At the beginning of this century, the American labor movement galvanized behind a very simple premise: There's strength in numbers. It didn't take much insight to see that if you were working for the man every night and day, and you didn't have a smidgen of power, the only way to influence those who did have power was by organizing behind a single cause.
At the end of this century, the American pop movement has coalesced behind the very same premise. Through some cosmic jumble of raw coincidence and careful planning, magazines like Popsided, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Amplifier and Back of a Car have all emerged in the past couple of years to extol the virtues of the well-crafted, three-minute pop song. Simultaneously, indie record labels like Permanent Press, Not Lame, Sugar Fix and Big Deal have taken in several of the hungry pop bands perennially left waiting out in the cold by skittish majors.
But the ultimate flexing of pop's collective muscle comes every February at the Poptopia festival, a sort of Los Angeles-based South by Southwest for self-professed pop geeks. Poptopia began in 1996 as an outgrowth of a floating L.A. pop nightclub called Bubblegum Crisis. At the time, the idea of a club hosting a pop night was seen as a strange concept, according to Poptopia co-organizer Tony Perkins. He says Bubblegum Crisis created "cadres of bands that did this kind of music and thought they were the only ones." The floating-club concept went from monthly to biweekly until Perkins and his friends decided to mount a full-blown festival.
The third annual Poptopia Festival was held in Los Angeles from February 2 to 8, and it was a prolonged wet dream for those who find their bliss in a chiming Rickenbacker and three-part, sha-la-la vocalizing. Nothing--not the brutal torrents of rain delivered by El Nino, nor the power failure that cursed Spaceland on Saturday, February 7--could stymie the legions of power-pop devotees who gathered for Poptopia. At times, particularly on the final-night blowout at the stylish El Rey Theatre, the vibe evoked a comic-book-collectors convention, as white males unabashedly croaked along with every secret classic that came over the sound system, be it "Whatever Happened to Fun" by Candy, or "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" by The Rubinoos.
The differences between South by Southwest and Poptopia are primarily rooted in the intentions of the organizers. While South by Southwest is an inflated music-biz schmooze balloon that completely engulfs Austin, Poptopia is all about the love of a musical form. At Poptopia, you're not saddled with the kind of bogus seminars and industry panel discussions that make SXSW so wearisome. Bands at Poptopia know that a good showcase performance isn't going to start a label bidding war, so they don't even concern themselves with such thoughts.
If South by Southwest dominates all activity in Austin in mid-March, Poptopia barely registers any attention from nonzealots on the wildly eclectic L.A. club scene. But that's the paradoxical nature of this beast we call power pop, a genre whose very raison d'étre was to stimulate the neurological pleasure centers of the masses, yet finds itself consistently denied access to a mass audience.
The very word "pop" has been so abused through the years that for some people it means insipid Top 40 drivel by the likes of Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton. Perhaps that's why some of the legendary architects of power pop, such as Cheap Trick, actually shy away from the term, preferring to simply identify themselves as rock 'n' roll, a term less easily misinterpreted. In fact, Poptopia was fairly rife with bands that squirmed around the "pop" designation like young Houdinis trapped in a glass water tank. For example, the ultrapretentious Skycycle--on the verge of releasing a debut five-song EP on MCA--sarcastically promised to provide "some seventh chords and pretty Beatley harmonies" after it rocked out a bit.
Other bands, like the shticky, Cramps-cum-Ramones punksters Groovie Ghoulies, poked affectionate fun at the "pop" biases of the gathering. The Ghoulies' astonishingly hyperactive singer, whose eyes were masked in thick black paint, took a momentary break from his methed-up shadowboxing routine to pay tribute to the famously dismal 1978 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, which he called "the Poptopiest event ever." He then tossed trading cards from the movie into the audience before blasting into a monstrous punk medley of Neil Diamond's "Hello Again" with The Monkees' standards "She Hangs Out" and "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)."
Though power pop is often viewed as a subset of rock 'n' roll, their genealogies are exact inverses of each other. Early rock 'n' roll was hatched in America, but its most loyal, dedicated adherents ultimately tended to be British. Power pop, on the other hand, was born in England, but it's been kept alive largely through the ardent devotion of American disciples. Though its sound generally tends to revisit the basic themes laid down in the mid-'60s by The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks, power pop has also drawn energy from changing trends. For instance, an early-'70s band like Big Star drew nearly as much inspiration from the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin as from '60s Merseybeat. In the late '70s and early '80s, power-poppers like The dB's, The Shoes and The Plimsouls fed off the aggression of the punk movement to create a vibrantly quirky yet still melodious sound.
At Poptopia, America--and particularly Southern California--ruled the roost. At times, it appeared that all the showcases were interconnected by six degrees of Wondermints. For instance, the beloved Wondermints not only played a Tuesday-night showcase at the Whisky a Go-Go, but Wondermint member Probyn Gregory slipped a somewhat meandering acoustic set into a Friday-night Luna Park showcase that was otherwise dominated by girl bands. On Monday night, El Rey showcased much-hyped trippy popsters The Negro Problem, a band that featured guest instrumental work by Gregory on its 1997 album Post Minstrel Syndrome. If that wasn't enough, the Wondermints connection revealed itself again on Saturday night at the tiny Hollywood dive Dragonfly, when ex-Wondermints bassist Brian Kassan displayed his excellent quartet Chewy Marble, whose tight performance lived up to the implications of the band's stellar, eponymously titled 1997 debut album.
An even more fulfilling pop orgasm was reached the following night by Baby Lemonade, an L.A. quartet that would be a chart topper in a more evolved world. Simultaneously dedicating its show to newly deceased Beach Boy Carl Wilson and someone named Cookiehead, Baby Lemonade inspired disparate acts of devotion from fans who clustered near the El Rey stage. One guy held up his tiny tape recorder to secure a bootleg of the show, while nearby a girl sketched the four band members on a giant drawing pad. Though it was breaking in a new bass player, this band demonstrated complete command of the form, with rich three-part harmonies, surprising chord progressions and gorgeous melodicism. On top of that, it rocked with conviction.
The same could not be said of all the showcasing bands. In fact, a persistent problem at Poptopia was that too many bands delivered the pop, but forgot to bring the power. No one ever said that catchy tunes had to come in a twee, sexless package, but that was exactly what came from groups like Cherry Twister--a thin-sounding, overly retro Pennsylvania trio--and Piewackit, a trio which managed to be both wimpy and raw.
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On the other hand, from Sweden--a land whose greatest export is wimpy pop--came the gutsy ebullience of The Merrymakers, whose Friday opening showcase at Spaceland set a tough standard for the acts that followed. This band was discovered via the Internet by former Jellyfish leader Andy Sturmer, who found Jellyfish listed as an influence on The Merrymakers' Web site. Sturmer ended up producing and playing on the band's tasty Bubblegun album. At Spaceland, this quintet came on like a dream mutation of all the great three-chord wonders, particularly on its closing rocker, "Superstar." At a Wednesday-night showcase, Phoenix's lone entry in Poptopia, the Beat Angels, also brought a welcome level of toughness to the proceedings.
Poptopia prides itself on its respect for history, which ultimately translates into a showcase for some unjustly forgotten hero. Last year, that hero was Emitt Rhodes, who played his first show in more than two decades. This year, the reclamation project was only slightly less obscure: Scott McCarl, bassist/vocalist for The Raspberries on their final, and best, album, Starting Over. The McCarl show drew a distinctly older audience, including some baby boomers who made this their only stop of the festival. Looking amazingly fit and youthful, McCarl led The Tearaways through a set of new songs, Raspberries classics and covers of The Byrds' "Feel a Whole Better" and The Beatles' "Yes It Is." By the end of the set, he was joined by former Raspberries guitarist Wally Bryson, looking for all the world like an even-more-ravaged Sam Kinison (if that's possible), and ex-Knack drummer Bruce Gary. They finished off the night with a pure garage-band cliche, "Slow Down," but even if the results were a bit ragged, the feeling of recaptured innocent joy was hard to resist. At unexpected moments in his set, an obviously thrilled McCarl would simply exclaim, "Pop music!" like it was a mantra, or a commitment he was trying to keep.
That's the kind of validation Perkins and his fellow Poptopia organizers look for. Perkins readily acknowledges that Poptopia has not yet had an impact on the decision-making of major record labels, but he believes that the language of the current music scene has been changed. "It [pop] is actually kind of a buzz word now," he says. "It's just a couple of notches below electronica."
Poptopia came to a rousing finish with a Sunday-night performance that seamlessly linked the past and present. After the Groovie Ghoulies' frantic show, the bulk of the crowd--suffering under California's antismoking law--rushed outside for a synchronous smoke. For a minute, it looked like everyone was going home. Twenty minutes later, the smokers returned as one, and Matthew Sweet and Tommy Keene took the stage, fronting a quintet simply billed as Groop. For one night, these two noted pop songwriters could pretend to be part of the cover band at the prom, as they tore into classics like "The Kids Are Alright," Big Star's "In the Street," "Paperback Writer," Badfinger's "No Matter What" and The Kinks' "Where Have All the Good Times Gone." For a few moments, the stars were the fans, the fans were the stars, and no one could tell the difference. That's when Poptopia lived up to its name.