Desert Island Discs: “Beat And Torn” by The Spongetones

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In the life of every young’un who loves music there arrives a discernible, definable moment: when you first fall for a style of music that is NOT the type your parents played around the house. I suggest that this is an early milestone of adolescent emancipation, the necessary process of differentiating one’s personality from those of one’s parents. Like many “Boomers” of my age (God, how I hate that term), for me this cultural milestone was 1964 and the British Invasion.

The British Invasion was really only a short period of time. It lasted a little longer than three years, book-ended by The Beatles performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964 and the release of “Sgt. Pepper” in June of 1967. But its influence continues to resonate nearly 50 years later: power pop artists continue to create enduring songs that capture the enthusiasm and energy of that time. Which brings us to The Spongetones and their album “Beat And Torn.” They intelligently revitalize and re-energize the sounds we loved, and place them in the times we now inhabit.

The Spongetones circa 1984. Left to right, Jamie Hoover, Rob Thorne, Pat Walters, and Steve Stoeckel
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The Spongetones are Steve Stoeckel, Pat Walters, Jamie Hoover, and Rob Thorne. They began playing bars as a covers band in Charlotte, North Carolina in the early ’80s. They signed to a regional indie label in 1982 and released their first LP, “Beat Music,” the same year. Next came an EP, “Torn Apart,” in 1984. “Beat And Torn” is a conglomeration of both discs plus a bonus track, and is as close to a perfect power pop album as I can imagine.

“Power pop” is a genre of music influenced by the British Invasion. (Pete Townshend coined the phrase when asked to describe the type of music played by The Who, and it stuck.) Simply put, power pop songs are pop songs that have power. They’re straight-ahead songs traditionally structured with strong melodic lines, harmony singing, concise hook-ey and jangly guitar riffs, forceful drum beats, and lyrics about boys and girls in love. Add to the mix “power chords”: solid and crunchy rhythm guitar passages, adding a harder rock edge. Songs are usually about three minutes long, the traditional length per side of a 45-rpm single. Still another trademark of power pop is “compression,” or electronically narrowing the dynamic range or volume of the music: bringing the softer parts even in volume to match the louder parts.

Eventually every musical genre gets chopped and channeled into subgenres. “Southern power pop” is broadly characterized as the power pop sound infused by “roots rock” (e.g., Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Link Wray, Duane Eddy, The Everly Brothers). The Spongetones developed their chops in the Charlotte music scene, and fall squarely into this tradition.

Even so, many people for whom I’ve played “Beat And Torn” immediately ask if the songs are Beatles outtakes. Comparisons are sometimes drawn to The Rutles, the Beatles parody group from the late 70s led by Monty Python’s Eric Idle and Neil Innes. But “Beat And Torn” is no parody, nor an aping of the style. It’s finely-crafted performing and songwriting that stands on its own merits, even as it simultaneously owes a great debt of inspiration to all the Top 40 bands of ’64-’66. Any one of these songs would have been a hit back then.

Obviously the Spongetones shade many of their songs with familiar elements of Beatles songs. So while the tunes aren’t direct re-writes they invoke a lot of, “Hey – this sounds familiar!” They get the fine details right; at any given time the background vocals of Stoeckel, Walters, and Hoover sound and blend exactly like Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison.

The album kicks off with “Here I Go Again” which could have been an extra from “A Hard Day’s Night,” down to the Rickenbacker rhythm line and the Ringo-like bongos.

“She Goes Out With Everybody” has a guitar riff reminiscent of “Please Please Me.”

“Better Take It Easy” opens like “Day Tripper” and carries a similar momentum.

“Don’t You Know?” and “You’re The One” would have been at home on the “Help!” soundtrack album. “Eloquent Spokesman” and “Shock Therapy” are closer to the Beatles’ ’67 era sound, but may have found a home on “Revolver.” “Lana-Nana” has a great Lennon feel to it, “Annie Dear” a McCartney vibe.

But this isn’t just a Beatles show. Many of the songs aren’t beholden to the Fab Four. Various songs evoke such stalwarts as Peter and Gordon (“Take My Love”), The Hollies (‘This Kiss Is Mine Tonight”), The Who (“My Girl Maryanne”), The Dave Clark Five (“Tell Me Too”), Paul Revere and the Raiders (“Cool Hearted Girl”), The Byrds (“Every Night Is A Holiday”), The Kinks (“Where Were You Last Night”), The Searchers (“Now You’re Gone”), and The Zombies (“A Part Of Me Now”).

Far and away, though, my favorite song on the album is “Have You Ever Been Torn Apart?” It’s a masterpiece, a raver with great hooks and tight harmonies, and a guitar solo on the bridge that shreds. Though it evokes Lennon songs like “I’m A Loser” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” it puts me in mind mostly of “Lies” by The Knickerbockers. Exhilarating.

The Spongetones continue to delight fans nearly 30 years later with new CD releases, side projects, and wildly popular live shows in and around North Carolina. “Beat And Torn” will thrill any of us for whom the British Invasion was the entrée into a musical world beyond our parents’ living room. My highest possible recommendation as a Desert Island Disc.


19 Comments on “Desert Island Discs: “Beat And Torn” by The Spongetones”

  1. […] pop (which regular readers know is my all-time favorite style of music) evolved slightly differently in the UK than it did in the US. Not surprisingly since the UK is […]

  2. […] country music. Quite by accident, therefore, the usually tone-deaf music industry embraced power pop. For one brief shining summer the airwaves were awash in jangling guitars, chunky power chords, […]

  3. […] This came out during my senior year of high school. It was all over the radio, at least locally. I bought the album which was good, if not great – somewhat derivitive of “Abbey Road” and Badfinger. But the single was an awesome example of early 70s power-pop. […]

  4. […] try to cop the style of either Lennon or Sir Paul. There would not otherwise be such a thing as power-pop. Michael Penn did things differently. His first single, “No Myth,” from his first […]

  5. […] Stay tuned for power pop. […]

  6. […] is one of the power pop geniuses in The Spongetones, and one hell of a talented guy. Give it a […]

  7. […] Hoover is one of the power pop geniuses in The Spongetones, and one hell of a talented […]

  8. […] Hoover is a founding member of The Spongetones, and one hell of a talented musician. “You Were On My Mind” was written by Sylvia Tyson […]

  9. […] of pure pop (a/k/a power pop) often act like they’re a tiny breed of specialist music lovers, obscured by mainstream […]

  10. […] Breakout Star. Four albums is all they gave us. All are surprisingly good, each contains one or two power-pop gems. “Tonight” is probably their best […]

  11. […] One of them is today’s Desert Island Single: ”Golden Blunders” by The Posies. Power-pop bands typically channel the spirits of The Five B’s: The Beatles, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, […]

  12. […] power-pop side project featuring two of my favorites: Rodney Crowell and Ben […]

  13. […] this song for the first time on a compilation power pop CD called “International Pop Overthrow” (the first of about 14 volumes so far, I […]

  14. […] funding goal in just a few weeks. There was a definite buzz around this project, especially in the power pop community. Thanks to Andrew, by the way, for the go-ahead to stream a few of the songs on this blog. […]

  15. […] by Graham Parker and The Rumour (1976) 8/31/11: “Phoebe Snow” by Phoebe Snow (1974) 8/10/11: “Beat And Torn” by The Spongetones (1994) 6/15/11: “Murmur” by R.E.M. (1983) 5/13/11: “Revolver” by The Beatles […]

  16. […] just a trip to get together with someone so knowledgeable about the types of music I dig. It’s the […]

  17. […] on about The Spongetones and their amazing first album “Beat And Torn” at length here already. This is my favorite song from their second album, 1991’s “Oh Yeah!” Written and […]

  18. […] is a fine album in the best tradition of power-pop. It does not fall under the epithet and label of ‘bubblegum,’ and does not deserve that […]

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