Buttons: From Champaign to Chicago
There should be a plaque in front of the old Illinois State Capitol in Springfield that reads: “Give me your scorned, your confused, your sad young men.” More likely we’d get a memorial at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford: “I Want You to Want Me.” It’s worth mentioning that in August, the Burpee mounted an exhibit of Rick Nielsen’s guitars, including the Cheap Trick founder’s famous five-necked instrument. While Nielsen’s words may not be immortalized in bronze, they’ve been scribbled and crossed out with indelible inks, in notebooks or on skin, for almost 40 years. If that isn’t enough, the legions of misunderstood young men’s bands formed in the wake of 1973 serve as another testament.
These power-pop bands: Where do they all come from? With hard-to-Google names like Shoes and Tweeds and Jets—names that suggest they will be forgotten as soon as they leave the stage, their legacies smothered by another gig flyer—the waves of guitar and keyboard-led pop bands of the ’70s and ’80s would have been lost to history if not for record labels like Numero Group.
In 2005, Numero Group bottled the boys’ angst in Yellow Pills: Prefill, a double-disc set of hard-to-find pop tracks, most filled with chiming, yearning sing-alongs that go down easy. No sugar needed. Earlier this year, the Chicago-based label launched a power-pop imprint, Buttons, and reissued Yellow Pills with bonus tracks. Also included in the launch was From Champaign to Chicago, a hometown collection spanning 1973–87 that illustrates the joys and pains of being misunderstood in the Midwest.
“I’m always outside looking in,” Frank Jalovec, of the band Kind, sings on “Total Insanity.” “Tell me where to go; I’m on the verge of total insanity.” Lasting three and a half minutes, the song shows Jalovec teetering on the brink, supported by his mates’ power chords. He’s nearly knocked off balance by a hefty guitar solo. And there you have the perfect pop template: He’s losing it, but he has the strength of friends. So what if she doesn’t remember his name? The Prettyboys’ opener “I Want to Make You!” sets the tone with minimal effort: all chorus, a scrambling lead guitar, and the message is up front. Julian Leal—who hails from Romeoville, of all places—takes bar-band rock almost mainstream with “Get Away.” Relying on an arena chorus with intimate, nasal high notes, he sings, “Yesterday, she was mine.”
And what about the girls? One of the first things you notice listening to this collection, and others like it, is how wanting and wallowing are the province of boys who want to be boyfriends. But that doesn’t mean women can’t relate. At the end of her 2011 novel, Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta gives her record-collecting lead character, Denise Worth, crystalline perspective on power-pop: “That voice, I can’t explain how much it fits with what I am feeling, what I want and need, alone in the garage. I start to sing along and I feel something else: I feel like I am him, this is my little edge of want. So I want to be the voice and I want to be the one the voice wants. All of it at once. I want it so bad.” And as a teenager growing up about 75 miles north of Chicago, I can hold up scratched Matthew Sweet CDs as evidence that feelings like his are genderless.
While Tom Orsi contemplates the past, licking his wounds with disappointment over a bird flown (“Where Are You Now”), Kevin Lee & Heartbeat’s “Tonight” takes urgency to the next level. All that exists is now, and he’s willing to throw it all away for tonight. The Names’ standout “It’s a Miracle” is all sugar with a hint of crash-and-burn: a chugging rhythm guitar and pleading “Won’t you let me stay here tonight.” “It’s a miracle / And the miracle just won’t work without you,” Dave Galluzzo adds with confidence. Another product of Rockford, the Names have learned plenty.