Power Pop: The ’90s, Attack Of The Clones

matthew-sweet360By the dawn of the ‘90s, the U.S. music scene felt like something out of Blade Runner. With the lockstep forces of rap and grunge assuming total control of hip tastebuds (and record sales)—and clattering indie-rock helicopters crisscrossing the landscape looking for stragglers—the few remaining pockets of power-pop resistance seemed a mere footnote to the obituary of a genre in hiding. Then, without warning, came the distant rumble of a pair of retaliatory shots: the Posies’ harmony-laced 1990 album Dear 23 and Matthew Sweet’s heart-wrenchingly majestic Girlfriend a year later. Was the pendulum about to change directions?

A Lincoln, Neb., native, Sweet (pictured) cut his musical teeth in the bubbling hotbed of Athens, Ga., in the early ‘80s, first as guitarist for Oh-OK, a jangly outfit co-helmed by singers Linda Hopper and Lynda Stipe (Michael’s sister), then with his own similar combo Buzz Of Delight. The precocious Sweet signed a solo deal with Columbia in 1985, provoking resentment from local scenesters who pointed to the grassroots path R.E.M. had followed to stardom. “I was young and didn’t know what I was doing,” Sweet told me in 1993, “and I was hated for it.”

Still trying to find his sea legs after two uneven major-label albums—1986’s Inside and 1989’s Earth—Sweet knew immediately Girlfriend was the one. “I always felt I’d been getting away with murder,” he admits, laughing like a nervous school kid. “I never thought my records would make it with a major label. But I had a sense that something special was happening with Girlfriend. I had this real breaking-free, fuck-you kind of attitude. I didn’t care if the label didn’t like it. I was doing it for me.”

Hailing from Bellingham, Wash., Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, co-founders of the Posies, opened shop in Seattle in 1986 as an Everly Brothers/Hollies-influenced pop alternative to the city’s grunge scene germinating right alongside them. When music critics shake the power-pop family tree, however, Stringfellow refuses to believe his band will come tumbling down from the branches like so many monkeys.

“Power pop has an anachronistic ring to it, like somebody who never got over 1966,” says Stringfellow, visibly irked. “I think we were more of a rock band than anything else.” After drawing a deep breath, he admits, “Maybe it’s like the blind man feeling the elephant. You can hear moments where the Posies are a power-pop band.” Stringfellow further likens it to trying to pin down the Clash. “The more interesting an artist, the harder it is to put them in a category,” he says. “My aspirations for the Posies have always been to touch a lot of different styles.”

Velvet Crush’s Ric Menck—also a frequent member of Sweet’s touring combo—recalls those heady days when college/alternative radio first pricked up its ears. “The pop-culture rise of Nirvana made it possible for people like Matthew and the Posies and Material Issue and, to some extent, us to get college radio play,” he says. “For the first time in a long time, power pop actually had a fuckin’ chance. Matthew certainly sold a lot of records—and not just to record collectors but to frat guys and pretty young teenage girls.”

When Altered Beast, the wide-screen follow-up to Girlfriend—with New York hotshots Richard Lloyd (Television) and Robert Quine (Voidoids) again sharing guitar duties as they had on Girlfriend—hit the racks in 1994, Sweet believed the keys to the kingdom were within his grasp. He’s still looking for them. “All of a sudden, there was this demand,” he says. “I’d never had that, where the label actually wanted my music. I recorded way too many songs, used a million different people. I was hard on all the drummers, including Mick Fleetwood and Jody Stephens. In retrospect, I kind of crushed everybody on it.

“All during that time I felt like a loner because there weren’t too many solo guys doing this,” he adds wistfully. “But we were on the radio, and I really thought it was possible for music like mine to make it.” Live performance proved Sweet’s undoing. “I was never comfortable in a roomful of people,” he says. “And because of that, I never quite felt like we were really making it. Now I look back on those days and wish we were that successful all the time.”

Menck scoffs at those who once had Sweet pegged for superstardom. “I knew Matthew, and I knew he would sabotage himself,” he says. “It’s hard to be really famous. You have to be a performer and an entertainer. Matthew’s a songwriter and a musician and not at all comfortable with entertaining. Bands who make it on MTV have these large personalities that they’re not afraid to flaunt.”

Stringfellow, too, senses the Posies hit pop music’s glass ceiling, but not for lack of confidence in the live arena. When they toured behind 1996’s Amazing Disgrace, he says, the band’s personal appearances had achieved “a state of controlled chaos. We had worked our live show into something very powerful, quite intense and furious. I always wanted to have a band that sounded like the Who, with that kind of energy. And we were blowing the doors off the joint.” The fire went out, says Stringfellow, when the Posies began playing the same set night after night in 1997. “I have a real thirst for change,” he explains. “After that, there just wasn’t the energy to take it to the next level as a unit.” The Posies have been on-again, off-again since.

Bruce Brodeen’s Ft. Collins, Colo., imprint Not Lame carries a fan’s torch for power pop; the label recently reissued At Least At Last, a hefty Posies boxed set, and released Fan Club, a four-CD package from quirky San Francisco psych/pop outfit Jellyfish. A chirpy sort who decided to start Not Lame seven years ago while riding a Colorado ski lift, Brodeen chuckles when it’s pointed out the name of his label sounds defensive. “I guess it is,” he replies. “It’s like I’m saying, ‘See, this music isn’t really so lame, is it?’”

The answer to the question “Is 1975 The Year Of The Flamin’ Groovies?” posed by yet another optimistic record label—L.A.’s Bomp! Records—to publicize the Groovies’ single “You Tore Me Down” was painfully obvious, even 27 years ago. As former Detroit Lions coach Monte Clark once said after his club was bounced from the NFL playoffs by a missed chip-shot field goal: “My prayers were answered, but the answer was ‘No.’”

Negative audience response from fans impatient for the headline act tripped up the Posies only once, claims Stringfellow, whose band opened for Soundgarden at the 1990 Bumbershoot Festival in the 15,000-capacity Seattle Center Coliseum. “There were a bunch of dirtheads and metal dudes down in front, people who wanted to slam dance and fuck shit up,” he says. “And we were intimidated by the size of the place. Once we choked and were hesitant, it was like, ‘Get off the stage!’”

“We encountered hostility mostly from other bands we played with,” says Dennis Davison of Los Angeles’ Jigsaw Seen. “When we opened for Jane’s Addiction/Chili Peppers copycat bands in the late ‘80s, they thought we were Herman’s Hermits—and they didn’t mean it as a compliment.” Jigsaw was also slotted one night between Smashing Pumpkins and Afghan Whigs in what Davison calls “a grunge sandwich. People just stared at us after every song.”

Fan support hasn’t been a problem yet for Los Angeles’ International Pop Overthrow, an annual power-pop shindig. With this year’s fest featuring more than 140 bands over 17 nights, it’s not surprising the IPO has been criticized for choosing quantity over quality. Experienced on a bad night, the Pop Overthrow might seem more like the Attack Of The Clones.

“The IPO proves there are more power-pop bands around now than ever,” sniffs Davison. “But they’ve been watered down like dishwater. These are midlife-crisis, bedroom bands by 40-year-old guys who just fantasized about being in a band before technology allowed them to record at home.”

“Those bands are so bad,” says Menck. “There’s no vision, no passion, no nothing. That, to me, is offensive. I resent the International Pop Overthrow. It’s the same 1,000 people who get together every year to celebrate each other. It’s like a Dr. Who convention.”

IPO guiding light David Bash disagrees with his naysayers. “One critic will say there’s only a certain percentage of IPO bands of high quality,” he patiently points out. “Then you’ll get a different critic who says the same thing, but it’ll be about different bands. When you put them all together, most of our bands would be on the list.”

Stringfellow believes the next American power-pop savior—whether home-grown or financed by a major label—may be a long time coming. “Does society really need the role of a unifying rock-star kind of thing these days?” he asks. “Obviously it doesn’t, because we haven’t created one lately, whereas British society still seems to need that thing to rally around. They create them all the time, even out of mediocre bands.”

A battle-weary Sweet gets discouraged with his life as a musician. “It’s the voodoo-ruination vibe that record companies put on you,” he says. “You get to where you really want to quit. Then I’ll rediscover the reason I wanted to do it in the first place. Something pops out, it’s effortless and fun again, and I’ll wonder why they made me feel it’s the most miserable thing in my life.” Sweet, nevertheless, has a warning for all those who might follow in his footsteps: “No matter how well it goes for a while, you have to do it because you love music, because in every other way it will break your heart.”

Menck, who’s toured recently with Marianne Faithfull and the Gigolo Aunts, knows he’ll never get rich playing the music he loves. “I think I’ve taken a vow to myself, like a jazz musician, to play this music until I can’t play it anymore,” he says. “If it means I’ll live in a one-bedroom apartment the rest of my life, then I’ll just do it.”

When I asked perennial also-ran pop star Tommy Keene in 1996 if critics labeling his music power pop made him feel like he had a bull’s-eye target painted on his shirt, he snapped back, “Yeah, it does. To be compared to a lot of bands that didn’t sell records, it’s like a disease. If you’re labeled that, you’re history.”

History, of course, will render the final verdict. As long as kids still buy guitars and write songs after school in somebody’s smelly garage, there will always be the renegade outfit with an ear for pop melodies and a passion to play them loud. As Sweet sees it, “Somebody who’s just discovered the Who, the Raspberries and the Kinks will make it sound new and organically interesting again. People ought to stop saying, ‘Rock is dead.’ It gets old.”

The larger question has always answered itself. Will power pop reach out one fine morning and grab the U.S. and its music charts by its collective throat? Has it ever?

—Jud Cost

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2 Comments

  1. mistercharlie
    Posted June 2, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Part of the griping about lack of sales for “power pop” is that many of its proponents just don’t write good songs. They have all the trappings, stylistically, of the music they’re inspired by or are trying to emulate (The Who Sells Out, or #1 Record, or whatever), with “vintage” gear, good drum fills or harmonies, but the songs just aren’t there, both melodically or lyrically. The truth is, in any genre, it’s hard to write a great song. And in a world where folks want to put themselves in a narrow Power Pop box, they often end up sounding like freshman college songwriting project submissions.

    Not, of course, that a “great” song (it’s all subjective of course) is a prerequisite for a hit. Matthew Sweet said it best: maybe you should be a musician/songwriter because you HAVE TO, because you are compelled to, not because you want to.

    And maybe, by the way, another problem isn’t the music, it’s the packaging, the label. I didn’t, for instance, hear anybody calling those coupla gigantic singles from that band Jet “power pop” songs, or crowing of a power pop revival, even though they could have.

  2. countrykidanthony
    Posted September 27, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    power pop is alive and well today in the mainstream. only their CDs sound so slick and overproduced and compressed and most of them are marketed as teen idols and boybands. bands like Jonas Brothers, Fountains of Wayne, The Click Five, McFly, Demi Lovato, and Guster.

    there are also those hiding behind the pop-punk mask like Simple Plans, Boys Like Girls, and the christian rock band from ausrralia Hillsong United