By Cait Brennan
Before Pete Townshend even coined the term, power pop has been competing for oxygen—airplay, respect, dollars, a place in history—with bloaty classic rock. Virtually every interminable flatulent hour of every ponderous wanking jam-band guitar solo on every tiresome, self-indulgent, derivative, larcenous, mystic-hokum junkie 1960s blues-rock “gods” album has been catalogued, compiled, reissued, remixed, remastered, etched into 180 gram virgin vinyl, and shoved into soul-deadening collectible box sets like the rigor mortis museum pieces they are. Meanwhile, some of the most vital music of the rock era, made by great power pop, New Wave and American hard-pop bands, sits forgotten in zombie record label vaults, as the iron oxide tape slowly peels away to dust.
Thankfully, there are still some boutique record labels, run by actual music lovers instead of actuaries, willing to raid those vaults and bring forth musical treasure. So it is with Real Gone Music’s lovingly assembled reissue of 20/20′s acclaimed Portrait albums, 20/20 and Look Out!, two records that helped redefine American rock music at the turn of the 1980s. And they sound as vital as ever.
The beauty of US rock and power pop in the ’70s is that it spring up everywhere. Whether it was Shoes (Zion, Illinois), Raspberries (Cleveland), Cheap Trick (Rockford, Illinois), Tom Petty (Gainesville), or Marshall Crenshaw (Berkley, Michigan), the American heartland was loaded with new bands knocking the fillings out of the suburbs with chunky power chords, hard-hitting drums, and floor-to-ceiling hooks that even the most jaded, pasty, No-Wave Gothamite found it tough to resist.
By the circuitous geographic logic of power pop, then, it totally made sense that one of its most vibrant wellsprings was . . . Tulsa, Oklahoma. By the mid ’70s, ambitious best friends Steve Allen and Ron Flynt were already veteran players on the Tulsa scene. Fellow Tulsa natives Phil Seymour and Dwight Twilley found critical and commercial success upon arrival on the west coast with the Dwight Twilley Band’s “I’m On Fire” (#16, 1975), and Allen and Flynt were eager to follow in their footsteps. Arriving in L.A., Allen (and later Flynt) joined up with ace drummer, songwriter, and walking music encyclopedia Mike Gallo. The chemistry was immediate, and with Chris Silagyi (formerly of The Know) on guitar and keys, 20/20 was off to the races.
Bomp! Records impresario Greg Shaw, whose label had put out dynamite power pop gems by bands such as Shoes, signed 20/20 for a one-off single, “Under the Freeway.” The single garnered critical acclaim and attracted the interest of a major label, the CBS subsidiary Portrait Records. 20/20 was one of the first bands signed to the label as it changed direction from its roster of classic-rock heavy hitters (Heart, Burton Cummings, Ringo Starr, Joan Baez) to its turn-of-the-80s lineup of power pop, post-punk and new wave-influenced bands like Altered Images, Aldo Nova, Balance, The Elvis Brothers, and The Producers (and later Cyndi Lauper, Eddy Grant, Bad Manners, even Be-Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson). Portrait was looking for the next big thing, and it was even money that 20/20 was it. Guided by producer (and former member of Sparks) Earl Mankey, the band hit the studio in the summer of ’79, and three weeks later, their debut album 20/20 was recorded, mixed and ready to make a little history.
And what history. “Cheri,” the band’s first US single, infused with British overdrive, New Wave jitters and an instant-singalong chorus, belongs on the shortlist of great American rock singles of the ’70s. “Tell Me Why (Can’t Understand You)” sounds like a record the Beatles would have made if they came along ten years later. Whether he knows it or not, “Remember The Lightning” is the song that plays on a constant loop in Julian Casablancas’s head, though he has yet to match it. “She’s An Obsession,” “Jet Lag,” “Backyard Guys” . . . an embarrassment of sonic riches. Those marathon sets at Madame Wong’s paid off in a big way.
And then there’s “Yellow Pills”. An irresistibly catchy tune written by Allen (and produced to perfection by Mankey), “Yellow Pills” is so many things—hard-pop anthem, New Wave groundbreaker, KROQ staple, swirling psych-pop gem. Listen once and it sounds a little like a Soft Boys record, listen again and it anticipates much later records by the Cars, but it’s that rarest of rarities, a true original—and by far the band’s most well loved song. Ear candy of the highest order, “Yellow Pills” became an anthem not just for 20/20, but for power pop in general; the song’s title is the name of an extensive series of power pop compilations.
With its manic energy, fresh songs and pitch-perfect production, 20/20′s blazing fast recording sessions produced one for the ages, but there was a price to be paid: Mike Gallo parted ways with the band in the middle of the recording, taking his ideas, energy, and unrecorded songs with him. In Gallo’s absence, Joel Turrisi (like Silagyi, formerly of The Know) took over on drums as the band toured extensively to support the record. And while critics and fans (especially in L.A.) couldn’t get enough of 20/20, broader commercial success was modest at best.
1981′s Look Out! was recorded on a different planet. In contrast to the blazing speed and upbeat energy that fueled their debut, their sophomore album was recorded in fits and starts over a difficult 15-month period, during which John Lennon was murdered, the Reagan Revolution began, and the world was in turmoil. Gallo was gone, and to complicate it further, Portrait Records was shifted around in the CBS portfolio and became Portrait/Epic, leaving 20/20 to deal with significant changes upstairs. The result is a darker, moodier affair, with songs like “Nuclear Boy” and “The Night I Heard A Scream” balancing the band’s gift for melody with lyrics straight out of Binkley’s anxiety closet. Look Out! is much more diverse in tone than its predecessor—a negative Nellie might say “uneven”—but diversity is good, and besides, the relentlessly perfect power pop/New Wave moment than was 1979 was ancient history in 1981, by which time the brutal backlash against the Knack’s “My Sharona” had made power pop the Genre That Must Not Be Named, and influential radio consultant Lee Abrams had already decreed that the burgeoning New Wave was persona non grata on the rusting battle fleet of bloaty corporate-rock stations that hung on his every Bob Seger-loving word. Bad news for cutting edge pop music, great news for Journey. Thanks a bunch Lee.
After Look Out!, Silagyi left the band, and Allen and Flynt decided they were too good for Portrait; they turned down a contract extension and left the label, finally releasing a third album, Sex Trap, on their own label (later picked up by Enigma Records.) Riding a renewed interest in power pop, 20/20 reformed in the early ’90s (without Gallo, but with Bill Belknap on percussion) for two well-received albums, 1995′s 4 Day Tornado and 1998′s Interstate, but sadly, have remained silent since. Humble suggestion to 20/20: Get back together.
Remastered by Maria Triana at Battery Studios, 20/20 & Look Out! sound better than ever, with clarity and warmth surpassing the long out-of-print Oglio release from the 1990s. As an added bonus, the reissue includes two 45 B-sides, “Child’s Play” and “People in Your Life,” neither of which has ever been on CD.
Real Gone Music is rapidly becoming the go-to label for top-notch reissues. In just the past year, RGM has issued career-defining sides by The Tubes, Rick Springfield, Shoes, Sanford & Townsend, Germs, Jerry Reed, Timi Yuro, even great oddities by Charles Bukowski, Zacherle, and Jackie Gleason, with great-sounding masters, gorgeous artwork, and thoughtful liner notes—often with new interviews with key players. This definitive 20/20 compilation is a case in point. The last word on the band’s career-and-genre-defining Portrait era, Real Gone’s 20/20 & Look Out! reissue is essential listening.
20/20 and Look Out! were reissued on July 31 and are available on one CD from Real Gone Records.