A big-ass review for Big Star – #1 Record/Radio City

16 Jan

In the world of music, it’s all too easy to celebrate a martyr (even easier to misuse the term like I just did). In 1970, three rock legends passed away: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. These deaths marked not only the end of brilliant music careers, but signaled a death of an era. A certain resentment occurs once a genre or trend has played itself out: look at punk’s determined modus operandi of simply NOT BEING PROGRESSIVE ROCK, or grunge’s nonchalant disowning of hair metal earmarks. Similarly, the acid rock overload of the early 1970s was formally shunned by Big Star, as was the fear of the Perfect Pop Song that FM radio fostered.

Big Star formed in 1971, right in the very heart of the hippie hangover. Thankfully, they were detached from it all, sequestered in Memphis, TN. Alex Chilton, their singer and frontman was hardly a greenhorn: his hit “The Letter” that he sang as a member of The Box Tops was a #1 hit, but he desired something a little grittier (ironically, he raised the pitch of his voice to the clean, strained croon he would become known for some time in the interim). Throughout his early adulthood, Alex Chilton spent quite some time with guitarist Chris Bell, and at one point even suggested they start a musical duo modeled after Simon & Garfunkel, but Bell declined, though their similar musical experiences and studio choices suggested there would have been far less tension involved in their musical relationship. However, Chilton’s song “Watch The Sunrise” (later included on #1 Record) impressed Bell enough to convince him to invite Chilton to join his band Icewater. “Big Star” was the name of a supermarket chain in the Memphis area, and the band dug their logo enough to stea-pay tribute to it, changing their name to Big Star in the process.

Though such claims are entirely hyperbolic, their story since has become one known as a classic example of a different kind of rock n’ roll martyrdom, one caused by the record companies. Indeed, Big Star’s debut, #1 Record, was poorly advertised and distributed upon release, and it didn’t help that their brand of clean-cut, sunny rock and roll wasn’t exactly welcome in the markets of the time. To say that they lacked any edge, however, would simply be incorrect. If ever a band was able to perfectly integrate shamelessly catchy pop melodies into gritty rock n’ roll, it’s Big Star, and nowhere is that forging of contrasting forces so perfectly exhibited as it is here, on #1 Record/Radio City.

Even though they suffered from poor advertising and bad timing, however, the band has become known as innovators in what could otherwise be considered a plateauing period for rock n’ roll. Bands like R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, The Replacements, Primal Scream and The Posies (who would later become Alex Chilton’s backing band on a Big Star reunion tour, coinciding with the issue of this compilation) have all cited them as a major influence, and 80s girl group The Bangles gave “September Gurls” some extra attention by covering it on their hit album A Different Light, and, considering the majority of those bands can be classified as such, it’s fair to argue that Big Star founded the power pop genre well before Cheap Trick made it a fixture on mainstream rock radio. Because of their overwhelming influence, as well as the commercial successes of their lineage, Stax reissued Big Star’s first two albums (their third, Third/Sister Lovers, has become something of indie favorite, and represents Chilton’s mental breakdown near the end of the 1970s as chillingly as any album since has for its respective afflicted creator) and packaged them together here.

Big Star themselves were extremely adept at melding pop and rock, but each album in this set manages to exemplify a different facet especially well. #1 Record is unabashed, unadulterated pop bliss, offering one this-should-have-been-a-HUGE-single after another, a band truly vying for Big Stardom, while Radio City fractures those pop glories while simultaneously turning up the distortion. While each album is a revelation individually, they together offer a nearly flawless picture of everything Big Star was about, and, at $14.99, it proves to be quite a bargain. I could end the review here and you would know what you’re getting with this set, but I need an excuse to listen to these pop gems again, so let’s walk through some of the individual tracks.

#1 Record opens with “Feel”, which nearly undoes everything I’ve said about the album being the sweeter of the two here: though it has irresistible vocal harmonies in its chorus, as well as a catchy descending chord progression, it’s all about bluster, pumping in horns and face-melting guitar pyrotechnics in equal measure. The album slows down momentarily with “The Ballad Of El Goodo”, the kind of lighter-waving ballad Journey spent a career duplicating, only to perk right back up with “In The Street” (later covered by Cheap Trick, becoming the That 70s Show theme song), which manages to be fist-pumping and bitterly nostalgic at the same time. Big Star appears utterly carefree throughout this album, but there was always something melancholy about their music, which you can only perceive in hindsight, I suppose. Later in the album, “My Life Is Light” does indeed synthesize the same emotional impact as El Goodo, albeit in a more syrupy package. However, its lovestruck lyrics of dedication and gratitude are so infectious and heartbreakingly beautiful that it’s hard not to get swept away in it.

For all of #1 Record‘s glories, however, its crown jewel is among the more modest tracks they would ever record. Pairing a naively affable, clean vocal communicating themes of simpler times and a love surely assumed to be undying with soft, melodic acoustic guitar plucking and little else, “Thirteen” is achingly beautiful without having to raise its volume above a whisper. The aforementioned “Watch The Sunrise” brings to mind Joni Mitchell circa Ladies Of The Canyon, filled to the brim with full-bodied acoustic guitar strums, pleasant vocal harmonies, and wide-eyed, vivid imagery depicting the perfect morning. I haven’t been around for one of those in a while, and college hasn’t helped.

Radio City lacks such unfettered joy, possibly because Alex Chilton was already finding himself frustrated by the Big Stardom he had not yet received, but more likely because this band never was one to repeat itself. “O My Soul” is the closest the band ever came to writing a song that sounded like classic rock, checking all of the right lyrical boxes, including namechecking oneself, as well as encouraging an unspecified woman to “come on,” and “have a good time.” It’s utterly ridiculous, but the music is swaying and infectious, and that’s what counts. “Life Is White”, however, is just plain angry, pairing a stomping guitar riff with scathing lyrics about an ex-lover. The piano breakdown in the middle is sloppy and totally awesome, as is Chilton’s(?) attempt at harmonica playing. This is what good rock music is all about.

Thankfully, the variety on Radio City is considerable, and they branch out well beyond dunderheaded rockers (although the silly “Mod Lang” also fits that bill). “September Gurls” is what I would consider a perfect pop song, Big Star momentarily indulging themselves in the gooey pop of #1 Record, telling the tale of a man hopelessly in love but entirely incapable of working up the nerve to confide in anyone but us about it.  “Back Of A Car” pretty much defines Big Star: sublime guitar riff that sounds like it’s existed for an eternity, clever, unexpected turns in the arrangement, and lyrics detailing romantic uncertainty. On some days, it might be my favorite song on either album. “Daisy Glaze” is quite haunting, crawling in the dark before reaching sunlight; its towering climax is well worth the wait, offering a singularly memorable guitar riff and some heart rate-boosting drum work. “What’s Going Ahn” is nearly as good, and perfect slow dance material. It’s so very heartbroken, but retains Radio City‘s grit via twangy Memphis country rock guitar licks.

Much like on #1 Record, however, the best ballad here is the most modest one: “I’m In Love With A Girl” is three chords and recycles the same sentiments we’ve heard a thousand times in love songs prior, but the humility and simplicity of the vocal, performance, and production give the song a raw intensity that so many overblown ballads lack. Chilton probably wrote this in 10 minutes, but I’ve spent more time listening to it over the past year than nearly any other song I can think of. It became the soundtrack to my first relationship (one I’m very pleased to say is as fulfilling as it was when it first dawned on me how pertinent this song was to my situation), and it spoke to and for my emotions as directly in its three-verses-and-break as anything I’ve come across since. This song provides us with a simple fact about songwriting: an audience that relates to something will listen, and if that message is offered in an open, honest way, it’ll stick too.

Didn’t mean to get so personal there, but that’s what the best pop music does, right? It provides a soundtrack to our lives in experiences largely mundane, sometimes significant, but when we look back, we reminisce and wish we could have experienced them all over again. Big Star’s first two albums, however, are two pieces of music I regularly wish to experience because they’re so incredibly well-crafted. In the years since their release, they have thankfully grown in popularity some, and have certainly influenced some exceptional musicians, which is a testament to their quality, but even if I’m preaching to the choir, I don’t think these albums can deserve enough accolades. After some time of being a significant part of not only my music listening, but my daily life, proving to be a shoulder to cry on and old friend rejoice with, I am convinced: there is power in a perfect pop song.

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