Friday, March 09, 2007

Thoughts on Rock and Roll in the Seventies-Punk and Power Pop (Part II), My Holy Trinity of Power Pop

The Flamin' Groovies in
their velvet suits


One was from San Francisco, another came from Memphis, Tennessee, and the other was from Cleveland, Ohio. And by the time the late sixties drew to a dark and foreboding close, they had very little in common aside from an affinity for rock and roll, and a revulsion to it’s widening array of structures, sounds, and forms.

They were all, in a term, rock-classicists, and in their own varying ways practitioners of a dying art form. Though they all lovingly looked toward the past, they would be no mere copyists and not yet revivalists. In fact all three were innovators whose narrow path would soon widen but by that time neither would be on it anymore.

When the following decade came to yet another worrisome close, two of the bands were miserably shattered, and the other was mounting a slow descent into the shadows. For a while in the seventies however, they were all three blazing one of the last trails for guitar-based pop and represented a musical high water mark in American Music. Most of it though, fell on the deaf and unknowing ears of a listening populace in the throes of a cultural recession.

The Flamin’ Groovies, Big Star and The Raspberries were directly rooted in the fertile soil of American rock and roll in the sixties. The Flamin’ Groovies—power pop’s elder statesmen—had been a famously unwelcome fixture in San Francisco throughout the mid to late sixties. In 1968, while the boho-hippies were eating acid and noodling endlessly on their guitars, The Groovies released a backward looking roots-rock record Supersnazz.

Alex Chilton, guitarist, vocalist and co-founder of Memphis’ Big Star, had been the babyish singer for blue-eyed soul bubble-gummers The Boxtops, and the whole of The Raspberries, aside from lead singer Eric Carmen (who was in a group called Cyrus Erie) had played in a legendary Cleveland garage group called The Choir.

By the time the seventies were in its dark twilight, these iconoclasts had barely scratched the surface and were on the fade. Though American power pop would soon have its day on the charts (Cheap Trick, The Knack, The Romantics), in the early to mid seventies these three bands made very few commercial ripples aside from the relatively small blast of billboard love The Raspberries conjured for their first single, “Go All the Way.” (The Raspberries charted 7 singles, but only “Go All the Way” climbed higher than 16 on the Billboard Chart). They still though, in my eyes, remain the holy trinity of Power Pop.

The Flamin’ Groovies chronologically came together first as a band, but the truth is a bit murkier. The Groovies in their early incarnation were for the most part a rootsy, bluesy proto-punk band under the auspicious leadership of Roy Loney. Once he left to pursue a solo career, The Groovies wandered and drifted for years, before regrouping across the Atlantic under the tutelage of ex-Love Sculpture and future Rockpile guitarist Dave Edmunds.

After a handful of years of fine-tuning their signature new sound—that nodded toward the garage-rock revivalism that would soon be in full bloom, while at the same time, incorporating swaths of luminous Beatlesque harmonic structures and guitar-punk ferocity—The Flamin’ Groovies, under the helm of producer Dave Edmunds released the classic Shake Some Action LP in 1976 on Sire Records. The same label that signed The Ramones.

Though the Flamin’ Groovies place in the power pop triumvirate may be disputed by jealous and majoritarian Badfinger fans—who, incidentally think that four good songs (“Come and Get It,” “No Matter What,” “Without You,” and “Day After Day”) a great career make—they certainly could not dispute the validity of a Memphis quartet who turned rock on its head in the early seventies; only to find that no one was listening.

While The Flamin’ Groovies were a workingman’s band that happened to be remarkable and voluminous songwriters, Big Star were technicians who sweated out a rock and roll transformation in the studio, groping for the perfect sound, while hardly ever touring.

In 1970, an increasingly precocious Alex Chilton became frustrated with his stultifying role in The Box Tops and quit the band to record a clutch of demos at Ardent studios in Memphis, Tennessee that he intended as a solo album.

Though Chilton’s hoped for solo record never came to proper fruition, (Ardent Records eventually released these recordings in 1996 under the title 1970) Chilton became acquainted with future band mate, songwriting and sparring partner, who hung out in a state of pseudo apprenticeship at the studio: Chris Bell.

Over the late winter of 1971, and early 1972, Big Star recorded the phenomenally influential #1 Record at Ardent; a classic that effortlessly combined Beatlesque pop, Memphis soul, youthful restlessness and country melancholia but was a spectacular commercial failure.

By the end of the year, terribly depressed and upset over both the failure of his record to sell, and the insalubrious business practices of Stax Records (Ardent’s parent company), not to mention creeping frustration over the extra attention the extroverted Alex Chilton received, Bell left the band in a state of suicidal despair.

Northeast of Memphis, in Cleveland, Ohio, a decidedly blue-collar town on the shores of Lake Erie, The Raspberries emerged just as the portentousness of the seventies began to become palpable.

Out of the ashes of two of Cleveland’s favorite local rock bands—the aforementioned Choir, and lead singer Eric Carmen’s outfit, Cyrus Erie—rose The Raspberries, a bunch of oversexed boys in flashy white suits, who were one part Who-power, one part angelic Beach Boys harmonic structure, and one part lascivious, high-kicking theatrics. A potent combo—they were power pop indeed.

The Raspberries were surprisingly virtuosic, and could pleasantly shift sounds, evidenced by the Latin-tinged “Come Around and See Me,” and the mid-tempo pop ballad “Last Dance” that morphs strange and effortlessly into country hoedown mode, before quickly turning back. They were strongest though at visceral and plaintively sexual songs like “Go All the Way” and the spine-tingling “Tonight.”

In April of 1975 The Raspberries broke up, and Lead singer Eric Carmen pursued a solo career that could be characterized as either syrupy or vomit inducing. Like almost every band that felt they did not receive their just deserts, the Raspberries reformed as old men. The results were unspectacular and Eric Carmen wisely declined.

After recording a handful of songs in Europe, Chris Bell returned to Memphis, Tennessee to help manage his father’s fast food chain. Two days after Christmas 1978, Chris Bell’s Triumph slammed into a light pole, killing him instantly. His solo recordings are collected on the majestic I Am The Cosmos.

Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens recorded a second Big Star record, the brilliant and more muscular Radio City. Then Chilton and Stephens along with a host of Memphis players recorded a weirdly sad and strange third Big Star album. This third effort is spotty at times, but Third/Sister Lovers remains a cult masterpiece nonetheless.

Chilton has gone on to an odd and sometimes baffling career as a sometimes rock deconstructionist, and at other times a pop-fluff interpreter. He broke my heart and put an inferior version of Big Star together after seeming like the last guy on earth who would do such a thing.

The Flamin’ Groovies released two more power pop albums before the seventies closed and then began to slide into obscurity. They continued to work and released a record in 1992 with frightening cover art but a few pop gems. It had the unfortunate title of Rock Juice.

I know it may seem hypocritical to accept the latter-day work of The Groovies while rejecting the others, but in a way it seems different. They were a working band from a different era, and they didn’t continually insult their own work the way Alex Chilton did in reference to his Big Star material.


On July 4, 1976—the two hundred year anniversary of America's declaration of independence from the British and the subsequent militaristic British invasion—another invasion was occurring in reverse. At the Roundhouse in London, two American rock and roll bands were planting the seeds of future revolt. John Lydon, Michael Jones, and Paul Simonon were all in attendance, but The Clash and Sex Pistols had yet to form. That night The Ramones opened for label mates The Flamin’ Groovies.

The rest is history.

A frighteningly skinny Joey Ramone outside the Roundhouse Theater



Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're wrong sunshine - the pistols played their 1st gig in December '75 - A full 7 months before the bozo brothers hit these shores. I was at that gig and at the Roundhouse for the Ramones. We weren't there looking for inspiration, we were just checking out the opposition. - JETBOY '76

8:21 AM  

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