Punk is out. Power Pop is in. But don't let the names fool you. Power Pop is really just a polite term for punk. Well, almost...
One difference between Power Pop and punk is that you don't need to wear a safety pin through your nose to like people like Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. The emphasis now is on fun, not sheer rebellion.
That's good. It'd be a shame if conservative U.S. audiences rejected Lowe and Costello the same way they did the Sex Pistols. Together they represent the most inviting one-two punch from England in years.
Lowe's Pure Pop for Now People is one of the most entertaining rock albums in ages; Costello's This Year's Model is even better.
The trouble with the term punk is that it proved too inflammatory. Beneath the headlines and the eyebrow raising, punk was just a small part of a far larger movement that sought simply to reintroduce personality, statement and fun to rock.
More accurately labeled new wave, the campaign attempted to shake rock audiences from a '70s slumber that resulted in the mass acceptance of such polished but largely anonymous and unchallenging record makers as Kansas, Steve Miller and Foghat.
Whatever their (sometimes vast) differences, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Dr. Feelgood, Graham Parker, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, the Jam and the Sex Pistols shared a new-wave passion. Most tried to squeeze into the current rock system. The flamboyant Pistols tried to overthrow it.
The Pistols' assault was so colorful and widely publicized that it became symbolic of the entire new-wave movement. In all the hoopla, the element of fun was blurred. Rather than see the Pistols and other new-wave bands as tied to rock's richest roots (from Presley to the Stones), rock audiences viewed them as primitive, radical and disgusting. Punk became a commercial liability.
Because it's easier to come up with a new, less threatening phrase than reeducate audiences in the subtleties of new wave, the term Power Pop has been introduced.
There are differences between punk / new wave and Power Pop, but the casts are largely identical and the enemy remains the same: the stuffy, pretentious tendencies that have sapped rock of much of its vitality in the '70s.
In its most elemental form, Power Pop is a return to the innocence and fun of the early '50s and the peppy melodies and inviting harmonies of the mid-'60s Beatles and Who.
"There seems to be a move back towards fun," England's Nick Lowe said recently. "Great... count me in. The early '70s must have been the worst time ever for rock 'n' roll. People took themselves so seriously.
"It got to the stage — especially after the whole drug trip in the '60s — where musicians were put on this incredible pedestal... Whenever they went out on a stage, it was like God speaking.
"And really, musicians are the thickest, dumbest people there are. So that was fatal. And then the musicians started believing in all this bull about them being absolutely wonderful, important artists.
"That's when you got all that ridiculous half-baked poetry like the Moody Blues and Yes... all that absolute garbage..."
Pure Pop is Lowe's first solo album, but he's had a long apprenticeship. After five years with the Brinsley Schwarz group, he produced albums for Graham Parker, Elvis Costello and Dr. Feelgood. He also toured here and wrote songs last year with Dave Edmunds.
Through it all, he has gained a reputation as a master of the infectious, three-minute single. Lowe's best work suggests both a fondness and fascination for the record-making process. Where so many rock artists deny any commercial motivation in their work, Lowe admits he's after hits.
"I listen to the radio with my ears," he has said. "Most people I know just listen with their feet. They just tap along... I listen analytically.
"If a single's a hit, then I listen to it on the radio to find out exactly what made the nation groove to it. I'll break it down .. examine the melody, the lyrics, the arrangement, the production.
"Because I want to make hit singles. There's no greater challenge for a songwriter... Sometimes I wish I was Abba."
You know there's change in the air when one of the season's best songs is an ode to the Bay City Rollers. Most image-conscious rockers would be afraid to write anything as blatantly commercial as a pre-teen anthem about the excitement of going to see that batch of bubble-gum popsters.
The ability to address himself so well to such an unhip subject is part of the charm and freshness of Lowe's album. But it's simply one of many invigorating textures in the Pure Pop LP.
In the album's key parts, Lowe blends Chuck Berry accessibility with Phil Spector embroidery and Gram Parsons irony. The material ranges from the '50s-styled romanticism of "Tonight" to the eerie, yet hypnotic currents of the Bowieish "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass."
The LP also offers a wry commentary on the rock business, a teasing, McCartneyesque tale about the castration of Fidel Castro and the mock, soap-opera tone of "Little Hitler." On "Heart of the City" and "So It Goes," Lowe demonstrates his ability as a straight-ahead rocker.
But it's "Marie Provost" that provides the album's boldest and most outrageous moment. Based on a tale from Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, the song is about a silent-screen star whose career was destroyed by the introduction of talkies. The result is a send-up of the numerous maudlin tributes to film idols.
In "Marie Provost," Lowe tells of how the actress' dead body was discovered — along with her pet dachshund — in her West Hollywood apartment. "She had been lying there for two or three weeks / The neighbors said they never heard a squeak / But the hungry eyes that could not speak / Said even little doggies have got to eat..."
Despite the rejection of rock-as-art theories, Lowe's work carries an intelligence, craft and passion that is at the heart of the most important rock 'n' roll. Hidden among the outwardly eccentric and random songs is even a message: Be yourself. By following in commercially accepted patterns, most rock groups contribute to a conformity of sounds and ideas. In rejecting that sameness, Lowe touches on the liberating fibers that Presley, Dylan and the Beatles brought to rock. But he'd never admit it. It sounds too stuffy.
Elvis Costello also rejects the rock-as-art theory. "That's the biggest problem with the last 15 years of rock," he said last year during his first U.S. tour. "People always claim it's art — and it's not."
But even more than Lowe, Costello's music lives up to the classic rock 'n' roll pulse. His songs and vocals bristle with a purity and conviction that is rare in the '70s.
Costello's My Aim Is True was one of the 10 best albums of 1977, and the new This Year's Model is even stronger.
Produced by Lowe, Model is better designed musically. The lyrics aren't as stirring initially, but the vocals are more biting and the themes are equally potent. For the most part, they again deal with frustration and rejection, romantic and otherwise.
"Radio, Radio" is a splendid slap at the blandness of Top 40 and apathy of much of today's rock audience: "Some of my friends sit around every evening / And they worry about the times ahead / But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference / And the promise of an early bed."'
Except for two routine numbers, the tunes are arresting, full-bodied works that don't just sound like yet another copy of whatever sold well six months ago. "No Action," "Hand in Hand" and "This Year's Girl" are vibrant, individual works.
"You Belong to Me" combines some Rolling Stones swagger with taunting Dylanish lyrics that object to romantic possessiveness. "Pump It Up," the LP's most dynamic track, mixes dazzling lyrics with the sensual intensity of Roy Head's mid-'60s "Treat Her Right."
The encouraging thing about Costello is that he doesn't appear to be just a critic's favorite. His first album has been on the charts for five months and the new one is getting the kind of airplay that should push it into the Top 20. An American tour with Lowe this spring should boost him even further.