Saturday, February 24, 2007

Thoughts on Rock and Roll in the Seventies-Punk and Power Pop (Part I)

The Punk Originators


Much like garage rock, power pop is one of the most fluid and hard to define musical genres in music. No one has yet to really define it, and that may be because like punk and its early, narrow and short-lived forebear glam-rock, both of which have more slightly tangible boundaries, it is part of rock and roll’s third generation. That is to say it came of age in the seventies, a very confusing and musically messy decade.

The true genesis of Rock and Roll lies with Chuck Berry—both rock’s Creator and Adam. Then came the girl groups, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, The Byrds and the American underground garage movement, and its British counterpart. And in the seventies came the great rupture and the subsequent untidy flowering of all rock’s subgenres.

That is all excruciatingly reductive, but it spells out rock’s explosive beginnings, the origins that would lead to the fracturing of rock’s still feral potency in the seventies. This feral potency did not register in all of rock and roll’s third-generation forms—there was showy prog-rock, trite country-rock, ham fisted traditional rock, and of course disco which brought with it the thrill of dancing and drugs. Neither of these genres were particularly feral or potent, but all of which were strong enough to elicit varying degrees of mass commercial appeal.

There were still of course seventies iconoclasts that were either an ill fit for genre classification or were just holdovers from the sixties—The Rolling Stones, Wings, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, the resilient Bob Dylan, John Lennon, David Bowie, the superstar Minimalists and the German Kraut-Rockers. But to me, the disco decade will historically be known for the rise of rock’s twin progeny—power pop and punk.

The feral potency first revealed itself as a conduit in the late sixties, most noticeably in the proto-punk groups, The Velvet Underground, the MC5 and The Stooges. All three of which were direct antecedents of punk’s first wave. This initial wave of proto-punk bands however, were not nearly as influential to the less aggressive power poppers that dotted the American and British landscapes as the seventies began to draw to a close. They looked mainly to the British beat groups who had begun crafting more muscular harmonic guitar pop—late-era Beatles, The Hollies, The Kinks and The Who (the latter two came out of the box fairly muscular).

Punk has almost historically been described as a social movement but I find it more helpful to see it, like power pop, as a musical movement. This conflation occurs because of the historically fluid musical crosscurrent that ran between the United States and the UK. Punk, created and named in the States, had its zenith in Great Britain where it gained commercial traction, mainly because of economic and social volatility and the relative geographic compactness of the country. In the wide-open spaces of America, punk was like a fascinating urban abnormality—a fetish that could hold your gaze, but could never become the commercially viable product that it did in Britain.

In fact, many think falsely that punk had as its original sin, an overt fascination with politics or radicalism. It is true that in America the MC5 were explicitly political, with their White Panther Party ties and appearance at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention, but they were an early anomaly.

The real bridge between the original proto-punk bands and punk’s first wave were the bizarrely theatrical and exhibitionistic, yet apolitical New York Dolls. The lines are easily drawn: first, like The Velvets, The Sonics, The Ronettes and T. Rex, The New York Dolls were key early influences on the original punk band, The Ramones, and second, Malcolm McLaren—prior to famously cobbling together and managing the punk rock version of the Monkees, The Sex Pistols—handled the last few Dolls shows.

The New York Dolls did seem obsessed with sexual and gender politics in a tongue-in-cheek way, but it would be a mistake to consider them overtly political. And in the case of the Ramones, if sniffing glue was a political issue, then they’d be political, but it is not. One may argue that The Dead Boys were politicized in a way, insofar as their fascination with the shock-value of swastikas was concerned, but they were mostly just a bunch of dummies from Cleveland who wanted to be scandalous. Politics was an obvious element of punk that came later, mainly when the British got a hold of it.

Power Pop shunned the nihilistic feeling of dread and frustration that formed punk’s alienated ethos. Instead, it mined the richly naïve romanticism of rock’s early practitioners. Whereas punk may have channeled Chuck Berry’s guitar aesthetic (with Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders as primary conduits), power pop adopted his “School Days” lyrical style. Alex Chilton took that early sixties rock-naiveté, made famous by Berry, The Beatles and The Beach Boys, and fused it with a youthful restlessness (explicitly name checking The Stones) but never approaching the futuristic bleakness that the punk rabble would one day predict, on Big Star’s delicate acoustic ramble “Thirteen.”

Where punk would later turn awkward, shameful, angry and guarded, power pop was unabashed and unashamed, no matter how much like The Beatles it sounded, no matter how close to bubble gum it was. Punk set itself up as the antithesis to the sunny pop of The Beatles, and the mania it had one day inspired and the legend it had spawned. Joe Strummer sang in 1979, in the ultimate generational throw down: “London calling, now don't look to us Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.”

Of course, the ironic part was that John Lennon had already thrown the first and heaviest shovelful of dirt on Beatlemania’s fresh corpse eight years earlier when he uttered the crushing words: “I don't believe in kings, I don't believe in Elvis, I don't believe in Zimmerman, I don't believe in Beatles,” in his beautiful apostatizing lament “God.”

Power Pop on the other hand seemed to be in awe of the exuberance of sixties harmonic-pop. Even if it didn’t share with its forebears a love of traditional folk or blues-based rock, it was fairly musically virtuosic (unlike punk) and conventional where lyrics were concerned. Power pop was slightly skewed but it never truly challenged in the same way the Cain-like Punk did.

Punk shared an immediacy and rebelliousness with rock, but created a generational rift initially with its harsh and reductive minimalism, and then later with its radical rhetoric and revolutionary exhortations. Though Power Pop could become lascivious (it was in fact all about girls) it was for the most part easier to embrace, but like punk in the beginning, it was a commercial dead end.

By turning the punk origins story on its head, one can see a strange dichotomy in Power Pop’s own beginnings. The first power pop band is arguably Badfinger—a British group whose first album was released in 1970. Though the passage between mid to late sixties British music and power pop is murky, Badfinger probably best represents the genre’s beginning. Like punk’s explosive sojourn across the Atlantic in reverse, it would take three American bands to take ringing, muscular guitar pop to its apex by infusing that early British template with a pastiche of American influences.

The Best Power Pop Band Ever?

Next: Part 2, The Holy Trinity-The Flamin' Groovies, Big Star, and The Raspberries.


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