What is Power Pop Rock?
“Power pop is what we play – what the Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop the Beach Boys played in the days of “Fun, Fun, Fun” which I preferred.” Pete Townsend in an interview with British magazine NME, May 1967.
When British rock band the Who released their single “Pictures of Lily” during the spring of 1967, Pete Townsend used the term “Power Pop” to describe the song and the type of music that his band played. More than likely, Townsend had no idea that the “Power Pop” phrase he made to NME magazine in 1967 would become a sub genre of rock music during the 70’s.
What is Power Pop Rock? Wikipedia gives their definition: “The genre typically incorporates melodic hooks, vocal harmonies, an energetic performance, and “happy” sounding music underpinned by a sense of yearning, longing, or despair.”
Online “AllMusic” website describes the style as “a cross between the crunching hard rock of the Who and the sweet melodicism of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, with the ringing guitars of the Byrds thrown in for good measure.”
I would describe “Power Pop” as prominent guitars, catchy melodies, excellent vocal harmonies and up-tempo beats, with a cross section of either happy or angst lyrics.
To truly understand how the “Power Pop” genre of music came into existence, we must go backwards to the early days of rock and roll music.
Foundation and influences of “Power Pop” sounds can be traced back to 50’s rock and roll artists like, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and the Everly Brothers. The next major influence of “Power Pop” came in the form of the British Invasion.
The Beatles brought a fresh new musical wave to America in 1964, when they introduced “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to audiences via the Ed Sullivan Show. Suddenly, teenagers and young adults were wrapped up with Beatlemania and the new sounds of soaring guitar pop music.
Many of the Beatles early songs contain the elements of what would later to be known as “Power Pop.” Fab Four songs like, “Please, Please Me” and “If I Needed Someone” are excellent examples along with “Day Tripper” and ‘Eight Days a Week.”
Soon after the Beatles success, there were dozens of other British bands recording hit songs with an up-tempo pop beat. The Hollies and the Kinks are two of the most prominent British bands that incorporated the light pop melodies during the musical “British Invasion” between 1964 and 1967.
American rock bands also got into the act of recording up-tempo pop records, the most notable groups being the Beach Boys and the Byrds. Pop rock songs were dominate on Top 40 radio during the mid to late 60’s.
Here are some of best examples of hit pop rock songs from the 60’s, way before “Power Pop” became a named genre of music:
- Paperback Writer–The Beatles
- Wouldn’t It be Nice—The Beach Boys
- I Can See For Miles—The Who
- Daydream Believer—The Monkees
- My Back Pages—The Byrds
- Look Through Any Window—The Hollies
- Happy Together—The Turtles
- Do It Again—The Beach Boys
- You Really Got Me—The Kinks
- Penny Lane—The Beatles
- So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star—The Byrds
- The Kids Are Alright—The Who
- Hungry Paul Revere and the Raiders
- Elenore—The Turtles
- A Girl like You—The Young Rascals
When the Beatles officially broke up in 1970, many thought that the pop rock sounds that the Fab Four helped to make popular was finished as a relevant form of music. However, there were two bands that helped carry on the Beatles musical legacy during the early 70’s: Badfinger and Raspberries.
Badfinger started in the early 60’s with the name of the Iveys. During the summer of 1968, they signed a contact with the Beatles owned, Apple Records company. The Iveys first single was “Maybe Tomorrow” and the song’s success had mixed results. It was a hit in some European countries but was a failure in the United Kingdom and in America.
In 1969, Paul McCartney wrote a song call “Come and Get It” that he had planned to have the Beatles record for their Abbey Road album. Obviously, the song didn’t make the Fab Four album and it was then offered to the Iveys. Just prior to “Come and Get It” being released, Apple Records and the band agreed to change their name to Badfinger.
With the new name, Badfinger assembled four huge hit records:
- Come and Get It
- No Matter What
- Day After Day
- Baby Blue
With soaring guitar riffs, excellent melodies and superb vocal harmonies, Badfinger is considered to be the most influential and pioneers of the “Power Pop” rock genre of music.
The second band to have the greatest impact on “Power Pop” music during the early 70’s, is a group simply known as Raspberries. This Cleveland, Ohio based band was formed in the late 60’s and came together with the name Raspberries during 1971.
Eric Carmen was the front man for the band, being lead vocalist and playing rhythm guitar. All of the Raspberries members wore tuxedos while playing on stage and emulated former British Invasion bands like the Beatles and the Who.
Raspberries had four top 40 hits between 1972 and 1974:
- Go All the Way
- I Want Be With You
- Let’s Pretend
- Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)
Just like their English counterpart band Badfinger, Eric Carmen’s group Raspberries were also sonic pioneers with this new type of musical style. Their influential playing style, flowing melodies and harmonies, placed the band as leaders in the development of the genre which came to be known later as “Power Pop.”
After the demise of Badfinger and Raspberries bands, there still were a few other groups performing “Power Pop” music during the mid 70’s. Here are some examples of popular songs during this time period:
- Ballroom Blitz—Sweet
- Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her)—Blue Ash
- September Gurls—Big Star
- I’m On Fire—Dwight Twilly Band
- Fox on the Run—Sweet
The “Power Pop” genre then saw a renewed resurgence during the late 70’s with the emergence of “Punk Rock” and “New Wave” bands. Many of these new groups incorporated the sounds of pop/rock into their respective genres of music.
Naming of the “Power Pop” genre of music took root during 1978 when Bomp! magazine editor Greg Shaw started using the term “powerpop” in music reviews of punk and new wave bands. In the article, Shaw defined and gave a history of “power pop” up to that point.
Many of the popular “new wave” bands of the late 70’s, moved away from traditional blues-based rock and roll, to assimilate more pop grooves with their music. Popular “new wave” bands such as the Police, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Blondie and the Cars, all tended to mesh together a hybrid fusion of pop rock sounds. Many of their songs easily fit into the “Power Pop” category.
When I was attending James Madison University from 1978 until 1980, I worked at Public Radio Station WMRA Harrisonburg, Virginia. During the evening hours at the station, I would be a radio host for an album rock radio show. I regularly played “Power Pop” album songs on my radio show broadcasting throughout the Shenandoah Valley.
Here are some of the most memorable “Power Pop” rock songs that I played on my WMRA “After Hours” radio show during this time period:
- Starry Eyes—The Records
- Girl Of My Dreams –Bram Tchaikovsky
- One Way or Another—Blondie
- My Sharona—The Knack
- Let’s Go—The Cars
- I Want You To Want Me—Cheap Trick
Below is one of my radio airchecks from WMRA Harrisonburg, Virginia, from April 1st, 1980, when I hosted the album rock program called After Hours.
Although “Power Pop” continued to flourish beyond 1979, my concentration for the rest of this article will be on the 70’s. I have selected what I consider to be the essential top ten singles of the “Power Pop” genre of music during the 70’s decade. These are my favorite songs in this category.
Before I share my listing, I must point out a couple of things: First there are 10 different artists on my listing. If I didn’t set that criteria, Badfinger and Raspberries would have dominated my selections with multiple songs.
The top ten songs that I have selected fit into the following categories: I deem the 10 songs to still be culturally, historically, aesthetically significant, meaningful or relevant in the category of “Power Pop” rock.
- Pump It Up—Elvis Costello and the Attractions
From “This Year’s Model” album
Signature song by Elvis Costello from 1978 is a toe-tapping, up tempo, fast-paced adrenaline laced tune that was inspired by Bob Dylan’s, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The combination interplay of excellent guitar and organ riffs, helps to solidify “Pump It Up” as “Power Pop” rock magic.
- What I Like About You—The Romantics
From the self-titled, “The Romantics” debut album
Initially released at the end of 1979, “What I Like About You” wasn’t a big top 40 hit. During late 1980, someone from Budweiser liked the memorable refrain, “Hey, uh-huh-huh” and the flowing guitar riffs on the song, and licensed it to be use in beer commercials. The Romantics debut single has become one of the greatest rock anthems from the past 40 years.
- Surrender—Cheap Trick
From the “Heaven Tonight” album
During the late 70’s, Cheap Trick is considered one of the premier “Power Pop” rock band and I have selected their 1978 song, “Surrender” as their best in this category. With dueling guitar playing and lyrics describing teenage angst, Rolling Stone magazine has proclaimed, “Surrender” as the “Ultimate 70’s teen anthem.”
- Cinnamon Girl—Neil Young and Crazy Horse
From the album “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Just a month before Neil Young wrote the iconic protest song “Ohio” about the May 1970 Kent State massacre, his record company released “Cinnamon Girl” as a single. The tune features a prominent bass line, multiple guitars laying down accompanied rhythms and ends with a brilliant, “one note guitar solo.” “Cinnamon Girl” remains one of Young’s most enduring songs.
- American Girl—Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers
From the self-titled debut “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” album
It is quite ironic that Tom Petty recorded, “American Girl” on the Bicentennial of the United States, July 4th, 1976. The tune captures the fast, lively twin guitar riffs of Petty and his band member Mike Campbell, while following the urgent beats found on many “Power Pop” rock songs. “American Girl” was the last song that Tom Petty played as an encore, during his last concert, just a week before he passed away in October 2017.
- Just What I Needed—The Cars
From the self-titled, “The Cars” debut album.
A combination of new wave, classic rock, synth pop, the Cars were mainstays with multiple power pop rock songs during the 70’s. The ubiquitous “Just What I Needed” is a complete pop song. Ringing guitars, catchy keyboard riffs and quirky lyrics brings this song to perfection. This 1978 gem is ranked as one of the best recordings ever made by the Cars.
- Cruel To Be Kind—Nick Lowe
From the “Labour of Lust” album
Musically, “Cruel To Be Kind” was inspired by the Philadelphia soul sound of “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Lively and highly-spirited electric guitars combined with mockingly sarcastic lyrics, makes this Nick Lowe tune a crown jewel. The official video for “Cruel To Be Kind” was actually filmed at Lowe’s 1979 wedding with his wife Carlene Carter and was his only Top 40 hit.
- Couldn’t I Just Tell You—Todd Rundgren
From the “Something/Anything?” album
Without a doubt, Todd Rundgren is the most influential solo performer on my Top 10 listing. His ground breaking song “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”during 1972 paved the way for countless bands to emulate his creative guitar sounds. Most music critics highly regard Rundgren as a pioneer and his song is considered a pure showpiece within the “Power Pop” genre of rock music.
- No Matter What—Badfinger
From the “No Dice” album
While I could have picked either “Day After Day” or “Baby Blue” at number two, I selected, “No Matter What” as the best Badfinger song in this category. This British band set the standard in 1970 and was the first to incorporate and develop all of the essential elements associated with this new genre of music. “No Matter What” has excellent harmonies, melodies and superb instrumentation. It remains Badfinger’s best and most powerful song in the “Power Pop” canon of music.
- Go All the Way—Raspberries
From the self-titled debut “Raspberries” album
My number one selection is “Power Pop” royalty. I consider, “Go All the Way” by the American rock band Raspberries as the perfect quintessential song in this category. This tune starts off kicking: Blazing guitars, infectious guitar riff and catchy hooks. Eric Carmen and his bandmates provide soaring harmonies, on this hot rocking, flame throwing masterpiece. I place the 1972 Raspberries’ tune, “Go All the Way” as the essential “Power Pop” rock song of all time.
Now that I have submitted my thoughts on the top 10 essential “Power Pop” rock songs, I am curious to find out your opinion on this genre of music from the 70’s.
Obviously, I do not want to come across as authoritative with my critique with the 1970’s decade and your favorite songs maybe be completely different than my selections. There are no right or wrong answers, just various opinions on music known as “Power Pop” rock.
So I am asking for your opinion: What songs do you feel are the best, greatest, most significant and essential “Power Pop” rock songs of the 70’s decade? I await your replies. Rock on!
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