The Singles are a great fucking power pop band. But first, some definitions are in order ...History suggests that Pete Townshend originally coined the term during an interview, referring to the Who's "I Can't Explain." Late great critic and rock 'n' roll renaissance man Greg Shaw then used the term to describe a certain form of music and kick-started a movement in the pages of Bomp! magazine. Rock fans of a certain age grew up when the terms "rock" and "pop" were pretty much interchangeable. Thus, for those baby boomer fans, "pop" often came to mean music that sounded like that seminal rock music they grew up with, no matter how "popular" it still was at that time, and not the Mariah Carey, Justin Timberlake, American Idol, etc., etc., mainstream nausea that "pop" would later come to mean. Like "patriotism," the word "pop" — as applied to music — means many different things to all different kinds of people in modern times.
The early, pre-White Album Beatles will forever be the greatest power pop band of all time — but the very specific genre itself encompasses so many different forms of music these days that it's almost comical (see our online sidebar). Still, a genre encompassing hundreds, if not thousands, of great records that run the gamut from the Raspberries, Badfinger and T. Rex to Redd Kross, Material Issue and the Dead Boys' Stiv Bators' wonderful Greg Shaw-produced cover of "It's Cold Outside" by the Choir (basically the early Raspberries sans Eric Carmen — seemingly bringing things full circle at the time, recorded as it was for the Bomp! label) is deserving of far more respect than it's gotten in recent years. In fact, when the genre began generating big festivals in Los Angeles, indie record labels devoted solely to the form and numerous compilations — and because it sometimes approaches bubblegum but with balls — a friend joked: "Yeah, but those are all the guys who couldn't get dates on Saturday nights in high school." Which isn't totally true (why do you think Pete Townshend picked up a guitar in the first place?), although those fans do tend to include a lot of people who genuflect, if not reach mental orgasm, anytime the words "Brian" and "Wilson" are used anywhere near each other in a sentence.
The Midwest has strong ties to power pop — the Raspberries and Bators were all from Ohio, of course — as does Detroit in particular, with two of the ultimately most popular power pop records in post-new wave history coming from the Romantics and Doug Fieger's the Knack. That's why it was somewhat odd that when the garage punk explosion burst out of this town earlier this decade, the emphasis, in so many cases, was more on the "garage" than it was on the "pop." It was odd, because, in the mind of Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, who basically created the garage genre as a critical concept with his Nuggets compilation, the terms "garage" and "pop" were also often interchangeable.
And, indeed, "I'm in Love with You," the killer tough-but-melodic track that kicks off the Singles' excellent 2003 debut LP, Better Than Before, wouldn't have sounded at all out-of-place on any of Rhino Records' subsequent Nuggets collections. But then, Vince Frederick, the band's 28-year-old leader, singer, guitarist and songwriter, claims that he was "never drawn to power pop" as a defining music in the first place.
"Honestly, I never even knew about the term until after we recorded our first album," he says. "Then someone said, 'Oh, you guys are a great power pop band! You should check out the Flamin' Groovies!' I'd never heard of the Flamin' Groovies until then, either! For me, I picked up the guitar after listening to John and Paul's songs. But I'm really not into all those genres and subgenres of music. I like to call it rock 'n' roll. And that's what the Singles are — a rock 'n' roll band."
And yet, that same debut LP recently was No. 91, in very impressive company, on a list of the "200 Greatest Power Pop Albums" of all time in a new book, Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide (Not Lame Publishers) by California writer and genre expert John M. Borack. (Full disclosure: I contributed a comical list to Borack's very entertaining book but received no financial compensation whatsoever.) And, to be frank, when I saw the Singles open for the Go at the Royal Oak Music Theatre last fall, the first thing that went through my mind was: "What a great fucking power pop band!" The Singles totally wowed me live, playing amped-up British Invasion riffs, with all three members achieving modern variations on the Buddy Holly look. More specifically, from the balcony (where they still sounded great, despite that venue's notorious acoustic problems), they all looked like young versions of Peter Asher of Brit Invasion duo Peter & Gordon (who had a major hit with a cover of Holly's "True Love Ways"). Their devotion to the original bespectacled pop-rocker is so intense, in fact, that "Cryin' Over You," an original from the Singles' second album, has an opening that approximates the riff from Holly's "That'll Be The Day."
"The secret to our look is that we are all brothers," Frederick claims with a straight face, "so we have a bit of the same genes. We don't like to tell everyone that, although the word has been getting out. So why fight it?" Truthfully, though, looking at it logically, it seems that the Singles — who are rounded out by bassist and backing vocalist Phil Roth, and powerhouse drummer Brian Thunders (who, Frederick also deadpans, works for the Mafia as a day job) — are only brothers in the same way that the Ramones were siblings.
The band was originally a four-piece, evolving from Electricity, a Jam-like group Frederick co-founded in his native Sterling Heights that only played three or four shows "but practiced a lot!" That original quartet recorded the debut album, before the members went their separate ways — guitarist Will Yates and bassist Dave Lawson went on to the Pop Project and Zoos of Berlin.
"I always wanted to be a four-piece to have that extra guitar player to do the leads and solos," Frederick says, in retrospect. "I didn't want to be bothered with having to play lead and I just loved having that classic rock band lineup. But you find out that it's very hard to keep a band together over time. So the Singles ended up going through many lineup changes before becoming a three-piece. You'd be surprised how many different musicians went through this band. But I just had to learn how to play the guitar in a groundbreaking new lead-meets-rhythm style," he laughs.
After recording and releasing a second album, Start Again, as a trio in 2006, the band settled on a permanent lineup last year. The second album — self-released on the band's Sound Artifacts Music label (the first was on Rainbow Quartz) — is as striking as the first album was, which all boils down to Frederick's pop songcraft.
"I don't have any one main inspiration in terms of how I write my songs," he says. "I just set out to try to reach the level of the pop-rock greats — Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King, Burt Bacharach, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman. I'm a nerd and I listened to all that great '60s stuff as a kid. The Beatles. The Kinks. The Who. The Stones. I'm a huge Monkees fan. And the Beatles led me back to all the things that they listened to and had originally influenced them. When I got my first guitar at 15 or so, I was much more interested in being a songwriter than anything else.
The band just returned from its second tour of Europe, this one more extensive, with stops in Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands over the course of two months, before returning to play their third South by Southwest show in Austin last month. Frederick says the band has also finished a new album, this one co-produced with the band by Dave Feeny (Blanche, American Mars and Loretta Lynn); the first two LPs were co-helmed by local production legend Jim Diamond. In fact, the Singles' leader claims the band has enough material at this point to do a triple album if they choose, now that they've found a new audience.
"I definitely don't think there is a power pop scene in Detroit," Frederick says, "but I wouldn't know for sure because I've always been on the outside looking in when it comes to the Detroit music scene, really. But after finishing our tour of Europe, we've realized that we probably won't do much touring in the U.S. anymore, and instead just focus on touring overseas and maybe even just release our records over there as well. There is actually an audience for guitar groups over there and they really seem to appreciate our brand of rock 'n' roll in Europe. So why waste our time and money here? We've found a new home."
Closer to their Detroit home, however, the Singles are slated to headline the first International Pop Overthrow Festival in Detroit the second weekend of this month. The IPO fest, the brainchild of power pop promoter David Bash, began in Los Angeles in the late '90s, before branching out to other cities. The Singles have previously played festival shows in Los Angeles, as well as Chicago and, best of all, Liverpool, England, at the reconstructed Cavern Club, the legendary venue that introduced the Fab Four to the world. Obviously, despite his protests to the contrary, Frederick has no real problem being associated with an often disrespected and sometimes misunderstood musical form.
"If you call bands like Sloan, Fountains of Wayne and Weezer 'power pop,' then I'm not so sure that it really is all that minimalized," Frederick concludes. "But, yeah, I know what you mean. Bands like the Raspberries, Rockin' Horse, the Flamin' Groovies, they all should have received much more recognition but they didn't. So that makes this genre seem like it is below the mainstream radar and somewhat ghetto-ized in the rock 'n' roll grand scheme of things."
The Singles play Saturday, April 12, as part of the four-night International Pop Overthrow Festival at Paycheck's Lounge, 2932 Caniff, Hamtramck; 313-874-0909. With Citizen Smile, Sons Of The Gun, the Lessmores, Mike Elgert, Chris Richards & The Subtractions, Jeremy and Let's Talk About Girls. The fest kicks off Wednesday, April 9. Go to tinyurl.com/35d4x6 for the full Detroit IPO schedule.Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]