Scott McCarl’s got a dream rock and roll story if ever there was one. After playing in numerous bands in the late 1960s and early 1970s he sends a demo of songs to Raspberries leader Eric Carmen – only to get invited to join the band! As it happened, Starting Over turned out to be ‘game over’ as the group split shortly after its release. But McCarl got the full ‘joining the band’ treatment: co-writing 5 of the album’s 11 cuts, singing lead on one track, and getting to tour with the group. So despite the Raspberries demise McCarl would appear to have had all the chops for a solo career. All of which makes his subsequent meagre solo offerings more than a little bewildering. There was the fabulous Mersey-drenched Play On that came out on a small independent label in 1997. But that’s it – sort of. Now there’s a new version of Play On that’s come out with a very different running order and mix of songs, drawing on recording sessions from 1970, 1981, 1995-6, and 2021. The whole album is really good and has a consistent vibe despite its multi-decade gestation. Drop the needle anywhere on the LP and dig that sixties-influenced songwriting and performance. Still, I felt I had to single out “I’ll Be On My Way” for your special attention. No, not the Lennon/McCartney song that Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas covered. This one is by Billy Sullivan, who also plays the ripping, jangly lead guitar lines.
Wow, talk about making a guitar sing! And McCarl’s vocal is so in the very pleasing 1980s sixties-revival mode. You can (and should) pick up the album from McCarl’s Bandcamp page, where you can also find a breakdown of the songs, when they were recorded, and who played what. Who knows, maybe there are more cuts lurking in the McCarl vaults for a new Play On … and On.
It’s been five years since I embarked on this mad journey: to write a music blog. I dithered over the decision to start one for a number of months. There’s nothing more pathetic than to start something with maximum fanfare and enthusiasm, only to have it flame out a half dozen posts later. The questions I had to ask myself were: (a) was there enough of ‘my kind’ of music to regularly post about, and (b) could I sustain the effort to get regular posts up on the blog? Well here’s the proof. In five years I’ve managed to produce 347 blogs posts. I’ve written more than 170,000 words about poprock tunes. And, most importantly, I’ve featured almost 1000 different artists. Guess the answers to (a) and (b) are both a resounding yes!
I think the biggest reason this blog thing has worked out for me is that it is such a great outlet for being creative and having fun with something that has always been pretty central to my life: music. I love doing all the mock serious regular features (e.g. Breaking news, Around the Dial, Should be a hit single) and coming up with goofy themes as a way to feature different artists (e.g. “Telephonic Poprock,” “Summer’s Coming,” and the Cover me! series. Sometimes I’ve pushed the posts in more serious directions (“Is That So Gay,” “Campaigning for Hooks,” and “Pandemic Poprock“) but only if the melodies and hooks were there in abundance. The blog has also allowed me to pay tribute to my musical heroes (Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Zombies, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Marshall Crenshaw, Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann). But, as regular readers know, such luminaries mostly appear as reference points to better help people get of a sense of what all these new acts are doing.
If you’ve just tuned in, I’m not assigning the past five years of posts as homework. Instead, I offer today’s anniversary post as a retrospective of what’s been happening here. I reviewed all 347 posts to pick out some choice examples of the range of styles I can cram under the rubrik of ‘poprock’. It wasn’t easy! My first go round produced a list of 118 songs. When I converted that to a playlist I got the number down to 81 tracks. Ack! Still too many. So I’ve broken things down into themes. This is not a ‘greatest hits’ or ‘best of’ Poprock Record. I’ve left out a lot of acts I really love. It’s just a representative sample of what goes on here, to borrow some lingo from my day job. Click on the highlighted band names to go to the original posts on the blog.
Let’s start by recognizing that not all that appears here is new. The blog has allowed me to explore a huge number of acts I’ve missed over the years, particularly in the 1990s when my new day job (academe) took over my life. I can’t believe I somehow missed great bands like Fire Town and the Soul Engines with their incredible guitar hooks. The Sighs “Make You Cry” is a pretty perfect poprock single. I knew about Billy Cowsills’ Blue Northern but had never heard of his later group, the Blue Shadows. And Eugene Edwards’ sole solo release, My Favorite Revolution, is a must add for any melodic rock and roll fan.
There have been acts that appeared again and again on the blog, my ‘old reliables’ as I might call them. These are performers I can pretty much carve out space in the queue for whenever I hear a new release is on the way. Gregory Pepper is probably my most covered artist. I love his quirky, always hooky, sometimes touching efforts. Ezra Furman was another great find who has an unerring knack of placing a memorable hook at the centre of whatever he’s doing, whether it’s retro 1950s pop or a punkish political ode. I discovered Jeremy Fisher long before the blog but I’ve used it to feature his work, old and new. He’s like a new wave Paul Simon with great videos. Edward O’Connell only has two albums, but they are reliably good. We really need a third. Mo Troper always delivers something wonderfully weird but still melodic and ‘can’t get it out of your head’ good. Finally, Jeremy Messersmith’s records regularly encompass big vision but he doles it out in memorable should-be hit singles.
In my world of poprock, while any instrument goes, the electric guitar is arguably pretty central. Some bands really know how to ride a guitar-driven song right into your head. Jeff Shelton’s Well Wishers excel at putting the guitar up front. “Feeling Fine” is practically a ‘how to’ example of killer guitar-dominant poprock. The David James Situation and The Format are no slouches either. Jangle is a related field of guitar poprock and takes a number of forms, from the 1960s-inflected Byrds sound of The Vapour Trails to the more jaunty bubblegum feel of The Lolas “We’re Going Down to the Boathouse.” Jangle also usually features pretty addictive harmony vocals, showcased below in Propeller’s “Summer Arrives.”
As the original and defining decade of poprock (in my view), the 1960s sound continues to be mined by new artists. Daisy House have few rivals in nailing the late 1960s California poprock vibe, sounding like time travelers from San Francisco’s 1968 club scene. Space Dingus have got The Monkees feel down. Both Shadow Show and The On and Ons gives us that rockier pop sound of the mid 1960s, with the latter delivering killer lead guitar hooks. By contrast, both Cut Worms and The Young Veins offer a candy-coated pop sound more akin to The Cyrkle and Simon and Garfunkel.
I’m a sucker for shivery harmony vocals so they’ve been featured regularly on the blog. One of Jenny Lewis’ side projects is the one-off album from Jenny and Johnny, I’m Having Fun Now. Aptly named, the record gently rocks and delivers amazing vocals. The Secret Sisters offer up a punchy tune where the harmony vocals seal the hooky deal. The Carousels “Call Along the Coast” has a big sound the rides a wave of harmony vocalizing and Beatlesque guitar work. Meanwhile Scotland’s Dropkick corner the market on delightful lilting songcraft on “Dog and Cat.” The blog sometimes shades into retro country and folk territory. Bomabil are an eccentric outfit who stretch our sense of song but never drop the melody. The Top Boost are pretty new wave but on “Tell Me That You’re Mine” they’re channeling Bakersfield via the Beatles 65. The Fruit Bats put the banjo upfront in “Humbug Mountain,” where it belongs. Gerry Cinnamon is like Scotland’s Billy Bragg and he shows what you can do with just an acoustic guitar and a Springsteen harmonica.
I’m proud to say that the blog has sometimes strayed off the beaten path of conventional poprock into more eccentric territory with bands that are smart and quirky and not afraid to lodge a hook in a more complex setting. Tally Hall pretty much define this approach. So ‘out there’ but still so good melodically. Chris Staples and Hayden offer up more low key, moody tunes but they still have a strong melodic grab. Overlord take clever to a new level, like a grad school version of They Might Be Giants. Coach Hop is just funny and hooky with his unabashed ode to liking Taylor Swift.
After the 1960s the new wave era is the renaissance of poprock for me with its combination of hooky guitars, harmony vocals, and melody-driven rock and roll. Screen Test capture this ambience perfectly on “Notes from Trevor” with a chorus that really delivers. The Enlows drive the guitar hook right into your head on the dance-madness single “Without Your Love.” Billy Sullivan epitomizes the reinvention of 1960s elements that occurred in the 1980s, well embodied in “Everywhere I Go.” Another strong theme in the blog has been the “I Get Mail” feature, populated largely by DIY songsters who write me about their garage or basement recorded releases. It is inspiring to hear from so many people doing their thing and getting it out there, especially when it is generally really good. Daveit Ferris is a DIY workaholic with an amazing range of song and recording styles. “Immeasurable” is a good illustration of his genius, with a banjo-driven chorus that always makes me smile. Mondello is practically the classic indie artist movie script, struggling to get an album out after 20 years. But then his follow up single, “My Girl Goes By,” is gold!
I want to leave you with a two-four of should-be hits from Poprock Record. These songs are all quality cuts, grade A poprock with melodies and harmonies and hooks to spare. Some of these songs leave me panting, they’re so good. I kicked off the blog back in 2015 with Family of Year and I still think “Make You Mine” is a textbook should-be AM radio hit. Sunday Sun channel The Beatles through a 1980s song filter, in the very best way. Sitcom Neighbor’s “Tourist Attraction” is a delightful earworm affliction. Wyatt Blair has somehow boiled down the essential formula of a 1960s-influenced poprock hit. Wyatt Funderburk understands how to assemble the perfect melody-driven single. And so on. Get your clicking finger warmed up and you’ll be introduced to the essence of Poprock Record in 24 melodious increments.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was all the great people I’d come in contact with writing a music blog. Thanks to all the bands, record labels, and readers who have responded so positively to what I’ve been doing here. A special thanks to Best Indie Songs, Tim at Powerpopulist and Don at I Don’t Hear a Single for their advice over the years and to my friends Rob at Swizzle and Dale at The View from Here for encouraging me to do this.
This post features pics from my poprock-postered 1985-7 apartment in Vancouver’s West End. Just $285 a month, all inclusive. No wonder I could buy so many records.
Never underestimate the sidemen. Billy Sullivan has played with a host of great acts over the years. From local legends in Detroit, to various bands with other up-and-comers from the 1970s on, to the touring outfits of Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Herman’s Hermits, the Raspberries, and many, many others. Amidst all this activity, Sullivan has managed to squeeze out a few solo albums and a variety of singles, both original material and inspired covers. And they are freakin’ fabulous! Just open your ears to “I Go Crazy” with its mad ear-wormy ringing guitar and melodic hooks at every turn. This is power pop heaven. Or how about the spot-on Byrdsian jangle and harmonies coating “Everywhere I Go”? Magic! Both tracks appear on Sullivan’s woefully and undeservedly ignored 2001 album All American Popster. Yet Sullivan appears undiscouraged, continuing to release an occasional single or tribute album every few years. Personally I love his 2013 single “There’s a Fire” with its wall of guitars and seductive harmony vocals. Or more recently he’s got a killer cover of the Beau Brummels’ minor hit “Don’t Talk to Strangers” that definitely improves on the original.
Go CrazyEverywhere I GoThere’s a FireDon’t Talk to Strangers
In this internet age it’s never too late to make somebody a star. Do your part, click on the link, and complete your Billy Sullivan collection today!