Trying to define the most slippery of music trends is a fool’s game – but tracing the connections between various genres is fascinating.
Power pop, as a term, has been around since the 1960s when Pete Townshend dropped it while talking about what it was that The Who did musically during an NME interview. Even then, it was being used more as a descriptor than a genre, though perhaps no more illegitimate for that – after all, the music press has been making up increasingly ludicrous music genres since the 1960s to lump together wildly differing acts and sounds in order to praise or dismiss them, and this seems an obvious choice for journalists to rally around as a shorthand way of describing an act’s music. But ‘Power Pop’ is one of those phrases that somehow flits between genres, between sounds, essentially indefinable even within the idea of ‘I know it when I hear it’. You probably do know it when you hear it – but for me, it has always been more a vibe than a genre, a musical attitude that floats across more easily defined areas of pop music.
The porous nature of Power Pop is perhaps captured on Miles Out to Sea: The Roots of British Power Pop 1969 – 1975, a new and typically thorough three-CD box set from Grapefruit Records, which attempts to pull together a very specific era but which ultimately shows just how impossible this sound is to nail down to anything specific. There are acts where who have also appeared on Grapefruit’s other collections of streetwise glam rock and bubblegum music and while, at first glance, that might seem to suggest a certain laziness, it’s actually quite the opposite. After all, what is glam if not Power Pop? It’s essentially hook-driven blasts of pop splendour backed with a driving rock beat, and the ‘glam’ aspect is often little more than a flag of convenience for music history writers who look at the fashions and the time period and so decide that Sweet, Slade, Roxy Music and T-Rex are somehow all the same thing. Similarly, ‘bubblegum’ is a handy and dismissive way of describing radically different acts that have wildly varied approaches to music. Power Pop, if anything, seems a handy way of pulling together whole collections of music – to which we can add in quite a chunk of punk and metal, most New Wave and large amounts of popular music right up to the current day – that have nothing in common beyond a certain punchy and misleadingly ‘disposable’ populism that critics have often dismissed but which arguably defines the history of popular music more than any passing fad might.
Miles Out to Sea smartly narrows its focus to the same time period that those other related collections cover, making these sets an ever-growing guide to the often lost sounds of the early 1970s – a period that is still, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still dismissed by smug critics and music historians – you know the sort – as a musical wasteland. Like the other collections, this box set nails the lie of that, revealing the first half of that decade to be an era of musical experimentation where the pop sounds of the previous decade were polished and sharpened, given a heavy rock boost and a touch of irreverence. When you hear chin-stroking critics and ‘experts’ talk about the 1970s, you’d think that everything prior to punk’s back-to-basics approach was Tales from Topographic Oceans, but nothing could be further from the truth*. The three-minute pop song was alive and well throughout the decade, taking the pre-Sgt. Pepper sounds of the Beatles and reworking them for a new generation.
The influence of the Beatles is spread across this album, as is the sound of Badfinger, who essentially set the template for post-Beatles pop music, acting as some sort of conduit between the old and new thanks to their Paul McCartney-penned hit single and connection to Apple. Lots of the acts scattered across these discs are desperately trying to go back to the simple pop music era of the early Beatles, the time of pop innocence. Some are more successful than others and some are a bit too blatant – bands like Liverpool Echo deliberately attempt to create a 1970s Merseybeat revival, as contrived as the rock ‘n’ roll revival from the likes of Darts and Showaddywaddy that existed concurrently (and which was also driven by a very punk ethos of taking things back to basics). That’s not to say it’s bad. There’s nothing inherently wrong with calculated music. One of the interesting aspects of this collection is how, just like the bubblegum set, a lot of the music here is what we might describe as ‘manufactured’ (producer-led projects that would then cobble together a ‘band’ for TV appearances), while other bands would switch names to record one-off albums or singles. Rock purists would be aghast, but it suggests a certain pragmatism – the music is all and if a particular piece of music doesn’t fit in with your overall sound, why not record it under another name? Hell, look at how many names the 10cc members went through before (and during) their time as a ‘proper’ group.
There are also a lot of acts here who are 1960s leftovers, trying to update their sound even as newer acts tried to recreate the Sixties. Acts like The Move – whose continuing success kept delaying the launch of the Electric Light Orchestra, a band for whom the Power Pop term seems ready-made – and The Tremeloes were already yesterday’s men by the start of the 1970s, stuck in the no-man’s-land between their contemporaries who had become ‘serious’ rock acts and the pop scene that probably saw them as old men by this point.
To give you an idea of just how loose the whole ‘Power Pop’ idea is, this collection takes in lightweight pop acts like Marmalade and Honeybus, rock ‘n’ roll revivalists like Dave Edmunds (the mercurial producer here represented by When Will I Be Loved from the Stardust soundtrack; that film and its predecessor That’ll Be the Day themselves being fascinating reinventions of rock’s more innocent era and its 1970s explosion), bubblegum pop acts like Pilot, heavy rockers Budgie, pub rockers Ducks Deluxe, prog act Barclay James Harvest and free festival regulars The Fabulous Ratbites from Hell, as well as Sixties icons like The Kinks and The Who. There are also the glam rock stompers – Slade’s version of the box set’s title track, the Hollywood Brats’ Zurich 17 (Be My Baby) and Sweet’s belting Peppermint Twist, a glorious bit of anarchic and pure pop from their magnificent Sweet Fanny Adams LP. I’m not sure what all this tells us beyond the fact that trying to define Power Pop is like trying to nail jelly to the wall but I’m glad it is all here.
Also very welcome are the unreleased tracks. Not every act makes it big – in fact, most won’t and this set is awash with demos, non-album tracks songs that record labels declined to release. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are inferior works – sometimes, an act was dropped before their second album was even completed, leaving a collection of music with nowhere to go, sometimes good bands just never got the breaks and sometimes they sabotaged everything themselves. The world is probably awash with lost music and for some of it to be discovered and revived is admirably thorough. That, and the avoidance of ‘the obvious’ in track selection, makes this more than just a random collection of old and overused hits by the usual suspects.
That’s the pleasure of these Grapefruit collections – the odd juxtaposition of tracks that, on paper, might not make sense but on disc somehow do – a tribute to the art of curation, perhaps. A lot of compilations feel rather thrown together but these always seem quite the opposite. I’ve no idea if they are intended to be creating a greater whole – a constantly expanding partwork of interlinked musical sounds of the 1970s – but I really hope so.
* The irony of that is, of course, that these smug, pompous snobs have more in common with prog’s more ponderous moments than they like to think. Watching some pseudo-intellectual banging on about how great punk was because it swept aside all the pretensions of prog is hilarious.
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The slight problem with that collection is another Grapefruit compilation
‘Surrender To The Rhythm: The London Pub Rock Scene Of The Seventies’, contains some of the same artists.
Pub Rock or Power Pop? You can’t have it both ways 😉
And Budgie were firmly into heavy metal when they recorded Rolling Home Again, considering them power pop is rather like saying Black Sabbath were pop balladeers based on a listen to Changes on their Vol 4 album.
You can argue that individual tracks fit, though. You could put Changes on a rock ballads comp (I assume people have). And I’d say that a big chunk of the NWOBHM – at least from some bands – is only a step away (if that) from power pop. Iron Maiden’s Running Free feels more like glam than metal to me. Same with pub rock, in a way – commercial, fast, bouncy, catchy 3 minute tracks. But that’s the whole problem – what IS power pop? Or, if we want to expand it, what is pop and where do we draw the line? That’s why I think, in a way, you CAN have it both ways because ‘power pop’ seems to sprawl across genre boundaries.
Some years ago, when running a music site, we tried to pitch the idea of FastPop as a genre. We weren’t the NME so no one bit, but I still think it’s a good catch-all for guitar-led, commercial, hook-driven music across the board. Perhaps what the ambiguity of Power Pop really does is show the redundancy of musical pigeon-holing, for fans and bands alike.
Trying to pigeonhole most musical genres is pointless IMO, which may have been my point!
By the time NWOBHM rolled around I was through my difficult teenage years, and into other stuff. I’m afraid its development passed me by completely*. All that spandex and D&D themes didn’t do it for me, and metal’s later fragmentation into sub-genres was just…silly.
Anyway, I’m not going to get too hung up about it. Thanks for another considered reply to my ramblings.
*Apart from Motorhead 🙂
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