Baltimore City Paper

An introduction to Canon Balls, featuring power-pop bands Luxury, The Letters, and The Shivvers

Milwaukee power pop group The Shivvers.

Arguments about pop canon—the "genuine" articles of highest artistic quality in a given medium as determined by tradition and/or critical consensus—are arguments between pop ideologies. Is the value of pop music in the meaning of the words? In the formal innovation of the music? The catchiness of the tune? The talent of the players? The quality of the singer's abs? Or is it the functional success of a piece of music in its cultural context and corresponding aesthetic quality as understood by an audience? (Hint: It is the last one.)

Unspoken in such debates is the material requirements for music production and consumption and their effective veto on canonization. Popular musicians need funds to procure instruments, and free time to write, rehearse, and record music, all the while courting more capital to, at the very least, fund the mass production of the music itself. In the 21st century, these barriers have lowered but not disappeared. Audiences are hardly exempt from these materialist realities in the pop marketplace—pop participation requires economic means to consume music. Hot take: radios, record players, albums, Walkmen, cassettes, CDs, iPods, laptops, etc. all cost $$$. Canon Balls hopes to bring great music to City Paper readers while examining why no one really listens to it.

Cardinal examples of the damning potential of pop ideology and/or material reality set against a group can be found by examining power pop, which we will now proceed to do.

Luxury, 'Green Hearts'

Perhaps my favorite power-pop song ever, 'Green Hearts' by Des Moines (or is it Knoxville? YouTube comments are unclear), Iowa's Luxury is magnificent. The fact that only a few thousand people have even heard the song is a crime worthy of Norwegian jail time. It was released on local imprint Angry Young Records, which only survived long enough to put out Luxury's debut single 'Stupidest Thing' in 1978, 'Green Hearts' in 1979, and its debut EP in 1981 and nothing else. Thankfully, power-pop enthusiast and St. Louis native Jordan Oakes rescued this incredible song from complete oblivion to a much-improved state of total obscurity by placing it on his legendary power-pop compilation "Yellow Pills: Prefill" in 2005. However, the band's moment in the sun is, sadly, that song played over the credits of John Cusack's directorial debut, "Summerhood."

'Green Hearts''s appeal is in its momentum. Starting with a simple picked guitar line, the song revs up with hand claps and wood-block percussion before the drums and bassline take over the wheel. The vocal melody is eminently hummable, while new-wave-influenced dinky keyboards, jerky rests, and guitar solos that are closer to XTC than the Beatles prevent the song from becoming cloyingly sweet. Stuck far away from any major media markets in central Iowa, Luxury were presumably victims of the limits of independent record production in the late '70s in the U.S. The sheer size of the United States proved to be unconquerable, even by the hard-touring and better-organized post-hardcore bands on flagship independent label SST a decade later.

The Letters, 'Nobody Loves Me'

In contrast to Luxury, the Letters had a relatively robust independent label infrastructure producing and distributing their first, and only, single, 'Nobody Loves Me' from 1980. The Letters' single was brought out by Heartbeat Productions from Bristol, England—not to be confused with Catholic label Heart Beat or the Massachusetts-based reggae imprint Heartbeat Records—an established independent in a city with a vibrant music scene. Even better, Heartbeat was a member of the Cartel, an ironically christened collection of collaborating independents in the U.K. that included indie heavyweight Rough Trade. The Cartel reduced competition among U.K. independents while utilizing their shared distribution networks.

So why did this track—propelled by tight, stuttering drums and a chorus that foreshadows Morrissey's oeuvre—fail to even make John Peel's Festive 50? Barring any possibilities that are lost in personal conflicts inaccessible to history, the Letters were old-fashioned. Heartbeat and the English press had moved by 1980 from first-wave punk/new wave to arty post-punk groups, a trend which can be heard in "The Best of Heartbeat Records" compilation. Critics were staking out claims to greatness for groups that blended disparate genres with a political intent, like the Clash and Bristol’s own the Pop Group—or they were moronic idiot Garry Bushell, lover of Oi!. Either way, the decidedly apolitical and earnest 'Nobody Loves Me,' with it’s simple '60s-derived pleasures, was falling on uninterested ears in the indie market of 1980. Without cheerleaders, even a single as excellent as 'Nobody Loves Me' would flounder, lost in a highly competitive market.

The Shivvers, 'No Substitute,' 'Teen Line,' and 'Please Stand By'

Milwaukee's the Shivvers seemed to have it all. Masters of the three-minute pop single, their songs burst with harmonies, hooks, hand claps, and choruses so catchy they disrupt your ability to think. The Shivvers were more-than-capable musicians with years of experience in Milwaukee bands, a strong stable of self-penned material, and a deep well of influences ranging from the Stooges to the Byrds to draw from. To top it all off they had the elusive genetic boon of being good-looking.

What could possibly derail a band that released as incredible a self-recorded and self-produced debut single as 'Teen Line'? Milwaukee and misogyny, it turned out! Like Luxury, the band was too far from a major media market to attract much attention despite routinely drawing crowds of a hundred or more in Milwaukee. To counter this, the band hired managers to present them to labels, an enterprise that ran aground as each industry rep wanted to discuss songwriter Jill Kossoris' looks instead of the great songs she'd written, recorded, and performed. The Shivvers eventually decided their only chance was to move to a larger U.S. city, and after settling on Boston, they broke up.

Canon Balls is a regular music feature for the City Paper. Check back for more tales of great music failed by history.