Thursday, June 19, 2008

More Generic Considerations: The Vapors

Building off last week's kick-around of the Tom Petty ball (okay, that was a weird metaphor), I've been thinking over the last few days how, exactly, I define power pop. Clearly, it has something to do with form, with particular chord progressions and distillations of influence (if Petty's not power pop, we noted, it would be because of the Southern rock blues influence), especially those inheritances of the British Invasion. But there are also pretty specific thematic concerns in power pop, which can mostly be classified in one of two categories: Sex and Rebellion.

I recently spent a week in the brains of over a thousand teenagers ruminating on the nature of the sonnet, and many of them assured me that one Keats sonnet had to have been about love, because sonnets just are, regardless of the words on the page. I was, shall we say, skeptical of this assertion, because I tend to be a theme person more than a form person (I also tend to be a prose person, but they didn't bother to ask me that). But I'm rethinking that now. Could William Carlos Williams have written "This Is Just To Say" as a sonnet? Possibly, and the form would dictate, to some extent, how we read that poem, less stripped down admission of guilt, more poetry of domesticity, say.

I've also been looking into my old scholarship, trying to gauge whether any of it is any good, or if I'm still as annoyed at it as I was when I put it down. My topic, throughout my academic career, has basically been adolescence and empire: how identity formation in colonial systems works out in literature, often through channeling, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, Sex and Rebellion. So you see how this fits together.

And so I give you two illustrative examples of that most Keatsian of bands, The Vapors. The Vapors were, like Keats, just kids when they hit, but they had famous admirers and rose fast (The Jam). Of course, they flamed out pretty fast, after one brilliant power pop record (1980's New Clear Days, of the ubiquitous "Turning Japanese" fame), and one grimmer but more interesting record (1981's Magnets, a consideration of violence, assassination, mass suicide, and other light topics). Musically, the records aren't so different, though the song "Magnets" itself definitely has a darker feel. But music speaks louder than words, and so consider:

First, we have a fan video bleeding two of the greatest tracks from New Clear Days: Trains and News at Ten. "Trains" is a love song, "News at Ten" is a song about adolescent rebellion. Duh.

(I thought there was a real "News at Ten" video, but I guess not.)

(Jeebus, was there ever a more British-looking band than the Vapors?)

Compare to the much-less-generically-clear paean to the Jonestown Massacre, "Jimmie Jones":

(What a bass line! I forget, sometimes, how much I love this stuff.)

So a question: the first video is definitely and definitively power pop, but what about the second? (And if you're fascinated by the Jonestown Massacre, as I was in my adolescence, you might enjoy this video by my blogbud Spike Priggen, which uses one of those weird early 80's movies about the tragedy as its visual text.)


steve simels said...

Ack -- couldn't get the second video to play. And I wish I had more time to comment (I'm in a huge rush today).

But the first video? Hell yeah, those two songs are power pop. Louder faster Buddy Holly, which is pretty much one of the basic powerpop templates, don't you think? Although I must confess, I'd never thought of any of this in Keatsian terms....

steve simels said...

a commodious vicus of recirculation

I'm not worthy, kiddo. Seriously...

TMink said...

I completely appreciate this start of a discussion, and Mary I had never really thought of Power Pop in terms of subject matter. I look forward to thinking that through for awhile!

For me, an important aspect of Power Pop is how it relates to the blues. I think Power Pop holds the blues at least at arms length, with usually only the drums and the backbeat inviting the blues to the party.

There is also a strong nerd component to some Power Pop. The Cars, the dB's, stuff like that. Maybe, just maybe, Power Pop (PP) draws much heavier from the European tranditions than the African.

Obviously, there is no rock and roll without Africa! But PP strikes me as white music. (God bless XTC for saying that first in an album title.) Now I love hard funk, the blues, soul music, reggae, and other music that leans heavily on the African traditions, so this is not some racist shit.

But the connection between the British Invasion and PP is clear and established, and the British were able to introduce white America (which was mired is racism and prejudice)to the some of the richness of African music, albeit second hand.

Obviously, not all PP is nerd rock. The Vapors had a low nerd quotient, and man that is some great PP. But perhaps all PP is at least somewhat distant from the blues and Africa. It is similar to how Check Berry heard Africa more than his rockabilly contemporaries who heard more Bill Monroe.

What do you guys think?

And thanks so much for this thread, I am nerd enough to think about this kinda stuff and appreciate it when I find other people to discuss it with.


steve simels said...


I get where you're coming from on this, and I think you're mostly right.

Until I think, top of my head, of "Daytripper." Or "I Feel Fine."

Power Pop? Sounds like it to me, but they're obviously based on a blues riffs.....

I'm sure there are other obvious examples....

TMink said...

Excellent point Steve. Those songs are originalist Power Pop, and they have the blues scales with the flatted 7th.

I had never really considered I Feel Fine as Power Pop, but I have no idea why I missed it!

Can a song be much more blues based and still be Power Pop? Are those songs and others like them the outside edge of blues influence?

More thinking required!


steve simels said...

The Move's California Man?

It's a rockabilly pastiche, obviously, but with the glam overlay and those riffs....

Plus Cheap Trick covered it...

TMink said...

"Plus Cheap Trick covered it..."



Anonymous said...

The Who did James Brown, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

MBowen said...

Whenever people start talking about genres, the first thing I try to think of are boundary cases: for instance, is "Chronic Town" powerpop? It has the hummable melodies, the ringing guitars, the snappy beat, but somehow it doesn't quite fit in.