Interview: John M. Borack

A chat with music journalist, drummer and author of Shake Some Action 2.0: A Guide to the 200 Greatest Power Pop Albums, 1970–2017.

Can you pinpoint when your lifelong passion for power pop began?

Well, I’ve always loved the Beatles as far back as I can remember, so that brand of melodic, guitar-based music seems to have been embedded in me from an early age. Being a child of the ’70s, I listened religiously to AM radio in the Los Angeles area while growing up and began buying 45s at around age eight; the first one I remember picking up was John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” in 1970 (with the picture sleeve!) at the local K-Mart. Cost me 57 cents.

By high school I had moved on to FM radio, and began listening to the usual BostonsStyxForeignerFramptonKansasJourney (aka AOR) like most kids my age. In around 1980, though, I picked up a book called The New Music by Glenn A. Baker and Stuart Coupe. In it, they talked about groups I had heard of, such as Blondie, Devo and the Pretenders, but the book also had a section about a mysterious (to me) genre called power pop. They referenced the Beatles quite a bit, so I thought I’d check out some of the new bands they recommended. Those bands included Shoes, 20/20 and Dwight Twilley. From that point on, I was hooked!

How did you get your start in music journalism?

I have always loved reading about music and used to devour the old Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records, Christgau’s Consumer Guide, and the Rolling Stone Album Guide, among others. I also read Creem Magazine quite a lot and began subscribing to Goldmine Magazine in early 1985. I loved writing and had taken creative writing classes in high school and college, so one day I decided I might like to combine my love of music and writing. I wrote a letter to the then-editor of Goldmine, Jeff Tamarkin, and asked if I could possibly write some reviews for the magazine. He wrote back (ah, the good old days) and asked me to send him some writing samples. I didn’t have any, so I wrote up a few faux reviews, sent them to Jeff, and he graciously allowed me to begin writing for Goldmine in late 1985. I’ve been there ever since and am now a contributing editor, writing for both the print and online versions of the magazine.

I was also thrilled to be able to write some entries for Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press Record Guide many years ago, and I’ve written content for several magazines, had a regular column in a local newspaper, and penned liner notes for many CDs, including some of my favorite artists (The Shivvers, Tommy Keene, The Rooks, and Rhino Records’ Poptopia series). I don’t do many interviews, but I’ve talked to Cheap Trick, Peter Noone, and Graham Parker, all of whom were great.

What inspired you to embark on the original Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide?

As a music fan, I’ve always enjoyed reading lists and I know others do as well; it’s fun to do and is always good for sparking some spirited discussions and civil (for the most part) disagreements. After listening to and enjoying so much power pop music over the years, I felt that a top 200 list of what I considered to be the best of the genre was something that folks might enjoy reading. (Plus, there was really nothing like it around, so I thought there was a gap that needed to be filled.) I also had a bunch of really talented friends, journalists and musicians contribute some power pop-related content to try to present a well-rounded view of the genre.

The book was originally scheduled to be released by a cool little company called Tiny Ripple Books, but they experienced some financial difficulties and thankfully, my pal (and power pop guru) Bruce Brodeen stepped in and released the book — the first ever! — via his Not Lame Recordings imprint. Thanks, Bruce!

How did your appreciation and understanding of the power pop genre evolve between the first edition and Shake Some Action 2.0: A Guide to the 200 Greatest Power Pop Albums, 1970–2017?

I’m not sure if my appreciation evolved much between editions, but my opinions on certain records definitely changed over the course of nearly a decade; I looked back on some of my choices for the original top 200 from the first book and cringed. (The Click Five? Really, Borack?) I also looked back on some of my writing and cringed a little more. Plus, there had been so much great power pop music produced since I had written the first book that I felt it was time for an update. The latest book has more than 50 new entries: great stuff released between 2008 and 2017 as well as some wonderful older records (Sorrows, Van Duren) that I stupidly overlooked the first time around.

What’s the most surprising reception you’ve gotten from your books?

I’m always pleased when people enjoy my writing, especially if it inspires them to check out some of the music I write about. Both books have gotten a great response from journalists, musicians and power pop fans and I’m super grateful for all the kind comments I’ve received; I never take things like that for granted. I also appreciate all the DJs who have had me on their radio programs to promote both books; these folks do a lot to get power pop music out to more people and should be commended for their efforts.

As far as specific comments, I received this one out of the blue on Facebook about three weeks ago from someone from France whom I don’t know: “Thanks for all your writing and comments on power pop; you are an example for me and a master for all my life and my tastes. Thanks a lot, really deeply and sincerely, your French fan.” I’m telling you, it might sound like a cliché, but receiving comments like this make it all worthwhile for me.

I’m also surprised — and a bit embarrassed — when artists thank me for including them in my books or columns; I mean, I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for the musicians who put their heart and soul into creating wonderful music, most always for very little reward. Den Pugsley, who played with The Jetz and the Pencils (and who is now with the Overtures) sent me a nice message not long ago: “What a wonderful book! The Jetz and The Pencils were hardly blessed with great commercial success, fame, and fortune, but inclusion in your book helps justify all those years of rehearsing, performing, and slogging up motorways back in the day! A heartfelt thank you on behalf of all the guys who are as delighted as I to see our listings, and much gratitude for all you do to keep the power-pop flag flying.”

John M. Borack behind the drums in the “Pushing Forty” video by The Armoires.

I think it’s interesting that you covered such a broad range of years (1970–2017) in the second book. It sometimes seems that die-hard power pop fans are reluctant to include newer music. Do you agree?

Well, I started in 1970 in both books because that’s when Emitt Rhodes’ debut album was released, and also when Badfinger started getting some recognition. Before that, despite what anyone might say, there wasn’t any power pop. Pete Townshend might have said, “Power pop is what we play” in 1966, but has anyone really ever described the Who as power pop? No.

As far as newer stuff, there will always be those who piss and moan about there being no good music currently being released or that nothing worthwhile came out after 1979 or whenever, but that’s just foolish; there’s always great music to be unearthed, but sometimes you have to dig just a little bit. If you’re really a die-hard power pop fan, you know this. If you believe otherwise, you probably think KISS is power pop. (wink)

You’ve connected with a lot of your power pop heroes. What are a few of your favorite experiences?

Oh, man…well, in the latest Shake Some Action book, I set out to gather new quotes about each of the 200 entries from as many of the artists as I could. This led to moments like Prescott Niles from the Knack calling me out of the blue and talking to me for 45 minutes about Get the Knack. (I still don’t know how he got my cell number.) Emitt Rhodes is another hero who called me out of nowhere, and I’ve had the good fortune to meet fine folks such as Ron Flynt, Steve Allen and Chris Silagyi from 20/20, the late Tommy Keene (who personally asked me to write the liner notes to his Songs From the Film CD reissue, which floored me), and Paul Collins (who called me out from the stage at one of his shows as “a power pop hero” — I almost fainted).

There have been a bunch of others that I know I’m forgetting, but one particularly special memory was when the late John Wicks from the Records and Scott McCarl from Raspberries appeared with me on Chris Carter’s Breakfast with the Beatles radio program to help promote the first Shake Some Action book, and then did a book signing with me at Freakbeat Records (in Sherman Oaks, CA) afterwards. Both are wonderful musicians and wonderful people. I really miss John.

You’re also a drummer playing in a few power pop bands. If you could sit in with any band ever, who would it be?

Oh wow, that’s a tough one. Probably one of the early ’70s triumvirate (Badfinger, Big Star or Raspberries) because those incredible songs are so ingrained in my mind and also because the ’70s was such a special time for me. I mean, what power pop fan doesn’t get chills when they hear those opening chords to “Go All the Way” or “No Matter What?” I know I still do.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m putting the finishing touches on my next book, which I hope to be able to announce soon. I’m super excited about it. Otherwise, I’m still writing my Power Pop Plus column and reviews for Goldmine and playing drums with the Armoires, Popdudes, and the Test Pressings. I’ve also been recording a lot of drum tracks for a bunch of folks for various projects, which is very exciting. For me, there’s nothing quite like music; whether I’m listening to it, writing about it, or playing it, it makes everything better.

LA-based writer and drummer. I publish crime novels, and non-fiction essay collections about music. Medium focus: Music, Books, Culture. Twitter: @swlauden