Armagideon Time

It took half a decade for burnout and backlash to do in disco. “My Sharona” managed to do the same for the nascent power pop revival in the space of six months.

Power pop was supposed to be the Next Big Thing, the commercial face of the burgeoning “New Music” scene with maximum crossover potential and demographic appeal. Skinny ties, striped shirts, hooky danceability that copped punk’s disreputable energy and the slick melodies of the British Invasion bands — just the type of recognizable branding the industry was looking for once the glitter balls stopped spinning.

Even better, the music was cheap and easy to record. A full LP could be cranked out for under ten grand, which wasn’t lost on record labels who’d hemorrhaged cash and missed viability windows during disco’s late-stage turn to the baroque. (Note that the two offshoots of the scene — hip hop and techno — which did survive and later thrive went for samples and synths over full orchestras of session musicians.)

The Knack were the anointed vanguard for the power pop revolution, the novelty giving them an edge over more established — and therefore suspect — purveyors of the style such as Cheap Trick or Starz. (The Jam got the gig in the UK, but couldn’t match the Knack’s mastery of the adolescent-aimed sleaziness which meshed better with American audiences.) The single hit like a bomb, blasting from the speakers of every car stereo in my neighborhood and echoed as playground chants during recess at my elementary school. The success of the single helped grease the rails for a small cluster of “new wave” chart hits, but its ubiquity also sucked all the oxygen from the room. Power Pop’s anticipated reign as the Next Big Thing ended almost as soon as it began, leaving the handful of “me too” signings with a solitary major label release and little support to speak of.

A rare few managed to snag some degree of national prominence and echoes of the power pop sound could occasionally be heard in early Eighties mainstream rock/pop acts like Rick Springfield and Pat Benatar. For the most part, though, the power pop mania stayed a strictly local affair, small pressing runs of material by bands whose “big score” was capped at strong club following or a spin on some provincial progressive radio show. The stuff has only started to emerge from the word-of-mouth (or blog) realm of collectors and dedicated scenesters who swoon rhapsodically over some undiscovered gem from the power pop/mid-tempo melodic punk/mod revival glory days — three sibling schools differentiated only fashion accessories, subject matter, and production polish.

It’s the bitterest of irony that the bulk of these obscurities are vastly superior than anything The Knack ever recorded, and were far more deserving of that ephemeral success. They put the truth to Greil Marcus’s statement about a good punk record sounding like the best thing you’ve ever heard, and elicit wonderment why they didn’t lead to more than a handful of hard-to-find singles.

It’s exactly how I feel about “65 Film Show,” a 1984 7″ release by California mod revivalists Chardon Square. The song is a hooky uptempo lament over the death of old fashioned romance, and it sizzles like a motherfucker despite some roughness around the edges. It captured my heart when I stumbled across it on the This Is Mod series of CD compilations and was exactly the type of thing I needed to have on vinyl.

Unfortunately, that feeling is shared by several other fans, driving the asking price for the single into the five-hundred dollar “oh fuck no” range.

Through the magic of Discogs’ search tools, I discovered the song was included on Idealistic Youth: Volume 1, a substantially cheaper 2011 vinyl collection of California mod revival tracks spanning the entire Eighties. I threw some money at reputable seller and waited for the package to arrive.

The LP has a decidedly bootleg vibe to it, blank labels and a plain inner sleeve loaded into a plastic sheath with a folded bit of printed paper passing as a cover. Despite the dodgy trappings, however, it is very much a labor of love, as attested by the included insert packed with liner notes and info about the featured selections.

Apart from the grand get of “65 Film Show,” I was familiar with about half of the songs on the collection. The new-to-me ones were all solid tracks, and go to show how little of this popcult iceberg I’ve managed to actually survey, where I’m still finding exciting obscurities after twenty-five years of searching. The later stuff — stretching up through 1989 — was especially fascinating, as it tends to get overlooked on a lot of these “killed by death” style releases and speaks of the mod revival’s long, occasionally skeletal tail. When most of the other distinct scenes had evaporated or consolidated into punk’s remnants, these kids were still plugging away with their Vespas, parkas, and roundel patches for audiences consisting entirely of themselves.

3 Responses to “Back to Wax #29: All power to the pop”

  1. Ward Hill Terry

    Chardon Square, which I had never heard or heard of before this post, sounds a lot like most of the bands my band plays with! Also, my guitar player, Jeff, is writing a song called “My Baby Loves Power Pop.” It oughta be good!

  2. Scholar-Gipsy

    Fuck, that’s a great song.

    I owe you for this one and for the Vladimirs’ “Graveyard Girl.”

  3. Scholar-Gipsy

    “Grave Girl,” I mean. Not thinking.

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