Re-printed from IPO 2011 East Coast Program:
I Can Hear Music
by Aaron Kupferberg
“I can hear music… The sound of the city baby seems to disappear.”
– Carl Wilson (The Beach Boys’ “I Can Hear Music,” written by Barry, Greenwich & Spector)
One of the great things about power pop is that while it serves a comparatively narrow audience, to the masses it’s often experienced as a delightfully guilty pleasure. Who hasn’t felt the joy in screaming out the lyrics to Big Star’s “In The Street” while jamming on air guitar? Additionally, the music can motivate us and bring about social solidarity – a phenomenon especially prevalent in the live festival format that is IPO.
This year I’ve listened to a lot of great power pop from new bands (The Turnback) and old favorites (Fountains of Wayne). Some artists, like Paul Collins (The Beat) embrace the label of “power pop” without reservation and fly the banner high. Others (Tommy Keene) try to narrow the definition, denouncing the power pop label as a creativity-constraining musical “ghetto.” But, as Keene acknowledges in my interview with him, everyone in rock — from Elvis Costello to the Ramones and The Who — can at times be considered to be “power pop.”
Whether you take power pop’s formal definition as being iron clad or elastic, what’s constant is that new bands will keep coming along, and each will share a common love for melody and unmistakable musical hooks. Most importantly, in each case the music will be an authentic expression of their inner selves. The force of this new creativity and talent will define how power pop evolves, and IPO is the place to see where the genre is going.
IPO is also an intimate venue, which allows for a close and true interaction between fans and the artists. Artists have a chance to impress and earn a fan’s respect and devotion in return. When the show starts, you’re never quite sure what to expect. But within a short time you’ll find that the troubles of life, the economy, politics, all vanish for a brief moment, the chaotic sounds of the city being absorbed into a welcome wall of harmony, melody, and raw power.
While Neil Young never named power pop as something that “will never die,” this oversight shouldn’t prevent us from including it in the pantheon of rock and roll genres that will be around for a long time. IPO New York is a vital institution keeping power pop a vital form of music, and I hope to see you there.
Re-printed from IPO 2011 West Coast Program:
THE WARMTH OF THE SUN
by JOHN M. BORACK
They say you always remember your first time.
Every once in awhile (generally whenever I need a big ‘ol hit of power pop nostalgia), I think back to the first-ever International Pop Overthrow, which took place in 1998. I’ve been tangentially involved with IPO in some capacity since its inception (helping to secure venues in Orange County, writing articles for programs, etc.) and I have witnessed a boatload of great sets by some of my favorite artists and fostered some lifelong friendships via the fest. But my fondest memories are centered around IPO ’98, and one show in particular.
The inaugural IPO featured performances from power pop royalty such as Velvet Crush, Rubinoos and Splitsville, as well as long-forgotten acts such as Dragster Barbie, Matt Bruno and Charlotte’s Bionic Blimp. In between there were loads of great acts from all over the globe, helping to make David Bash’s dream of a truly international pop music festival a reality. As a fan of the genre, I was thrilled to have so many cool acts playing pretty much in my own backyard; I also leapt at the chance to help when David mentioned that he’d like to put on an outdoor show in Orange County.
Through contacts via my day job, I was able to secure a cool outdoor venue in Garden Grove, CA called The Festival Amphitheatre (located less than 10 minutes from Disneyland). It featured an enormo-stage big enough to hold the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and all their offspring, a professional staff and plenty of seating for IPO-goers to enjoy the music while basking in the summer sunshine.
Yeah, about that summer sunshine…
One of the things that made the first-ever outdoor IPO show so memorable for me was the heat. The miserable, unrelenting, oppressive, mothereffing HEAT. Records show that the mercury reached 102 degrees in Garden Grove on Saturday, August 29, 1998, but I’m here to tell you that it felt quite a bit hotter than that. Were we sitting on the freaking sun? Vacationing in hell? (No, it couldn’t have been that; Dave Matthews Band wasn’t on the bill.) Whatever the case, the crowd filing into the Fest Amp practically dove headlong for any shreds of shade they could find – and trust me there wasn’t much to be found. Still, as David, noted pop DJ/scribe Alan Haber and I worked to set things up for the 11:30am start time, the vibe was good. Sweaty, but good.
We certainly didn’t know it at the time, but this show featured a bill for the ages: John Moremen, Chris Dorn, Paul Myers (whose bro Mike was there to watch him), P. Hux, Sun Sawed In 1/2, Jeffrey Foskett, 20/20, Kyle Vincent and Bill Lloyd. Read that over again. Are you KIDDING me? This was like a who’s who of power pop circa 1998, and they were all right here in our hot little hamlet.
A television production crew from my company was there to videotape the proceedings (a VHS tape – remember those? – of the show was later sold to raise funds for the local Boys & Girls Club), and I recently had the chance to revisit the footage after more than a decade. The video featured an intro and outro from pop savant Robbie Rist (the dude who put the word “ubiquitous” in the dictionary) that was videotaped in my living room in front of my LP collection. It also featured one performance from each of the acts on the bill.
And oh! those acts. On that sweltering day in Garden Grove, the perspiring throng was treated to amazing moments such as the Beatifics’ Chris Dorn covering a tune by The Toms (pop geek heaven!), Jeffrey Foskett jamming with Bill Lloyd, P. Hux playing about half of his classic “Deluxe” album as part of a power trio that rocked like mad, and Kyle Vincent making all the femmes swoon with his sweet pop sounds. (In retrospect, they may have been in the throes of heatstroke, so it’s possible it was fainting and not swooning, per se.) Kyle also tried to squeeze in one more tune after his allotted time was up (he was gonna perform a version of “Band On the Run”), but he was met by the debut performance of the now-legendary “Bash Finger” (aka “this is your last song”).
As the crowd huddled in the little pockets of shade, I don’t think they were aware of how special this day was – for me, it was akin to a Power Pop Woodstock, minus the mud and the brown acid. Personally, what I felt was the defining moment of the day was when power pop pioneers 20/20 took the stage. I was given the honor of introducing the band that had recorded one of my favorite albums of all time (their eponymous debut), and I did so while holding my then-three-month-old daughter Kayla in my arms. (A photo of this appears in my first book, “Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide.”) Ron Flynt, Steve Allen and Bill Belknap proceeded to wow the crowd with a generous selection of tracks from “20/20,” such as “Remember the Lightning,” “She’s An Obsession” and “Cheri.” As I surveyed the enthusiastic crowd – who was worshipfully mouthing the words to all the songs – I felt a great sense of camaraderie with everyone in attendance. This was OUR music! This was OUR festival! CRAP, was it ever HOT!
But seriously – the combination of the top-notch acts, the fellowship with like-minded folks from across the globe who were meeting for the first time and the sparkly newness of it all made this a day to remember. Thanks to David Bash – and power pop – for making it all possible.
Oh, one more thing – is it hot in here or is it just me?
Re-printed from IPO 2011 UK Program:
Who will be the next Beatles?
by Aaron Kupferberg
Trick question. With the onset of years, the more we look back, with more certainty we can say that no one will ever approach what the Fab Four have done. You can argue that Michael Jackson had more #1 debuts, or Madonna had more top ten singles, but none will make the same musical, cultural, and social impact. It goes well beyond Beatlemania to the way an rock group is conceived. Prior to the Beatles, bands were put together by powerful record labels, and ruled like serfs in a musical fiefdom.The template for gathering your buddies, getting signed by a label, get rich and famous and control your artistic vision started with them.
The first band labeled “the next Beatles” was Badfinger, and their tragic story served as a warning for other bands that the “template” was never a easy roadmap to success. Since then, hundreds of successful bands from Oasis to the Jonas Brothers have had the music press make the same lazy comparisons. But its best we don’t even ask the question unless that group can support an entire city long after its demise.
Spending a bit time at Beatlefest in New Jersey this year, I listened with rapt attention to author David Bedford who’s book “LIddypool” goes into all the nooks and crannies of the band’s birthplace and the early lives of Fab Four. Prior to 1980 the important places mentioned in the book were slowly disappearing, and the city of Liverpool didn’t really accept the significance of its place in history. There was no musical tourism at the time and like most 60’s music, it was considered ephemeral and only trumpeted by a few old codgers reliving the past. After the death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, people finally woke up to the fact that The Beatles were more than a 60’s phenomenon. And Liverpool now boasts massive revenues from “Beatles Tourism.” We may see a public park at Neverland Ranch someday, but I doubt it will ever approach the level of Graceland’s tourist expectations.
Bottom line here is that the next successful band will not use a template that’s 50 years old, but a combination of “outside-the-box” methods that gets great music to the ears of people who will appreciate and crave it. The musical landscape is no longer a fiefdom, but an ocean where only the most dedicated and self-reliant artists will float to the top. International Pop Overthrow is just one of the ways artists and music fans connect, it’s a small enough venue to build a rapport with those of likeminded musical tastes, and remember… The Cavern isn’t a bad place to start a phenomenon!
Re-printed from IPO 2011 Midwest Program:
A Very Good Thing: An Appreciation of Material Issue
By John M. Borack
Power pop was in sort of an odd place in the early ’90s. Most of the bands that are now considered pioneers of the genre were long gone, and many of the titans of the second wave (20/20, Plimsouls, stc.) were dormant. It would be a few years before Jordan Oakes’ Yellow Pills fanzine and L.A.’s Poptopia festival would bring melody-based guitar-pop back to a small-yet-rabid following in a (relatively) big way. Sure, there were pop acts littering the musical landscape here and there, but where was the act that could be the next big thing? Where was the band that could sit up and make folks take notice? Where was the future of power pop?
Material Issue came along and provided the answers for many of us.
Although the fledgling band had a few indie releases in the late ’80s, they first caught my attention after they signed to Mercury Records and released the iconic International Pop Overthrow disc in 1991. One listen was all it took for me to realize that this was the band that I – and many others – had been waiting for. Not only were Jim Ellison’s songs across-the-board killer, but the trio put them across with spirit and style: Ellison was a somewhat manic and engaging frontman, and Mike Zelenko and Ted Ansani formed a creative and powerful rhythm section. (Proof of the band’s cool pop cred was provided by the use of Jeff Murphy from Shoes as co-producer, and the fact that four of the tunes featured girls’ first names in their titles. How pop is THAT?)
From the Who-like blast of the chorus of “Valerie Loves Me” to the sweetly hopeful “Very First Lie,” from undeniable power pop classics such as “Renee Remains the Same” and “Diane” to the heart-tugging “This Letter,” IPO was damned close to a greatest hits record right out of the chute – except that Material Issue had still more greatness left in reserve for their follow-ups. These guys were the real deal.
Live, as on record, the band could alternate between jingle-jangle sweetness and tear-your face-off rock and roll in the blink of an eye. I experienced this firsthand the one and only time I saw Material Issue in concert, at a small club in Long Beach, CA in 1990, when they opened for Shoes. Ellison, Ansani and Zelenko tore through much of the yet-to-be-released International Pop Overthrow record, leaving me and the rest of the pop-loving crowd breathless and somewhat slack-jawed. That night, the band connected with me big time and made me a fan for life.
Destination Universe and Freak City Soundtrack were worthy successors to MI’s stellar debut and upped the ante both performance-wise and sonically. (The most excellent, Mike Chapman-produced Freak City is one of the most “live” sounding power pop records ever recorded.) Ellison’s songs continued alternating between kicking your ass and tugging on your heartstrings: for every in-your-face rocker such as the nervy “What Girls Want” (which recalled Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy”) or the positively scorching “Help Me Land,” Material Issue evened the score with wonderfully evocative, touching numbers such as the absolutely gorgeous “Next Big Thing,” a sadly sweet tale of a love not quite found. Jim Ellison seemed to be writing with his heart firmly planted on his sleeve in a manner that his audience could relate to, which is one of the things that helped make him so great.
Of course, the Material Issue story didn’t have the storybook ending we were all hoping for; despite some alternative radio airplay and a shot at the brass ring, they failed to sell enough records to satisfy the label and split from Mercury after their third album. Jim Ellison left us far too soon in 1996, which was not only a great loss for the music community and his fans, but also for the great number of musicians who had come to know and love him as a close friend.
A posthumous MI release, Telecommando Americano, contained more than a few gems: the sneering-yet-humorous rocker “You Were Beautiful” (“…until things got ugly,” of course) and the tender ballad “Carousel” showcased the band’s yin and yang to great effect. Fifteen years after Jim Ellison’s death, it’s still impossible for me to listen to “Carousel” or “Next Big Thing” without a tear or two coming to my eye; conversely, it’s difficult to stay in my seat and not feel the urge to jump around like a madman whenever I spin “Goin’ Through Your Purse” or “A Very Good Thing.”
Although Material Issue never quite reached that coveted “next big thing” status, they produced a body of work that still sounds vibrant today and that no doubt influenced loads of other bands (it’s not that great of a leap from Material Issue’s sound to some of the more commercial records by Green Day, for example). In addition, they helped re-energize the floundering, early ’90s power pop scene by kicking it squarely where it hurts.
So while we still mourn the loss of a true talent and a true friend in Jim Ellison, we should also rejoice at the recorded legacy that he, Mike and Ted have left behind. Thanks, guys – to me, you will always be the next big thing.