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"It's so hard just to stay alive each day"

Class D

Main Category: Pop Rock
Also applicable: Singer-songwriters
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Big Star fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Big Star fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Guitar-based intelligent pop music as invented by the Beatles, the Kinks, the Who, and the Byrds did not have that many purveyers in the pre-punk Seventies, when "lightweight pop" was essentially abandoned into the hands of talentless Top 40 hitmakers who preferred sappy orchestration to guitar jangle, and most of the really 'intelligent' musicmakers switched their attention to hard rock, progressive, or futuristic glam a la Roxy Music or David Bowie. Thus, the few "pop purist" bands of the early Seventies were doomed from the very beginning, because their music appealed to nobody. Those who looked forward to the bright future took their lessons from Bryan Ferry, Peter Gabriel, or Ian Anderson, those who yearned for easy listening took their Eagles and their Chicago instead.

Big Star, as their cult usually proclaims, were the Power Pop band Number One at the time. That didn't stop them from ruining themselves and their career in just a matter of several years, much like Badfinger at the same time. Despite the fact that their Byrds-and-Beatles-influenced music was accessible, shiny, emotionally resonant and cleverly written, the lack of commercial success devastated the band. Had they formed in, say, the late Eighties/Nineties, they would inevitably be signed to an indie label, gain a small, but devoted, following, and happily go on making music for the select few. Yet in the Seventies, when the public's tastes were still not as hopelessly crass a today, it was still important to have your records sell like hotcakes and your name in the press every day - Big Star never achieved that, and although the results were hardly as tragic as in the case of Badfinger, this still led to the band's demise and the creative breakdown of its chief member, Alex Chilton, whose later solo records are usually said to be seriously inferior to his Big Star work.

Since then, Big Star have surprisingly proved to be influential - a huge chunk of the Eighties/Nineties alternative scene claim to have been raised and reared upon the foundations of their sound. Since I haven't read a particularly huge number of interviews with the alternative guys, I can't say how many of them are telling the truth when they sing their peons to the band and how many are lying through the teeth to look hip, but seeing as how even the Replacements did a song called 'Alex Chilton', I'm assuming that Big Star are influential.

The question then is - is it Big Star or the bands that actually influenced Big Star themselves? Strictly speaking, one cannot say that Big Star sound exactly like the Beatles or the Byrds. First of all, they borrow a little from just about every British Invasion band - they have some gritty blues-rock in their collection, some acoustic folk, a lot of jangly pop, and they employ a whole variety of moods that can at times remind you of the Kinks, at other times of the Animals, and sometimes of the Hollies (and sometimes of Herman's Hermits, too). Second, they certainly take some advantage of contemporary production techniques, with a sound that's crisp and clearly molded and... and... well it's pretty hard to tell what distinguishes their Seventies-updated sound from the sound of their Sixties idols, but there it is. The difference, I mean. Maybe it's the guitar tones. You sure didn't hear the guitar tone of 'September Gurls' in the Sixties that much.

So in that respect, I'd say yeah, Big Star sound like a bridge between the Beatles/Byrds, on one hand, and Eighties/Nineties alternative pop, on the other hand. That means they're important, and cannot be dismissed out of hand. Yet on the other hand, I'm no great fan of the band either - while many of their melodies are great fun and almost overwhelmingly infectious, there's not that much depth to their music, nor is there that much inventiveness. This does not prove to be an obstacle when you're actually just having fun, but when you try giving 'em a more serious lookover, the band is actually pretty limited. Their two main albums just kinda bury themselves deep in formula, and the formula ain't that fantastiwastic either. When all has been said and done, you can't get away from the fact that they're just trying to make something like A Hard Day's Night of their own, with improved recording technique but with fewer creative ideas.

This only means, though, that I am asking you to lower your expectations when tackling Big Star. Unless you're a prime time Power Pop fan who refuses to acknowledge any other genre for music because they're all pretentious or overblown or not grounded enough in reality (i.e. aren't dedicated to boozing on a Saturday night or taking your girlfriend to a drive-in theater or condemning the phoney establishment for the six billionth time), you're probably bound to be a bit... er, disappointed by Big Star's records. After all, Alex Chilton ain't no great visionary, even if he does have an unexpectedly artistic side as evidenced by Sister Lovers. But with these slightly lowered expectations, Big Star will not let you down. When they do stake their ground, simple hook-based guitar-heavy accessible short pop songs, they're untouchable. Nobody did that better in the Seventies, even if to be frank, few people did that in the Seventies at all.

Lineup: Chris Bell - guitar, Andy Hummel - bass, Jody Stephens - drums (all ex-Ice Water members), Alex Chilton - guitar, keyboards, vocals (ex-Box Tops). Bell quit the band soon after the flop of their first album in 1972; Chilton dissolved the band soon afterwards, then reunited them (still without Bell) in 1974. The band broke up for good in 1975. Less than four years of total existence and three records in total. And still not forgotten? That's certainly one sign of a solid legacy, ladies and gentlemen.



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12

Minimalist, yet amazingly sincere and authentic guitar-jangly-pop. Remember that italic, all you alternative guys.


Track listing: 1) Feel; 2) The Ballad Of El Goodo; 3) In The Street; 4) Thirteen; 5) Don't Lie To Me; 6) The India Song; 7) When My Baby's Beside Me; 8) My Life Is Right; 9) Give Me Another Chance; 10) Try Again; 11) Watch The Sunrise; 12) ST 100-6.

I am sometimes tempted to say that No. 1 Record really sounds all that good just because these guys spent about nine tenths of their time listening to the Beatles, the Byrds, and an occasional Lovin' Spoonful in between, and one tenth actually writing and recording their own material. But that still wouldn't explain why most of these songs sound so refreshingly emotional and moving - nope, the Chilton/Bell team really could write great songs, in other words, had talent.

Ironically, no-one really seemed to notice; ironically, because a record made by a band called 'Big Star' and entitled No. 1 Record should have attracted some attention through the title alone. But I guess prog-rock and glam ruled the hearts of the generation so much at the time that these 'Beatle poseurs' went unnoticed, and an album that in another era could have yielded a whole bunch of smash hits went over everybody's head. The album certainly has its problems, or, to be more precise, the band has its problems. No. 1 Record displays an alarmingly low level of musicianship, for instance - the guitar solos are painfully amateurish, and the rare occasions when they are well constructed are usually those where the guitar just follows the vocal melody. Another problem is that No. 1 Record aims at an incredibly minimalistic perspective. Look at those lyrics - one verse per song is often enough, and the lyrics themselves are kiddywink stuff for the Seventies level, the verbal equivalent of KISS for the power pop scene; worse, there's no sense of humour whatsoever, we're supposed to take everything seriously.

Well - that was the problem with Badfinger, that was a major problem with most of the early Seventies' power pop scene. Never mind. Approaching this puppy from a positive view, let's just say this: all the eleven songs on this album are good. ALL of them. First of all, they SOUND great. The melodic hooks themselves are not Beatles quality, generally, but even when a particular hook is a bit blurred, it is still fully redeemed by the sound. Mmm, what a juicy, tasty, delicious sound - an absolute 15 of 15 for production and instrumentation quality (not musicianship, though, like I said - in the technical sense, that is). The acoustic guitars ring and jangle in classic McGuinn/George Harrison fashion(s). The electric guitars display a variety of pitches so that they seem coloured like a friggin' rainbow. The pianos and horns, lightly sprinkled in places, all work well. Yeah baby, this is POP in its better aspect.

Next, they're just... well-written. The pop-rockers rock, the epics soar, and the ballads ball, or whatever. Some say that when Big Star try to 'rock out', they lose a part of their charm, but I'd wish to disagree. 'Feel' is one excellent start to the record, from that chuggin' descending guitar riff in the intro and then up to the moment when the drums kick in and Chilton yells 'what in the world are you doing, you're driving me to ruin'. And while 'Don't Lie To Me' doesn't betray any particularly great ideas, it's still nice to see the boys paying respect to the mighty blues-rock genre, and doing it well (Bell's guitar solos sound like they come straight out of the Fifties/early Sixties, but I guess that's the whole point).

But, of course, the main attraction is still the balladry. 'The Ballad Of El Goodo', to my ears, betrays a Badfinger influence - remember that Badfinger started out a good three years before Big Star and could hardly escape their pop-loving ears. It's just the same optimistic romantic folk-pop vibe throughout, with jangly guitars and soulful harmonies bettered by full-blown powerful Seventies production (the main difference from 'em Byrds, who really couldn't get that thick, luxuriant 70s production on, uhm, Mr Tambourine Man, for instance. Bummer). But influenced or not, it's still one hell of a 'don't give up' statement, with a very untrivial, I'd even say confusing, structure, with the two refrains ('and there ain't no one going to turn me round' and 'hooooold on, hoooooold on') in very weird relationships between each other.

Chilton's vocals are particularly awesome on the quiet all-acoustic numbers, like the folksy cutesy 'Thirteen', where they shake and quiver due to his singing higher than the normal range, lending the song a particularly innocent and endearing atmosphere. Same goes for 'Give Me Another Chance' (with particularly trite lyrics, but to hell with 'em anyway - the important thing is how that I-beg-your-pardon-I'm-so-full-of-shit-but-I'll-get-better feeling is so perfectly captured), and for the harmony-laden 'Watch The Sunrise'. That last one sounds like it arrived straight from a forgotten pocket in the Lovin' Spoonful's vest - Byrds and Beatles aside, let's not forget that Big Star were obviously very much influenced by the peace-and-love hippie stuff as well.

I don't think I've mentioned the rising 'Day Tripper'-like riff of 'In The Street' yet, but I will, and it's a very good riff, or the intoxicating high-pitched harmonies on 'My Life Is Right', or the gospelish, ominous-sounding 'Try Again' (the darkest song on this record, which is a rarity; already the next one will be full of 'em), or the cute one-minute conclusion of 'ST 100-6' (what's up with the stupid title?), or a couple other songs, but since none of the songs deserve a monument seventy feet tall, it's not a tremendous gaffe on my part, I suppose. The fact remains that No. 1 Record is these guys' most cheerful, life-asserting, just plain happy album. Now sit back in your chair, relax, and watch the optimism turn to pessimism, happiness to despair, and cheerfulness to schizophrenic gloom as the recording career of Big Star progresses. On with the show.



Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

Already they're getting muddled. Is this meant to be their big profound statement, or is it just, uh, confusion?


Track listing: 1) O My Soul; 2) Life Is White; 3) Way Out West; 4) What's Going Ahn; 5) You Get What You Deserve; 6) Mod Lang; 7) Back Of A Car; 8) Daisy Glaze; 9) She's A Mover; 10) September Gurls; 11) Morpha Too; 12) I'm In Love With A Girl.

This is an all-out example of Chilton production - Chris Bell left the band soon after No. 1 Record flopped, after which Big Star happily disbanded, only to be scraped off the floor again by Alex two years later in one more desperate attempt to conquer the world. It didn't work either, but at least they tried doing that in a slightly different way. I sincerely don't know who of the two guys was more responsible for the band's "upbeat" side and who cared more about the "mellow" side, but the truth is that Radio City tries very earnestly to be much more "upbeat" than its predecessor. That soft, endearing folksy vibe of No. 1 is almost entirely wiped out on the 1974 album, which instead concentrates on POWER POP in big letters. Personally, I think this change made Big Star less interesting, because the songs overall tend to merge much more with each other. After half a dozen listens, I still have to push play for each of the songs in order to remember how they really went like, and it's a real shame for a pop album.

On a different note, Radio City is also much bleaker. Most of the songs are about sadness, anger and disillusionment. Broken romances, frustrated inability to express oneself, vamps, and even the supposedly optimistic 'You Get What You Deserve' reeks of paranoia and instability where the lyrically similar 'Ballad Of El Goodo' was all cheerful and consoling. There are still a few well-meanin' good-time anthemic deliveries now and then, but overall this certainly reflects the state of mind Chilton was in at the time; not yet entirely "artistically broken", but rather just pissed off at the long string of disappointments.

The "big" song off this album is 'September Gurls' (geez, not even Big Star could resist mocking the poor English orthography), which everyone and his grandma cite as the major prototype for a huge lot of alternative bands. Might as well cite some Byrds, then, but heck, if the alternative guys go on record themselves citing the song, who am I to disagree. And besides, the song is excellent, with a bdoing-ly terrific guitar tone to die for and a catchy vocal melody. That's the main problem about the album, though; most of the time all I can say is, 'wow, cool guitar tone, catchy vocal melody!'. There's not much emotional diversity going on here, so what am I supposed to write about?

Oh I know. I'll write about 'O My Soul'. It's a pretty unique song, I guess. Like a severely slowed down funk tune (listen, in particular, to Alex going chugga-chugga in between some of the verses like your mini-mart version of Carlos Alomar or something), but with jangly bits of pop guitars thrown in and a drum "rhythm" that really gets you off the track every time. And every time Alex goes into the thing that some people would want to call 'instrumental passage', it sounds like he's actually battling with his guitar, trying to make it play some valid rhythm/solo while the guitar valiantly fights back and every now and then kicks Alex in the guts with the neck so that he misses a note or a whole line. It's extremely fun, invigorating chaos.

Another thing that's outstanding is the Hollies-like rocker 'She's A Mover', which stands apart from the rest through the sheer intensity of the refrain - you know, sometimes you feel like the entire band grips tight control over its instruments and firmly and steadily advances in one particular direction as if racing with each other; this is what happens when Chilton presses his larynx tight and half-growls, half-wheezes 'oooh, she's a mover...'. For that pair of seconds, the band metamorphoses into a fierce goal-oriented monster. Yeah, that happens to Big Star too.

I know you're aching, you're dying to hear me namecheck some other songs, so I'll have to bust my bridges over that. But yeah, well, I really like the gloomy bass riff in 'You Get What You Deserve', and I also like the pleading intonations on 'Way Out West', and I'm also a big fan with the ultra-minimalist and the most "No. 1 style" acoustic ditty, 'I'm In Love With A Girl', that rounds up the album. But sue me, execute me, and do a little tap-dance on my bones, the rest of the songs range from merely good to sometimes actually boring - yeah, I mean you, the excruciating first half of 'Daisy Glaze'. That's something like a cross between Pet Sounds and a particularly mellow McCartney number, but without the true power of each, and it's hard for me even to wait up to the moment where the song suddenly picks up steam and becomes another cheerful jeerful pop-rocker. And a couple songs that could have been amazingly good, like 'Back Of A Car', are spoiled by a sudden non-energetic twist of the melody - what's that super-slow 'I'd looooove yooou too' doing at the end of that chorus? Forgive me if you think I'm bickering, but hey, since they don't put no friggin' "Revolution No. 9" on this album for me to vent my frustration on, I just have to be bickering.

Aw, to hell with it, really. Let's put it this way: the songs are still very good, but less diverse than before and there's much more filler (considering that No. 1 seemed to have no filler at all). That's a pretty typical result when you had two talents in the band and then became left with one, unless the 'one' ain't somebody like John Lennon or Paul McCartney. Fortunately, this problem becomes less actual now that the band's two main albums are generally (and in fact, only) available on one two-fer CD edition, which allows you to, say, randomly program the tracks so that the small amount of filler gets really lost in among all the minor gems.



Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

Toto, we're not in la la land anymore.

Best song: KIZZA ME

Track listing: 1) Kizza Me; 2) Thank You Friends; 3) Big Black Car; 4) Jesus Christ; 5) Femme Fatale; 6) O Dana; 7) Holocaust; 8) Kangaroo; 9) Stroke It Noel; 10) For You; 11) You Can't Have Me; 12) Nightime; 13) Blue Moon; 14) Take Care.

I wanted to start the actual review with a fun (if cliched) twist of phrase like 'Imagine the average Big Star fan coming home and opening this record and reeling back in horror as the nightmarish half-drunken, half-crazy chaos of 'Kizza Me' echoes across the room...', but then I remembered that (a) it's pretty hard to actually imagine an 'average Big Star fan' in the 70s seeing as how their albums sold like half a dozen copies each, and (b) while the band's third album was recorded as early as 1975, it was never officially released until 1978, by which time the band was already long past the grave and all the "average fans", even if they did exist, were already well aware of how disturbing and crazy the recording sessions for Third actually were (oh, by the way, that's not two different albums out there, rather just two concurrent titles for the same record).

But seriously now, this doesn't sound at all like Radio City, not to mention No. 1 Record. With one or two exceptions, this isn't even power pop. This is a very personal, very dark, very depressing (and I emphasize depressing - much more so than in the case of Nick Drake's Pink Moon, gentlemen) album, consisting of, for the most part, slow and moody 'chants'/'sung monologs' (I hesitate to call them 'ballads') depicting Alex Chilton's state of mind at the time. Apparently, after Radio City flopped just like its predecessor, he got completely whacky and Third was his big 'fuck you' to everybody in the world, from his record company to his potential audiences. There's all kinds of funny stories circulating around about how he intentionally undermined the songs on here to make them as unsuitable for radioplay as possible - like the story that while recording 'Downs' (a previously unreleased bonus track on the 1992 CD edition) somebody hinted at the song's commercial potential and Chilton, upon hearing that, immediately replaced the straight drum pattern with a whacking of a basketball!

No wonder then that Third is a huge cult favourite. And while I rate this album on a lower scale than the two preceding it, let me tell you that I really see how it could speak volumes for other people. As much as I hate the generic 'it will take you years of intent listening to get the subtle amazing genius of this record' babble from people who wish to forcefully superimpose their own personal subjective associations upon others, I am still ready to admit, in fact, I'm pretty positive of the fact that Third is Chilton at his most mature and profound. On this album, he dumps Big Star's strongest element, the well-written melodies, right into the trashbin; yet he also compensates it by being far more inventive and experimental as far as the arrangements go, by writing lyrics that actually go beyond the usual pop cliches and by making his vocal deliveries even more passionate and sincere than usual.

I confess, though, to losing interest almost entirely after the first seven tracks: the second side of this album adds next to nothing to the entire experience. Had this album been an EP of just the first seven songs, I'd have easily voted this the best possible Big Star experience. 'Kizza Me' is extremely disturbing; the paranoid bashing percussion and chaotic piano rhythms that drive the song forward serve as the perfect backup for Chilton's frenzied 'I wanna feel you, deep inside, I wanna feel you, deep inside!' ramblings, delivered as if this was a plea of love issued by a paranoic whose main, and only, fear is that his beloved one might slip through his fingers at any time now.

Then 'Thank You Friends' arrives to issue a touching, yet slightly sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek lyrical 'goodbye' to all the fans and friends of the band 'who made this all so probable'. With his exaggerated faux-English accent ('all the laaidees and geh-ntlemen...'), Chilton gives this weird address that makes things even more confusing (not to mention all the "gospel" backing vocals!), and adds a fine guitar solo to boot. After which he gives us the first of the many similar 'quiet gloom' tunes on the album, 'Big Black Car' - confusing again, because while the lyrics are essentially a collection of 'I'm in love with my car' cliches, they are set to this painfully slow, minimalistic groove highlighted only by some sparse depressing slide guitar notes, while the morose bassline and the distracting piano rhythms don't do anything but further hammer in this feeling of hopelessness and stupor.

And if you're not enough confused by this point, then the fourth track, 'Jesus Christ', is the final nail in your skull - a perfectly normal Christmas ditty. 'Jesus Christ was born today, Jesus Christ was born'. Not a single hint of irony or sarcasm in the song, yet it's gotta be sarcastic, coming in on this album. It's also fairly catchy, yet never ever would I single it out as a highlight on an album like Third. Especially since next comes the harrowing cover of the Velvet Underground's 'Femme Fatale', severely spoilt by stupid female backup vocals in the chorus (unintelligible to absurdity - where the original backup vocals just sang 'she's a femme fatale', these sing something of which the word combination 'femme fatale' is only a part, but what it is, I dunno), but with one of Chilton's most beautiful vocal deliveries ever. Note: this does not mean the version is actually better than the original, so skedaddle out of here, all you Nico haters.

Then track six is 'O Dana', about the only trace of the classic Big Star style (and even then, the obligatory uplifting power pop melodicity only manifests itself in the chorus); and track seven is 'Holocaust', the creepiest Big Star song ever. A piano ballad with some haunting steel guitar in the background and a melody that's less memorable than Barry Manilow, but a chilly, mesmerizing vocal delivery. Well, only natural that for his most depressing album Chilton should have started addressin' these topics. 'You're a wasted face, you're a sad-eyed lie/You're a holocaust' - who's the exact recipient of this message, I wonder?

And... yeah, there's this here entire second side, but I've wasted enough of my vital energy on the first side already. Every song on Side 2 has at least one prototype on Side 1, so make your choices, take your voices, and see for yourself if you're enthralled by the very idea of Sister Lovers. I would really place it somewhere in between Nick Drake's Pink Moon and Syd Barrett's Madcap Laughs - another one of those confused, controversial, slightly (or not so slightly, in the case of Syd) mad, and very personal albums that are never appreciated enough by the majority, yet so easily become cult favourites. It is, however, vastly different from those two other examples in that it also represents a drastically unpredictable end to the career of a band that had originally started out as a completely different unit, with completely different goals. Well - you can't win them all, I guess.


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