Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[KamerTunesBlog presents B-Sides The Point, where I’ll occasionally write about smaller artist catalogs (usually in one post) or even compilations and box sets, instead of revisiting the entire recorded output of a particular artist over numerous posts, which is the main purpose of this blog. Think of these as the palate cleansers between the main courses]
Big Star was a short-lived but hugely influential Memphis-based band from the early 1970s, formed on a foundation of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, The Byrds and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, with hints of contemporary glam-rock artists like T. Rex and David Bowie. The original lineup featured Alex Chilton and Chris Bell (both guitar & vocals), Andy Hummel (bass & vocals) and Jody Stephens (drums), although Bell only stayed for the first album before Chilton took over as the main creative force. Due to record label mismanagement and poor distribution (which made it nearly impossible for record buyers to find their albums in the shops), they were fated to be one of those bands that were under-appreciated during their time, but over the years their brief discography gained in stature as more and more artists professed their love of Big Star’s music. Their influence can be heard in the music of Cheap Trick, The Knack, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and countless others who slowly turned their fans on to Big Star’s one-of-a-kind sound. They were really a band out of time and place, as the early ‘70s were not an era for melodic power pop (The Raspberries, Badfinger and Todd Rundgren come to mind as their most successful contemporaries), and Memphis was not the town to be seeking out fans of this type of music. The history of Big Star is a fascinating one, and plenty of in-depth write-ups are just a click away, so if you’re interested in finding out more I urge you to seek out that information. I prefer to focus on the music they created, specifically the three albums they recorded during their initial incarnation.
About 20 years ago, after constantly seeing their name referenced but never hearing their music, I purchased a CD that included their first two albums on one disc, figuring there had to be something worth hearing in those 24 songs. In subsequent years I’ve listened to this CD a number of times and I’ve always liked a lot of the songs, but I only remembered a handful of them. Also, I never previously listened to them as individual albums, so that’s what I opted to do the last couple of weeks as I finally got to know these records. Their debut album, #1 Record (1972), is as close to a perfect collection of songs as I’ve ever heard, and it was a sheer joy to play this one over and over. Many people already know the song “In The Street” as the theme song from That ‘70s Show, in versions performed by Todd Griffin (first season only) and Cheap Trick. It’s an immensely catchy tune with great Byrds-ian harmonies on “Not a thing to do but talk to you.” The album opens with “Feel,” an upbeat rock song with a melancholy half-time chorus (“I feel like I’m dyin’, I’m never gonna live again”), a cool George Harrison-influenced guitar solo and some subtly excellent drumming from Jody Stephens. “The Ballad Of El Goodo” is among my favorites. The aching melody in the verses recalls the soft rock of Bread or The Carpenters, which then gives way to an incredible Badfinger-esque chorus (“There ain’t no one going to turn me ‘round”). “Thirteen” is a folky ballad with pretty acoustic guitar picking and tender vocals. I love those phased vocal harmonies too. “Don’t Lie To Me” is an angry glam-rock stomper with a snarl that matches the best of the Rolling Stones. The original Side One concludes with “The India Song,” a brief song whose vocal harmonies remind me of some of Pink Floyd’s more pastoral material from ’70 & ’71. The swirling flute melody gives this a hypnotic quality, and the lush acoustic guitar strumming recalls the best of America or Crosby, Stills & Nash. We’re only 6 songs in and there hasn’t been a wasted note. Side Two turns out to be just as strong.
“When My Baby’s Beside Me” (which begins with “Don’t need to talk to my doctor, don’t need to talk to my shrink…”), is a buoyant pop song with a giddy chorus (“When my baby’s beside me I don’t-a worry”). The Badfinger influence pops up again on the gorgeous “My Life Is Right,” especially in Chris Bell’s vocals. At first this seems a little downbeat (“Once I walked a lonely road, I had no one to share my load”), but turns out to be positive and uplifting (“You give me light, you are my day”). “Give Me Another Chance” isn’t as immediate as the rest of the album, but it’s pretty and subtle, and it grew on me with each listen. I like the pleading, mostly falsetto vocals with the slow acoustic strumming, and the big harmonies during the “Don’t give up” section. Also, is that a Mellotron giving this a prog-rock/Moody Blues vibe? The slow, languid pace and acoustic strumming of “Try Again” caught my ear immediately, with “Lord I’ve been trying to be what I should” and that exquisite George Harrison-esque slide guitar. “Watch The Sunrise” begins with fast acoustic strumming that reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and the acoustic songs on Led Zeppelin’s third album. Even the vocals (“I can feel it, now it’s time…open your eyes”) could be Robert Plant singing “That’s The Way” or “Tangerine.” This is simply a remarkable song, and shows another facet of their songwriting and arranging.
The album closes with “ST 100/6,” basically a song fragment (it’s under 1 minute long) with two intertwining acoustic guitars and simple lyrics (“Love me again…be my friend”). This is one of those records that left me feeling so good that I couldn’t wait to hear it again. With Bell’s subsequent departure, the chemistry they had on this album would never quite return, but they weren’t done making amazing music yet.
Alex Chilton was the main creative force on their sophomore album, Radio City (1974). It’s a more challenging listen that lacks some of the pop sheen of the debut, but there are plenty of highlights. Opener “O My Soul” has a bluesier feel & a slightly harder edge than their previous work, and an interesting syncopated rhythm. I like the attitude here, but at more than 5:30 it goes on a little too long, especially for the first song. Chilton’s strained vocals on the midtempo “Life Is White” point to Tom Petty a few years later. I like the melancholy feel (especially the harmonica) and the melodic hooks (“Don’t like to see your face” and “I don’t want to see you now”). During “Way Out West,” there’s a great chiming guitar pattern and an incredibly memorable descending guitar melody in the intro and various breaks. I found myself singing along with “Why don’t you come on back from way out west?” Stephens provides an insistent rhythm, driving with the ride cymbal, on the ridiculously catchy “You Get What You Deserve.” There’s also a fantastic guitar solo, and Chilton really nails his falsetto vocals. “Mod Lang” sounds like an early ‘70s Rolling Stones rocker, with a great hook in the chorus (“How long…can this go on?”).
“Back Of a Car” has a cool descending intro, nice chiming Byrds-ian guitars and solid drumming. “Daisy Glaze” is a nice change of pace: a slow, hazy, dreamlike song with hard-to-decipher lyrics (an inspiration for a young Michael Stipe, perhaps?). At around the 1:55 mark, it shifts to a faster groove with splashy cymbals and lots of drum fills. It’s not instantly memorable like many of their other songs, but it continued to grow on me. “She’s A Mover” has an under-produced feel, like early British Invasion crossed with 13th Floor Elevators. The vocals show a clear Byrds influence (“She’s so wild…she’s so wild…she’s a mover”). It’s a little sloppy but still a winner. The true gem here has to be “September Gurls,” possibly their most well known song. It’s a power pop masterpiece with great vocals, chiming guitars, steady drums and pulsing bass. Everything fits perfectly, and I can’t help but wonder if more listeners would’ve been hooked had this been the opening track. Nothing this good should be buried near the end of an album. The final two songs are very brief (each under 2 minutes). “Morpha Too” sounds more like a demo or studio outtake. “I’m In Love With A Girl” is a bouncy acoustic number with a wonderful melody and strong singing. My only complaint is its brevity. I would’ve liked to hear this fleshed out a little more. This is one of those albums that critics adore a little more than I do. Obviously I like a lot of these songs, and some of them are as good as anything on the debut, but at times it’s a little too loose and ramshackle. I don’t know enough about Bell’s and Chilton’s individual contributions to #1 Record, but like all the best writing partnerships, they were more consistent working together than separately.
Only Chilton and Stephens remained for Big Star’s swansong, Third/Sister Lovers (1975). By this point, Chilton was so frustrated by their lack of success that he seemed to be sabotaging the songs by making them as un-commercial as possible, even though his knack for memorable melodies is still evident…if less immediate. Apparently this album was released in various territories with different titles and track listings, and the 1992 Rykodisc CD edition is the most official version, including all 14 songs from the original release along with 5 bonus tracks of varying quality. I had only listened to it a handful of times until revisiting it this past week, so it took a little longer to sink in than the first two. Like its predecessor, it’s far from perfect but still has a lot to offer the patient listener. “Kizza Me” is very catchy, but it sounds purposely tossed-off with loose vocals and a sloppy arrangement. Still, it gets better with each listen, especially the “I want to feel you…” section. “Thank You Friends” reminded me of one of my favorite ‘90s bands, Gigolo Aunts, with its instantly hummable melody and the infectious “All you ladies and gentlemen” vocal hook. Chilton sounds like he’s singing & playing guitar in a drug haze on the slow & dark “Big Black Car.” Another ‘90s band, Spiritualized, would utilize this sound on many of their songs. After an offbeat intro, “Jesus Christ” becomes an immediate sing-along (“Jesus Christ was born today, Jesus Christ was born”). The lyrics may be religious, but this is uplifting power pop at its best. Their cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” is solid but inessential, although it does feature some tasty guitar leads from Stax legend Steve Cropper. “O, Dana” is an average song with a simple but catchy chorus (“O Dana, O Dana, come on”).
I wouldn’t want to be the object of Chilton’s derision in “Holocaust” (“You’re a wasted face, you’re a sad-eyed lie, you’re a holocaust”). If anyone knows who he’s singing about, please let me know [*See Linda’s reply in the Comments section below for the answer to this question. Thanks, Linda*]. It’s a stark piano piece with dry vocals, and clearly owes a debt to Syd Barrett, as well as John Lennon’s more harrowing solo work. I previously knew the song “Kangaroo” via Jeff Buckley’s various live versions (as “Kanga Roo”), but I’m glad I finally got to know the original version. It’s stark and moody, with some amazing guitar textures and percussive sounds, and a wounded vocal performance (“I saw you staring out in space”). “Stroke It Noel” and “For You” (the latter written by drummer Stephens) are pleasant but ultimately minor songs, although I like the addition of a string section on each. Things pick up again for “You Can’t Have Me,” possibly a rant against his record company, business manager, or the music industry itself (“you can’t have me…not for free”). It could’ve used a tighter arrangement, but it recalls the best of Radio City. The slow & peaceful “Nightime” is one of my favorites here, a gorgeous tune with a vulnerable performance by Chilton. It reminds me of British folk legend Roy Harper at his most inviting. “Blue Moon” is a nice, short lullaby (“Let me be your one light…”) with subtle woodwinds. The album closes with “Take Care” (“…not to hurt yourself”), which has a pretty string arrangement (a la Nick Drake). Is he speaking to someone in particular or bidding adieu to his audience, when he sings: “This sounds a bit like goodbye. In a way it is, I guess. As I leave your side, I’ve taken the air, Take care”? Whatever his intention, it’s a powerful way to end the record.
The five bonus tracks on the CD are of varying quality. “Dream Lover” is the best of the original songs. It’s spacey, ethereal, and a little dissonant, but once again I can hear the future sound of Spiritualized here. The pop standard, “Nature Boy,” which ironically I had just listened to on my recently purchased Nat King Cole box set, shows up here in a stark piano version. It’s a unique take on the song, and I really like it. They also do straightforward versions of The Kinks’ “Till The End Of The Day” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Neither of these outshines the original, but they show a fun side of Big Star that wasn’t always evident on Third/Sister Lovers. “Downs” is the only other Chilton original, an off-kilter Syd Barrett type song that didn’t make much of an impression. I had to listen to this CD a number of times before I really started to get into it, and even though (for me) it’s not on the same level as the first two albums, the mood created throughout the record is unlike anything else they did. This will be one of those albums that I will probably enjoy a little more each time I come back to it.
I own two other Big Star related products. One is the Rock City CD, which was a vehicle for Chris Bell that was recorded prior to the formation of Big Star (in 1969 & 1970) and finally released in 2003. The other is Chris Bell’s solo album, I Am The Cosmos, which was recorded in the mid-70s but not released until 1992. Both of these are excellent, with lots of melodic pop music. Like the last two Big Star albums, which probably would’ve been stronger with contributions from Bell, these two albums are missing an edge that Chilton often provided. I’m not going to discuss these two Bell-related CDs here, since I wanted to focus solely on the three original Big Star albums, but for anyone with more than a passing interest in Big Star who wants to delve a little deeper, they’re both worth seeking out.
Clearly, #1 Record is my favorite, but I couldn’t have been happier finally getting to know the others as well. I’m sure there are plenty of fans and critics who prefer Radio City and/or Third/Sister Lovers, and I certainly wouldn’t argue with them. For a band that came and went so quickly, they left a brief but remarkable legacy, and I urge anyone who loves melodic pop (both straight up and with a twist) to check out all of their music.