Friday, March 19, 2010

Big Star 1: #1 Record and Radio City

Hailing from Memphis, Big Star was another one of those bands who seemed to make barely a ripple of a splash at the time, but years later had people falling over themselves in appreciation. In this case, the appreciation is warranted.
In many ways, the hopefully titled #1 Record is the template for what is considered power pop. At a time when Beatlesque songwriting was considered passé, it was left to a few standard bearers raised on the British Invasion to keep it going.
While the first name associated with the band is Alex Chilton, previously known as the gravel-voiced kid singing “The Letter”, equal if not greater credit should go to Chris Bell, who started the band and wrote a chunk of the songs. His is the first voice we hear, on the edgy “Feel”. His voice drives “In The Street”, best known in its permutation as the theme from That ‘70s Show, though the equally rocking “Don’t Lie To Me” is likely an actual Bell/Chilton composition. “Try Again” is typical of his yearning voice, while “ST 100/6” is a brief if mysterious closer.
Chilton’s contributions are just as strong, and surprisingly gentler. “The Ballad Of El Goodo” provides a balance of sound early on, as does the uncanny ode to being “Thirteen”. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” turns it up for that wonderful anachronistic balance of ‘60s and ‘70s. (A similar smirk, bassist Andy Hummel’s “The India Song”, is stuck right in the middle of the album.)

With little commercial success, the band kinda fell apart, reconvening as a three-piece without Chris Bell once Alex started writing and recording a few more songs. Consequently, the sound of Radio City is harder, and more unified by one voice.
For power pop, it’s hard to beat “Back Of A Car” or “September Gurls”, though more attention should be given to “You Get What You Deserve”. “What’s Going Ahn” and Andy Hummel’s “Way Out West” (sung by drummer Jody Stephens) are nicely sequenced for balance. “O My Soul” and “Daisy Glaze” are compact symphonies, well constructed and powerfully sung.
The album is also a harbinger of the fractured sound that would dominate the next Chilton project. “Life Is White” sports a wheezing harmonica over a stumbling rhythm, while the closing solo “Morpha Too” and “I’m In Love With A Girl” seem to come out of nowhere.

Luckily for those of us who weren’t there the first time, enough bands and critics kept the spirit of Big Star afloat that the band finally received the acclaim it deserved. Best of all, #1 Record and Radio City enhance each other so well that their continued existence on a single CD makes it an absolute bargain.

Big Star #1 Record (1972)—4
Big Star Radio City (1974)—4


  1. I completely agree with you on greatness of Big Star. I recall reading about them in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia and it saying they combined the sound of the Beatles, The Who, and The Byrds - I was thinking I have to get their albums! I still never get tired of listening to them, and am saddened they never had a chance to hit the big time. A few years ago my sister was at a Wilco concert in Memphis and Jody Stephens joined them for a few songs, she asked me if ever heard of some band called Big Star? I was mad I missed it! Stephens was part of a great 90s band called Golden Smog, you might be familar with their albums - always enjoy your reviews.

  2. Jody made it to a few albums in the mid-'90s; Matthew Sweet was another guy who used him. At the time I thought these young bands were just trying to be hip, but the truth is, he's an excellent drummer.

    Thanks for the note! Please keep checking in!