Big Star

All-American Anglophiles

Strongest album: Radio City
Must to avoid: Alex Chilton's solo career

I don't know why I rank Big Star so high, considering that they only released three good albums.... Got ya! Big Star only released three albums, period! And if they really want to stay true to the spirit of '65, they'd have released all those albums in the same year after spending a grand total of two days on'em! Ah well, I guess some traditions aren't worth reviving.

One of the more damaging myths of the 20th century is the belief that we must discard the past in the name of "progress". In the early '70s this meant abandoning the tuneful rock'n'pop of the Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys, and Kinks (all of to whom Big Star owes a huge debt) for "progressive" rock of the likes of Led Zeppelin, Yes, the Grateful Dead, Genesis, Pink Floyd, etc. Some "progress"! The supposed revolutionary pressing forward of music into uncharted waters is actually a conservative embrace of the status quo - its model is the fashion industry's constant changing of wardrobes to get the consumer to shill out his or her money for this year's model (gratuitous Elvis Costello alusion). If it ain't broke, don't fix it, in colloquial terms. Or, if the future is electronica, give me more derivative-as-hell bands like Oasis that I can actually, you know, be entertained by. Besides, history shows us that revolutions that were at least moderately grounded in tradition - the American, the English in 1688 - are still with us, whilst your Year One French and Bolshevik "permanent revolutions" are the farce of history (gratuitously ironical Marx alusion).

Now, all pretentiousness aside - we are talking about pop music, you know - Big Star proved highly influential 20 years after they broke up. They are more influential in the '90s than they were in the '70s and '80s, when their records were out of print. In fact you could say they blueprinted the sound of a certain stream of '90s rock - every week, it seems, I hear some fresh-fangled power-pop band that worships at the sonic altar of "September Gurls". And let's just mentionTeenage Fanclub. And R.E.M. And the dB's. And the Bangles. And the Posies. And Sloan. And Velvet Crush. And Matthew Sweet. And Game Theory. And Let's Active. And the Afghan Whigs. And the Replacements, who wrote a song entitled "Alex Chilton". Good art survives faddish trends, and often is produced oblivious to them, and eventually becomes much hipper than last year's Next Big Thing with 20/20 hindsight (20/20 - now there's another Big Star-influenced band, a great one that's all but forgotten). Big Star realized in 1972 that nothing beats the original British Invasion, and so why dork around with synthesizers and heavy metal arias when you can be writing sharp, melodic, jangly pop-rock gems filled with teenage angst and crisp, punchy guitar hooks? And it should be pointed out that Big Star weren't slavish imitators - no, that misses the entire point of classicist traditionalism. Big Star simply used their influences as a foundation from which they built their glistening, uniquely sculpted songs and sound. In other words, real originality, which is accomplished not by banging on carborateurs and screaming "I'M SO AVANTE GARDE", but sheerly by talent. Which you can't mass-produce - sorry, art is by nature elitist, and like Elvis Costello said in reply to punk's everybody-can-do-it philosophy, "Yeah, but not everybody can make it interesting. As we move to the 21st century, I predict that traditionalism will reign and the 20th century's let's-change-our-wardrobe-every-year forced progress will seem quaint and responsible for unfairly promoting avante-garde phonies (modern art, are you listening? How ya doin', Jackson Pollock?) over genuine talents (prefer the unhip Thomas Hart Benton myself precisely because trendy assholes will never admit to liking him).

Before this turned into a rambling essay on aesthetics, I was discussing a band called Big Star. Here are the reviews. And here's to a link to Chris Bray's Unofficial Big Star Homepage, straight from my home college of the University of Arkansas. Who says there aren't any people with good taste in Arkansas? Not that many, to tell you the truth....

#1 Record (1972) ****1/2

While not their best, Big Star's first record is the easiest to take. Chris Bell, who departed after this album, keeps the music accessible and cohesive, with plenty of CSN&Y harmonies and Byrdsy ringing guitars. Why this didn't sell like hotcakes is explained simply by the mundane realities of record company distribution. At the time, Stax was going under and couldn't get their records in the stores, or make enough of a promotional push to get Big Star played on the radio. Also confusing was the fact that Big Star came from Memphis but didn't play soul or rockabilly; instead they played an American version of British Invasion pop-rock. Alex Chilton, who had experienced success singing gruff blue-eyed soul with the Box Tops ("The Letter"), completely changed his singing style. He affects a slight British accent and generally tries to sing an octave above his range, which creates an effective style of mis-singing. Chris Bell, who writes half the songs, has a sandpapery, less interesting voice that's fine in its own right. The album kicks off with is most exciting rocker, "Feel", that has a wonderful soul-horn break, and slowly grows more weary and melancholy as it winds down. And they make that weariness attractive - the ballads are lovely and heartfelt, with Chilton's emotions breaking even more than his voice. "13" may be the best, a nostalgiac reminder of innocent days when you asked the girl next door if you could walk her home from school and meet you by the pool, when Dad told you to turn down "Paint It Black" and you asked her to the dance on Friday. Since nearly every song on this album is great, let's skip the song-by-song stuff, which would take up several paragraphs. The sound is crystalline, especially the guitars; and it presents an appealing spareness, even if it's contradictarily layered with harmonies and hooks. Jangle to your heart's content, Big Star soar and swoop like Byrds in free flyte.

Radio City (1974) *****

Their best album is spottier than the debut, but the high points are higher and the sound is intriguingly weirder in contrast the first album's ready-for-radio accessiblity. Jagged edges have replaced smooth harmonies, which is attributable to the departure of Chris Bell for a solo career. This cuts down on the consistency of the songwriting, which accounts for the spottiness, but even the weaker songs ("She's A Mover", "Oh My Soul") are interesting. The band often sounds as if it's about to fall apart, which makes this excitingly unpredictable, and on a sonic level highly influential given the holes and corners in the sound. Jody Stephens holds it all together with his drumming, and often sounds like a man tenously trying to keep a house from collapsing. Bassist Andy Hummel chips in the delightful "Way Out West" which boasts a great chorus - as do, well, most Big Star songs. Chilton's never played better guitar than here, which often sounds like Dave Davies' six-string trying to emulate Roger McGuinn's twelve string, especially on the ringing break that propels "September Gurls", a pinaccle of jangly pop perfection that anyone who has ever heard can never forget. And the chorus of "Back Of A Car", which gloriously strains Chilton's high range to its limit, is also unforgettable. Easily one of the top ten or twenty greatest albums in rock, it actually manages to reach the level Big Star's beloved forebears the Beatles - this is as sonically intriguing and possesses songs as great as Revolver.

P.S. Both #1 Record and Radio City have been reissued on one CD. The early '90s reissue undoubtedly sparked the current revival of this band's reputation, which in turn undoubtedly revived the band in a literal sense when Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens teamed up with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies to put on several concerts as the reunited Big Star. When asked why he reformed the band, Alex Chilton bluntly said, "For the money", which I don't mind because it's a)honest, and b)it's about damn time he actually made some money from this, instead of some alterna-crap Sassy cute band ripping off his music.

3rd/Sisterlovers (recorded 1974; released 1978; reissued 1992) ****

Some swear by this as Big Star's dark masterpiece, but I have reservations, and it's certainly not the place to begin for the uninitiated. Completely bottomed out with drugs and alcohol, Chilton makes music that sounds and feels numb, with little of the energy or flash of prime Big Star. Which means that he's not repeating himself and makes this a 3 A.M. classic, for those times when you feel numb and depressed. The hooks are blunted and the melodies are oblique, which doesn't mean they aren't there. Frustrated by lack of commercial success, Chilton apparently thought, "Fuck it", and tries to sabatoge the pop potential of many of these tunes, particularly the warped basketball percussion on "Downs", and the odd mix all around. Frankly, this approach sucks the life out of "You Can't Have Me" and several others, and the Velvet Underground cover is unneccessary. But it's also fascinating and a handful of numbers poke through with the pop gleam of classic power pop, particularly "Oh Dana", which is wonderfully compressed, and "Thank You Friends", a warm gesture that's one of my favorite Big Star songs. "Holocaust" sinks lower into depression than any pre-Joy Division, complete with chilling cello. Jody Stephen's "For You" is an antidote to Chilton's morbid tendencies, a string-driven faux-Brit fawning love song. The reissue adds some good covers, of which the Kinks' "Till The End Of The Day" provides an uncharacteristically loud and exciting note to a low-key album.

Chris Bell: I am the Cosmos (1992) ***1/2

After parting ways with the band he started, Bell spent the rest of '70s writing songs for a solo album that was never released due to his untimely death in a car crash in 1978. In his lifetime, Bell only released one single, "I am the Cosmos," that leads off this collection of songs Bell recorded before his death, most of which were intended for his first album. While that means that this isn't the most cohesive set of songs, all of the performances are well polished and finished - no rough demoes here. The only real sign of haste is that several of the ballads share too-similar melodies, and a few lyrics carry over from song to song. Like Chilton, Bell was a troubled soul, and the pain of his life pours over all of these songs, but the effect is stoicly transcendent rather than wallowing (such as parts of Sisterlovers). Of these lugubrious folk-pop songs, the "I am the Cosmos," single and "You and Your Sister," are the strongest; when Bell moans, "Never want to be alone," on the former, it's as heartbreaking a delivery of the common sentiment as any in pop. There are a handful of exploding rockers ("Make a Scene," "I Don't Know") but mostly Bell's mood focuses on sad and contemplative balladry. His religious side infuses several songs, the best of which, "Better Save Yourself," contains the lines, "You should have put your trust in Jesus/It couldn't do you no harm," that even atheists should find stirring. The tone is too stately and lugubrious for this album to come close to being as exciting as Big Star - hey, it's slow and folky, after all - but at its best this is true soul music. A fine companion piece to the three Big Star albums.

Alex Chilton: 19 Years (1990) ***

Alex Chilton spent a decade or so in alcoholic dissapation, ocassionally releasing crap records until he rehabilited himself in the mid '80s and began pursuing his career in earnest again. This covers his post-Big Star era, during which he released music that came nowhere near the heights he reached in Big Star, and a good deal of which is flat-out embarassing. Abandoning power-pop for sloppy, drunken, sub-bluesy, garage noise may or may not sound good on paper, but believe me it's a mess on record. The American underground's Syd Barrett barely holds it together on "Bangkok", cracking up in the middle and seeming to lose all sense of structure. This compilation is redeemed by the pre-Big Star country-pop "I'm Free Again", a cover of the Seeds' "Can't Seem To Make You Mine", and some of his got-my-shit-together '80s stuff like the anti-AIDS "No Sex" ("c'mon baby, fuck me and die"). His solo career may be of interest to you, but most people will be severely disappointed with it compared to the majesty of Big Star.

Reader Comments

Edd Hurt,

Nice reviews there, might wanna be aware that it's Jody Stephens singing "Way Out West" and the first song on "Radio City" is "O My Soul". Those first two records are great, if, at this point in my life at least, a little overrated. I mean I think Moby Grape was better at that kind of music. But the third album is unlike anything anybody else had done up to that point and for that I would rate it as the most interesting of the three. There were lots of groups doing what "Radio City" did, perhaps not as well, but certainly the Raspberries, Blue Ash, etc., were in the same vein. In some ways Big Star is more like Badfinger than anything else, and Jody Stephens for one would freely admit that.

Great studio albums cut in that unique Memphis atmosphere of conservative experimentation, and Chilton's guitar playing really is a cubist mix of Dave Davies and McGuinn.

But I admire "Like Flies on Sherbert" immensely; whatever else you can say, it's the real sound of people playing music as opposed to people having some perhaps over-aestheticized idea of what music should be--the Memphis ethos once again. I don't think too many folks are loose, or crazy, enough to understand Memphis and its peculiar relationship to the rest of the world. But I suppose these records, and the later efforts of Chilton and others, are a place to start.

Gustavo Rodriguez,

Radio City? Five stars? I own a copy of the damn thing and I barely play it. I tried but I couldn't buy into the hipster hype that surrounds Alex Chilton and company. This album, #1 Record, and "Sister Lovers" are OK but not worthy of the legendary status they've been accorded. I like the IDEA of the band more than the band itself.

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