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Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Essence of the Pop Punk Equation

written by
Stephen Brookfield
for RTTB

Dudes, dudettes & pop punks everywhere

Last night I forgot to take my anti-depressants. The result? A night thrashing around in bed pondering such existential dilemmas as ‘why did my gorgeous, vibrant wife marry such a scruff?” (Short answer, I made her laugh), or, “why is it that my fave Canadian pop punk bands (Chixdiggitt, Hextalls, Riptides) haven’t taken over the world?” And I’m not even a Canuck! Of course I could have wondered, “why am I so magnificently endowed?” However, that’s for another post you lucky peeps.

But the biggest question festering in my fevered brain was one my daughter posed to me in the car a couple of days ago – “dad, what exactly is pop punk?” It’s embarrassing enough for a daughter to tell her friends that her dad plays in a band, but even worse when she can’t explain what style of music said band plays.

So I gave her Marc Ramohn’s definition: Buddy Holly + distortion = pop punk. That helped because she’s a huge Buddy fan. In fact one spring break our whole family decamped from Minnesota to Lubbock Texas so we could visit his grave. Also, The Crickets created an early punk model – 3 guys who wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, used 3 or 4 major chords and an occasional minor, never ventured over 3 minutes, and put a premium on catchy choruses, driving rhythm and melody.
But, being a scholarly sort of prick I couldn’t leave it at that. As any nasal or anal excavator will tell you, I had to dig deeper.

Dude, Punk Can’t Be Defined
That’s been my first response down the years to the question “is it punk?” In the 70’s I used to say that “punk is not following rules” or “punk’s whatever you make it”. Then I’d hear a hardcore thrash with some jerk screaming into the mike to represent his rage against the world and I realized that what I liked was POP punk. That I needed melody, choruses, catchy hooks, stupid lyrics about girls, cars, monsters, surfing ... and girls, cars, monsters and surfing. Basically, The Ramones version of California Sun – the big bang moment that created the pop punk universe.

Brian + Distortion = Pop Punk
So I started giving a definition similar to Marc’s: Brian Wilson + distortion = pop punk. Coming across The Queers in the 90’s covering Don’t Back Down, Hawaii, Salt Lake City and Little Honda – not to mention Joe’s love song Brian Wilson and his karaoke of God Only Knows – confirmed my wisdom. After all, it’s Joe’s world and we only live in it, right? (Aside – Is Darlington’s Joe Queer Sucks a tribute or critique? Discuss).

But What Does the POP Mean?
But the POP element in pop punk definitely added an inconvenient wrinkle. First, my studded leather jacket couldn’t have “Beach Boys” on it. Now that WOULD be lame, right? (So much for my independent, fuck you, punk streak). Plus, I’d have to clarify to myself what the word “Pop” added to the definition. Here’s what I came up with…

Johnny Ramone Guitar
This is the ground zero of pop punk. When I hear bands play clean it’s never quite punk enough for me. The ONLY exception I’ve found to that is the magnificent Even in Blackouts. The 99ers pay them the ultimate tribute of covering one of their songs but you’ll have to wait till our next album to find out what that is (there’s a clue in the last section). So John’s guitar sound came into being on the first day that God created the world. “Go forth and multiply,” she told her first Barre chord soaked in JCM 900 nectar.

Verse, Bridge, Chorus
Well, you can drop the bridge or chorus if you like. After all, Surfing Bird ain’t got neither. But then Surfing Bird is arguably a glorious one off. (BTW let me brag & say that two of the best gigs The 99ers have played have been opening for The Trashmen). So although there are honorable exceptions, you really gotta have two of the Holy Trinity of pop – verse, bridge & chorus. Nothing, but NOTHING, beats the utter orgasmic thrill of coming out of a Middle 8 and slamming into a catchy chorus.

But the chorus has to be killer. If the song sets you up and then the chorus is flaccid it’s pop punk erectile dysfunction, coitus interruptus, failure of the orgasm.

To repeat, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. One of my all time top five pop punk anthems – The Lillingtons I Saw the Apeman Walking on the Moon – actually doesn’t have a real chorus. Yet I’ve told my wife it’s so meaningful I want it played at my funeral. But in 90% of good pop punk you get two out of three elements.

Tunes
Somewhere in the late 80’s it seemed punk forgot melody. As someone who was there at the beginning – bought the EMI single of “Anarchy in the UK” before it was withdrawn, saw the Ramones, was the first in my family to wear a biker jacket, and wore my Janie Jones button with pride – I loved the tunefulness of Pretty Vacant, Career Opportunities, and Blitzkrieg Bop. Sure, those tunes were played with Iggy’s raw power but they were just that – TUNES. You could hum ‘em. Fuck, you could even get a Holiday Inn band to record instrumental versions of them for elevators and airports.

Hooks
You gotta have hooks baby! You gotta get a riff, a chorus line, or a chant that sticks in your head so bad that playing it over and over again is like mainlining on coke and snickers (thanks JFA). A good hook is the mysterious power that roars through pop punk. Sometimes the hook is the chorus itself and when that happens the clouds of depression part and beauty bathes the world. Think Riverdale Stomp.

Stupid Savant Lyrics

Maybe my fave line in the history of music is from Karen by The Surfaris – “She does her hair with great precision, it’s her favorite indoor sport”. The best lyrics smack you in the face with their sheer audacity – think “Now I guess I’ll have to tell ‘em, that I got no cerebellum”. “Tell ‘em” rhymed with “Cerebellum” - how DID Dee Dee do that?

Girls are maybe the top topic, the first focus, the main matter, of a good pop punk song. Which raises a bit of a problem for girl fronted pop punk bands. In the first version of The 99ers we had a fantastic girl singer and we were always wondering whether we should change the gender in any songs about girls we covered. Personally I’m a sucker for female-male vocal combinations; Teen Idols, Backstreet Virgins, Even in Blackouts, X etc. But since they’re the exception to the male band rule I’ll leave that discussion for another time. Darlington has built an amazing body of pop punk masterpieces pretty much singing almost exclusively about girls.

Summer
Summer is an idea, not a season. Summer is freedom, hedonism, no constraints, no responsibility and the unfettered pursuit of pleasure. So summer = sex really. Now I live in Minnesota, which sometimes seems like the coldest place on earth and I HATE winter. The way I get through it is writing songs about summer; sun, beach, surf, warmth and bikinis, these are all I think about in winter. I grew up in Liverpool, England and loved the city. But California Sun always presented the ultimate fantasy and irresponsibility. Summer is anti-work, pro-spontaneity (“Let’s go surfing dude!”), freedom, escape from routine. Basically it’s play. No wonder pop punk bands celebrate summer, even if they’re from Northern Europe.

So there you have my equation of pop punk:

Pop Punk = JR guitar + Verse, Bridge, Chorus + Tunes + Hooks + Stupid, Savant Lyrics + Summer

Operationalize It Baby!
OK, so this is all theoretical right? What ACTUAL songs capture the elements of the equation I’m talking about?

In alphabetical order of bands – and allowing only one song per band, here we go…

Backseat Virgins - Can’t Take It
The Beach Boys - Fun, Fun, Fun
Beatnik Termites - How Many Times
Buddy Holly - Rave On
Chixdiggit - Spanish Fever
Darlington - Pajama Party
The Dazes - Be My Popsicle
Eddie Cochran - C’mon Everybody
Even in Blackouts - In a Letter Never Sent
Goin’ Places - The Only Way
Groovie Ghoulies - When the Kids Go Go Crazy
The Hawaiians - Vampire Girl
The Hextalls - Ramones T-Shirt
The Huntingtons - Bubblegum Girl
The Lillingtons - I Saw the Apeman Walking on the Moon
The Manges – I Will Always Do
The Ramones - California Sun
The Methadones - Easter Island
The Muffs - No Action
The Queers - Punk Rock Girls
The Riptides - Shit Outta Luck
The Riverdales - Riverdale Stomp
Rocket Jocks - She Ran Away to See the Huntingtons
The Scutches - Drive Into the Sea
Screeching Weasel - Cool Kids
Shonen Knife - Ramones Forever
The Spazzys - The Sunshine Drive
Teenage Bottlerocket - So Cool
Teen Idols - Midnight Picture Show
The Unlovables - I’ve Cried 4 You

Ok, now let the slaughter, disagreements, and abuse begin as you tell me why I’m full of shit! Let’s hear from ya.

3 comments:

  1. For a second there, I thought I was reading my auto-biography, save for being divorced and not having kids (I'll just have to settle for my 21 years younger girlfriend calling me daddy, but I digress).

    I have to say that I agree with your formula almost to the letter. The only thing I'd add would be the background chorus of "oohs and aahs" found in songs like The Ramone's I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend and The Parasites It's Getting Hard (the one from Pair of Sides, not the later remake on Rat Ass Pie). Also, the usual punk solo on The Lillington's If I Had a Dollar and Lagwagon's Angry Days must be a staple.

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  2. How could I forget Kody Templeman's perfect solos & alcohol?! Thanks for catching those

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