units, never made it out of the band’s hometown, or came heartbreakingly close to Hugeness before sinking, like The Records’ ”Starry Eyes” or Bram Tchaikovsky’s ”Girl of My Dreams,” back into the obscurity that is the characteristic fate of all great power pop.
That's largely true. Consider the song Chabon cites as the genre's most perfect representative — Big Star's 1974 single "September Gurls." I had never heard it until today, although I would have loved it had I heard it in 1979. I saw Bram Tchaikovsky in Houston in 1979 or 1980 and I couldn't understand why they were being played only on Rice U.'s 50 watt radio station instead of on a 50,000 watt AM Top 40 powerhouse.

On the other hand, there's also a selection effect. Popular pop bands can't be power pop. The Cars, for example, were immediate hits (here's 1979's "My Best Friend's Girl") so they don't figure in power pop's tragic mythology. In real life, unlike in his songs, Cars lead singer Ric Ocasek always got the girl, having six sons by his three wives, the last of whom, Paulina Porizkova, was the first of the Slavic supermodels.

The surest test of a selection effect is how Cheap Trick went from power pop loser legends to just another big time rock band over the course of 1978. Cheap Trick's 1977 album In Color was praised in the press as a power pop classic for about a year because it was this wonderfully commercial record that nobody bought. In the fall of 1978, I went with some Rice friends to see Cheap Trick open for Foreigner at a Houston hockey rink. We got bored with Foreigner, and as we were walking out through the parking lot, we ran into Cheap Trick's drummer Bun E. Carlos looking for his car, alone. We told him him how great he was and he was very gracious. He told us to look out for their upcoming live album on import vinyl from Japan.

I tried to sound optimistic about its fate as I promised him I'd buy it, but I felt sad for Cheap Trick. They were this hugely entertaining band with a sound that, in theory, ought to appeal to tens of millions of people; but almost nobody cared, and they were reduced to telling Rice geeks in a parking lot to keep an eye out for their import album from Japan. It was sad. But, it was also cool, because me and my friends knew Cheap Trick were this great power pop band, and the fewer people who realized that, the cooler it was (for us, not for them.)

A few weeks later, Cheap Trick at Budokan showed up in Houston's underground record collector store. It was this insane, almost unlistenable LP of pubescent Japanese girls screaming over the top of Cheap Trick, like the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.

And ... Budokan quickly became a gigantic hit all across America. Cheap Trick then returned with the studio version of their greatest song, "Surrender," and headlined hockey rinks for a number of years.

But, selling 20,000,000 albums meant Cheap Trick couldn't be in the power pop pantheon of futility anymore, so Chabon leaves them out of his retrospective.

Print Friendly and PDF