Retro Action 28: Power Pop Releases – Old & New

Just as good theatre relies on friction and conflict to move the story along, good power pop has always thrived on life’s discord to hammer its point home. With themes deeply rooted in the idea of missed opportunities, alienation, loneliness, and quiet desperation, power pop has always provided safe harbor to the underdogs, geeks, and misfits of the music business.

Prime examples of power pop’s glorious despair can be found deep in the foolhardy chords of genre VIPs such as Cheap Trick, The Cars, Raspberries, The Replacements, Big Star, Squeeze, and even Green Day to name a few. Although individual styles of the aforementioned pioneers may range, they all share—and seem to revel in—similar variations of the aforementioned themes and emotions.

Drawing from a range of elements such as the idiosyncratic melodicism of the Beatles, the power-chord crunch of The Who, the lush jangle of The Byrds, and the big harmonies of the Beach Boys, the genre began to take shape in the early ‘70s. By mid-decade, power pop and punk soon began to swap spit with the two genres often crossing over and cross-pollinating. While there was a definite synchronicity across the globe with this type of more sensitive and hookier punk variation, there were especially strong scenes for it in the clubs of Los Angeles and London for a spell, before the genre would go mostly underground for years to come.

But alas, recently, a clutch of power pop releases has been unleashed on the public, epitomizing different eras and nuances of this small, but much-beloved genre.

First up: Shoes. Formed by brothers John and Jeff Murphy, along with friend Gary Klebe in 1974, Shoes hailed from Zion Illinois (about 75 miles from their much more famous power pop cousins, Cheap Trick). While still teenagers, the band set about honing its craft, eventually leading to the release of its indie album Black Market Shoes in 1977. The band’s sound was less edgy than the aforementioned Cheap Trick, less loud than its more punk-infused cohorts, and less-jangly than the hordes of Big Star copyists, but its sound is very reliably power pop, nevertheless. The brothers Murphy share a symbiotic relationship when it comes to deft harmonies, and while the songs tend to focus mostly on the pitfalls of puppy love, they’re just off-kilter enough to give them a slightly somber tone, filtered through a bright pop sheen.

The band was signed to Elekta Records in 1979 and released its debut Present Tense that same year. It happened to be a big year for power pop with major releases from The Knack, Joe Jackson, Cheap Trick, Nick Lowe and others, so it’s a safe bet that the label was looking to cash in on a trend.

The album stands as Shoes’ best major-label offering, featuring the best examples of its somber pop approach, exemplified in “Too Late,” “Hangin’ Around with You,” and “Somebody Has What I had.” At the time of its release, MTV was a brand-new vehicle and aired four of the band’s videos—“Tomorrow Night,” “Too Late,” “In My Arms Again,” and “Cruel You.” In spite of the exposure, as well as consistently high marks from rock critics, the band failed to cut through in a big way,

Present Tense would be followed up by Tongue Twister in 1980 and Boomerang in 1982, at which point, the band’s fortunes would begin to sink, and it would soon be dropped by the label. Shoes would continue to release albums via independent labels throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s, as well as reform now and then for live shows.

The band’s Elektra canon can now be had in one sweet little box: Elektafied: The Elektra Years 1979-1982, courtesy of Cherry Red Records. Each album comes in its own mini-LP sleeve with bonus tracks, plus there’s a fourth disc of rare tracks—including demos, acoustic tracks, live versions and more. Packed neatly in a glossy clamshell box, the set also comes with a 32-page book packed with photos and vignettes about these lost power pop treasures.

The Flamin’ Groovies are not only power pop pioneers, but in many cases, the forerunners to punk rock itself. With a career spanning several decades, the band started life playing a loud-and-dirty blues/garage/rockabilly hybrid for its first few albums, only to part ways with its label and go on semi-hiatus for several years. As luck would have it, the band would get signed again in the mid-‘70s by the punk champions at Sire Records (The Ramones’ label).

After a lineup change that saw front man Roy Loney replaced by Chris Wilson, the band shed its proto-punk leanings for a more ‘60s-influenced power pop sound, which in retrospect, would turn out to be its most revered era. It’s first album for the label Shake Some Action, would not only put the band back on the map, but would solidify its place in the power pop pantheon with its epic title track. The song “Shake Some Action” epitomizes the genre in spades, with big riffs, even bigger harmonies and a melodic guitar refrain that affixes itself deep within the psyche, making it impossible to shake (pun intended).

The band would release two more albums for Sire before taking another extended break: Flamin’ Groovies Now and Jumpin’ In the Night, both of which have just been reissued on CD by MVD. The former (1978), produced by Dave Edmunds, continues on the power pop path charted by Shake Some Action, and is dominated by mostly covers, with highlights including “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones and “Feel A Whole Lot Better” by The Byrds. Original numbers “Good Laugh Mun,” and “Yeah My Baby” power along with jangly guitar riffs and some Beatlesque harmonies.

Jumpin’ In the Night (1979) follows a similar blueprint with slightly bluesier results. A scrappy cover of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” makes for a standout, as well as the title track. Both albums come remastered with a bevy of bonus tracks.

Jumping up a few decades, Chicago’s Enuff Z’Nuff has just released an album of all-new material in Generation Brainwashed. With a long and turbulent history dating back to the mid-’80s, the band is one of the biggest anomalies within the power pop arena. The band’s first album dates back to 1989, a couple years before grunge would eventually hit. Led by Donnie Vie on vocals and guitar, and bassist Chip Z’Nuff, the band was quickly lumped in with the pop metal scene of the day (now often referred to as “hair metal”). But, its actual sound was on a completely different plane than its rivals in the scene. The band’s quirky combo of power pop, ‘60s psychedelia and hard rock, had more to do with The Beatles and Cheap Trick than anything Bon Jovi ever did. If it wasn’t for the Eddie Van Halen stylings of guitarist Derek Frigo (RIP), then the power pop sound would be far more pronounced.  

But beyond the sound, what also made Enuff Z’Nuff a paradox was its image. By 1989, many of the original glam metal bands had toned down the glitz, opting instead to follow the street template of cowboy boots and motorcycle jackets set by Guns N’ Roses, a few years prior. For whatever reason, Enuff Z’Nuff decided to follow a completely different track—opting for bright, fluorescent colors, shimmering lipstick and…peace signs(!). The band was either far ballsier than the everyone else, or woefully unaware that their fashions were a tad passé and that the hippy movement had long since died. Either way, MTV embraced them, and songs, like the Beatlesque “New Thing” and ballad “Fly High Michelle” quickly became staples.

The combination of Vie’s Elvis Costello-style vocals, metal guitars and creative arrangements bucked virtually all trends and broadened the band’s appeal well beyond the hard rock arena. Second album Strength stands as the band’s most celebrated work (both with fans and critics), but in true Enuff Z’Nuff fashion, the band would soon begin to fall apart, just as grunge began its brief ascendance. Now, after 30 years of criminally underrated independent releases, drug problems, overdoses, health issues, legal trouble and a seemingly endless revolving door of musicians, the band (or at least a small portion of it) is back with Generation Brainwashed (Frontiers).

As Vie left the band for good in 2013, Chip Z’Nuff (the only remaining core member) has been handling the lead vocals as well as much of the songwriting. While lacking the style and polish of Vie in the vocal department, Z’Nuff has begun to find his voice, helping to make this new album a stronger offering than 2018’s Diamond Boy.

Enuff Z’Nuff 2020

Opening with the melancholy instrumental intro “The Gospel,” the album moves into the Cheap Trick-flavored “Fatal Distraction,” even biting off the band’s highly identifiable intro to “Clock Strikes Ten.” Nevertheless, the song also features some svelte harmonies and lush guitar flourishes. Another standout is “Help I’m In Hell,” which kicks off with a mammoth vocal arrangement that rides the wave of an eerie soundscape and perfectly sets the tone for the song’s downhearted pop stylings. “Strangers in My Head” features none other than Donnie Vie on guest vocals, his first collaboration since 2013. Another somewhat somber pop number, the song recalls The Beatles’ White Album in its moody grooves.

Since parting ways with major labels in the mid-‘90s, Enuff Z’Nuff has continually veered more and more toward classic power pop territory, which is probably a byproduct of not being under the thumb of big corporate entities hell-bent on pigeonholing artists based on current trends. This new release is consistent with that, and overall, it works (in spite of the corny album cover).

For questions, comments, or something you’d like to see, drop me a line at Cheers, Kaz

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