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Power pop

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Power pop

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Power pop is a long-standing musical genre that draws its inspiration from 1960s British and American pop music. Musically the style is characterized by strong melodies, crisp vocal harmonies, economical arrangements and prominent guitar riffs, with instrumental solos kept to a minimum, and blues elements largely downplayed. Usually groups hew to the traditional rock band instrumentation of one or more electric guitars, electric bass guitar, and drum kit, with perhaps electric keyboards or synthesizers added. Badfinger's "No Matter What" (1970), The Raspberries' "Go All The Way" (1972), and The Knack's "My Sharona" (1979) are some of the most commercially successful singles best representative of the power pop genre. While its cultural impact has waxed and waned over the decades, it is among rock's most enduring subgenres: a listener who has heard the '60s smash "A Hard Day's Night" by The Beatles or the 2003 hit "Stacy's Mom" by Fountains of Wayne has heard power pop.


Formative years: 1960s - early 1970s

The term was coined in an interview with Pete Townshend of The Who in 1967, in which he said "power pop is what we play". As early as 1965, the Everly Brothers were playing music that can be called power pop; their "I'll See Your Light" displayed jangling guitars and an oblique harmonic approach that built upon the innovations of The Beatles and The Byrds. Those groups, along with The Who, are often cited as the progenitors of power pop. The Who, inspired by the melodicism of The Beatles and the driving rhythms of American R&B, put out several songs in the early "Mod" phase of their career (1965-1966) that can be considered the first true power pop songs: "I Can't Explain", "The Kids Are Alright", "I'm a Boy", "Happy Jack", "So Sad About Us", and in 1967, "Pictures of Lily". All of these songs are propelled by Keith Moon's aggressive drumming and Pete Townshend's distinctive power chords but also hold strong melodies and euphonic harmonies. The Beatles took inspiration from The Who's contemporary singles and released such hard-edged but melodic mod rockers as "Paperback Writer" and "Day Tripper" in the mid '60s. Many groups that arose in the wake of The Beatles' success were also important in the evolution of the style, such as the Left Banke, The Beau Brummels, the Knickerbockers and The Zombies.

Modern power pop gained momentum in the late '60s with the first recordings by the British group Badfinger (though it must be pointed out that at this time, bands and recordings were not yet classified as "power pop"). Badfinger singles such as "No Matter What," "Baby Blue" and "Day After Day," all recorded around 1970, were the template for the power pop that followed in the late 1970s. In the early '70s the form was further codified by the work of The Raspberries (who may have been the first band to earn the appellation, in a mid-1970's article in Rolling Stone Magazine), Big Star, Blue Ash, Artful Dodger, Dwight Twilley and Todd Rundgren. At this stage, groups performing music later to be termed "power pop" were nearly all American, and the first albums by Big Star and The Raspberries are still considered among the genre's essential recordings. Although Rundgren and The Raspberries achieved some chart success during the period, Big Star spent years relegated to cult status, earning a wider name only after being extolled in the '80s by bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements. Regardless of chart success, many of these early 1970s bands who deliberately incorporated British Invasion influences in their music were considered strongly out-of-fashion in a rock music world dominated by soft rock artists like The Carpenters, the singer-songwriters such as Carole King, and hard rock groups like Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin.

Commercial peak: late '70s - early '80s


However, in the late '70s and early '80s, spurred by the accompanying, contemporary success of New Wave and punk rock (music which was similarly driving and stripped-down) Power pop enjoyed its most visible and prolific period, with American groups like dB's, Cheap Trick, The Knack, The Romantics, 20/20, Paul Collins Beat and Shoes, among countless other bands, springing upon the rock music scene. These late 1970s bands -- many of whom were now specifically referred to as "power pop" -- had as their immediate and most important influence the early 1970s bands like Badfinger and the Raspberries, rather than the British Invasion bands that were the genre's original influence. These new power pop bands favored a leaner, punchier, more punkish attack than their early 1970s counterparts. Perhaps the most successful power pop single of all-time, The Knack's "My Sharona", notched six weeks in the number one position atop the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979. Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" was another monumentally successful power pop single of the era.


These American groups had British contemporaries, but the term "power pop", as used in the UK, referred to a somewhat different style of music. It was commonly applied to British groups such as The Jam--for several years in the late '70s and early '80s the most popular group in Britain--and groups that followed in The Jam's wake such as The Vapors, The Jags, and The Chords. These groups have all been variously described as "mod revival", "punk", "new wave", and "power pop". Lacking the influence of American pioneers such as Big Star and The Raspberries, these bands were rather inspired by '60s beat/British Invasion groups, particularly The Who and The Beatles, and, spurred by contemporary punk aesthetics, speeded up the pace.

Other UK artists of the late '70s commonly identified as power pop were new wave groups like XTC and Elvis Costello & The Attractions. Neither group sported the mod image or overt '60s influence of The Jam and their followers, nor the Big Star/Raspberries-derived sound of the US groups at the time, but both played driving, melodic music. Similarly, American new wave group Blondie, which had a massive following in Britain, was often labelled power pop in the UK press.

Finally, a handful of successful groups in the UK at the time did boast the traditional power pop sound as inspired by The Raspberries and Big Star, most visibly The Records and Bram Tchaikovsky. Singles from these groups, such as The Records' "Starry Eyes", and Bram Tchaikovsky's "Girl Of My Dreams", rivaled or even surpassed their American counterparts in terms of capturing the essential elements of power pop. Unsurprisingly, these bands were far more successful in America than in their homeland.

Contemporary power pop: 1980s - today

In the 1980s and 1990s power pop continued to be a creatively viable if commercially limited genre, as artists such as Marshall Crenshaw (whose first two albums are considered classics of the genre), Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, Material Issue, The Posies and Jellyfish drew inspiration from Big Star, the Beatles and glam rock groups of the early 1970s like T. Rex and Sweet.

In the mid-1990s up through the '00s, power pop flourished in the underground via acts such as The Shazam, Sloan and You Am I, and on underground labels such as Not Lame Recordings, Kool Kat Musik and Jam Recordings. The sound also made a mainstream appearance with the success of Weezer and Ozma, precursors to younger acts, such as Rooney & Luzer. Some 1990s rock acts, such as Nirvana and Oasis, bore unmistakable signs of power pop influence. Today, power pop traits are prominently displayed by groups such as Fountains of Wayne, All-American Rejects, Click Five, Stingray Green and The Dandy Warhols, and found in the work of pop punk bands like Blink-182, Tsar, and emo bands like Jimmy Eat World.

Contemporaries in Britain

The influence of popular British power pop bands from the late 1970s and early 1980s can be found in contemporary British bands such as the Futureheads, Maxmo Park, Farrah, the Duels, Special Needs, Razorlight and the Rifles.

See also

Rock and roll | Rock genres
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Styles of pop music
Bubblegum pop - Futurepop - Indie pop - Pop punk - Pop-rap - Power pop - Synthpop/Electropop - Teen pop - Traditional pop
Other topics
Boy band - Girl group - Popular music

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

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