Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Power pop powers on

1 Comment


Pete Townshend of The Who is credited with coining the term power pop. It was in a 1966 interview describing what his band was doing at the time. Later, young American bands still under the spell of the ’60s British invasion (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, etc.) came to define the genre in the ’70s.

But what was it exactly? What does it sound like? And how did it develop?

Well, like most sub-genres of popular music, the borders are somewhat porous and many artists under the umbrella bristle when labelled with the term.

Power pop is often defined by what it wasn’t. It was a reaction to hippie-dom, prog-rock and stadium rock, and a return to the principles The Beatles established in the early part of their career. It favoured the three-minute single over the double album. These bands went back to the innocence of ’60s pop and rock but put a new spin on it, pairing sharp, jangly, nervy guitars with big melodic hooks, stacked harmonies and an exuberant delivery. The songs popped, but were often about yearning and longing, usually concerned with love that was either lost or unrequited.

The early ’70s was ground zero for power pop, exemplified by the likes of The Raspberries (Go All The Way, I Wanna Be With You), Big Star (September Gurls, When My Baby’s Beside Me) and Todd Rundgren (I Saw The Light, Hello It’s Me).

Perhaps no band sums up this proto-power pop era better than Badfinger, a Welsh group who were the first band signed to The Beatles’ Apple label. They were set to be the Fab Four’s successors – their first single Come And Get It was actually written by Paul McCartney. They should have been huge, releasing a string of era-defining early ’70s songs such as No Matter What, Day After Day, Baby Blue (if you were a Breaking Bad fan, that’s the song playing over the final scene) and Without You (which has been covered by over 180 artists and was a hit for Harry Nilsson in 1971 and then Mariah Carey in 1994).

Alas, an unscrupulous manager plus a morass of legal and financial problems scuppered the band’s future, bringing their career to a standstill. Two of the members ended up committing suicide. Their music remains one of the genre’s touchstones, their tuneful songs now shrouded with a layer of melancholy, given extra gravitas through history.


'The theme from Friends, I’ll Be There For You by The Rembrandts, is power pop writ large (handclaps, jangly guitars, a perky tune that floats like a helium balloon), while the theme from That ’70s Show is a cover of Big Star’s In The Street by Cheap Trick, a move that couldn’t be more power pop if it tried.' 


The golden era followed soon after the early ’70s pioneers opened the door, stretching from around 1976 to the early ’80s – Cheap Trick (Surrender, I Want You To Want Me, Southern Girls, Dream Police) became one of the biggest bands in the world, Flamin’ Groovies released what many call a definitive power pop song in 1976 with Shake Some Action, and cult bands such as The Records, 20/20 and Shoes had their moment at the edge of the spotlight.  

Blondie, who came out of New York punk but always had a strong pop sensibility, had a hit in 1978 with Hangin’ On The Telephone, a cover of an underground power pop song by The Nerves.

And then The Knack arrived in 1979 and My Sharona became a worldwide phenomenon. This was when power pop had its biggest moment and reached its commercial peak – but it was also when it jumped the shark. The hype around The Knack was ridiculous – and I say that as someone who still owns and cherishes a vinyl copy of their debut album Get The Knack. I remember Sydney’s tabloid newspapers of the day holding reader polls about whether the band was going to be bigger than The Beatles. Predictably, there was a huge backlash, not just against the band, but against power pop in general, and by the early ’80s the tide had turned.

But power pop never really went away. A lot of what ended up being lumped under the UK new wave banner was a close cousin to power pop, dressed up with a slight post-punk sneer and thrift store suits – think of early Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe and Squeeze.

And the flag still flew in the ’80s. The compilation album Poptopia! Power Pop Classics Of The ’80s is packed with gems, including The Romantics’ What I Like About You, The Bangles’ Going Down To Liverpool, The La’s’ There She Goes and The Hoodoo Gurus’ I Want You Back.

And throughout the ’90s and 2000s power pop kept being incorporated and updated by lovers of sparkling guitars, sticky melodies, pristine harmonies and classic songcraft, via the likes of Teenage Fanclub, Redd Kross, Jellyfish, The Posies and Matthew Sweet.

It also popped up in very popular places. The theme from Friends, I’ll Be There For You by The Rembrandts, is power pop writ large (handclaps, jangly guitars, a perky tune that floats like a helium balloon), while the theme from That ’70s Show is a cover of Big Star’s In The Street by Cheap Trick, a move that couldn’t be more power pop if it tried. 

And the power pop giants of the ’70s continue to tour today – the early months of this year will see Australian visits from Cheap Trick, Blondie and Todd Rundgren.

Meanwhile, archival label Grapefruit Records recently released Looking For The Magic: American Power Pop In The Seventies, a comprehensive 3-CD overview that digs deep into the crates and includes rarities and previously unreleased tracks that even the keenest power pop hound may have missed. 

Perhaps the longevity of power pop is partly due to the nature of the music and how it’s played. During the ’70s, before punk came along, if you were a teenage fan of Genesis or Yes or Supertramp or Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple, there was no way you were going to emulate that music in your parents’ garage with your school buddies. But power pop emerged from young guys under the influence of the ’60s, with cheap guitars, bass and drums, and – initially, at least – rudimentary skills.  

I play in a covers band in Perth called Radio Radio and half our set is power pop and new wave from the late ’70s and early ’80s. This was a golden era for those styles and you don’t have to be a virtuoso to pull it off. In fact, if you know your way around the simplest chords on a guitar – E, A and D – and one of your mates can hit drums hard and roughly in time, and another one of your mates can vaguely yelp in tune, you could pretty much make your way through The Romantics’ What I Like About You right now with zero rehearsal.

That’s the beauty of power pop. The entry level is low, but the results are often sublime. And a hell of a lot of fun. And, in the end, isn’t that what pop music should be about?




Barry Divola is an author, musician and journalist who writes regularly for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. His latest book is the novel Driving Stevie Fracasso. Follow his writing at: authory.com/BarryDivola

Main image: The Knack press photo.

Topic tags: Barry Divola, PowerPop, MySharona, Cheap Trick, Music



submit a comment

Existing comments

Forgot to mention Dwight Twilley who died last year. "Looking for the Magic" was by him. Also Raspberries, Eric Carmen passing this year. A couple of the major power-poppers there.

Steve Laxton | 09 April 2024  

Similar Articles

Why we keep coming back to Groundhog Day

  • Paul Mitchell
  • 22 February 2024

Since its release, audiences, critics and philosophers have grappled with Groundhog Day’s take on time and eternity. Like all great art, Groundhog Day resists easy categorisation and is a story that, in a wonderful irony, we can go to again and again.


On the anniversary of a poet's birth, a universal message to nations

  • Warwick McFadyen
  • 20 February 2024

‘The loss of memory by a nation is also a loss of its conscience.’ As the loss of conscience grows with each succeeding generation, one day righting the boat on the sea of forgetfulness will become impossible. In the end, what people don’t know, they won’t miss.