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.
The Toms’ debut belongs in that milieu and beyond it. Amphetamine-fueled, new wave heaters like “Let’s Be Friends Again,” “The Hook,” and “I Did The Wrong Thing” are bound to reel in even the most casually curious listener. But Marolda’s melodies really shine on slower, mellower burns like “You Must Have Crossed My Mind” and “Think About Me.” And, unusually for a landmark power pop album, there’s some stuff that’s simply left field, like standout “The Bear”—a gritty Beatles sendup that foreshadowed Elephant 6 and features some of the worst electric guitar sounds ever committed to tape. The Toms contains multitudes: It’s emotionally insular and heartbroken; an indecorous celebration of nice guy horniness and romantic idealism. And yet, like any power pop album worth listening to, it’s a sly alteration of all those attributes. It’s significantly smarter and funnier than any of the '60s pop bands Marolda was biting, conscious or not. These are pop songs crucially performed with a ton of power.
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
After two decades of silence, Marolda resurrected the Toms name in 2006 for the comeback LP, Simplicity, kicking off a prolific streak. Since 2019, he’s released a total of four records, including the previously shelved 1979 Sessions and this year’s stellar Stereo. And greatest of all: the songwriter’s post-Y2K output is neither pandering nor self-consciously “mature”—it’s simply more of the same from an unusually self-assured power pop musician.
“I love to keep the energy of any recording I do at a certain level,” Marolda says. “I just heard the XTC song ‘Melt the Guns’ the other day, and as simple as it is, I know [Andy Partridge] began it with a LinnDrum type beat and just built it from there. There’s a total, full energy in their songs, no matter how slow they are, no matter how melodic they are. And I like that very much with the Beatles. Or the Records with their song ‘Starry Eyes.’ Or you listen to ‘My Sharona,’ and the energy is just…you can’t bottle that stuff.”
Stereo is heavier than any Toms record to date, and a far cry from the lobotomized schlock you can reasonably expect from any axe-slinger pushing 30. Marolda attributes this to his diligent lifestyle choices—he has a daughter who “keeps him on his toes.” He eats healthy and never misses a workout. “I love energy,” he tells me. “I’m full of it.”
Stereo is heavier than any Toms record to-date, and a far cry from the lobotomized schlock you can reasonably expect from any axe-slinger pushing 30
But it might also have something to do with the fact that he isn’t a bitter asshole, which is the more common Power Pop Ghost of Christmas Future archetype. Marolda makes a point to emphasize how much he loves music. He’s never grown out of his Beatles fandom or any of the groups he worked with or played alongside. And he’s gracious with his praise of contemporary acts, particularly D.C. outfit Flasher, which he interprets as an evolved type of power pop.
Marolda continues. “People would compare me to Raspberries, and nothing against Raspberries, but I’m not the biggest fan. They were great, but that energy wasn’t there. 20/20 had that energy, Shoes had that energy, but I didn’t hear it in Raspberries. If you were in a room with them you’d probably have your energy drained. Whereas being in a room with Cheap Trick, you’d come out like, ‘whoa.’”
Power pop is brimming with critically-lauded and marginally successful debut records, but the task of building a career solely off pre-mustache Beatles pop has been a challenge at any point in history. Conventional wisdom suggests the label is a scarlet letter, a gimcrack whose charm and commercial appeal tends to dim after an artist’s debut. In a Magnet article from 2002—which features some absolutely breathtaking old guy mud-slinging—Tommy Keene goes as far to call the genre “a disease.”
But the Power Pop Curse primarily befalls artists who were absorbed by the machine at a young age, or who were deluded into believing loud guitar pop was a sustainable career path. Tragic, yet stupid. In many ways, the Toms are blessed in that they were never a buzz band. Technically, of course, they were never a “band” at all. The fact that Marolda was already an established recording engineer by 1979 meant he could more healthily compartmentalize; the carrots of major label advances and transient celebrity were never dangled in front of him. For Marolda, power pop is a hideaway, not a pigeonhole. It’s the musical equivalent of a mancave.
For Marolda, power pop is a hideaway, not a pigeonhole. It’s the musical equivalent of a mancave.
One of the subtlest but most pernicious symptoms of popular rock music is the notion that every band’s career trajectory can and ought to trace the Beatles or Radiohead’s—which is to say, every artist needs to constantly be expanding on a formula even when it’s successful. It’s an unattainable standard which would require millions of dollars and a time machine to actualize.
Between Toms records, Marolda fills his time with a variety of freelance music work. He produces, teaches, composes, and consults. Somehow he already has sixteen new Toms records on standby, and he’s aiming to release one a year. That rules! It’s consistent with the true spirit of artistry, even if it contradicts any piece of advice you’ll hear from a publicist. I can’t imagine any of that material is revolutionary, but I can’t imagine expecting that from a power pop artist in the first place, considering all this music sounds the same regardless of the name on the album cover. To regular people who listen to music more than they talk, write, or think about it, a steady stream of great songs is more than enough. Innovation has never been a distinguishing factor in power pop, anyway; repeating yourself is acceptable as long as you mean it each time.