Interview: Will Birch
When it comes to a successful life in music, Will Birch has pretty much done it all. He was the drummer/lyricist for pub rock outfit The Kursaal Flyers and power pop heroes The Records (he wrote the lyrics for one of their best-known songs, “Starry Eyes”). He later produced albums by a variety of acts including Yachts, Dr. Feelgood, and The Long Ryders.
He then had a successful career in music journalism before publishing several successful books including No Sleep Till Canvey Island, Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography and Cruel To Be Kind: The Life & Music of Nick Lowe. His essay about his time in The Records is featured in the new collection, Go Further: More Literary Appreciations of Power Pop.
Interview: Will Birch
I loved your first book, No Sleep Till Canvey Island. What was it like to revisit the pub rock era in such depth?
It was very enjoyable to research the pub rock scene, with its roots in the late-1960s through 1975 when many of the pathfinder acts were disbanding.
The most rewarding part was uncovering the bizarre events that led to the ill-fated launch of Brinsley Schwarz at the Fillmore East (1970).
In a lot of ways, I think of that first book as the setup for your excellent Nick Lowe book, Cruel To Be Kind. Do you see those books as a pair?
Not really a pair, or a trio if you were to include my biography of Ian Dury (2010). No Sleep was an unintended foundation stone before it occurred to me to dig a little deeper in Dury’s backyard and later Lowe’s.
There is of course some inevitable duplication of content. I think your description of No Sleep as being a “set up” sums it up perfectly.
We’re lucky to have your excellent essay about The Records in Go Further. How do you think that band fits into the evolution from pub rock to power pop?
There were a number of groups that evolved from the UK pub rock scene of the mid-1970s that might be described as ‘power pop’, for example, The Motors.
When The Records got going (1978) the crucial, original pub rock scene had expired, although we enjoyed playing some of the same venues (e.g. Hope & Anchor, The Nashville etc.). Also, some very successful acts (e.g. Squeeze, Dire Straits) were loosely pub rock-based, although not part of the original scene. I guess Rockpile was another.
The opening for your Go Further essay includes this line: “I’ve never much cared for the term ‘power pop,’ but I guess every movement needs a handle to aid communication.” Can you tell me what it is you dislike about the term?
What I dislike is the implication that (non-power) pop lacks power! It like an apology — “So you think pop music is lame kids, but don’t worry, I’ll tell you what, there is this new stuff that rocks harder but it’s still pop! It’s power pop!” I believe the term was first coined by Pete Townsend around 1966, after he had already made “My Generation”(which is of course extremely powerful).
It’s one of those terms, like “guilty pleasure,” that just makes me cringe. But of course, every genre or movement needs a communication handle for promotional purposes in order to alert a wider public.
Power Pop Essay Collections
‘Go All The Way’ and ‘Go Further’ feature personal essays by authors, musicians, music writers and fans of the rock…
Based on your personal definition of power pop, what are some examples of bands that typify the genre? What’s the common theme?
Well, having already told you how much I dislike the term, feel free to kick me out… but I guess the best were Badfinger, Raspberries, Big Star, Blue Ash… a few more… Flamin’ Groovies on occasion, e.g. “Shake Some Action,” Cheap Trick in their less-heavy moments, and Dwight Twilley all spring to mind.
The common theme is the three or four-minute song with harmonies and a strong melody that doesn’t get bogged down in instrumental excess. The Beatles were the model and the spirit that ran through the songs and music of the acts I’ve named here, and in my “Power Pop C90” article for Mojo many years ago.
The Records have become legendary in power pop circles. What do you make of this sustained reverence for the band and the music?
I am humbled by those kind words of appreciation. I really had no idea, although I have seen “Starry Eyes”or “Hearts In Her Eyes” pop up in the occasional ‘best of’ article.
What’s next for you?
An update of No Sleep Till Canvey Island at some point as it’s out of print, although there is an electronic edition available. Maybe a Records ‘box set’ if the business end can be sorted out. I’ve also had a go at screenplay writing but getting a movie made may be a little over-ambitious at this stage.
More info at Will Birch’s website.
Here are a few other power pop articles you might enjoy: