What Really Makes a Great Power Pop Song?

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A new book by an L.A. publisher has answers.

Rock ‘n’ roll may not be dead, but it sure is dying. Last month when the Los Angeles Times published a list of Grammy nominees in its print version, there was no mention of the rock categories. Likewise, unless we pretend that Vampire Weekend is rock, there is a gaping void of rock ‘n’ roll in both the Record of the Year and Album of the Year categories.

What we are immersed in, currently, is an abundance of hip-hop with its endless incarnations, and straight-up pop music. Those who yearn to succeed at the latter would do themselves a great benefit by learning what makes great power pop. The oft-maligned genre is full of rich harmonies, tight arrangements, dark themes buried in happy melodies — and either a jangle or nod to the British Invasion.

Like most great things, a precise definition of power pop is tough to nail down, but in the new book “Go All The Way,” published by the Los Angeles-based Rare Bird Books, over two dozen writers attempt to corner it.

Full disclosure: Of the 25-plus authors of the short essays about power pop, I have been friends with about a quarter of them. In fact, I have been to two of their weddings. And because we are longtime friends, things like “you call that power pop?” and “your favorite band sucks” are precisely the type of things I like to debate with them about.

For Los Angeleno, I talked to a few of the writers, including S.W. Lauden, who co-edited “Go All the Way,” local author and “Ask Polly” New York Magazine columnist Heather Havrilesky and High Times magazine founding writer Rex Weiner. Catch several of the writers live at an upcoming power pop discussion at Chevalier’s Books on Dec. 10 at 7 p.m.

S.W. Lauden on Fountains of Wayne

S.W. Lauden is the pen name of Steve Coulter who has penned the Greg Salem punk rock private eye series including “Bad Citizen Corporation,”Grizzly Season” and “Hang Time.” This year, he released a novelette, “That’ll Be The Day: A Power Pop Heist.” When he isn’t writing, editing or wearing a suit in his day job, he is the drummer for The Brothers Steve.

Did any two people fight over writing about the same band or record?

Not really. I mean, we do have two essays about ELO (Kate Sullivan and Ken Sharp), but they’re both so great and so different from each other that it didn’t seem like a problem. And, of course, certain artists get mentioned in several different essays. For example, Heather Havrilesky wrote a funny coming-of-age essay about Blondie’s “Parallel Lines,” but that’s a band that pops up in two or three other pieces. And so it goes.

Besides co-editing this collection, you wrote about Fountains of Wayne, the group that gave us “Stacy’s Mom.” I was surprised to hear about their writing process. Have you seen or heard about anything like that before?

That Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger often wrote separately but shared songwriting credit? I think it follows the John Lennon/Paul McCartney partnership model in a lot of ways. I’m a drummer, not a songwriter, but I imagine it gets harder and harder to keep co-writing as the years go by, especially when each writer is super talented in their own right. You know?

As a drummer, is there a power pop drum configuration?

I’d probably have to go with the classic trap kit — kick, snare, rack tom and floor tom (think Ringo Starr). For a little extra flare, position your cymbals perfectly horizontal like Keith Moon or Clem Burke. Either way, hit ’em hard. It’s supposed to be powerful, right?

If you hadn’t written about Fountains of Wayne, who would have been your second choice?

I originally set out to write a piece about power pop drummers. I even interviewed a few (including Jody Stephens from Big Star) before I connected with Ira Elliot from Nada Surf. After trading emails with him and glimpsing his love of Ringo Starr, I decided he should write that piece instead of me. It was a solid editorial decision because his essay, “Putting the Pow! in Power Pop,” is excellent. Fountains of Wayne was already on my list and I’m a fan, so that was an easy move. I would also have loved to write about Big Star, but Rex Weiner knocked it out of the park with his fantastic essay on Alex Chilton.

How did you get the Tom Petty story about Jeff Lynne (as told to Ken Sharp)?

Ken was brought into the fold by my co-editor, Paul Myers. He has two pieces in the collection, one about Paul Stanley from KISS and the Petty/Lynne piece. Ken’s a talented musician who has written several books about power pop, so he’s a perfect fit.

Oh? I love books about music. Duh. Have I heard of any of his other stuff?

“Sound Explosion!: Inside L.A.’s Studio Factory with the Wrecking Crew,” “Power Pop: Conversations With the Power Pop Elite,” “Elvis: Vegas ’69.”

S.W. Lauden (far left) hosting a discussion with Rex Weiner (middle with the Archies shirt), Kate Sullivan and Dylan Champion. Photo by Tony Pierce.

At the first book reading you hosted, I became very confused about what is and what is not power pop. I seem to remember that this genre a) can’t be popular b) has to have some McCartney flavor c) has to be catchy. Did I get that wrong? What am I missing?

Arguing about the definition of power pop is part of the fun for fans. There really isn’t a definition that satisfies everybody, but most “Go All The Way” contributors took a stab at it.

Two definitions from the collection come to mind. Michael Chabon wrote in his essay, “Tragic Magic” [that] “Power pop at its purest is the music of hit records that miss.”

Records that miss? As in, they don’t make it into the Top 10?

Exactly. In Dylan Champion’s piece about Guided By Voices, he wrote something so good. Let me quote it verbatim: “Power pop is a ghost. Behind its joy, energy, and sugar-to-the vein hooks, it’s a genre based on the memory of something beloved that is no more. It’s music made by record collectors who ran out of records and decided to make more themselves.”

The closest to hair metal in this book is an essay on Cheap Trick by Marko DeSantis of Sugarcult. Is glam, or hair metal a little too powerful to be power pop?

Oh man! When I took this project on, I absolutely considered Cheap Trick a quintessential power pop band — but I’ve since discovered that purists are divided on this. To wit, there was recently a several-day debate on Facebook about whether or not KISS is a power pop band (seriously, this is the kind of stuff we debate) and Cheap Trick got dragged through the mud a few different times.

I still think Cheap Trick is a power pop band, especially their first four albums, but some see them as proto-hair metal.

Other than that, I think most ’80s hair metal bands might be too lyrically sleazy to easily qualify as power pop in many cases. Also, too many Jackson guitars and not enough Rickenbackers. Or at least those are easy lines that can be drawn between the genres. I mean, if I’m in a fighting mood I could probably work up an argument for Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me” as a power pop song, but I think I’d rather keep this interview friendly.

You’ve seemed to have kept your finger on the pulse of music throughout all the eras, including our current one. Who are some power pop bands of today?

There’s actually a pretty tremendous indie label here in L.A. called Big Stir Records. It’s run by Christina Bulbenko and Rex Broome of The Armoires. The Big Stir Digital Single series features a lot of excellent underground power pop and power pop adjacent bands like the Persian Leaps, Jim Basnight and the Reflectors (to name a few).

From a more mainstream perspective, White Reaper is a great example of a modern rock band that’s being embraced by the power pop community. And there are plenty of more established power pop acts that still release new music and/or tour, including Paul Collins, Teenage Fanclub, The Rubinoos and Sloan.

Heather Havrilesky on Blondie’s “Parallel Lines”

Heather Havrilesky. Photo by Willy Somma.

Heather was one of the first stars of the internet when she was a staff writer for Suck.com, one of the first profitable webzines, back in 1996. Today, Heather is the author of several beloved books, including last year’s essay collection, “What If This Were Enough?” She writes the popular advice column “Ask Polly” for New York’s The Cut, as well as “Ask Molly,” a newsletter created by “Polly’s evil twin.”

You have kids. Do you even bother to explain to them about the far-away time, way back, when people made phone calls in phone booths as in “Hanging on the Telephone?”

I definitely had to explain what a phone booth was at some point. “No one had cell phones, see, so you would have to stop and find a booth like this and you had to have change…”

But there are so many things like this that you end up describing to kids. “TV was an appliance that showed 4 things, and 3 of them were blurry.” Or “people sent letters in the mail and you would have to wait a long time to hear from someone who was overseas, because calling was way too expensive.”

I will say, though, that there are those things you don’t have to explain to your kids. Like I showed them a video of the Rolling Stones “Beast of Burden” and they were like, “What is up with that guy?” They were fascinated.

I also found Prince’s appearance on Solid Gold, which I remember from being a kid because it fucked me up so hard. And my younger daughter has been quietly listening to The Beatles on a loop for the past year. We never said a word about the Beatles to her, and we didn’t even know she was into them until she started singing the lyrics to “Back in the USSR” out loud while doing something else.

The internet basically fills your kids in on everything; actual parenting and laying down your vast wisdom is no longer necessary, which is why I have so much more free time these days. Just kidding — kind of. 

In your essay you talk about things being dumb: your dad’s girlfriend Peaches, how your family hiked the Grand Canyon and forgot to bring water, ranking people from smartest to dumbest. If anything is dumb on this Blondie album it’s the lyrics. Or am I dumb? 

The lyrics are deliciously stupid. “I will give you my finest hour, the one I spent watching you shower.” I mean, wow. Perfect for a 13-year-old, though, which is what my essay in the book is all about.

Plus I’ve been writing songs again lately, and I’m slowly starting to see the glory of really concrete, vapid lyrics. Like it’s fine to get a little pretentious and poetic and wild, but every now and then you just want something you can sink your teeth into, like ONE WAY OR ANOTHER I’M GONNA FIND YA, I’M GONNA GETCHA GETCHA GETCHA GETCHA!

Listening to “Parallel Lines” through the lens of power pop is actually interesting in that songs like “I’m Gonna Love You” almost seems on par with “One Way or Another” even though it’s really just its awkward little ugly sister.  

Yeah, the whole album fits together really well. Like parts of it sound like something off the soundtrack of “Grease,” or like the fucking The Monkees, or like a jingle for dishwashing liquid. That kind of sugary, cheerful, rhyme-y stuff like “Sunday Girl” is an interesting juxtaposition and compliment to the grinding rock of other songs like “11:59.”

“Heart of Glass” is its own glorious creation, though. It’s just the sound of a skating rink with the disco ball sparkling. A fast dirty-crush sort of jam, though, not a couples’ skate.

In your piece you wrote that you had three Zeppelin and two Police cassettes in the car to go along with your dad’s Blondie tape. Do you think it was a burden or a blessing that when we were kids we had limited options of personal ownership of music where we were forced to listen to that one tape over and over on a long trip — or do you think you’d rather have the entire Spotify library at your disposal in the mid 1980s?

Well, I truly love that my daughter is able to just dive straight into the Beatles’ entire catalog on a whim. That’s unbelievable, really — it’s hard to even cram it into your brain that that’s possible. But personally, I still listen to music as if I only have three or four cassette tapes.

Right now, all I’m listening to is Joanna Newsom’s “Divers,” Eve’s “Rhapsody,” Mozart’s #38-41, and Julian Casablancas’ “Phrazes for the Young.” I think listening to the same thing over and over trains your ear to hear the glory of one person’s work. Not all musicians are worthy of that treatment, but when someone is really worthy, whew, you can really just dive in and make a religion out of their work.

Adam Sternbergh just wrote a great essay in the New York Times about this, as it pertains to the movie “Frozen.” Repetition is a form of meditation. I would argue that it’s also a form of prayer, a way of honoring an artist who’s got their fingers on something you want to touch, too. 

Also in your piece you wrote about this boy at a beach you were crushing on. Why didn’t you kiss him?

He was hot as fuck for a 15-year-old – like Rob Lowe hot, which was the platonic pretty boy ideal of hotness back in the day. But I think I’d kissed one dude with terrible injurious braces at that point, like something out of “Big Mouth” but all awkwardness and zero zing. I was pretty sure that the guy at the beach didn’t think I was that cute; I figured he was just shooting the shit because no other girls were around.

But honestly, I look back at photos of myself from that summer and I think, “Come on girl, you totally could’ve grabbed a piece of that action!” 

But you know what? I’ll bet I learned more from daydreaming about that boy for a solid three weeks to a Blondie soundtrack than I would’ve from actually kissing him. That’s what I’m all about right now: using your imagination to feed yourself.

Obsession can actually feed you if you don’t overdo it. I mean the word “obsession” implies overdoing it, but mere fixation can be used as a means of focusing your energy and channeling all of that electricity into your art or your work.

Everybody needs a hot muse. Or a chumpy muse, even. The platonic ideal of “muse” changes pretty rapidly, as it turns out. I’m here for it. Anything that provides inspiration right now, I want to eat it up. It’s a good way of life! But I think you may have been living this way for a while, Tony.

Rex Weiner in the office of his paper, The New York Ace in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy Rex Weiner.

Rex Weiner on Big Star’s “September Gurls”

Last but not least we have Rex Weiner who, before he was a founding editor of High Times, was the founding publisher and editor of New York ACE whose investors included John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He was one of the first writers on the “Miami Vice” TV series. He wrote a fictional serial about a detective working in the music industry that was published in the LA Weekly in 1979-1980 that would become the film “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.” Those stories have recently been published by Rare Bird.

You open your essay with a beautiful scene of you dropping acid and getting naked with a woman who had shown up at your apartment building looking for rocker Alex Chilton. In a way, it seems to mirror the casually trippy pop of their album “Radio City.” Would you agree?

Sure, it was a sexy, dangerous time in 1970s New York City when, as I say in my essay, the world was falling apart and the only things that were important were getting laid, getting high and, hopefully, the music.

Living in the moment made sense. We were all taking drugs and going out of our minds, but we were also trying to make things happen creatively, trying to set our careers on some kind of course, experimenting with this or that, seeing what worked or didn’t, in life and love.

I’m sure you were paying very close attention to “September Gurls” when it was released. Why do you think it never charted? 

Honestly, I wasn’t paying that much attention to the record release. I’d heard Alex play the song for me when it was still freshly written — I liked it a lot. But it was my impression that Alex had experienced pop music success with the Boxtops — “The Letter”! “Neon Rainbow”! So by the time he and I were hanging out in the Village, a number one record wasn’t what he was looking for — even though he made an album called “Number One Record.”

The irony involved in doing that was what Alex was all about. But then again, I don’t know what he felt about not achieving commercial success with Big Star.

Blind Orange Julius. Photo courtesy Rex Weiner.

In his lifetime, I imagine he felt celebrated and appreciated in a cultish sort of way. I hope he was OK with that.

What did Big Star sound like at CBGBs? 

Everybody sounded horrible at CBGBs, but it was always a fun gig. The energy required to overcome the crappy acoustics carried the message. I even played there a few times with my group, Blind Orange Julius. Lester Bangs played harmonica with us.

Is “Radio City” just a little too weird to be considered Power Pop?

I think Power Pop is weird music to begin with — tunes for introverts who secretly believe they’d blow Mick Jagger off a stage if given the chance — but fuck it, they say to themselves: Why should I bother? So “Radio City” fits right into the spectrum, so to speak. It’s a very mixed bag of tunes.

Near the end of your essay are you saying the line in “September Gurls” that goes “I was your Butch…” was in reference to the Disney bulldog in the Mickey Mouse cartoon? Was that something that everyone knew?

The lyrics are baffling to a lot of people, as they were to me for a long time. But in the course of researching my essay, I did a deep Google dive and found a video interview with Jody Stephens in which he solves the mystery.

Alex apparently had this little in-joke with his girlfriend about how he followed her around like Butch, the dog in the cartoon —or something like that. He had a cute side to his personality. Girls loved it.

Los Angeleno