The audiences for 1960s rock were often separated by age. It made sense that people who enjoyed songs such as the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” were younger than those who listened to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”, but both songs were accepted and received massive radio play during the same era. But as times progressed, popular music listeners became a more fragmented crowd. FM replaced AM as the radio of choice, and albums replaced singles in popularity. The music scene fragmented into dozens of styles, from heavy metal to funk, psychedelia to country rock, ad infinitum.
Their listeners often cocooned themselves and tended to pay attention to songs only in their particular style. The popular music of the 1970s was characterized by acts only being popular with their own audiences. When certain styles exploded, such as disco and punk, some songs managed to crossover to mass success, but then the genre would implode and dissipate into new factions. That’s a function of capitalism; the story is for another review.
This preamble is a way of putting Cherry Red’s new three-CD anthology, Looking for the Magic: American Power Pop in the Seventies, in context. Power pop is one of rock music’s most interesting offshoots. Musically, power pop has been there from the beginning. In many ways, the great Chuck Berry was the original power popper. His influence has been tremendous in a multitude of ways. However, the style seemed to disappear from popular music in the late 1960s. This collection aims to show off power pop’s rebirth during the 1970s, even before it could be identified again as a genre.
Defining a style of music in words is difficult. There are always the dangers of oversimplification and exceptions. The name power pop itself suggests its meaning. This is pop music. The word pop suggests an inherent spriteliness. Pop is bubbly, and it can rock (or not). This is where the word power comes in. This style of pop has to have some punch. This can be manifested in different ways but is frequently through a hook-laden electric guitar line.
As the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Cherry Red lists 76 American recordings from 1970-1979 in chronological order. Whether certain songs and artists get neglected or don’t belong is not my concern. Instead, as Nick Lowe once asked, is this pure pop for now people? The answer is clearly yes. This is cult stuff. The vast majority of acts may be unknown to most, but they created cool music.
The first CD claims several founding members of the power pop genre, such as Todd Rundgren, Big Star, Jonathan Richman, and the Raspberries. Looking for the Magic also includes many unknowns, such as the Wackers, Bang, and the Droogs, but each of the three-minute wonders possesses a bouncy urgency. The second set reveals a more meta-approach to the songs, which veer here from an acoustic version of the monsters known as Blue Öyster Cult performing “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to the earnestly sensitive Andrew Gold offering his hit “Lonely Boy”. In between, there are Television, Cheap Trick, Dwight Twilley, and a host of wonderful, largely unknown bands.
The third record shows the influence of punk/new wave on power pop with songs such as the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl and the Ramones‘ “I Want to Be Sedated”. Most of the other titles have a retro edge to them. They are self-consciously stylish, which can be a positive thing in the right hands. The anthologizers did a good job of picking cherries such as the Spitballs’ “Let Her Dance”, the Last’s “She Don’t Know That I’m Here”, and Richard Lloyd’s “Should Have Known Better”.
The collection’s archival importance is clear. It comes in a plastic clamshell box with a heavily annotated and illustrated 48-page booklet. Three albums of American power pop from the 1970s may seem a bit much, but the music is a whole lot of fun.