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Review: Big Star, “#1 Record” and “Radio City”

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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.

Big Star - Radio CityIt 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.

You can order #1 Record (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.) and Radio City (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.) today!

Written by Joe Marchese

September 29, 2014 at 10:16

Posted in Big Star, News, Reissues, Reviews

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7 Responses

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  1. I’ve said it before. probably even in a comment here, but it’s a shame that Alex Chilton did not live long enough to profit from all the renewed interest and adulation. Chris Bell, too.


    September 29, 2014 at 10:33

    • Very sad that both men are gone, and while Chris never got to see it, his brother David, who joined Chris on his many recording & touring adventures across Europe did survive to see and appreciate it. Not the same thing of course, but it probably meant as much to David as it would’ve to Chris.

      I can’t speak to the full amount of rewards reaped by Alex, but he absolutely lived to see most of it (he only passed 4 years ago).

      To wit, Chilton, despite being unfairly labelled a bitter curmudgeon, called out of the blue to personally thank me for bringing attention back to Big Star and providing him with the downpayment for his house, back in 1992 when Big Star was “rediscovered” for the first time. I put that in quotes because Big Star has constantly been rediscovered since the late 70’s – let’s hope that rediscovery never ends.

      Jeff Rougvie

      October 1, 2014 at 13:59

      • As a Big Star fan for almost 37 years, no one is happier than I am by the developments of the last five years. And certainly the adulation existed in some form or another since the Seventies, with periodic boosts from such unlikely sources as the Replacements, TV sitcoms, and every artist who name-checked Alex and BS as an influence. Once Alex stopped running from his legacy, he too was able to benefit from his cultdom. Certainly, the reforming of the band (and the Box Tops) helped Alex enormously.

        My point, though, was more along the lines that Alex would finally have made some real money had he lived, rather than merely making a living. Despite his fame, his income was never great, besides the occasional windfall (Bangles cover, 70’s Show residuals, etc.) When he embraced his past, which he avoided doing for so long, he finally figured out that he could always make some money, and he did. But had he lived to 2014, he might have discovered a life less stressful, in which he could work when felt the urge, and not because he had to.


        October 1, 2014 at 14:23

      • I agree that had Alex had embraced his Big Star past earlier, he (arguably) may have been wealthier, but that was his choice – and that’s not what you said in your initial post.

        What would the events of the last five years done to fill Alex’s coffers that the events of the previous 59 didn’t? Income from music sales are minimal now and he had already made very nice money playing occasional Big Star or even Box Tops shows (with substantial guarantees).

        If you’re talking about him cashing in on the box set (released before he died) or the documentary – as wonderful as they are – there’s no way Alex could’ve reaped more financial rewards from them in the last five years than he did in say, the single year of 1992, when people paid for such things and there were thousands of stores that sold them.

        Not trying to pick a fight, but unless you were his manager or accountant (and I know you weren’t his manager), this is a pretty odd thing to say, seems entirely speculative and based on your perception, not necessarily the economic reality.

        Jeff Rougvie

        October 1, 2014 at 14:48

  2. “sound quality is stellar and the best these albums have sounded on compact disc”….better than the 2004 SACD?


    September 29, 2014 at 10:38

    • I was referring specifically to CD “redbook”-standard releases, but there’s a lot of discussion around the various audiophile forums ranging from “These sound better than the SACD” to “These are sourced directly from the SACD.” I urge those interested to do a little research and then, if possible, take a listen and decide for yourself, but there appears to be something subtly different – and to these ears, superior – about these discs.

      Joe Marchese

      September 29, 2014 at 11:18

  3. Great review. Love both of these albums. I picked them up from the ‘doubler’ CD re-issue a while back. Separated them when I ripped them to the iTunes, though. Purely so I could appreciate them as the albums they were, rather than as the combined package.

    Couldn’t pick a favourite (# 1 Record might just shade it, though) and I’ve got the reissues on my ‘to get’ list.


    September 29, 2014 at 17:20

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