When the sun lingers, we long to hear Power Pop. Reinventing the melodicism and economy of ’60s rock across the decades, you know the genre from its late ’70s and early ’80s peak, even if the label seems new.
Power Pop also infused New Wave. The Cars introduced themselves with three classics of the genre: “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Just What I Needed.” Blondie supplemented its dance hits with “One Way Or Another” and “Dreaming.”
At the peak, there were one-hit wonders, including the Rubinoos (“I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” from the summer of ’79) and Shoes (“Too Late,” which faded in the Fall of ’79, but became a staple when MTV debuted in the summer of ’81). There were alternative bands carrying the banner of 70’s cult faves Big Star into the 80’s, such as The dB’s and the Hoodoo Gurus.
But Power Pop has a longer history, as these half-forgotten gems of summers past demonstrate.
1. ‘Do It Again’ — The Beach Boys
Call this summer ’68 hit proto-Power Pop — and a blast of instant nostalgia for the surf scene the band mostly abandoned two years earlier. Power Pop often draws on nostalgia. Given the song’s success during a period of struggle, it’s odd the band did not fully embrace nostalgia until the double-LP compilation Endless Summer became a surprise success in the summer of ’74.
2. ‘Go All The Way’ — The Raspberries
In the summer of ’72, “Go All The Way” provided a crunchy guitar riff, vocals like Roy Orbison, and a Beatlesque break — all in under four minutes. The lyrics were risque, not uncommon in Power Pop. The Raspberries also ended summer ’74 with “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),” filled with Brian Wilsonesque shifts and harmonies. (Also, one cannot write about early ’70s Power Pop without mentioning Badfinger, but their string of pearls were not summer releases.)
3. ‘Beach Baby’ — The First Class
A one-hit wonder delivered this pumped-up Beach Boys homage in June ’74. The band even hired studio ace Tony Burrows, who sang for several other one-hitters. Burrows tackles the wistful lyrics with a bit of Beach Boy Mike Love’s nasal quality. The close harmonies later cascade into a round, offset by a lonely theme on French horns. The band never duplicated this majestic success.
4. ‘Ballroom Blitz’ — The Sweet
With a Glam take on Power Pop, The Sweet launched “Ballroom Blitz” into the Top 5 in the summer of ’75. The drums alternately gallop and saunter. The layered, near-operatic choruses recall Queen (as The Cars’ would a few years later). This formula also fueled “Fox On The Run” in early ’76 — and in ’16, thanks to the trailer for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”
5. ‘Starry Eyes’ — The Records
The Records’ debut album just missed the Top 40 in the summer of ’79. “Starry Eyes” borrows from Eddie & The Hot Rods “Do Anything You Wanna Do,” but soars on the most Byrds-inspired guitar lines since Tom Petty — or Roger McGuinn. (Bram Tchaikovsky’s “Girl of My Dreams” is a solid alternative, though its lyrics may wear less well in the #MeToo era.)
6. ‘Good Girls Don’t’ — The Knack
“My Sharona” dominated the summer of ’79 with a Beatlesque mania. The follow-up released in August was similarly salacious, requiring a radio edit. The lyrics and teenybopper appeal meant The Knack would never get respect, but the phenomenon was undeniable.
7. ‘Do You Want Crying?’ — Katrina & The Waves
Another follow-up, this time of the anthem “Walking On Sunshine.” Both charted in the summer of ’85, but first appeared on Canadian imports. Songwriter-guitarist Kimberley Rew is a master of the genre, though The Bangles’ version of “Going Down To Liverpool” may beat his.
8. ‘Only A Memory’ — The Smithereens
Pat DiNizio knew his way around Beatlesque riffs and chord structure — and how to beef them up for modern listeners. The Smithereens’ only summer hit, “Only A Memory,” peaked in June ’88. The accompanying video aptly aped the title sequence from Goldfinger.
9. ‘1976’ — Redd Kross
Redd Kross embodied ’80s underground Power Pop. They were fascinated with subjects like Linda Blair and Karen Carpenter, and recorded the Brady Bunch’s “Sunshine Day” for an indie film. Steven McDonald seems to regret Third Eye, released at the end of summer ’90. But “1976” and “Bubblegum Factory” nail the nostalgia target, while “Annie’s Gone” and “Zira (Call Out My Name)” have all the pop classicism a listener could desire.
10. ‘Girlfriend’ — Matthew Sweet
After switching labels for years, Matthew Sweet found success with Girlfriend and its title track. It had a long fuse. The LP was released in October ’91; the single peaked in June ’92, a beneficiary of MTV, and the guitar work of Robert Quine.
11. ‘Kate’ — The Ben Folds Five
This mix of rolling piano, fuzz bass, and harmony was a staple of the summer of ’97 and a paean to a hippie with the qualities of a Disney Princess. “Kate” was co-written by Folds’ second wife, but named for his first, who once complained her name did not inspire many songs. Challenge accepted. Note: Any discussion of Power Pop in summer ’97 must mention Third Eye Blind’s mega-hit, “Semi-Charmed Life.”
12. ‘Stacy’s Mom’ — Fountains Of Wayne
It wasn’t a single until September, but Power Pop afficionados were in love with “Stacy’s Mom” throughout the summer of ’03. Again, the 21st Century take on “Mrs. Robinson” pushed boundaries. The band’s signature was the latest in a line of summer treats like “Red Dragon Tattoo,” “Denise” and … “It Must Be Summer.”
Why does Power Pop so often soundtrack summer? The timeless melodies are part of it. Yet the nostalgia, direct or implied, is often central. When we are growing up and more focused on pop music, summer means we are out of school, hanging out with our friends and eventually seeking romances. There is the sense that summer is a stolen season, exploding and quickly fading, like Independence Day fireworks or an ephemeral pop hit. We chase the last rays of those September sunsets as much as we anticipate our next chance to make more memories each May.