Our mini-Power Pop Festival begins here! Next, look for our reviews of new reissues from The Posies and Game Theory!
O My Soul! Big Star is back! Despite an amazingly small catalogue – four studio albums, a handful of live releases, an even bigger handful of compilations, a key soundtrack, and one stunning box set – there never seems to be a shortage of releases for the biggest band that never was. Two of the most recent have arrived from Stax Records and Concord Music Group, and they’re back to basics. The label has recently reissued the band’s first two albums, 1972’s # 1 Record and 1974’s Radio City, as stand-alone CD releases after years of being twinned on a two-for-one album. (Similar standalone reissues arrived in the U.K. in 2009.) For Big Star completists, these simple reissues allow both original LPs to stand on their own; for those not yet acquainted with the magic of singer-guitarists Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, these provide a happy and affordable entrée to the world and mystique of Big Star.
Big Star frontman Alex Chilton’s closest turn as a “big star” came in his youth, as he led The Box Tops through a series of southern-soul-flecked pop hits including “The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby” and the aptly-titled “Soul Deep.” 1972’s optimistically-titled # 1 Record, as perfect a record as any, was recorded in Memphis, and though Chilton’s voice had the smoky grit of a Memphis soul man, it was aglow with the sounds of Los Angeles and London. # 1 Record – largely written by the team of Chilton and Chris Bell – was a textbook example of power-pop. Pete Townshend coined the term circa 1967 to describe “what the Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop The Beach Boys played in the days of ‘Fun, Fun, Fun.” Power-pop was bold, melodic, guitar-driven, catchy and pulsating, all words which describe Big Star’s debut. It should have galvanized listeners. Yet it went all but unheard.
A California record made in Memphis – a touch of the Byrds here, a dash of the Beach Boys there, a dollop of San Francisco heaviness a la Moby Grape – all by way of The Beatles, # 1 Record brims with energy, abandon, joy, vulnerability and a hint of recklessness. It also augured for a new, important team in Chilton and Bell. Bell’s high, punky voice filled with a near-glam swagger that contrasted with Chilton’s burnished pop tones on this ebullient set of sing-along, take-home tunes. It had to be intentional that the album almost strictly alternated between Chilton’s and Bell’s lead vocals, culminating in a pair of tracks on which they shared the lead. And whenever the group harmonies kick in, as they frequently do, the album soars into the stratosphere.
The Byrds’ influence might be the strongest on # 1 Record, best captured in the defiant, not to mention defiantly melodic “The Ballad of El Goodo.” Its bizarre title masked a gorgeous, anthemic melody and Roger McGuinn-inflected lead from Chilton; it’s followed on the original LP sequence by “In the Street,” with the vibrantly snarling vocals of Chris Bell. Never has the mundane sounded so exciting (“Hanging out, down the street/The same old thing we did last week/Not a thing to do/But talk to you!”). Nearly every track on # 1 Record could have been selected as a single, making its initial lack of success even more utterly puzzling – whether the perfect pop of “When My Baby’s Beside Me” or the unbridled, simple rock and roll of “Don’t Lie to Me.”
After the jump: more on # 1 Record plus Radio City!
The pretty, Chilton-sung teenage remembrance “Thirteen” shimmers with its crisp guitars on a beautiful stereo spread. It’s impossible to disbelieve Bell’s assertion that “My Life is Right” in his song of the same name: “Once I walked a lonely road, had no one to share my love/But then you came and showed the way/And now I hope you’re here to stay…,” making his well-documented battles with substance abuse and depression all the more heartbreaking. Both men have tender moments on the LP. Chilton’s “Give Me Another Chance” is so raw and so emotional that listening to it is almost a voyeuristic experience. The same could be said for Bell’s vulnerable “Try Again,” with some fluid slide guitar work from Bell.
Chilton and Bell didn’t have all the songwriting fun; Andy Hummel contributed a gentle, folk-ish escapist wish via “The India Song.” The deft blend of acoustic and electric textures on # 1 Record grow richer with each listen, culminating in the ravishing “Watch the Sunrise” and brief parting shot “ST 100/6” with its woozy, Beatle-esque harmonies.
It would have been perfectly understandable for the members of Big Star to pursue the same path on their sophomore LP, but that wasn’t in the cards. When Radio City was released in 1974, Chris Bell’s name was nowhere on the record. When he departed the group, he left a slimmed-down Big Star to contend with his ghost; his early contributions remained without credit on such songs as “Back of a Car” and “O My Soul.” His absence is palpable on the LP. The luscious harmonies that distinguished # 1 Record aren’t as plentiful, and the feel overall is quite different. Chilton, who like Bell had demons of his own, was in the driver’s seat for Radio City. With Stephens, Hummel and producer Fry, he crafted an arguably even more intense album that sounds like the work of an artist with something to prove – an edgier record than its predecessor in every respect. With that, however, came sacrifices. If Radio City is a more urgent LP, it also seems less effortless.
“O My Soul” is an impressive high octane opener, but is more sprawling. At 5-1/2 minutes it’s not as compact as the classic nuggets on # 1 Record, but offers plenty that’s memorable, including the lyrical declaration that “I can’t get a license/To drive my car/But I don’t really need it/If I’m a big star!” Chilton’ wrote or co-wrote every track on the LP except for Hummel’s ode to a beguiling mystery woman, “Way Out West.”
Like Big Star’s first effort, Radio City has its share of gutsy rockers. “Life is White” (which asserts itself with the opening kiss-off “Don't like to see your face/ Don't like to hear you talk at all...”) adds smoking harmonica and rollicking barrelhouse piano to its colorful arrangement. “You Get What You Deserve” and “Back of a Car,” the latter an example of universal, blissed-out pop-rock at its finest, both explicitly recalled the sound of # 1 Record with their killer melodic hooks.
All three Big Star members were credited for the darkly lysergic trip of “Daisy Glaze,” but three tracks were completed without Hummel or Stephens' participation. “What’s Goin Ahn” (continuing Big Star’s tradition of obliquely naming its songs) returns to melancholy territory and boasts ethereal harmonies. “Mod Lang” has another impenetrable title, but the rock blues is persuasively sung with grit by Chilton over a backdrop of crunchy guitars. Guest drummer Richard Rosebrough in particular shines on “She’s a Mover,” with Beatle influences coming to the fore in his performance on the drums.
Chilton’s eccentricities are in evidence on the short, piano-and-voice “Morpha Too” and sweet, acoustic guitar-and-voice “I’m in Love with a Girl.” These two short tracks end Radio City; but then, it’s highly unlikely another rocker have topped the song that precedes them: “September Gurls.” Radio City may best be remembered for the song’s power-pop perfection, a little less than three minutes of lusty, youthful joy that explodes from the speakers. It’s refreshing that Chilton chose to end the album on a happy, “up” note, in view of the darkness that would follow when Big Star’s next album was released.
Neither # 1 Record nor Radio City could prepare listeners for the third Big Star album (1978’s intense, deeply personal Third/Sister Lovers, which had been completed since 1975), and by the end of ’78, Chris Bell was dead. Alex Chilton was off to wrestle with his own troubles. The story might have been finished and the albums relegated to dusty record bins had it not been for younger musicians in bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements. They spoke of Chilton, Bell and Big Star in reverential tones, and in 1993, Chilton and Stephens even reformed the band. (A new album, In Space, arrived under the band moniker in 2005.) By then, all three albums had been reissued on CD, and the cult of Big Star grew. When “In the Street” was selected as the theme to Fox’s hit sitcom That ‘70s Show, the music of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell had finally gone mainstream. Though both Hummel and Chilton passed away at 59 years old in 2010, both men lived long enough to see Big Star receive the adulation it was denied in the 1970s. Jody Stephens keeps the band’s music alive even today.
These new individual reissues allow each album to assert its own identity, and both titles boast an appreciation of the band by R.E.M.’s Mike Mills. Frustratingly, however, it’s the same essay in both titles! George Horn is credited with remastering, and although it’s unclear whether the remasters were prepared especially for these reissues, sound quality is stellar and the best these albums have sounded on compact disc.
Equal parts ebullient and haunting, the first two Big Star albums are among the most enduring records of any era. # 1 Record and Radio City may never have been # 1 records – but there’s a good chance they just might reach the top of your own pops.