NOW HEAR THIS: Great Buildings
“Hold On To Something” — 1981
“Hold On To Something” — 1981
I re-discovered one of my favorite songs, “Hold On To Something” by Great Buildings, the other day.
After writing a bummer article about photographer Kevin Carter and Manic Street Preachers, and then a rather snarky piece about Peter Jackson’s 400-hour Beatles documentary Get Back, I thought I’d take a stab at something a little more buoyant.
First, big-ups to S.W. Lauden for reminding me of the inherent joy to be found in listening to power pop. Along with Paul Myers, Lauden edited the books Go All the Way: A Literary Appreciation of Power Pop (The Mixtape Series) and Go Further: More Literary Appreciations of Power Pop. When you’re ready to hop on the power pop highway — and what are you waiting for — these books will serve as your Rand-McNally (or Google maps for the non-Luddites.)
I’d honestly forgotten how much I like this genre. After going down that grunge rabbit hole, I had become mired in the flannel and despair for the past 30 years (W.T.F.!!). I had turned into some musical Dig Dug as I shoveled around and discovered every enclave of, what I call, sad bastard music—somehow forgetting all about power pop.
So about a week ago, I loaded up the fur babies and have been cruisin’ down this power pop highway for about a week now. Discovering all kinds of good music as the volume slowly inched its way to 11. Even the cat likes it… and cats hate everything.
The other day my copy of the 1997 compilation Poptopia!: Power Pop Classics of the ’80s arrived, and I saw it had Great Buildings “Hold On To Something” — as well as a slew of other classics — on it. Now, I have NO idea where I first heard this song; I only know it was in the before days, the Napster days; and when I did listen to it, it grabbed me right where it counts — the ears people, the ears.
The paradox of Great Buildings is that you’ve probably never heard of them… and yet you’ve heard them.
Danny Wilde and Phil Solem from Great Buildings became The Rembrandts, who, along with T.V. showrunners David Crane and Marta Kauffman wrote…wait for it… wait for it… “I’ll Be There For You.” That should ring a bell; it’s the theme song to Friends.
For all the aforementioned flannel and despair of the grunge era, and just before the anger and misogyny of the loathsome Nu-metal, there were more than a few inescapable happy power pop foot tappers around. These two immediately come to mind:
The Scottish band Del Amitri and their insufferably infectious “Roll to Me” (send your thanks to Bonnie Barton for that reminder.)
The Rembrandts “I’ll Be There For You” was just as infectious and perky — arguably pesky — a reminder that happiness existed. The song was also a monster hit, going top-ten in almost every country in the western hemisphere (and hitting #3 in Australia and New Zealand.) I suppose it didn’t hurt that the song was the intro to one of the most popular sitcoms in television history.
In all fairness, both songs were catchy little ditties.
[Fun Fact: The R.E.M. shitty — yes, shitty — song “Shiny Happy People” was going to be the theme song of Friends, but the band rejected the offer. Jaysus, can you imagine an already intolerable song being blasted ad infinitum?]
But before The Rembrandts “I’ll Be There For You” was the sonic guiding force for Chandler, Monica, Ross, Joey, Rachel, and Phoebe, Rembrandts Wilde and Solem were in the L.A. power pop band Great Buildings.
Great Buildings released one album, Apart From The Crowd, in 1981. But radio programmers were having none of it, and the album was met with the vacant stare of the American public (it was the dawn of the Reagan era.) As catchy as “Hold On To Something” is, the country seems to have blown its collective power pop load in 1979 with The Knack’s “My Sharona.”
Not surprisingly, after the abject failure of Apart From The Crowd, Great Buildings disintegrated before the album even had a chance to make its way to the cut-out bin.
[Fun Fact: In the before times, the cut-out bin was an actual bin in record stores. You could, still can, I believe, usually denote them by a tiny vertical cut on the top corner of an L.P. If it was a CD or tape, there was usually a hole punched in the bar code. I suppose the fact that it’s in the cut-out bin, to begin with, is a clue too.]
I can’t help but quote music journalist John M. Borack on what he said about the Great Buildings debut in his liner notes for the 1997 compilation Poptopia!: Power Pop Classics of the ’80s:
“Their sole LP, released in 1981 on Columbia Records, unfortunately vanished about six hours after it hit the shelves.”
Sad, but true.
As I write this, I am probably on the 25th spin (figuratively) today of “Hold On To Something” and have just found that 1981 debut, Apart From The Crowd, on Spotify. Strapping myself down, I’m going in… stay tuned.
45 minutes later
Ya know what? Apart From The Crowd is an excellent album. And believe it or not, for an album 40-years old, it sounds great. That’s the power of good music; it transcends its period.
What I find interesting and so enjoyable about power pop is that it bridges the chasm between bubble-gum pop and rock and roll. Or maybe it’s always been a thin line between the two, and I’m not sure.
Given my lyrical preference for things less overtly “happy,” I do like that some of the lyrics in power pop aren’t all rainbows and unicorns — it’s the cheerful boppy music that makes it go down easier.
Take The Plimsouls “Million Miles Away” (produced by Jeff Eyrich, who was one of the first guests on my Abandoned Albums podcast, co-hosted with Rob Janicke), a song about heartbreak, and yet you can’t help singing along, smiling.
[Fun Fact: The Goo Goo Dolls did a faithful cover of “Million Miles Away” on their album Hold Me Up.]
Great power pop never goes out of style. There’s a reason people are lapping up the 500-hour Beatles documentary — being timeless is a benchmark of power pop, innit?
This Great Buildings debut does suffer from one thing that many albums suffer from of that era, regardless of genre. Apart From The Crowd drops off at the end. The last three songs are good, just not as good as the previous ones.
You can almost see the 1981 label A&R guy Shawn (not his real name) in his white Nike sneakers, his Calvin Klein jeans, yellow pac-man t-shirt, white satin jacket, smoking a Capri cigarette, perpetually sniffing, and crowned with a sweet mullet saying: “We need a couple more songs, guys.”
The band rolls their eyes, goes home for a night, and comes back with the necessary songs. No one loves them, not even Shawn, but he’s satisfied; and they slap them to the tail of the album.
But this isn’t about those songs or Apart From The Crowd; it’s about the one song, “Hold On To Something.”
What is it about the song that I like? I like its simplicity, identifiability, and overall cheerfulness — not often words associated with the music I like. Or my typical disposition, if I’m being honest. And sometimes it’s good to take a break from the frustrating and messy parts of life, now more than ever, and tap your foot, keep the beat on your knees or steering wheel, and sing along loudly… and wildly off-key.
But maybe that’s just me… but I doubt it.
Great Buildings “Hold On To Something” is one of a handful of songs I willfully admit to doing that with.
Simplified, William of Occum (the Occum’s razor guy) famously said: “The most obvious explanation is usually the right explanation.” He also is alleged to have said: “It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.”
That sounds about right when describing “Hold On To Something” and a lot of power pop.