Power Pop: The ’80s, Style Over Substance

dbs500As the early ‘80s unfolded, it seemed the spring in our pogo was perceptibly flagging. In fact, a none-too-subtle indicator a hangover was about to crash down like the proverbial grand piano came in the ‘83 teen flick Valley Girl. “That techno rock you guys listen to is gutless,” says Nicolas Cage (as punk Randy) to his new-wave paramour in a club scene that neatly outlined the encroachment of synth pop at the expense of guitar-driven music. Playing in the background, of course, is the revved-up power pop of the Plimsouls.

The post-Knack feeding frenzy had coaxed every skinny-tie-wearing, Rickenbacker-toting hopeful out of the woodwork, but bonafide swipes of chart-action excellence—the Romantics’ “What I Like About You,” Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny”—were fleeting. Plus, upstart MTV was already busy reshuffling music-biz priorities, the style-and-visuals-friendly likes of Duran Duran and A Flock Of Seagulls leaving a lot of talented outfits no choice but to capitulate (remember the Red Rockers’ transformation from punk-poppers to poofy new-wavers with the hit song “China”?) or go underground. Journalist/pop archivist Ken Sharp wryly notes how “groups like 20/20, Plimsouls and Three O’Clock issued some very high-quality power-pop records despite not achieving the heights of mass success a la the Knack.”

That said, when a left-field entry became an MTV smash in 1984, the fact it came from a ‘70s power-pop holdout was all the sweeter. In the summer of 1975, a dark-eyed, handsome, 24-year-old Okie with a Sun Records/British Invasion jones had burst out of nowhere to storm the charts with the chiming, throbbing anthem “I’m On Fire.” But neither Dwight Twilley nor songwriting partner Phil Seymour was that concerned with how the music biz operated; the Dwight Twilley Band rarely performed live, and in its youthful arrogance, the group presumed 1976’s Sincerely would be boffo enough to sell itself.

“Oh, we were so naive,” laughs Twilley, somewhat ruefully, at the memories. “We thought we were indestructible—and were proven wrong really quick.”

While Twilley wasn’t so much a prima donna as simply tunnel-visioned, the combined forces of bad timing, bad breaks and a bad business sense would dog him for much of his career. There were no more hits for the Twilley Band, and after its second album, 1977’s Twilley Don’t Mind, flopped, Twilley and Seymour split in ‘78 to pursue solo careers. Twilley then spent a frustrating several years switching labels with little success.

Enter MTV and a catchy Twilley tune titled “Girls” (from 1984’s Jungle). Accompanied by a dorkysexycool video that shamelessly mined a Porky’s locker-room storyline, it returned the songwriter to the pop charts. “MTV definitely waved my flag high, said I wasn’t gone,” says Twilley. “But then again, once I stood up, I got knocked down again.”

Following some ill-advised label-hopping and what he calls “a ton of legal problems,” Twilley dropped out, not necessarily by choice. “At that point (in the late ‘80s) in the music business, it was starting to be uncool if you’d had hits,” he says. “I literally had A&R people say that they would sign me if I wasn’t Dwight Twilley. I spent several years with a chip on my shoulder, not believing that I didn’t have a major-label record deal. Yet today, I wouldn’t take one if you shoved it in my face.”

Twilley isn’t being self-righteous; rather, he’s realistic about the current pop climate. “I’d heard for years that ‘pop is coming back,’” he says. “People would come to me and say, ‘We just need somebody to lead it, and you should be the guy.’ Well, no such thing happened.” He’s crucially aware of his contributions to the lexicon (critics consistently laud his first two Twilley Band albums) while being protective of his niche. Since his 1999 comeback album Tulsa, he’s toured steadily, additionally establishing the Big Oak label last year and issuing a long-shelved album called—somewhat ironically—The Luck.

Jumping back to the early ‘80s, we find a pair of young talents—like Twilley, kids raised on radio—on the cusp of scrawling their names into the history books. There’s a myth apiece associated with Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey. Precocious musical prodigies who grew up as school chums in Winston-Salem, N.C., they formed various hirsute garage combos while perfecting the art of basement tapes by obsessively studying the albums and recording techniques of the Beatles, the Move’s Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne, Todd Rundgren and Big Star.

“Mitch and I did three or four of what we called ‘albums’—carefully overdubbed, complicated, long-playing tapes—before we even went to college,” recalls Stamey, who, after landing at UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid-‘70s, formed Sneakers, with classmate Easter eventually joining. Sneakers’ self-titled EP, issued in early ‘76 by Stamey’s fledgling Carnivorous (later Car) label, is credited alongside 45s by Patti Smith, Pere Ubu and Television as one of the first indie records immediately prefacing the punk era.

But it was Stamey’s starry-eyed field trips to Manhattan—his key musical epiphany: seeing Television on a nightly basis—that convinced him a music career was doable. The rest is history. Stamey moved to the Big Apple, paid his dues in Alex Chilton’s eponymous post-Big Star band and, in 1978, formed the dB’s (pictured), an immensely talented outfit that, similar to the Twilley Band, could’ve been a contender had the stars of commerce and promotion aligned.

“I can’t remember ever having been very close to a commercial breakthrough,” says Stamey, “but as far as it being a grand adventure, like joining the army and seeing the world, you couldn’t beat it.” The dB’s toured England and Europe and became a top-selling club draw on the East Coast and in the Midwest while notching consistent airplay on college radio. Unfortunately, their British label’s inability to find a U.S. licensee for their albums meant their overall impact on these shores during their early-‘80s heyday was limited; time, posthumous CD reissues and subsequent musical generations’ discovery of the band are what contributed the most to its legendary status.

Here’s where the Stamey myth kicks in. As noteworthy as the dB’s and their first two albums (1981’s Stands For deciBels and 1982’s Repercussion) have come to be judged over the years—and make no mistake, the Stamey/Peter Holsapple songwriting duality still sparks inflated Lennon/McCartney and Chilton/Bell notions among fans—for Stamey, who split to go solo in ‘83, the band was “just a period on a continuum for me personally.” His solo career has involved at least as many experimentally tinged maneuvers as it has pop efforts, and Stamey’s forthcoming Travels In The South (which features guests Ben Folds, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster and others) is decidedly not in a power-pop vein. As an in-demand producer, he’s worked with artists—among them Yo La Tengo, Alejandro Escovedo, Whiskeytown, Arto Lindsay and Lydia Lunch—that are frequently skewed well away from dB’s territory.

Not that Stamey isn’t proud of his legacy with the dB’s, who continued under Holsapple until 1988. “It’s great people liked [the band],” he says. “We had a lot of pride in our little outfit, in our musicality and songwriting and our ability to play complicated things.” But of his artistic restlessness, he’s characteristically succinct: “If you work at the craft of learning about writing music and you keep going at it, there’s a lot to learn. And once you’ve experienced things, you can’t really look back without being false to yourself.”

While the dB’s moved to New York City in order to sell records in Britain, Mitch Easter—who’d spent time in the pre-dB’s outfits of both Stamey and Holsapple (Sneakers and the hard-rockin’ H-Bombs, respectively)—remained in North Carolina. After college, Easter moved back home to Winston-Salem, where he converted his parents’ garage into a recording enclave and dubbed it Drive-In Studio. One weekend in 1981, a little band from Athens, Ga., pulled into Easter’s driveway and cut its first single, “Radio Free Europe.” By 1984, Easter had unwittingly found himself the appointed architect of jangle pop—due not only to his R.E.M. production work (Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning), but also to the output of his own group, college-radio favorite Let’s Active.

This is where the Easter myth begins. With the success of R.E.M. and, to a lesser degree, Let’s Active (the band signed to IRS, R.E.M.’s label), Easter found it difficult being known as the avatar of some vaguely defined “Southern Pop Sound.” In fact, there never was any such genre, a point Easter is quick to make when he observes that for every celebrated regional act he’s worked with—such as Georgia’s Oh-OK, Mississippi’s Windbreakers and, more recently, Chapel Hill’s Ben Folds Five and Mayflies USA—there’s probably been another equally respected band from well beyond the Mason-Dixon line, including Pavement, Velvet Crush and Helium. Truth be told, many of Easter’s Southern customers were probably lured by the easy Interstate 40 proximity, reasonable rates and laid-back atmosphere of the Drive-In.

“But it’s funny,” he says, reflecting on the myth/reputation question. “I don’t get nearly as many calls to produce now as I used to. There’s a bit of ‘that pop sound isn’t what we want anymore—we don’t want that R.E.M. sound.’ That kind of typecasting is very frustrating—like, if it’s heavy rock, I wouldn’t know how to do it. A similar thing [happened to Let’s Active]. As early as 1986, I could feel the chill sort of coming into the air. We’d started seeing what we always referred to as ‘toughy’ bands—the most notable was the Pixies. Their image was kinda tough, and next to somebody like that, we were just seen as almost like kindergarten children. Our image was sort of ‘fluffy pop’ despite all evidence to the contrary.”

While the initial two-girls/one-guy lineup of Let’s Active may have had a Muppet-y visual angle going for it, the music, particularly on 1984’s Cypress (with its complex production and edgy psychedelic veneer), defied both easy categorization and the era’s trends. Says Easter, “We were slightly cavalier, slightly snooty: ‘Just because Power Station has this exploding snare-drum sound on it doesn’t mean we have to.’ Although, on the other hand, if I’d thought more in terms like that, maybe we would have gotten on the radio or made IRS happier. They eventually wrote me off because I wasn’t a team player.”

Let’s Active lasted from 1983 to ‘89, at which point Easter basically took a decade off to concentrate on running his studio (now called the Fidelitorium), although he’s recently resurfaced as one-third of indie-pop chanteuse Shalini Chatterjee’s group Shalini, a member of the Orange Humble Band (which features alumni of the Posies and Lime Spiders) and as frontman for his own trio, the Crackpots.

By the tail end of the ‘80s, power pop was on the endangered species list. (Or in exile: In Australia, an entire other chapter was being inscribed at the hands of outfits like the Summer Suns, DM3, Hummingbirds and Jack & The Beanstalk.) Ken Sharp points out that ‘80s pop bands were already operating at a distinct disadvantage: “How can you follow up the work of quintessential avatars such as Raspberries, Badfinger, Emmit Rhodes, Big Star and Cheap Trick?”

There were occasional signs of encouragement, of course. The Smithereens enjoyed minor hits in ‘86 with “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” and “Blood And Roses,” scoring big in ‘89 with “A Girl Like You,” while Tommy Keene issued several well-received, if underpromoted, albums en route to his ‘90s resurgence. The Bangles, despite charting a path that would steer them into MOR territory by the end of the decade, enjoyed a creative peak between ‘84 and ‘86 thanks to the musical fruits borne by All Over The Place and Different Light. Easter associates the Windbreakers proved so adept at mining Byrdsian 12-string jangle that their 1985 album Terminal—issued by tastemaker label Homestead—remains a perennial entry on pop lovers’ best-of lists.

But by and large, our heroes were ducking for shelter. They’d already been sucker-punched by hair metal and sucker-MC’d by rap; now, thunderclouds were drifting in from the Northwest in the form of the all-too-descriptive grunge.

In this regard, perhaps Easter—who wrote in the liner notes for 1997’s Poptopia! Power Pop Classics Of The ‘80s compilation, “I am proud to be a pop guy even though at times it’s been like walking around with a ‘kick me’ sign!”—best summarizes the end-of-decade state of the union.

“These new bands came along,” he says, “and their statement out of the gate was, ‘We’re really tough, we drink a lot and fuck you.’ And people were really ready for that. They’d had enough years of Duran Duran and were looking for something grittier. Once that became the dominant thing for rock music, anybody that came out with their Rickenbackers by about ‘89 was asking to get their asses kicked.”

—Fred Mills

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