Power pop sprang from 1960s British and American rock music, and often combines the tight harmonies, infectious melodies, minimal arrangements, catchy guitar riffs, and boy-meets-girl lyrics of bubblegum rock with a slightly tougher hard rock crunch. Though still a popular genre among music enthusiasts today, with many contemporary acts making new music, power pop of the 1970s and 1980s had a glorious vibe to it that has kept its lustre through the decades. Here are a few of my favorite power pop acts that debuted in the seventies (and one from the very early eighties). Some are less well-remembered than others, but all deserve a new listen from those who haven’t experienced them yet, or a nostalgic visit from those who consider these acts long time favorites.
The debut album from this Philadelphia-based quintet is one of two that the band recorded for Arista Records. The group flirted with punk rock sensibilities, and sported a large dollop of humor in their lyrics. Check out “Grounded/Twist and Shout Interpolation” for a perfect example of this.
Here’s their entire debut album!
Boston’s The Cars made its presence known from the very start, with the group’s eponymous debut album boasting three hit singles. The Cars sounded like nothing else on radio at the time, thanks in part to having Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker at the knobs. With a simultaneously stripped-down new wave/power pop sound bolstered by multilayered vocal harmonies, The Cars found fans among different genres of rock fans and rode their wave of early success to become one of America’s most beloved groups well into the 1980s.
Rockford, Illinois’ finest are still putting out amazing albums and touring like crazy today, and their body of work has influenced countless other rock bands. Their “I Want You to Want Me” single, recorded live at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall, is still a staple on classic rock radio, along with “Surrender” from their 1978 album Heaven Tonight. Equally at home with harder rock sporting more complex arrangements and basic power pop, the group’s catalog is one of the strongest in the annals of rock music. Because we’re concentrating on power pop from the seventies here, though, I’ll recommend In Color and Heaven Tonight as starting points — but drop the needle anywhere on any of the group’s 1970s releases and you’ll be hooked.
Here’s a link to listen to In Color in its entirety, lucky readers:
The Greg Kihn Band
Before he found himself with the chartbusters “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)” from 1981 and “Jeopardy” from 1983, Greg Kihn released five albums for Beserkley and was well known in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was fortunate enough to catch him headlining club shows. His early material is well worth a listen for power pop fans, and is filled with great melodies and solid lyrics.
Great news: The Greg Kihn Band just last month released its first album in 21 years, Rekihndled!
When the Knack’s Get the Knack album was unleashed in April 1979, the band absolutely exploded. “My Sharona” rocketed to the top of the Billboard Singles chart, and the follow-up “Good Girls Don’t” reached number 11. The band was ultra tight, led by singer/guitarist Doug Fieger, whose formula for risque lyrics coupled with infectious guitar hooks was successful enough to land the debut platter at the top of the Billboard Albums chart for five weeks, resulting in a double platinum record. Almost as quickly as the band found success, it also found itself fighting a backlash from critics and music buyers who considered the group a flash-in-the-pan Beatles rip-off.
“Your Number or Your Name”
Growing up in northern California, I was fortunate enough to discover Berkeley’s The Rubinoos when they opened for Elvin Bishop(!) at the Stockton Civic Auditorium. Their debut longplayer embodied pure power pop, and almost any of its songs could have been hit singles — had their sound not been both behind and ahead of their times. From the funky guitar riff and “every boy” tale of “Hard to Get” to the classic sixties pop song sound of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the Rubinoos’ self-titled debut is an essential power pop classic. Listen for an unexpected dose of hard rock in the fantastic “Rock and Roll Is Dead”!
Prepare to fall in love with the group’s debut album!
Before releasing his 1980 debut album, Phil Seymour had provided vocals for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ songs “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” and had been with the Dwight Twilley Band for the debut album Sincerely and the sophomore effort Twilley Don’t Mind, performing shared lead and background vocal duties with Twilley, and playing bass and drums. The band had a number 16 Billboard hit with the power pop classic “I’m on Fire” [[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGn1mwxfsLU]] in April 1975, but after the two albums failed to catch on, Seymour decided to go solo. His self-titled debut album is an absolute gem, and if someone told me they had never heard a power pop album before and requested a suggested place to start, I would absolutely recommend this longplayer. Phil reached number 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Precious to Me.” After a second solo album and some time with a roots rock band called The Textones, Seymour succumbed to lymphoma at age 41 in 1993.
“Baby It’s You”:
This British group — which released its 15th studio album, The Knowledge, last month — is led by Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, who are considered by many to be one of the absolute finest songwriting teams in the world. Though the group embraced many different rock and pop styles throughout its storied career, its early albums such as Cool for Cats and Argybargy are chock full of fabulous power pop tunes.
“Squabs on Forty Fab” is the B-side of the band’s British “Labelled with Love” single; it’s a tongue-in-cheek take-off on the then-popular Stars on 45-style hit medleys. Even though Squeeze was kidding around when they made this medley, it shows their absolute brilliance, and is a fun introduction to the group.
To give you a full song from Squeeze, however, here’s my favorite of theirs, “Up the Junction”:
I have written about Sweet twice before for When It Was Cool, in my articles “My Top 10 Hard Rock Albums of 1976” and “My Top 17 Hard Rock Albums Celebrating Their 40th Anniversaries in 2017,” and chances are high that I will write about them again! Sweet is an outstanding British rock band that found success with three different chapters to its career heyday. They had massive hits worldwide as a power pop/bubblegum/glam rock act, then as a hard rock group, and finally as a progressive rock band. How many other bands can boast the same? Their string of hit singles from 1971 to 1975 is outstanding.
Why settle for one song when you can have a whole medley? Here’s a fun mix of several of their hit singles called “It’s . . . It’s . . . the Sweet Mix!”
Here’s “Wig Wam Bam,” one of Sweet’s UK hits that didn’t chart in the United States. One listen and you may be puzzled as to why it didn’t click here in 1972, especially considering that their “Little Willy” reached number 3 on the singles chart that same year.
This British band recorded so many great songs that it is practically unfathomable. Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding could pile layers of catchy hooks together — sometimes on top of one another — and their lyrics were often wry and deceptively playful, though they also had no problems tackling societal ills head on. By the time “Mayor of Simpleton” reached number 1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart (and number 72 on the U.S. Singles chart) in January 1989, XTC had already been an acclaimed new wave/postpunk/alternative rock act for more than a decade in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
“Life Begins at the Hop”
There are loads of other great power pop bands, songs, and albums from the seventies, and this short list is in no way meant to be exhaustive. When It Was Cool would love to hear what some of your favorites were . . . Let us know!
Joseph Perry is one of the hosts of When It Was Cool’s exclusive Uphill Both Ways podcast (whenitwascool.com/up-hill-both-ways-podcast/) and Gruesome Magazine’s Decades of Horror: The Classic Era podcast (decadesofhorror.com/category/classicera/).
He also writes for the retro pop culture website That’s Not Current (thatsnotcurrent.com), the Gruesome Magazine horror movie website (gruesomemagazine.com), and several other print and online film critique and pop culture magazines.
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