In the late 1970s, musician and recording engineer Tommy Marolda operated a modest, “semi-pro” recording studio in the basement of his Mercerville, New Jersey home. It contained little more than a 16-channel Tascam multitrack recorder, a Gibson Les Paul copy, a Danelectro bass, and a Ludwig drum set—an extravagance in an era when audio recording technology was rarefied and the mere concept of a fully-functional home studio possessed the mystique of a secret weapons manufacturing facility. Thus, Marolda’s basement studio—which also contained a gym and the musician’s personal vinyl collection in a small, separate room—became an incidental success, a frequent destination for Mid-Atlantic hitmakers who wanted to make quality records in a more relaxed space.
Members of Earth, Wind & Fire and the Smithereens were among this all-star clientele. And both canceled sessions at Marolda’s studio, back-to-back, one fateful week in 1979. “Both of them had gotten ill or whatever,” Marolda tells CREEM over the phone from his current Las Vegas digs. “I had four days to mess around and do nothing, and I had some song ideas down in a book. [I took] my acoustic guitar on the back porch and wrote about 40 songs.”
That’s how Marolda’s band the Toms was born. Twelve of those 40 songs appeared on the Toms’ 1979 self-titled debut, which is widely considered one of the greatest power pop albums ever made. Subsequent Toms’ records, including the band’s latest LP, 2022’s Stereo, aren’t too shabby either. Decades into his career, Marolda can still pen pining, impassioned, melodically exuberant guitar pop and sell it, a distinction he shares with precious few peers in the power pop old guard.
I first heard about the Toms the same way I discovered many of my favorite bands: I was shamed online for not knowing who they were by other grown men who get chills when they hear “My Sharona” in the wild. I had seen the iconic red checkered, pizza chain placemat album cover, but never felt compelled to listen, assuming it was some latter-day Burger Records effluvia, not an album recorded by a guy whose actual name is Tom in a basement studio in the late '70s.
Surely that speaks to my biases as a music fan. It also reflects the complexity in discussing, assessing, or merely finding a place for power pop—the most context-sensitive sub-genre—in rock music conversation. Oftentimes, unless the song is truly transcendent, power pop’s impact hinges on who made it, when, and how familiar you are with its lore and lexicon already. “I embrace the term,” Marolda says of “power pop.” “I think the name suits it very well—it’s powerful, it’s moving, and emotional, and there’s just something about it that’s very pleasant at the same time.”
The late '70s and early '80s was a uniquely fertile and forward-leaning time for the genre. The lines separating it, punk, and pub rock were barely perceptible; the saccharine, wistful, wish-it-were-’64 sentimentality that permeated early '70s singles by bands like Badfinger and Raspberries was swapped out for the tempo, temper, and timbre of contemporary English punk acts like the Jam and the Buzzcocks. Power pop bands such as 20/20, Shivvers, Plimsouls, the Records, dBs and especially Cheap Trick were lean, mean, and even sort of cool.