Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Seven years ago I dedicated a B-Sides The Point post to Big Star, who I described as “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 of Alex Chilton & Chris Bell (both guitar & vocals), Andy Hummel (bass & vocals) and Jody Stephens (drums) only lasted for one album (1972’s #1 Record) before Bell departed. The remaining trio released two more records & then quietly disbanded in the mid-’70s, as the lack of record sales & radio play sealed their fate. Future generations discovered them and they are now revered by critics, musicians, record collectors & especially power-pop aficionados. They never became the big stars their name conjured up but their influence is immeasurable, and their magnificent debut is the ideal entry point into the world of Big Star.
For more information on this series, please read the opening paragraph of the first post, which featured the debut album from Led Zeppelin.
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.
I know there are plenty of Big Star fans out there and I’d love to hear from you. Do you feel the same way I do about their debut, or do you prefer one or both of the records that followed? If you’re new to Big Star please share your first impressions based on the audio clips above. Thanks.