Stories of bands like the Scruffs — or more specifically, guitarist-vocalist Stephen Burns, the one constant on all of their recordings — are usually the stuff of “… and he had everything it took to make it, but now he’s a recovering drug addict / bitter old man / near-senile pervert shouting obscenities at the crowd as he plays acoustic sets every Tuesday.” Burns may have had his ups and downs, but mainly, he’s a survivor, and Pop Manifesto is proof that he can not only survive, but thrive — if not quite as much as he did during the Scruffs’ initial run.
Long admired by power pop enthusiasts, the reason the Scruffs were obscure for so long is simple: No one could find the records, and there were barely any to buy at that. There was Wanna Meet the Scruffs?, their amazing 1977 debut for tiny Power Play Records that took the Liverpudlian erudition of fellow Memphis natives Big Star and redefined it into a more upbeat, less volatile mix with lyrics about girls, life as a starving musician, and the conflicting hope and doubt of youth. Sporting 13 great songs, it was enough to earn them the plaudits of Robert Christgau in The Village Voice and Greg Shaw in Bomp! magazine, but it was hard to find even then, and by the early ’90s, it was damn-near impossible. (It took this author five years to locate one.)
The Scruffs also recorded a terrific second album in 1978 and 1979, Teenage Gurls, but only one single from the sessions (“Teenage Gurls” b/w “Shakin’ ”) ever saw release, and for years fans could only hear the rest via a shoddy low-fi cassette circulating among collectors, lamenting at what could have been. Given that only one pure power pop band (the Knack) ever made it, Teenage Gurls probably wasn’t destined to make them famous, but it’s hard to believe that they didn’t get a major-label shot in the Knack-inspired power pop signing frenzy of the late ’70s.
Two great records and more unreleased recordings, no fame, no fortune, and a legacy that would make Big Star seem famous by comparison would be enough to drive some crazy. But Burns managed to keep his sanity long enough to see “My Mind” from Wanna Meet reissued on the American power pop volume of Rhino’s DIY series in 1993, and then, finally, in 1998, the Scruffs’ first two albums — plus other unreleased material — reissued.
Taking the reissues as an opportunity to re-launch his career, Burns bucked another trend in the process. Many rockers subject to overdue recognition stage embarrassing or lackluster comebacks, but the revived Scruffs (with only Burns remaining) have added to their legacy — a trend that continues on Pop Manifesto.
Neither a perfect album nor a carbon copy of vintage Scruffs, this fourth Scruffs comeback record sees Burns continuing with his Beatles-inspired pop, but updating the sound with orchestrations, violins, horns, and other accoutrements not inherent on the old efforts. The three new mates he met while residing in Glasgow, Scotland are also more polished than the gritty rock sound of the old band, but nevertheless blend well with their leader.
Bolstered by multi-layered harmonies, alto sax, and subtle piano, “There’s a Girl I Know” sounds like a lost early ’70s Beach Boys track, while the flowing horns and violins (real instruments, that is) on “September’s Lost” and a harmonica-enhanced acoustic number, “Your Eyes Shine”, bring to mind Sgt. Pepper and A Hard Day’s Night, respectively. Similarly, the mix of alto sax and keyboards on “Stay Shelilah” comes off almost like an outtake (think “All Through the Night”) from the Raspberries’ Starting Over. But Burns is still Burns, penning three excellent and very Scruffs-like power pop tunes, “Jihann”, “3 Girls”, and “Noise Noise Noise”, plus a ballad reflecting the new Burns, “Karrie Anne” — which also utilizes horns and violins.
With the exception of the over-sweetened “Don’t You Go There”, the rest stays above water without quite reaching the heights of the best cuts. Overall, however, Pop Manifesto is an admirable, adventurous effort worthy of the Scruffs’ name.