Tragic Magic

Michael Chabon
7 min readMar 10, 2022

Reflections On Power Pop Occasioned by the release of Keep Your Eye on the Sky (Rhino Records, 2009).

They called themselves Big Star and never made it big or found stardom, and there, along with a 2:49 song called “September Gurls” that shimmers and chimes with all the hopeless longing you ever felt for someone you never got to hold or to keep, is the pocket history of power pop.

The expression of unfulfilled longing forms the seam along which irony and sincerity meet, or at least come most nearly to resemble one another. Here we find power pop: at the point where the sincere jangle and thump of two guitars, bass, and drums meet those high harmonies and handclaps that have been ironic from the day, sometime in 1966, that the Beatles renounced them. The recent release by Rhino Records of a four-disc Big Star box set is, therefore, a perfect power-pop artifact. In handsome, heavy- weight cardstock, it manages to enwrap the fervent sincerity of fannish completism with the irony that inheres in any grand monument to something most people have never heard of.

Peter Townshend is generally credited with having invented the term “power pop” to describe the sound of The Who when they were still a singles band: guitar and drums pushed up front, the drums big and chunky, the guitars at once hard-edged and melodic and fulfilling the Chuck Berry injunction to ring like a bell. Sharp harmonies, tight song structure complete with bridge, and in the lyrics an oblique, even backhanded approach to the sentiments and desires conventionally expressed in a three-minute hit record.

Power pop in its essential form, however, did not come into existence for a number of years after it was first identified. Like so much of the greatest work turned out by popular artists of the 1970s, true power pop is quintessential second-generation stuff, self-conscious art in which the construction of catalogs and hierarchies beloved by fandom is fully matched by its dizzy passion. Every work of popular art is a cursor on a ruled scale of influences and sequels, but in the best second-generation work all the pleasure is in the sliding. When in the first half of the decade The Raspberries, Badfinger, and Big Star (along with the Todd Rundgren of “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” and “I Saw the Light”) invented the sound that came to be known as power pop, they were not revivalists. They looked backward to the music they had come of age loving — the astonishing run of perfect singles produced by British and American beat bands of the mid-sixties — but they did not attempt to play it so much as allow it, in the most acutely nerdish sense of the term, to inform the songs they wrote.

The second salient feature of power pop, along with its avowed status as a kind of fandom, is that it is happy music — eminently “poppy” — which depends for its power on the cryptic presence, in a lyric or a chord change or a bit of upside-down vocal harmony, of sadness, yearning, even despair. This strand of pop darkness can be found right off the bat, in the founding documents of the genre, like The Who’s “Pictures of Lily,” in whose final stanza the song’s narrator discovers that his pinup dream girl has “been dead since 1929,” or The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” where the sadness and yearning are smuggled into the melody, the harmonies, the lyrics, and even the title, which marks the broken place, the gap between the wish and the world. True power pop is rueful and celebratory at the same, glorifying desire and frustration, which is why so many power-pop songs concern themselves with the subject of Tonight, or Tomorrow Night, or Saturday Night, or some other night that will only be perfect for as long as it can be deferred. Depression stalks the genre, from Brian Wilson and Emitt Rhodes to the dual suicides of Badfinger, Pete Ham and Tom Evans; from Big Star’s Chris Bell, who struggled with profound depression right up to the night in 1978 that he crashed his Triumph TR-6 into a telephone pole, to Material Issue’s Jim Ellison and to Doug Hopkins, the lead singer of the Gin Blossoms, suicides alike. All the clouds of power pop are worn inside out to show the silver lining.

Finally, power pop at its purest is the music of hit records that miss. Pick up any of Not Lame’s International Pop Overthrow collections, or the numerous sets that Rhino has issued over the years — Shake Some Action and Come Out and Play, or the three volumes of Poptopia — and you will find that from about 1970, when Badfinger released the first true power-pop record, “No Matter What” (which admittedly went to #8 on the U.S. chart), an astonishing amount of effort and genius and chops has been expended by the practitioners of power pop to create a large number of equally well-crafted, tightly played, buoyant- yet-wrenching surefire hit songs that went nowhere, moved no units, never made it out of the band’s hometown, or came heartbreakingly close to Hugeness before sinking, like The Records’ “Starry Eyes” or Bram Tchaikovsky’s “Girl of My Dreams,” back into the obscurity that is the characteristic fate of all great power pop. Something — maybe it’s the self-consciousness, or the darkness, or that handclap of irony — dooms the would-be hit songs of power pop, so that the Raspberries’ wonderful, tellingly parenthetical “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record),” with its backup singers hopefully, achingly praying “Number one!” over and over in its chorus, never rose any higher than Number 18.

But Badfinger and The Raspberries managed to land seven songs apiece in the U.S. weekly Top 100. Of the three founding bands of the genre, only Big Star — whose first album was entitled, with classically power-pop ironic sincerity, #1 Record — attained the kind of spectacular failure that forms the paradoxical basis for true power- pop greatness. And yet they are now, to date, the only band among the three to earn the kind of fannish apotheosis that a box set like Keep an Eye on the Sky represents. The set collects all the tracks from the three canonical albums — the 1972 debut, 1974’s Radio City (which contained “September Gurls,” the greatest number-one song that never charted), and the glorious, ragged, haunted, sweet, brutal third album, 1992’s 3rd (Sister Lovers), which went unreleased for sixteen years after it was originally shelved due to utter lack of commercial interest, and which is at once the band’s best album and barely power pop at all. Keep an Eye on the Sky also rifles the vaults of Ardent Studios to find alternate mixes and demos for many of the songs from those records, while offering a brief but instructive sample of the work done by Chris Bell and Alex Chilton (guitars) immediately before they teamed up with Andy Hummel (bass) and Jody Stephens (drums) to form Big Star, naming themselves after a local Memphis supermarket chain. The A and B sides of Chris Bell’s only post-Big Star solo release are here, too, including the remarkably sad power-pop anthem “I Am the Cosmos,” which zooms out the yearning of power pop by powers of ten all the way to the edge of creation and then zooms it right back in again to the singer, a tiny speck of loneliness on a gorgeous sea of guitars.

Disc 4 is taken up with an unearthed live recording of the band, sounding bright and fiery and well rehearsed, playing sometime in early 1973 at a place called Lafayette’s Music Room, in Memphis, Tennessee, before what has to be accounted the least-interested audience — they were waiting for Archie Bell and the Drells to come on — in the history of live performance. Never has the automatic Thank you! of a frontman at the mic sounded more hollow than in the mouth of Alex Chilton just before he launches into a blistering, celebratory, futile cover of the minor T. Rex hit “Baby Strange.”

All the studio material gathered on the first three discs has been heard and can be found in many other places, in one form or another, but those who love Big Star will here find ample reinforcement for their affection, while those who have yet to experience the pleasure of the music will discover exactly what it takes to start a cult, to distinguish oneself from great bands like Badfinger and The Raspberries: a ripeness, perhaps Southern, tinged with soul, that like all ripeness teeters between the sweet and the rancid, as power pop always risks rancidity (The Knack) or flirts dangerously with the saccharine (The Rubinoos). But it’s in listening to the fourth disc, capturing live near the peak of its talent one of the best rock bands that America ever produced: three guys (Chris Bell, distraught over the failure of #1 Record, having departed the band) totally in love with the tragic magic of power pop, with the sound of a heart breaking to the accompaniment of handclaps and angelic la-la-las, playing their own jaded hearts out, Chilton singing, on a song like “Watch the Sunrise,” with an aching, self-mocking tone of overripe sweetness, and the drums and bass keeping everything steady and well shaped and rock and roll — it’s on the fourth disc of Keep an Eye on the Sky that the profoundest truth about power pop begins to emerge: those people gathered at Lafayette’s that evening in January 1973, waiting to do the Tighten Up, simply do not give a shit. They chatter and laugh between songs, banging their plates and glasses. They don’t catch the irony; or that is all they hear. They don’t see how a pop song, powerful or not, can take a spectacularly ironic sentiment like, say, “I can’t get no satisfaction” and turn it into a desperate plea for connection, for a world that makes sense, a world in which no one who doesn’t smoke your brand of cigarette could ever be mistaken for a man. Power pop is a prayer offered by atheists to a God who exists but doesn’t hear. Keep an Eye on the Sky is a worthy temple of this bittersweet faith.

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