POP MUSIC : Rediscovering the Beatles (Sort of) : Power Pop bands put their spin on ‘60s sound, but their acquaintance with the Fab Four is secondhand and backward
Like the character in the old Steely Dan song who has to tell his younger lover, “Hey, 19, that’s ‘Retha Franklin,” one invariably feels one’s age explaining to teen-agers and even some young adults that “Yesterday” wasn’t always elevator music, and that Ringo Starr was in a rock band before he landed that gig playing the miniature train conductor on a Saturday morning kids’ show.
While the Beatles’ virtues are lavishly admired by musicians old enough to know, the fabbest of foursomes had become a sadly under-emulated presence by the early ‘90s--judging from the evidence on every modern radio format.
But a slight turning of the tide is evident.
There’s an emerging new wave of rambunctious Power Pop bands that recall the days when moptops were geniuses, songs were around three minutes long and a great hook--a catchy melodic phrase that “hooks” the listener--was godhead.
Though not ground-breaking, these up-and-coming outfits put their own spin on ‘60s- and ‘70s-inspired pop, and in the best instances combine a mature or sophisticated lyrical sense with the frothy charge of a good, unpretentious melody.
And at a time when traditional pop artistry seems to have fallen mostly into the hands of a mellowing older generation, some of these talented new bands are virtual prodigies, too young to really remember the Beatles, who inspired this sound.
Take the average ages of the triumvirate at the spearhead of this not-quite-a-movement:
* The Posies, from Seattle: 22.
* Jellyfish, from San Francisco: 22.
* Redd Kross, from L.A.: 25.
Among the other young bands that might fall under the loose banner of Power Pop are such disparate but uniformly tuneful groups as Material Issue, the La’s, Too Much Joy, the Rembrandts, the Cavedogs and the Williams Brothers--joining elder statesmen still on the scene like Crowded House, Marshall Crenshaw and Chris Stamey & Peter Holsapple.
Material Issue’s Ted Ansani--yes, he’s also in his early 20s--confesses: “I knew who the Beatles were but didn’t get into them till I was older. They were a band that my parents liked, so it wasn’t cool.”
“I can’t figure out why we’re so attracted to certain eras of music, because we’re not old enough to have been around when all those records came out,” says Jonathan Auer, the 21-year-old co-leader of the Posies. “I guess what it comes down to is we’re in love with songs .
“Twenty years ago, what was the Top 40 then is what you still listen to now, basically. But the current Top 40 is something that in 20 years I’m not gonna even remember, much less listen to. I can’t figure out what’s happened to music.”
Just how influential was the British Invasion on a generation of musicians being born about the time the four bickering Beatles were playing their last rooftop concert?
But not always directly.
“I was much more influenced by ELO and Cheap Trick,” says Jellyfish’s Andy Sturmer. “After a while I heard a Beatles album and thought, ‘Wow, what’s up here with these guys?’ I kinda went about it backwards.”
Adds fellow ‘Fish member Chris Manning: “The first time I heard ‘Dear Prudence’ was the Siouxsie & the Banshees version. I thought it was a great song, had no idea it was by the Beatles.”
Concurs Auer: “We’re a little too young to be affected by (the Beatles’ albums) on a firsthand basis. A lot of our ‘60s-ish-ness is actually early-'80s-ish-ness, a pop sensibility that came from listening to Squeeze and XTC, who all went through their phases of (Beatles emulation). You know Elvis Costello’s ‘Party Girl’? That has the classic ‘Abbey Road'-type ending on it. That’s kind of how we discovered a lot of the older stuff.”
That the catchy ingredients once standard issue in rock are now looked upon as potentially off-putting novelties strikes Power Pop practitioners as ironic.
“There’s a lot of traditionalism in what we do,” asserts Sturmer. “For it to be looked at as foreign or ‘alternative’ or just a small little sect of what’s going on today is beyond me.”
The record industry’s not sure whether there’s a market for this sound again, but almost every major label has signed at least one of the new Power Pop outfits.
The first gantlet for these bands and record companies to pass through is the nation’s radio programmers.
Can Power Pop find its place amid all the fragmented formats?
The Posies’ “Dear 23" and Jellyfish’s “Bellybutton” are in every way remarkably assured albums for acts of any age, let alone such relative youngsters.
But despite their seemingly commercial sound, there’s no real niche in radio right now for acts with these virtues. If they’re considered generally too odd or undanceable by Top 40 standards, they’re often regarded as not nearly weird or edgy enough for college and alternative radio, landing them in commercial limbo.
Is this “new” old sound better aimed at the teen Nelson crowd or the more sophis ticated, collegiate R.E.M. audience?
The Posies learned early on what they were up against, developing their craft as teen-agers and “total outcasts” in Seattle, where their preference for a Zombies-esque approach butted heads with the distortion, atonality and attitude of the Sub Pop Records bunch ruling the local scene.
Power Pop supporter Karen Glauber, editor of Hits magazine’s “post-modern” section, where R.E.M. has been king for more than a day, finds resistance to her beloved Posies and Jellyfish at some of the alternative rock radio stations that report their playlists to her each week.
“The popular conception is that these bands are ‘retro,’ or not post-modern enough because they’re not grunge and because the Posies are from Seattle and don’t sound like Mudhoney,” says Glauber.
Lewis Largent, music director at L.A. alternative outlet KROQ-FM (106.7), has noticed tremendous audience response to the La’s’ “There She Goes” and Material Issue’s aggressive “Valerie Loves Me,” though prettier numbers like the Posies’ “Golden Blunders” and Jellyfish’s “That Is Why” have also been programmed.
“It seems like they don’t sell a ton of records, but they’re really good radio songs,” says Largent. However, he warns, “You can’t play too many of ‘em at once, or it sounds like an ‘adult alternative’ station, like a harder version of KOST.
“To me, it’s all very ‘70s bubble-gum pop. . . . I think the kids that grew up in the ‘70s were inspired by that pop sound from when they were 5 or 10 years old. They all do fairly well, but I think that for it to be a movement, it needs a king, just like R.E.M. was the king of the American rock pack, to really kick in.”
Largent’s view that these groups hark back more to the ‘70s than the hallowed decade that preceded it is borne out by the vintage of Power Pop’s origins--the early and mid-'70s, when Badfinger briefly carried on the Beatles’ legacy, the Sweet and Todd Rundgren married glam-rock to bubble gum, and Dwight Twilley and the Babys began trading hooks with Cheap Trick.
The term Power Pop first came into wide use during the L.A. club explosion in the late ‘70s, when the Knack--deliberately treading in the Beatles’ shoes in nearly every possible way--became an overnight success and like-minded locals like the Plimsouls, 20/20 and the Pop all melded punk’s peaking energy with a return to melody and formal songwriting elegance.
Rather than stick strictly with the girl-infatuation of the British Invasion, the music got cheekier and more sophisticated. On the English side, there was Squeeze, the Undertones and Nick Lowe; Stateside, the new wave brought the dBs, the Smithereens, Shoes and Marshall Crenshaw; and Crowded House, rising out of the ashes of Split Enz, checked in from New Zealand.
The Posies’ Auer also found inspiration in the droll Smiths, who would “always have these ultra-depressing lyrics over the perkiest, poppiest beat possible. In a way it made it a little more poignant.”
In contrast to the Posies’ earnest emotionalism, punk-turned-pop band Redd Kross outrightly exploits its wonder years for camp, dredging up the Partridge Family, bell-bottoms and other vintage kitsch. Somewhere in the middle--more clownish than the Posies but less tongue-in-cheek and parodistic than Redd Kross--is Jellyfish, which unabashedly includes among its encores ‘70s staples like “Jet,” “The Logical Song” and “No Matter What.”
Some of these bands are openly wary of the Power Pop tag, mindful of how quickly the Knack and its successors disappeared. And though being viewed as revivalists is undesirable, it seems to come with the territory.
“ ‘Classic pop virtues’ is a good way to put it,” says Auer. “I get really tired of ‘retro.’ It’s not like we’re bringing something back. We can’t say we’ve never heard of the ‘60s, but I don’t want to get stuck with that connotation forever. Everything that’s come before, as far as I’m concerned, is all fair musical game. Everything came from someplace.”
The Posies didn’t learn only about the Beatles from their parents--that’s also where they got the raw emotional subject matter for their lyrics.
The Posies’ “Dear 23" album--which most recalls the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” period--is the most melancholic and emotionally mature of the genre, its lovely depths penetrating various levels of family dysfunction, ill-prepared sexual bonding, abortion, babies, infidelity and thrown plates.
And the close-to-home lyrics of wedlock and separation make it sound as if the Posies, even at their tender young age, have been through a couple broken marriages of their own.
“I think we’re part of the divorced-parent generation,” says Auer, explaining where the lyrical insight comes from. “My folks have been married so many times that I just had this perspective on it for the longest time. The song ‘Suddenly Mary’ is almost like I’m pretending I’m my father.
“It’s funny, because here we are, 21, 22, and some people think, ‘Oh, these guys must have gone through all these heavy emotional things.’ And in a way we did--it’s just more reflective, because we watched it happen. But it was so close to home that it became instantly relatable to us.”