Retro Action #19: Power Pop and Punk Reissues

Retro Action #19: Power Pop and Punk Reissues

Power pop is one of those pesky sub-genres that eludes easy definition and often gets overlooked and misplaced. In reality, the genre has a pretty vast range of styles and unlike more clear-cut genres like metal or synth pop, its attributes can differ. But one aspect that is pretty set in stone is its history. Early power pop harnessed the overt melodicism of The Beatles, the bright harmonies of the Beach Boys and the crunchy guitar blasts of The Who, and filtered it all through a more contemporary perspective and louder gear.

Some early power pop examples would now be seen as classic rock, with the likes of Badfinger and The Raspberries, who both heavily leveraged ’60s influences. There was also Big Star, whose jangly, introspective style would influence hordes of future alternative bands like R.E.M., and Cheap Trick, who brought power pop to the masses. The punk contingent played a pretty dominant role in the UK, with a faster and snottier take on the blueprint. The LA scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s incorporated various facets of the above, with many of its players donning skinny ties and suits in homage of the original ’60s movement.

All of this may seem pretty dissimilar on the surface, but there are some common threads that serve to tie it together. A lot of it comes down to lyrics and overall tone. Power pop thrives on healthy shots of alienation, apprehension and melancholy; its uniting factor being its underdog appeal, which is often exemplified in its bittersweet refrains and melodic guitar licks. Recently, the power pop gods have spoken and we’ve seen a flurry of new releases celebrating bands of yore. Read on for a few standouts.

After being canned by the band Sparks in the mid ’70s, bassist Martin Gordon went about forming the short-lived glam super group, Jet that would eventually morph into power pop heroes, Radio Stars in 1977. Hitting the UK scene during the first wave of punk, the band’s sarcastic brand of raunchy pop would prove to be a good fit.

The band featured vocalist Andy Ellison who’d previously done time in Jet and was a core member of ‘60s garage pioneers John’s Children (featuring future T.Rex star Marc Bolan at one point), along with Ian MacLeod on guitar and Chris Townson on drums. Gordon’s trashy, upbeat songs the perfect platform for Ellison’s unhinged delivery. Numbers like the sardonically catchy “Nervous Wreck,” the chugging “The Beast of Barnsley” and the more traditionally punk “Dirty Pictures” showcase the band’s range and personality, while its strong stage presence also served to set it apart. But alas, the Radio Stars’ brand of punk-infused power pop was both a bit too off-kilter for the mainstream, and too quirky for punk purists. Per that, it quietly disappeared.

Radio Stars’ two studio albums, Songs for Swinging Lovers (1977) and Holiday Album (1978) have been reissued through Cherry Red Records as part of the new Thinking Inside the Box set. The cool little clam-shell box also contains the comps Singles & Rarities and At the BBC!, along with a booklet. For those who enjoy their power pop with a slice of wry, this band is for you.

Another similar set comes from first-wave punk pioneers The Vibrators. More acerbic and attitude-laden than most of the power pop contingent, The Vibrators’ repertoire still featured its fair share of big hooks, melodic bits and shout-along choruses, which puts them in the neighborhood. Led by the inimitable Knox on vocals, the band’s first album Pure Mania (1977) is pure classic. From the fist-pumping refrain of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” to the bittersweet guitar lick of “Sweet Sweet Heart” and the heavy drone of “Baby Baby,” the album does not disappoint. The album is now part of 4-disc set, The Epic Years 1976-1978, and captures the brief period where major labels jumped on the punk bandwagon for a spell (they would again with the advent of Green Day years later). Also included is the band’s second album V2, which showcases its knack for power pop hooks even more so, without sacrificing the energy displayed on the first album. Standout cuts include the Top-40 single ‘Automatic Lover.” This set includes each album remastered, in packaging that replicates the original artwork. (Cherry Red)

Hailing from Memphis in the early 1970s, Big Star’s legacy is not only revered by power pop purists, but by throngs of alt-rock musicians from the decades to follow. Led by singer/songwriter Alex Chilton (who scored a hit as a kid with The Box Tops in the 1960s), the band were also critical favorites, so much so, that all three of their original albums made it into Rolling Stone’s Top 500 list. Known for its shimmering guitars, Chilton’s introspective lyrics and thoughtful arrangements, the band’s approach was the antithesis of more brazen acts at the other end of the spectrum.

The Best of Big Star culls tracks from the band’s original LPs—#1 Record (1972)Radio City (1974) and Third, which was posthumously released in the late ’70s. Tracks like the laid-back and airy “Thirteen,” and the rousing “In the Street” (later covered by Cheap Trick as the theme of That 70s Show), sound crisp and energized in this newly remastered comp, which also includes some rare single editions you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. (Stax Records)

From San Francisco’s The Sneetches comes the new comp Form of Play: A Retrospective. This offbeat brood played a curious collection of heavily ’60s-influenced pop rock with a flair for textural guitars, unexpected melodic twists and a sense of melancholy. Formed by punk vets Mike Levy (vocals, bass) and Matt Carges (guitar), the band drafted drummer Daniel Swan of classic UK punks The Cortinas. The trio eventually added bassist Alejandro “Alec” Palao. The band would go on to release several albums during the late ’80s and beyond, and were even signed to the iconic Creation Records label in the UK. One of the more interesting aspects of the band is its oddball appeal. On one hand, it stood out like a sore thumb amongst the grunge, industrial and hardcore scenes, but kept on chugging away at its craft. Yet, when Brit Pop broke in the mid ‘’90s, the Sneetches were unable to hitch onto that scene’s success, and thus, remaining a somewhat underappreciated cult band.

This new comp captures a nice cross-section of Sneetches gems in remastered form, in a plush digipack sleeve. Standout tracks are “Over ’Round Each Other,” “Behind the Shadow” and the previously unreleased “Julianna Why.” (Omnivore)

In pictures and promo materials The Inmates look pretty similar to many of the power pop bands that appeared on the UK scene during the late ’70s. But shaggy hair and vintage dinner jackets aside, this lot played a driving, R&B-infused set laced with speed-fueled riffs and the gritty vocals of singer Bill Hurley. Rooted in vintage soul music and garage rock, the band’s sound had punk overtones, especially in its anthemic hooks and sweaty delivery. Produced by Motörhead producer Vic Maile, the band’s first album, the aptly titled First Offence is a scorcher, and even charted in these parts with a raucous cover of garage great “Dirty Water” (originally by The Standells).

A new CD box set from reissue gurus Cherry Red compiles the band’s first three studio albums, each enclosed in a mini-LP style sleeve that replicates the original artwork, plus a booklet. There are 46 track in total, making this a must for fans at the intersection of punk, power pop and pub rock.

What power pop piece would be complete without at least a mention or two of Cheap Trick? It just so happens that the band has a killer new comp out, plus a new LP that’s just released. The Epic Archive, Vol. 1 (1975-1979) was pulled together by none other than original drummer Bun. E. Carlos, who is known for his meticulous documentation of the band’s legacy. For hardcore Cheap Trick fans, much of this unearthed material is nothing real new. But for those not entirely immersed in the little band from Rockford’s vast catalog, it’s a great place to start. The comp features 18 tracks, a few of which have been pretty hard to track down—including an alternate, stripped-down version of “Dream Police,” rare deep track “Lookout,” and an alternate version of “Surrender.” The insightful folks at prime reissue label Real Gone Music have included a bevy of key info with this release, including commentary from Carlos on each track in the liner notes. Sonically speaking, the remastered tracks sound very good, with the band at its peak powers during this period.

For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, Kaz

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