A personal playlist by Terry Staunton
Melody. Minor chords. Heartbeat-skipping harmonies. Guitars that jangle as if their very lives depended on jangling. Welcome to the world of power pop, a genre arguably kick-started by The Beatles and The Hollies, and intermittently revived by performers who know the value of charm and chime. What follows is one man’s selection (sorry about the man thing) in no discernible order, but I hope more than most of ‘em strike a chord with you. See what I did there…?
VOICE OF THE BEEHIVE – I Walk The Earth
Sisters Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland fashioned a frantic multi-coloured mosaic that welded Shangri-Las doom pop to Sex Pistols guitar figures (that’s the ‘Pretty Vacant’ riff you hear).
Legend has it Tracey was drunk when she suggested calling the second album Honey Lingers, and the label went for it without noticing the pun.
SUZANNE VEGA – When Heroes Go Down
Cruelly pigeon-holed by lazy music press as a cut-price Joni Mitchell after ‘Marlene On The Wall’ hit the charts, Suzanne’s subsequent catalogue is a vast and varied thing.
This is a joyous little joust, coming in under two minutes, borrowing a riff from The Searchers’ ‘Needles and Pins’.
WENDY JAMES – London’s Brilliant
Following the demise of Transvision Vamp, the band’s singer asked Elvis Costello to write her something for her solo debut. He responded by knocking out an entire album’s worth, among which this shouty ode to Ladbroke Grove perfectly suits her “image”.
Elvis later described Wendy as “not a great singer, but a really good pop star.”
SANDIE SHAW – Please Help The Cause Against Loneliness
The ‘60s barefoot confessor of working-class womanhood (‘Girl Don’t Come’, ‘Long Live Love’) reinvented herself two decades later via smart covers of Smiths and Lloyd Cole songs.
Stage Two of her comeback was pegged on this tune, written for her by Morrissey and Stephen Street.
RACHEL SWEET – B-A-B-Y Baby
Akron, Ohio, teenager taken under the wing of Stiff Records to emerge triumphant on the label’s audacious train package tour. A career in Broadway musicals followed, and today she is a mover and shaker in American TV production.
Fun fact: Rachel appeared in an episode of Seinfeld as a relative of George Constanza.
SAM PHILLIPS – I Need Love
The former wife of big time producer T Bone Burnett deserves more recognition than her choice in spouses. Arguably still tainted by her early Christian recordings, she remains a provocative and articulate singer-songwriter.
Fun fact: Sam played Jeremy Irons’ ruthless assassin girlfriend in Die Hard With A Vengeance.
AIMEE MANN – She Really Wants You
She’s written tunes with Elvis Costello, was a member of Squeeze for a year or so, and her songs provided perfect punctuation for Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificent multi-strand movie Magnolia. Seriously, she’s one of the best singer-songwriters in the world.
Fun fact: Aimee was the nihilist who sacrificed a toe in The Big Lebowski fake kidnap plot.
BLONDIE – Dreaming
When, after just 37 seconds, Debbie Harry rhymes “restaurant” with “debutant”, we know we’re listening to something pretty fucking special. An homage to the iconic Wall Of Sound, although rather than hiring half a dozen drummers producer Mike Chapman did this with just Clem Burke at his disposal.
Suck on that, Phil Spector.
SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER – Kiss Me
Pop perfection; this is one of the most unashamedly simple but affecting songs in the entire of history of music. The dreamy guitar is early Johnny Marr, the understated drumming recalls Charlie Watts, and the double-tracked vocal is akin to a loved one drooling honey directly into your ears.
THE PRETENDERS – Kid
The first single was a Kinks cover, so this follow-up introduced us to Chrissie Hynde, the idiosyncratic lyricist; a lullaby, apology and accusation all in one.
Forgive your author’s inner nerd, but James Honeyman–Scott’s 15-second guitar break at the 1:35 mark is one of the most magical things ever.
THE BANGLES – Hazy Shade Of Winter
They struggled to write songs of their own the label would put out as singles, but that’s not an especially dark black mark against their name. The Bangles were brilliantly adept at interpretations, such as this cranked-up Simon & Garfunkel cover for the film version of Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero.
THE STONE PONEYS, FEATURING LINDA RONSTADT – Different Drum
Written by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees, adding weight to his argument that the band should have been allowed to write more of their own material. The song that secured Ronstadt’s megabucks solo deal in the ‘70s, but perhaps best known among ’90s pop kids via the Lemonheads’ cover.
NANCY SINATRA- Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time
Nancy lived next door to Morrissey in Los Angeles for a couple of years, but when it came to writing material for her comeback record it was Jarvis Cocker who got the call.
Closer in spirit to Ronnie Spector, perhaps, but nonetheless a superbly crafted and witty nugget of big sister wisdom.
THE GO-GOS – Our Lips Are Sealed
If there’s one song that sums up the ‘80s for those of us who lived through them, it’s ‘Rock Me Amadeus’. Or ‘The Final Countdown’. Or ‘Chant Number One (I Don’t Need This Pressure On)’.
Anyway, this would probably make the Top 20, for its joyous celebration of the defiance of society’s romantic norms. Or something.
KYLIE MINOGUE – Some Kind Of Bliss
Why didn’t Indie Kylie catch on? Despite the involvement of Manic Street Preachers, who both wrote and played on this song, it fell well shy of the Top 20. Might it be that the perceived testosterone of her collaborators was a bit too much for the lavender element of her core fan base? Stop me now; I’m sounding like a broadsheet wanker.
10,00 MANIACS – What’s The Matter Here?
The dreamy wash of Robert Buck’s guitars draw you in, cradling and swaying with reassurance, until Natalie Merchant cuts straight into your heart with a lyric about being a (partial) witness to child abuse. Her mellow narrative in the opening verse rises to a crescendo of anger and frustration. Uneasy listening, that has to be heard.
JENNY LEWIS – Carpetbagger
The poster girl for genre-defying Americana, with nods to Loretta Lynn and Laura Nyro. Yeah, it’s a little bit country, but it incorporates more than a few feisty new wave motifs, hence the participation of Elvis Costello. Fun fact: Jenny also plays in an all-girl power trio with Costello drummer Pete Thomas’s daughter Tennessee Thomas, called Nice As Fuck.
CLOUT – Substitute
Female five-piece from South Africa, rocking up a song first recorded by the Righteous Brothers. It was a chart-topper in a dozen countries, although it stalled at Number 2 in the UK, perhaps because Equity rulings prevented them from performing on British soil, hence this clip from Dutch television.
SHERYL CROW – If It Makes You Happy
There’s a tune at the heart of this, and it’s a killer. It sneaks up on you, when you’re minding your own business buttering toast or whatever, but it’ll grab you and it won’t let go. Our Shezza is pretty bloody great, as is anyone who has Exile On Main Street and beer for breakfast.
KIRSTY MACCOLL – Soho Square
We have to sign off with something very special. Power pop at its roots, but embellished by beautiful baroque strings that skip around the sweetness of Kirsty’s voice. The “empty bench” she mentions is anything but on the anniversary of her death in December, as hundreds of fans gather to sing this song, and a fair few others.