Listen to this track from Toronto-based power pop via hard rock idols The Pursuit of Happiness. It’s “Hard To Laugh”, the lead-off track and third Canadian radio single (after “I’m An Adult Now” and “She’s So Young”) from their 1988 debut album Love Junk. This is a tune that is both shit-kicking and self-deprecating all in one go. That’s the magical ingredient to classic power pop, good people!
Here’s a story about a guy who’s out of his depth where his woman is concerned, with a suspicion that she may well be playing him for a fool that may or may not be a product of his own insecurity. It’s a variation of a quintessential power pop song theme – wanting the girl you can’t have. This time, the girl has been won, but it’s keeping her that proves to be the goal that remains out of reach.
The song, and the band was conceived and led into glory by one Moe Berg, a songwriter with a love for short stories, Cheap Trick, and Alice Cooper. Berg had as firm understanding that tough-sounding music against vulnerable, anti-macho lyrics creates a compelling concoction that is all about contrast, irony, and a unique brand of wit that doesn’t stray into jokey silliness. When it comes to pop smarts, of course, it helps that the guy in the producer’s chair knows a thing or two about them – Todd Rundgren.
Pop smarts is where The Pursuit of Happiness excelled, first in Canada, and then internationally (although not so much in the States), with their initial hit “I’m An Adult Now”, an ironic, partially spoken-word song about the burdens of having to abandon the restlessness and impetuousness of youth and face up to being a grown-up, all the while set to a rock n roll backing that seems to suggest an opposite point of view.
It’s really Moe Berg’s handle on that kind of irony and contrast as a songwriter that really allows the band’s material to shine. And where “I’m An Adult Now” could be looked upon as a one-off novelty song, “Hard To Laugh” is undeniable as a rock song that is ultimately about sex, and how it can mess you up if you’re not careful. There’s no novelty in that, where rock songwriting is concerned. And when it comes to pop song construction and execution on record is concerned, producer Todd Rundgren is the perfect match, having written a number of songs himself that troll these very same thematic waters.
The great thing about the Pursuit of Happiness, besides a run of great singles off of this record, and on the albums to follow, is that ironic intelligent power-pop began to flourish in Canada along the same lines as TPOH, with The Odds, Treble Charger, and Sloan following suit, although with individual sounds of their own.
By 1995, and on release of their excellent and under-appreciated Where’s The Bone? album, and after an unabashedly pop album The Wonderful World of the Pursuit of Happiness, the group faded after a series of personnel shifts over five albums, although they never officially broke up. Moe Berg became a writer, a book reviewer, record producer, and local DJ at various clubs in Toronto.