If you’re an adept of power pop, you may have heard Van Duren’s classic 1978 full-length, Are You Serious?, and you may also know that Duren — a Memphis native — played in bands with Chris Bell and Jody Stephens of the famed Bluff City pop group Big Star. In fact, Duren tried out for Big Star in 1974, but the band was on its last legs, and the audition itself was a strange one. Still, Duren is one of the greatest power-pop artists, and if his story intersects with Big Star’s more well-known tale of Stax-and-Beatles syncretism and noble failure, he’s followed his own path since he began playing around Memphis in the late ‘60s. As the Americana Music Association examines the Big Star legacy tomorrow with a panel discussion featuring Stephens, anda performance of Big Star’s music
(also tomorrow) that teams Stephens with dB’s founder Chris Stamey and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, the Cream checked in with Duren in Memphis to get his take on what made Big Star big, as well as the skinny on Duren’s contributions to the Memphis scene. We also asked Duren to define power pop — his answer is fascinating, and delivered from way inside the style.
Born in Memphis on Aug. 25, 1953, Duren began playing in bands in his teens. As were the other participants in the Memphis power-pop saga, Duren was influenced by British Invasion pop, and the budding performer began writing songs in the vein of The Beatles, Badfinger and Emitt Rhodes. He got his audition for Bell’s slot in Big Star through the recommendation of Stephens — the two had known each other since high school. Working with Stephens, Duren recorded demos at Memphis’ Ardent Studio in early 1975, and these caught the ear of guitarist and rock critic Jon Tiven, who had taken an interest in the Big Star story. Tiven brought former Rolling Stones manager and Immediate Records mogul Andrew Loog Oldham to Memphis to produce further demos for Duren, and Duren put together The Baker Street Regulars, a band featuring Bell and Stephens.
Duren’s 1975 demos are of high quality — they’re melodic, sophisticated and very catchy. “Grow Yourself Up” and “Andy, Please” are idiosyncratically constructed, but lack the neurosis of Big Star’s recordings. Duren went to New York in 1977 to record Are You Serious? (released in England on the London label as Staring at the Ceiling) for Tiven’s fledgling Big Sound label, and toured the Northeast before cutting the equally accomplished Idiot Optimism, which is up there with Radio City as an addictive, intelligent and compelling power-pop statement. (Recorded in 1978 and 1979, Idiot Optimism was finally released in 1999.)