When is rock in fashion, but never truly IN fashion?
Any great YouTube dive into the past will result in a passel of ancient TV performances that reveal more than just music – you also see fashion. In the early Seventies, the Hippie craze simmered and long, bushy hair paired with Technicolor bright clothes became the way to stand out. Whether it was Marc Bolan leading T.Rex with his mixture of dandy and flashy clothes or Robert Plant taking a more earthy look toward its Adonis-like extremes. Rock and fashion proved to be inseparable.
Cleveland, Ohio, was the epicenter for the rock world. Shaggy-haired, skin-tight-pants-wearing boogie bands ruled the roost. Pop music on the radio was all Bubblegum. Singles were taking the Motown assembly line model to its extremes ("Sugar Sugar" by the Archies was not even a band – just studio musicians and professional songwriters). Four bouffant-haired, tuxedo-clad Beatle fans strolled into their hometown of Cleveland looking completely uncool. Their music brought back rays of the Beatles, The Who, and the Hollies streaming out from their tightly-organized songs. They were The Raspberries. Although first met with scorn, their musicianship quickly won over the crowds. As their fan base grew, they found themselves signed to Capitol Records, the home of The Beatles. This was as Pete Townshend coined it on "Pictures of Lily" in 1967 – Power Pop.
Power Pop, despite being rooted in some of the best music of all-time, is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. In its heyday, there were a handful of artists making what sounded like timeless music signed to major labels. However, some took the moniker. Some did not. Longtime Power Pop artist Tommy Keene once said, "to be compared to bands that did not sell records, is like a disease.” If you're labeled that you're history.
The English Beatles' boom birthed "Beat" music, which spiked in several directions, before being overtaken by bluesy/acid/heavy rock. In America, Power Pop first existed far more underground in the Sixties as cleaned-up, professional-sounding "garage" bands qualified for the title. The Cyrkle's first single, "Red Rubber Ball," carried a pedigree from co-songwriter Paul Simon and crisp harmonies up to No. 2 in 1966. When the Beatles split in 1970, the hope was the next Power Pop artist could supplant the Fab Four.
The Iveys were a Welsh rock band who were known for crisp harmonies and pleasing pop. Signed to the Beatles' Apple Records in 1968, they were rechristened Badfinger and off on a rocket ride to stardom. Their first single, "Come and Get It," was written and produced by Paul McCartney. Singles two, three and four featured production by George Harrison, and a young, dynamic pop artist of his own right Todd Rundgren. All Top Ten hits, Badfinger appeared to be on its way. Then the unthinkable happened. A bad management deal, the dissolution of Apple around the feuding Beatles and their 1974 album being shelved by Warner Bros. led to their breakup and two members committing suicide. While this may truly be the saddest story in the history of rock, a debt of gratitude is owed to Badfinger. Their most lasting music, the heart-tugging "Day After Day" and the wistful rock of "Baby Blue" continues to live on in covers, as well as TV ("Breaking Bad") and film ("The Departed").
While Badfinger was rising to the top, Memphis trio Big Star was struggling with its own identity as a rock band in a thudding boogie world. Far more rock-oriented than Badfinger, Big Star found a way to hybridize Memphis Soul and British Invasion Pop. During just three years of recording, they created three albums that are indelible in the history of rock. Ecstatic reviews from critics were just not enough to fuel their fire as each of their now-classic albums suffered from poor distribution. Founding member Chris Bell quit while work on the second album "Radio City" was getting underway. Bassist Andy Hummel left after "Radio City." Founding members Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton pounded out a chaotic third album, "Sister Lovers" completed in 1974. Within the grooves of these three highly influential albums, you hear the band slide from burgeoning optimism to crushing pessimism without losing one ounce of its hooky pop power. As their cult status grew, "Sister Lovers" finally saw the light of day in 1978. Shortly after its release, Bell died in a car crash.
The Raspberries were as professional as any band. Given full run of the studio, they recorded four sensational albums from 1972-1974 and lodged three singles in the Billboard Top 20. The ambitious "Side 3" was even doused in raspberry-scented perfume for an added draw. However, the hooky sensibility of "Go All The Way" and "I Wanna Be With You" proved to be a tough act to follow. As the venues got bigger, the success did not quite follow. So, subjected to the winds of change in the industry, they hardened their rock and had to replace two members in the process. By 1974, their final album, "Starting Over," was a nonstarter and they were done.
Through the years, these artists, while dwelling in obscurity, found their way to influence a veritable history-making list of performers. Bruce Springsteen, Axl Rose and Paul Stanley cite the Raspberries as a major influence. R.E.M., The Replacements (writers of the lyric "never travel far/without a little Big Star") and The Posies (whose central members became part of the band during their second coming in the 1990's) praised Big Star to every audience. Badfinger's "Without You" became a No. 1 for Mariah Carey that was also recorded by nearly 180 different artists.
This triumvirate of bands produced a handful of music that went on to inspire second-generation Power Pop from Flamin' Groovies, the hard rock of Cheap Trick (whose cover of Big Star's "In The Street" would become the theme song for "That 70's Show"), and even push producer Todd Rundgren toward a lengthy career as solo artist and producer. When Power Pop did catch on it brought forth the trio The Nerves from Los Angeles (whose members Jack Lee, Peter Case and Paul Collins each went on to even more successful solo careers,), turned Oklahomans Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour into pop poster boys with matching Top 20 hits, and transposed Pub Rock and New Wave into the success of Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds across the pond. Rabid Big Star fans Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter followed their pilgrimage to Memphis by forming two highly-influential Southern alternative bands, The dB's and Let's Active.
Bands today shed the label of Power Pop as much as possible. Most artists opt to mix their music with a less mainstream style to contrast their hooks with an edgier sound. Honestly, it is not hard to blame them. A cursory examination of any of these bands generally reveals photos that look out of place and maligned later records even. However, when you listen to those cascading progressions, breathe in the heavenly harmonies and give in to their common pursuit of the ever-present love of simply finding a good time tonight, you realize that these are the voices that made it cool to be uncool and these are the songs always sound timeless and simple.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T- BONE's Records and Cafe and a GED instructor.