The Power-Pop Geeks Finally Fit In

A four-night festival celebrates that most unlucky and unloved of Milk 'n' Cookies–loving genres

"We're gonna try that one more time," announced Jack Lee Sunday night at Southpaw in Brooklyn, after he and his backing band fucked up "Hanging on the Telephone" and brought the revered song to a muddled halt. Originally written and recorded in '76 by Lee and his old band the Nerves, the song stands as power pop's brightest gem—the singer's appearance as a special surprise guest at the closing night of the four-day Radio Heartbeat Power Pop Festival caused the sold-out crowd of record-collector geeks to turn more sweaty and twitchy than usual. Finally, a chance to hear "Hanging on the Telephone," and not the Blondie version or the scratchy Nerves single they paid $50 for on eBay. Only Lee didn't try it one more time. He gave up and moved on.

The gesture was characteristic of power pop's history of missed opportunities, unfortunate circumstances, and generally shitty luck. The scene, built on sugary melodies and electrifying riffs, blossomed in the early '70s but was bullied out of existence soon thereafter by punk. In their day, bands such as the Speedies, the Go, and Milk 'n' Cookies sold out shows at CB's and Max's and signed major deals, only to watch their heart-on-sleeve sentiments get pissed on by punk's more rousing needle-in-arm aesthetic. A few short years later, it was over. "We just got lost in the sauce," shrugs Justin Strauss, singer for NYC power-pop legends Milk 'n' Cookies, whose 1976 debut album rotted on Island Records' shelves for two years before the label released it just as the band dried up.

The idea of a festival (really, a record-collector rally) celebrating bands that could've been contenders sounds about as much fun as a lecture series from Other Music employees on how you don't appreciate Hot Chip enough. That wasn't the case with Radio Heartbeat. The classic bands, many of which hadn't performed in 30 years, talked less about finally getting their due and more about being happy that someone wants to hear them again. "After 25 years, I finally feel like I fit in," Sir David James Minehan, frontman for the Neighborhoods, told the crowd on Friday night during a wild and frantic set. Many of the old bands, especially Milk 'n' Cookies and the Go, gave killer performances that left super-fans smugly grinning at those of us who didn't own the out-of-print singles.

The Busy Signals lurch, pose, and belt it out.
photo: Richard Levine
The Busy Signals lurch, pose, and belt it out.

The lack of nostalgia should be credited to Radio Heartbeat organizers Mike Sniper and William Martin. The two met while DJ'ing a power-pop night and spent the last year tracking down bands (yes, even forgotten pop heroes use MySpace) and assembling a bill smartly layered with classic groups and modern acts from the recharged power-pop scene. The best of those young bands was Chicago's Busy Signals, whom Sniper correctly introduced as a "future classic." The five-piece's jittery Buzzcocks riffs and jumping-bean basslines backed up singer Ana McGorty as she lurched, posed, rolled her big eyes, and belted out sweet Exene–John Doe harmonies with the help of bassist Jeremy Thompson, who was later spotted hanging with Lee after the singer's "Hanging on a Telephone" hang-up. Keeping with the trend, the group has only dribbled out a few singles so far, although an album is rumored for the fall.

If any band epitomizes power pop's lost history, it's Brooklyn's own Speedies, whose career began and ended while most of the members were in high school in the '70s. "We started the band when I was 15 and broke up when I was 18," says drummer Allen Hurkin-Torres. The group set an attendance record at Max's Kansas City, filmed a pair of pioneering music videos, and released two singles before fading into obscurity and college. If punk meant "No Future," then power pop stood for "Undeclared Major," and the various Speedies went on to become a Yale professor and Guggenheim-exhibited photographer, a programmer at Apple, and an executive at Warner Bros. Records. "I keep a photo of the Speedies on my desk," says Hurkin-Torres, now a New York Supreme Court judge. "It was the most important part of my life."

In 2005 the Speedies were rescued from obscurity by a music researcher at an ad agency. "They contacted us and want to use our song 'Let Me Take Your Foto' for a Hewlett-Packard commercial," explains Hurkin-Torres, who hadn't played drums since the Speedies' final gigs 30 years ago. The new interest convinced the group to put together its first ever album, composed of singles and unreleased recordings, which the band promptly offered up on iTunes. Sorry, record collectors.

 
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