Listen to this track by Nova Scotian power pop scensters and Canadian national treasure now based in Toronto, Sloan. It’s “I Hate My Generation”, a key song as taken from their breakthrough second album Twice Removed.
This album was one of a few that helped to draw the spotlight to the fertile East Coast scene of bands centred in Halifax doing interesting work during the early to mid-nineties and at once compared to their American Pacific Northwest counterparts. Yet, the scene had a distinct sound of its own, and with as much diversity when you took a closer listen. Thrush Hermit, Jale, Superfriendz, and Eric’s Trip were a select few other players on that scene from the early to mid-nineties that provided a touchpaper effect in the Canadian music press, if not always setting charts ablaze south of the border.
Although not a single, this tune from Twice Removed sounded like the flagship song to a hard won hit album. It reflects that struggle of trying to find a voice when all those around were clamouring for the same old thing. It’s also something of an anthem of that hated generation, too.
Listen to this track by effervescent Mid-Westerner power pop flame-keepers Material Issue. It’s “Diane”, a sugar rush of a track with a bitter aftertaste as it appears on their celebrated 1991 record International Pop Overthrow.
The year this came out, it was grunge this and Seattle that, which made it somewhat of a harder job getting noticed on the national scene being a power pop band in the Midwest. But, this band made up of singer, guitarist, and head songwriter Jim Ellison, along with bassist and vocalist Ted Asani, and drummer Mike Zelenko had quietly (and very inexpensively) worked up a record that captured the attention of music fans in the Chicago area, and managed to move units too.
It was thought that it would sell fewer than 100K worth of records. But, it ended up selling almost twice that; good news as they were on a major label (Mercury). This attracted the attention of the Billboard top 200, on which this record gained a respectable #86 showing.
So, what is it that made this band shine during a period of seemingly ubiquitous grunginess? And how does this song demonstrate the secret of their success? Well, I think it’s probably this; it dealt in classic rock n roll themes, and with a modern twist that had everything to do with a love of women, and not in the way you might think. Read more
Listen to this track by Californian garage-punks Dum Dum Girls (named after the Talk Talk song? Nope, more like Iggy Pop’s Dum Dum Boys, with a twist) with the title track from their recent full-length album I Will Bewith Blondie and the Go-Gos producer, and former member of the Strangeloves (who first recorded “I Want Candy”, later popularized by Bow Wow Wow) Richard Gottehrer.
The band’s principle writer “Dee Dee”, recently signed to the famed Sub Pop label recorded the tracks to the record as demos. She then sent them along to legendary music catalyst and Sire Records co-founder Richard Gottehrer for the release.
As you can tell from this tune, the tape noise, distortion, and the ambient sounds of a non-studio environment have been preserved, complete with edgy atmospherics, echoey surf guitar, and with an overall sound like it’s coming out of a subterranean rock club in 1967 with not a hippy in sight . The culmination of the writing and production makes the song sound like a lost Nuggets single, having done time in a can for 40 years before being unearthed.
Since then, Dee Dee has pulled together a band around the Dum Dum Girls name, including new band members “Bambi”, “Sandy”, and “Jules”. The group is set to embark on a summer tour with Vampire Weekend and with brother band Crocodiles.
Listen to this track by New York punk scenesters and Stooges disciples The Dead Boys, fronted by one Stiv Bators. It’s the bird-flipping anthem “Sonic Reducer”, as taken from the band’s 1977 album Young, Loud, and Snotty, a record that pretty much does what it says on the tin.
Chances are, when you think of punk rock in 1977, you’re thinking of images, attitudes, performance styles, and textures as modeled by this band, even if you’ve never heard of them. Along with Richard Hell and Voidoids, The Heartbreakers (featuring Johnny Thunders, that is), and the Ramones, The Dead Boys had a tremendous influence on the trajectory of punk rock.
The band started in New York City where they made their name after splintering from another band, Rocket From the Tombs. Later, they made an impact in England, where the Sex Pistols were just embarking on their media-frenzied concert appearances, and watching every move their New York counterparts, who shared billing with them in the UK and eventually in the US, were making.
It should be said of course that the band did not emerge from out of nowhere. Lead singer Stiv Bators was a dedicated fan of Iggy Pop, particularly during the Raw Power era of the Stooges. It is from Iggy that Bators’ onstage persona is based, complete with the tendency to self-mutilation, and self-exposure, both for which Iggy was known.
Musically, the Dead Boys’ ability to tap into a raw rock ‘n’ roll sound actually betrays quite a debt to the 1950s as much as it does to the late 60s and early 70s. There isn’t a great deal of difference between the sentiment here, and the one in Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”. Even the word ‘punk’ is derived from this 50s period, featured in the works of William S. Burroughs, who also was on the New York scene by the time the Dead Boys were playing CBGBs regularly. And as such, it’s important to remember that the bands on this scene like the Dead Boys, were not intending to create a new kind of music with punk. They were presenting rock ‘n’ roll as they understood it; visceral, raw, and short. The result was a new incarnation for their times.
Of course, with so much raw energy and intensity happening in such a narrow space and time, the New York punk scene burned twice as bright for half as long. The Dead Boys would put out a second album in 1978, We Have Come For Your Children, on which much pressure was put on them to make their sound more radio-friendly. The live document Night of the Living Dead Boys was to follow. But the involvement of the majors in the punk scene which exposed it to a wider audience, was also an influence in ending its golden age. That, and the drugs of course, which curtailed the ambitions (and in some cases, the lives) of many bands at the time.
By 1979, the Dead Boys fragmented. Stiv Bators formed the more commercially-minded The Lords of the New Church after having moved to England. That band is best known for their 1982 hit “Open Your Eyes”. And later, Bators also moved onto something of a punk supergroup (yes, there is such a thing) after the Lords, with The Whores of Babylon, a very temporary outfit that also featured Dee Dee Ramone on bass, and Johnny Thunders on lead guitar. That band imploded before any recordings were made.
The Dead Boys would reunite for some one off shows during the 80s. But, by 1990, Stiv Bators was dead, the victim of a blood clot to his brain due to an injury sustained by being hit by a car in Paris. But, Bators remains to be a key figure in the New York punk scene in the mid-to-late 70s, and with this tune as one of its strongest anthems.
Listen to this track from post-punk founding fathers Gang of Four. It’s “You Don’t Have To Be Mad”, a track from the band’s upcoming album Content, which will be available for download and on CD this coming summer.
In setting the tone for what became known as ‘alternative rock’ music, Gang of Four has seamlessly entered the 21st century in several senses of the word. First, their influence is alive and well over a great many bands who are now holding sway over cutting edge rock music – MGMT, Interpol, and a great many others. And they’ve maintained that same edgy sound that matches that of their disciples.
And second, the band has embraced social media channels, including reaching out to bloggers such as myself. This humble blog was added to their list of contacts, and it’s an honour to help out and give all of you a preview of the upcoming record.
One of the reasons for this is to have an impact on fans in a more direct way. And another is to dovetail the band’s interest in Amnesty International through a pledge campaign which trades exclusive materials from them in exchange for support of the charity.
When it comes to the new record, and reasons for connecting with fans through social media channels, take a look at this video of Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill, a musician who helped to define the sound of post-classic rock guitar, and who has also taken a very post-traditional marketing tack in the promotion of his work. From that site, you can learn more about the band’s pledge campaign, too.
Sam Roberts has built an impressive career in a reasonably short period of time here in Canada, building solid tunes on the back of a sort of Beatles meets the Waterboys sound, and with a voice that suggests to me a Split Enz-era Neil Finn with just a dash of George Harrison. How’s that for stylistic shorthand? Sam Roberts performed last Friday night in Surrey just outside of Vancouver for the Olympic celebrations, and it occurred to me what a national treasure he is.
The song to me is about gathering memories as treasures, and having those memories be what counts most, even beyond death which, in contrast to the power those memories hold, is relieved of its menace. It’s an epic pop song that seems to suggest Quebecois folk music textures at the same time. The lyrics evoke primal connections, with echoey, Daniel Lanois-esque guitars, and passionate vocals. Roberts and band sound modern while also remaining to be connected to a guitar-based pop music tradition of the past as well. What’s not to love?
Yet, Canada being Canada, I sometimes worry about artists like Sam Roberts. Artists like him in more recent years are often forgotten due to the short-sightedness of our Canadian music industry, a reactionary creature that tends to follow trends rather than setting them. This tendency is unhelpfully coupled with a memory to be compared to that of a goldfish when it comes to investing in long-term careers. But, the good will out, even in an environment where the domestic market is treated as though it needs protecting – which it doesn’t.
Despite our knee-jerk culturally institutionalized inferiority complex, something I did notice at the show in Surrey was the crowd. I saw guys, girls, teens, people in their 50s, and older, all taking in the superlative handle that Roberts has on melody, on lyrical imagery, and on ensemble playing. It made me think that Roberts’ main skill with a song like “Lions of the Kalahari”, and many of his other songs, is his ability to reach a sort of musical critical mass, creating a sound that appeals to this wide range of fans without it sounding as though he’s trying to do it in a blanded out, corporate rock sort of way.
And that is the mark of an artist likely to stick around.
Listen to this song by Liverpudlian rock-pop heroes The Zutons. It’s their UK hit from 2006 “Valerie”, as taken from their second album Tired Of Hanging Around, what an R&B-flavoured burst of poptastic charm it is, too! This soul/indie-stew may come from the fact that this band has an element once very popular, and now rare in rock-pop outfits – a full-time sax player!
This band comes out of an area of the world known to produce hook-laden pop music as if it’s a cash crop – the North-West of England, and even more specifically, Liverpool. Not even mentioning a certain world-changing quartet, this city has produced some of the most influential bands of more recent eras including Echo & the Bunnymen, The La’s, The Pale Fountains, Shack, The Coral, and the Lightning Seeds, among many others. Indeed, head Lightning Seed Ian Broudie produced their first album in 2004, Who Killed the Zutons, nominated for the coveted Mercury Music Prize that year.
The thing I notice about this band, and this track in general is the fact that it diverges quite a lot from typical jangly guitar pop out of Liverpool. This isn’t the Beatle-esque power pop song you might expect. To me, it seems to have soul music at its heart more so than Revolver, with guitarist/vocalist David McCabe’s passionate, belting voice, punctuated by saxophonist Abi Harding’s abrasive horn stabs. The overall construction of this tune is downright funky, with the on beats and off-beats kind of pulling and pushing as the song rolls along.
One criticism that indie guitar music gets is the lack of sweat to be found in it, that spark of physicality. With this tune, you get plenty, and is a case for the fact that just because a band hails from a certain region famous for a sound, it doesn’t mean that one can’t be pleasantly surprised by a shattered expectation. Of course, this band was dropped from their label at one point, an indication that record labels still don’t get it.
Listen to this track, a proto-Brit pop gem from guitar pop one-man band World Party. The track is “Ship of Fools”, and the one man is Karl Wallinger, newly and amicably departed from the Waterboys at the time of this release. The song is taken from his 1987 debut Private Revolution.
The World Party name is a vehicle for Wallinger’s interests in classic British guitar pop of the 60s and 70s. Musically speaking, this song to me is something of an outlier for the Brit-pop of the 90s, with a return to a Beatlesque emphasis on melody and big choruses. With an anthemic chorus as big as the one here, to my ears the song is very Gallagher-worthy. Wallinger’s efforts followed the same template as Oasis, and many other British groups, although a number of years earlier. And by 1997, Wallinger would find a nice little earner in his song “She’s the One”, as taken from his Egyptology album. The song was a smash UK hit by British pop chart golden boy Robbie Williams.
But as for “Ship of Fools”, the song is both ahead of its time as well as being something of a period piece. The themes here are about the fear of the future, and about being led into that future guided by the self-serving hidden agendas of those with all the power. This is certainly not what I’m talking about when I say that this is of it’s time, of course. What theme could be more pertinent to this current decade, century, millennium that we now find ourselves in?
It’s just that in the 1980s, songwriters seemed to be unafraid to write songs like this in a pop music milieu , wearing their fears on their sleeves about the state of the world, and challenging us to think about our own while still aiming for airplay – and getting it. I’m not sure this happens quite as much today. And it makes me wonder why, since in many ways our world is in even bigger trouble than it was in 1987. The chorus ‘save me from tomorrow’ is, in a way, quite prescient.
For more information about Karl Wallinger and World Party, investigate worldparty.net.
Listen to this track by unabashed power pop champions Velvet Crush. It’s “Hold Me up”, a Beatles-meets-Stones styled anthem as taken from the 1994 album Teenage Symphonies To God, the title of which is inspired by Brian Wilson’s famous statement about his own work, the legendary SMiLE album. How’s that for a 60’s-inspired hat trick?
In the late 80s, while the Posies were planning their power pop assault on the West Coast, Velvet Crush were staging their own campaign in the east, Rhode Island to be precise, and influenced by the same forefathers of the genre in Big Star, the Raspberries, and with a bit of Rick Nielson Cheap Trick guitar thrown in.
Velvet Crush is co-led by bassist/vocalist Paul Chastain and drummer Ric Menck. TStG was their second album, and produced by Let’s Active linchpin (and early REM producer) Mitch Easter, who knows something about pop hooks and crunchy guitars.
Matthew Sweet had produced their first album, and so clearly these guys knew that they wanted that classic power pop sound from the get-go. By the mid-90s, this was becoming a popular route in Britain (the Boo Radleys, Teenage Fanclub), and Velvet Crush soon found themselves on Creation Records in the UK, labelmates to Oasis, while on the Sony label in North America. The band never reached the heights of the Gallagher crowd. Yet, on this record and with this song, they continued in the traditions of guitar pop during a time that had nearly forgotten it.
The band continued to do the same into our present decade, releasing the Stereo Blues album in 2004.
Listen to this song by the criminally underexposed Toronto-based, Halifax-bred power-popists The Flashing Lights. It’s their 1999 song “Where Do the Days Go?” as taken from their debut album Where the Change Is. For some years, I plagued everyone I knew with my evangelical fervour inspired by the greatness of this song. Things haven’t changed.
I’d heard of this band only by reputation. I’d been living in Britain at the end of the 90s, and wanted to get in touch with what was happening musically speaking in my own country. I can’t remember the exact path that led me to this band, or their excellent debut. But, I ordered this disc on the strength of some reviews I’d read. And boy were they right, especially about this song.
When trying to describe this song, I always thought it sounded kind of like a summer barbecue as hosted by the Who, with Brian Wilson as a guest of honour. I love that Beach Boys organ, the hard Townshend-esque guitar, and the fun loving spirit of power pop that drives this wonderful creation along. It is simply one of my favourite songs, and maybe because 1999 felt like a bittersweet end of an era for me, there is a certain melancholic association I have with it too.
Sadly, after the band’s excellent follow-up album Sweet Release, they seem to have disappeared. Any news on their whereabouts would be welcome!
In the meantime, I got some dreams on the dashboard; gonna let them loose when we hit town!
For more information about The Flashing Lights, read this interview with lead singer and songwriter Matt Murphy.