20/20: 20/20

HINDSIGHT IS ALWAYS 20/20. In ’79-’80, a pop renaissance is supposedly under way, stirring itself from a long hibernation like a groggy Boo Boo Bear, thanks to the overnight sensation of the well-scrubbed Knickknacks.

But looking back, one can easily see that the whole “power-pop” syndrome – overloading the pop formula with a romanticism based on the desire to return to a more innocent age (i.e., the Beatle Era) – has never really been absent: it hovers above rock history like the cool snap of a gangster’s fingers signalling a clean burst of gunfire.

In the early 70’s, a pop revival seemed on the verge of happening with countless bands pining to recreate the drama of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. Some left their mark (Big Star, the Raspberries, Badfinger); others remain only collectors’ items (Marcus Hook Roll Band, Circus, Blue Ash).

Personally, I think it was the Knickerbockers (not to be confused with the Knickknacks) who started this whole (I hesitate to call it “genre”) tradition. Their hit in ’65 ‘Lies’, echoed the Beatles, a perfect xerox of the Fab Four’s sound. Certainly today’s pop evangels share a genuine nostalgia for the uncomplicated and the wholesome, but perhaps their primary motivation is as impure as that of the Knickerbockers – to become paragons of imitation. Of the current crop of diehard romantics (the Beat, the Shoes, the Snap-Crackle-Pop), 20/20 stands out as a band, if not totally original, at least able to define its predicament. Furthermore, the group’s debut, if not altogether a breathtaking affair, does imply that here’s a group willing to endure the inevitable “Beatlesque” tag if only for the momentary thrill of recapturing memories of things past.

Frequently 20/20 sounds like a fellow band from Tulsa, the Dwight Twilley Band (ex-Twilley drummer, Phil Seymour, even sings on the album). But mostly 20/20 sound like eager beavers trying their best not to sound like copycats; in fact, they strain so hard that it gives their music a raw edge, leaving the impression that each song is a first take. Except for the synthesized effects of the Wizzard of Whoopee, Earle Mankey (an ex-Sparks tweeter), 20/20’s modern pop is as hard-driving as that of AM hitmakers like Cheap Trick, the Cars, or Tom Petty.

‘Tonight We Fly’ is a speed demon of a car tune; ‘Cheri’, a pumping paean to pubescent lust. On ‘Out of This Time’, the dilemma of the typical power-popper is evoked: trapped in an epoch when the beat of the Buggs must yield to the castrato falsetto of the Golly-Gee Bees, how does one survive except through fantasy and the reduplication of beloved past formulae?

But it’s more than a desire for innocent and commercially viable forms of music that’s at the heart of this bring-back-pop conservatism – for the ecstasy of the pop moment is contained in the first smooch of first love; in short, pop revivalism is both a celebration of that long-lost kiss and an attempt to revive its initial spark, an obsessive longing that’s damned from the outset. As 20/20 sings on ‘Backyard Guys’ – “Why does the world have to change so?/I wish I could go to the time when we kissed by the street light.”

On ‘Remember the Lightning’ (next to Petty’s ‘Here Comes My Girl’, the most quaintly expressive of all current pop songs), one can hear 20/20, like schoolboys looking up a girl’s skirt as she climbs a jungle gym, panting uncontrollably – “Remember the night and it felt so exciting/Remember the lightning!” Without a smirk, the song not only recaptures the uncertain fondling of young love but also yearns for it, suggesting that intimate moment in Tom Sawyer when Becky Thatcher and Tom finally kiss, while walking hand in hand, lost inside a dark secret cave secluded from the cares and the demands of grown-up tyranny.

© Robot A. HullCreem, March 1980

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