by John M. Borack
If there was ever to be such a thing as a Power Pop Hall of Fame, longtime music journalist Jordan Oakes would be a shoo-in for induction. The co-founder and publisher of the much loved and revered Yellow Pills fanzine, Oakes has been spreading the gospel of power pop music since the first issue of YP arrived in the spring of 1992. In addition to the magazine – which helped breathe new life into a genre that had fallen somewhat dormant during the 1980s – Oakes also curated a series of excellent compilation CDs that contained some first-rate power pop tuneage from well-known purveyors of the genre as well as up-and-comers.
25 years (really?) after the first issue of Yellow Pills comes Oakes’ first book, which collects all nine issues of the long-out-of-print fanzine and adds some new content, including a handful of CD reviews. It’s titled, appropriately enough, The Yellow Pills Book, and it’s certainly a most welcome and necessary addition to any power pop fan’s bookshelf.
It’s a kick to look back and peruse all the old issues, reading reviews of power pop acts both loved and long forgotten (anyone remember Humbert or The Wanting Seed?), as well as checking out ads for music for sale by folks such as Wondermints and Bruce Brodeen’s then-fledgling Not Lame Recordings label. It’s also bittersweet to read Oakes’ illuminating interviews with pop icons who have passed on, such as Material Issue’s Jim Ellison, Game Theory/Loud Family leader Scott Miller, the Knack’s Doug Fieger, and Badfinger drummer Mike Gibbins.
Through it all, though, Jordan Oakes’ humor and passion for the music still shine through. I took the time to speak with Oakes recently regarding the release of the book, and in his own inimitable, often punny fashion, here’s what he had to say.
JB: Congratulations on the release of the book, Jordan; it must feel good to have it out there. What was the impetus for you to release it?
JO: I was encouraged to put together a book of all the [original Yellow Pills] issues. First, at least 12 years ago Bruce Brodeen suggested it; then [journalist/musician] Ken Sharp did a couple years back. These are two people whose opinion I greatly respect. So I figured, why not? Besides, it gives a chance for people who never got the magazines to read them. And I liked the idea of them all bound together (the magazines, not people).
JB: I’ve always appreciated your writing style, particularly the way you are able to toss in puns and clever wordplay without detracting from the point you’re trying to get across. (There’s one bit in the new material regarding the Knack that had me laughing out loud when I first read it, but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it.) How did you develop that style?
JO: Thanks for the comments on my writing. I’ve always liked to write and I’ve always loved music. So writing about music sort of came naturally, though I’m far from proud of everything I’ve written. Along with doing Yellow Pills, I’ve done a lot freelance scribing. I guess I just developed a style. Incidentally, I feel the same about your writing. It’s witty with a great style instantly recognizable as John Borack.
JB: Well, that’s very kind of you. Going back to the beginning, what provided the impetus for wanting to start a fanzine dedicated to power pop?
JO: I started Yellow Pills (initially with my friend Rich Osmond) just to be able to get the word out about music I loved in the power-pop genre. Also, we noticed the lack of such a pure-pop magazine; most of the others were just as into punk and garage.
JB: How did you initially get involved with Big Deal Records and curating the tracks for the four Yellow Pills compilation CDs? I know I speak for a lot of power pop fans when I say that those collections remain cornerstones of the genre.
JO: Big Deal Records called me up and wanted me to do a CD. The label’s founder Dean Brownrout came across a copy of Yellow Pills in a New York shop. It went from there, and lasted for four volumes.
JB: Four outstanding volumes, to be sure. You mention in the book that Cheap Trick’s Dream Police record was the first time you encountered power pop. What are some of the other records that got you more fully into the genre? Was there one specific moment or song you can pinpoint?
JO: Along with Dream Police, I got the first Cars album and Get the Knack. I discovered power pop in real time during ’79 and especially 1980. Having just discovered the Beatles a couple years earlier (not in real time), I found myself scavenging for albums that had an audible Fab Four influence. That was the litmus test.
JB: Funny, because I think many power pop fans still do the same thing today. You mention in the book that many artists cringe – still – at being labeled power pop. Why do you think that still occurs after all these years?
JO: I think the “cringe factor” in recent years, probably beginning in the 90s, has really flipped to where the term is often worn as a label of not just pride but identity (sounds political!) these days. Think of the several groups with “pop” (ahem) in their name. That’s a cool thing. The only band I’ve met in recent years that really hates the term — to the point of not caring to appear in my book for fear of association — is the Jigsaw Seen. They’re a wonderful band and a great bunch of guys — but I got the sense they felt they were above the term. Look, genre labels are just for two things: marketing and sound-description. I say, who cares what people call you as long as it’s not “bad?” But I suppose the Jigsaw Seen is more straight ‘60s jangle than power-pop. But then I guess we get into the subjectivity of the meaning of power-pop. You know, in a way I feel that bands have no more entitlement to say what they are, genre-wise, than their listeners.
JB: Amen! Moving on to another topic, there are 60 pages of new content in the book. How did you decide what to cover for the new material? There are also 10 new reviews. How did you come to choose these particular releases to spotlight?
JO: I wanted to write new content, so that people got more than just the issues. It just ended up being 60-odd pages (maybe in more than one sense). The reviews were fairly arbitrary and in some cases outdated. But I wanted to have some semblance of the new section feeling like a fresh issue of the zine. A couple of the reviews were people who I’d promised to write about, but I didn’t review anything I didn’t care for. The general new section — the non-reviews part — was just an attempt to make note of, and combine, the consensus power-pop touchstones with some of my personal favorite groups and records. I obviously didn’t cover everyone — not even close — but between the issues and the new section, I think I was pretty comprehensive in giving a fair shake, space-wise, to as many luminaries as possible.
JB: Looking back at the old issues included in the book is a bit like looking at an old high school yearbook for those of us who were there at the time. Did going back and looking through the pages of the original issues of YP trigger any specific memories for you?
JO: Yes! The main thing is having forgotten — and then being reminded of — a lot of who was covered in the zine and things I wrote that had slipped my mind, plus all the people who contributed articles. Oh, and I recall waiting for the mail to arrive, hoping to discover the next Dwight Twilley. (Not his next album — but rather a new or undiscovered artist with his talent and potential. Like a “next Dylan.”) On a more prosaic level, the magazine reminds me of repeated visits to Office Depot, and of Rich Osmond (who started the mag with me) calling to say he was out of scotch tape for “pasting” the articles (this was a low-tech operation) to get an issue camera-ready.
JB: To quote Brian Wilson, do you have any regrets?
JO: I do have some regrets. Along with a bunch of my writing making me squirm, I wish I’d had more of the kind of journalistic instincts that would have prompted me, in at least a couple different cases, to get “the other side of the story.”
JB: You talk about how you underrated and how you overrated some acts in the pages of the original YP.
JO: In terms of underrating or overrating, I don’t recall specifics. I think when we started, power pop was so rare that everything we were sent sounded pretty good just by virtue of being power-pop. But we started getting pickier and more discerning.
JB: It’s bittersweet to read the interviews you did with those who are no longer with us, such as Scott Miller and Jim Ellison. I know those two musicians and their work in particular meant a lot to you personally. Talk a little about that.
JO: Yeah, I was an acquaintance of both Jim Ellison and Scott Miller. Selfishly, I mourn the lack of the gift of their continuing to make music — the great albums never to be recorded. I understand depression, but not suicide. I think artistic people might be more susceptible to both. The real victims are the loving families left behind. But the music these men left behind will enrich the world indefinitely.
JB: Why did you stop publishing YP after issue 9?
JO: It just became too difficult. “Playing magazine” — which included selling ads, etc. — became too fast a conveyor belt. I also feel the mag, after several years of coming out, had played its part, whatever that part might have been. It was time to ride (well, stumble) off into the sunset.
JB: Hardly a stumble, my friend; quite the opposite, in fact. How does it make you feel when folks (rightly) talk about you as being one of the most important proponents of power pop, alongside people such as Greg Shaw?
JO: If people say I’m important in power-pop, I have to balance respect for what they say — which is to say, not discount their opinion on anything — and their kindness with the obvious fact that I’m no more important than others who have been vital cogs in the power-pop machine — you being a prime example. And with everything happening in the world, I feel like being a power-pop fan — who happens to like to write about it — doesn’t mean I deserve to be ranked in importance. But being compared to Greg Shaw, if I ever am, is pretty cool. I mean, he’s the all-time power pop czar; right?
JB: Indeed. So what do you foresee for power pop music in the next decade?
JO: I’m not sure I know where power-pop is heading, but I do know that it will always be around in some form — without losing its spine.
JB: Now that The Yellow Pills Book has been published, can we (hopefully) look forward to you writing more about pop music in the future?
JO: I’d love to. When I hear music I’m passionate about — or that stirs passion within me — I almost have to write about it. On the other hand, sometimes I think I’ve exhausted my power-pop vocabulary and have nothing new to say. My biggest fear as a writer is being glib or stooping to clichés. Like when one reviews an album, should you go through describing every song? That kind of approach can get old. It’s like a trap. I’m always thinking of new days to try to write about music. I attempt to let the music be my muse, rather than write for the sake of writing. I guess my influences as a music journalist — and I’m not suggesting I approach their level — are the inventive wordsmiths/astute observers of the past like Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs and — when he’s not being snobby and dead wrong — Dave Marsh (he at least appreciated the Raspberries).
JB: Yes, Marsh is dead wrong quite often, isn’t he? Anyway, how can people order your book if they don’t have a copy yet?
JO: The book has a first run that is basically sold out. But people who want a copy can either add their name to a waiting list (in the event any unclaimed copies of the first run remain) by messaging me on Facebook, or they can choose to pledge $45.00 (plus $5.00 postage) for the upcoming reprint by going to the Yellow Pills Book GoFundMe page (www.gofundme.com/ec3jcjhg). I’m not sure how soon the reprint will happen, but the number of orders would indicate the quantity I’ll print.
JB: There are some familiar names such as Lannie Flowers and Bill Lloyd on the CD that accompanies The Yellow Pills Book, but there are also some artists included that are a bit more obscure. What can you tell us about Rocky Gallo and Kip Loui? I was really impressed by their tracks.
JO: For the CD I wanted to find at least a couple artists who would be unknown to almost everyone. People could learn about a new artist, and said artist would be exposed to new fans. Kip is a St. Louis guy; a friend. His song “If Only” was recorded in Seattle in the early ‘80s, when he worked with Young Fresh Fellows producer Conrad Uno. He has an album’s worth of great stuff. Rocky Gallo is a Canadian artist who plays in a Beatles cover band, and records cool songs on the side. Elizabeth Racz was a great help in finding obscure talents like Rocky and Stephen Lawrenson.
JB: If you could only take three power pop albums and three power pop songs with you to that mythical desert island, what would they be and why?
JO: Three power-pop albums: Wish You Were Here — Badfinger; No. 1 Record — Big Star; Tongue Twister — Shoes. Power-pop songs: Probably “Go All the Way” — Raspberries; “Some Sing Some Dance” — Pagliaro; and “Forget All About It” by Nazz.
JB: What are you most proud of in respect to the original magazine?
JO: I suppose whatever role the zine may have played in power-pop fans convening; and offering support via journalism to unheralded power-pop heroes, many of whom continue to “play on”…
JB: One final question: any interesting anecdotes to share about any of your dealings with specific artists while publishing YP?
JO: Hmm. This was back in the day when the telephone was the most direct (and utilized) form of communication. And I would get calls from power pop people who got a copy of Yellow Pills, just out of the blue — and met a lot of great friends that way, people who are still my friends to this day (like you). It was like the old soap opera: “Who’s at the door now?” Getting calls from Dwight Twilley and Eric Carmen turned me to jelly – but grateful jelly. Also, I’m pleased to report that pretty much every band and artist I ever interviewed was humbled by my enthusiasm, and appreciative for the respect and admiration for them with which I was bursting.
It wasn’t until years later, when I was working on a CD, that I encountered …well, you’ve heard of an icebreaker. One person, from a band I liked, was what I would call a nice-breaker. I won’t mention his name. His group hailed from the Southwest circa 1980. He broke the perfect record, so to speak, of power-pop artists being the most courteous and friendly of any genre on earth. For years I actually tried to contact this guy, totally mystified by the origin of his apparent grudge. He didn’t ever respond. Finally I sold his band’s records; I couldn’t listen to them anymore. So I’ve been known to have my moments of sensitivity. I’m not sure why that sticks out — or is even worth mentioning. But by far Yellow Pills did much more to restore my faith in humankind — every time I heard a great new song or met a kindred spirit.