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POP MUSIC : Rediscovering the Beatles (Sort of) : Power Pop bands put their spin on '60s sound, but their acquaintance with the Fab Four is secondhand and backward

August 18, 1991|CHRIS WILLMAN | Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

Like the character in the old Steely Dan song who has to tell his younger lover, "Hey, 19, that's 'Retha Franklin," one invariably feels one's age explaining to teen-agers and even some young adults that "Yesterday" wasn't always elevator music, and that Ringo Starr was in a rock band before he landed that gig playing the miniature train conductor on a Saturday morning kids' show.

While the Beatles' virtues are lavishly admired by musicians old enough to know, the fabbest of foursomes had become a sadly under-emulated presence by the early '90s--judging from the evidence on every modern radio format.

But a slight turning of the tide is evident.

There's an emerging new wave of rambunctious Power Pop bands that recall the days when moptops were geniuses, songs were around three minutes long and a great hook--a catchy melodic phrase that "hooks" the listener--was godhead.

Though not ground-breaking, these up-and-coming outfits put their own spin on '60s- and '70s-inspired pop, and in the best instances combine a mature or sophisticated lyrical sense with the frothy charge of a good, unpretentious melody.

And at a time when traditional pop artistry seems to have fallen mostly into the hands of a mellowing older generation, some of these talented new bands are virtual prodigies, too young to really remember the Beatles, who inspired this sound.

Take the average ages of the triumvirate at the spearhead of this not-quite-a-movement:

* The Posies, from Seattle: 22.

* Jellyfish, from San Francisco: 22.

* Redd Kross, from L.A.: 25.

Among the other young bands that might fall under the loose banner of Power Pop are such disparate but uniformly tuneful groups as Material Issue, the La's, Too Much Joy, the Rembrandts, the Cavedogs and the Williams Brothers--joining elder statesmen still on the scene like Crowded House, Marshall Crenshaw and Chris Stamey & Peter Holsapple.

Material Issue's Ted Ansani--yes, he's also in his early 20s--confesses: "I knew who the Beatles were but didn't get into them till I was older. They were a band that my parents liked, so it wasn't cool."

"I can't figure out why we're so attracted to certain eras of music, because we're not old enough to have been around when all those records came out," says Jonathan Auer, the 21-year-old co-leader of the Posies. "I guess what it comes down to is we're in love with songs .

"Twenty years ago, what was the Top 40 then is what you still listen to now, basically. But the current Top 40 is something that in 20 years I'm not gonna even remember, much less listen to. I can't figure out what's happened to music."

Just how influential was the British Invasion on a generation of musicians being born about the time the four bickering Beatles were playing their last rooftop concert?

Very influential.

But not always directly.

"I was much more influenced by ELO and Cheap Trick," says Jellyfish's Andy Sturmer. "After a while I heard a Beatles album and thought, 'Wow, what's up here with these guys?' I kinda went about it backwards."

Adds fellow 'Fish member Chris Manning: "The first time I heard 'Dear Prudence' was the Siouxsie & the Banshees version. I thought it was a great song, had no idea it was by the Beatles."

Concurs Auer: "We're a little too young to be affected by (the Beatles' albums) on a firsthand basis. A lot of our '60s-ish-ness is actually early-'80s-ish-ness, a pop sensibility that came from listening to Squeeze and XTC, who all went through their phases of (Beatles emulation). You know Elvis Costello's 'Party Girl'? That has the classic 'Abbey Road'-type ending on it. That's kind of how we discovered a lot of the older stuff."

That the catchy ingredients once standard issue in rock are now looked upon as potentially off-putting novelties strikes Power Pop practitioners as ironic.

"There's a lot of traditionalism in what we do," asserts Sturmer. "For it to be looked at as foreign or 'alternative' or just a small little sect of what's going on today is beyond me."

The record industry's not sure whether there's a market for this sound again, but almost every major label has signed at least one of the new Power Pop outfits.

The first gantlet for these bands and record companies to pass through is the nation's radio programmers.

Can Power Pop find its place amid all the fragmented formats?

The Posies' "Dear 23" and Jellyfish's "Bellybutton" are in every way remarkably assured albums for acts of any age, let alone such relative youngsters.

But despite their seemingly commercial sound, there's no real niche in radio right now for acts with these virtues. If they're considered generally too odd or undanceable by Top 40 standards, they're often regarded as not nearly weird or edgy enough for college and alternative radio, landing them in commercial limbo.

Is this "new" old sound better aimed at the teen Nelson crowd or the more sophis ticated, collegiate R.E.M. audience?

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