Big Star – #1 Record / Radio City

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Obviously, having both developed a love for power pop (one of my favorite genres) and been an avid reader of rock journalism, I came across Big Star’s name repeatedly before I finally went out and purchased this admittedly unwieldy reissue, which combines their first two albums. Was I blown away? No. Do I like it? Sure. Why don’t I like it more? Probably the vocals – I particularly don’t care for Chris Bell’s vocals, and this is not pure power pop anyway, with some blues, straight-up rock, and even funk mixed in. The reissue offers a couple of essays but not a lot of information on the actual recording of the albums, or even the lyrics. The story of Big Star is a largely tragic one. Released on the Ardent label, #1 Record relied on Stax’s shitty distribution, so while it received good reviews, no one could find it and it sold under 10,000 copies on initial release. Bell and Alex Chilton feuded, Bell quit, and the new trio didn’t survive long. But after a well-received gig at a convention, they (still minus Bell) decided to give it another shot and recorded Radio City (Bell’s involvement ranging from none to a little). This time, Stax had its own deal with Columbia, but those labels had a falling out, so again, the Big Star album did not get distributed – it sold roughly 20,000 copies. Bell died in a car crash in 1978. With help from the Posies, the band returned to the public eye in 1993. Chilton – whose career began as the teenage throat of the Box Tops (“The Letter” (sung when he was 16), “I Met Her in Church,” ”Cry Like a Baby”), and who was immortalized by the Replacements in “Alex Chilton” – died in 2010.

What I Think of This Album

#1 Record

This is a good album, though I don’t play it much. I’d say half of it ranges from good to excellent, and the other half is forgettable.

Things kick off with “Feel,” on which Bell sings lead; the Stax horns and tinkling piano are pretty great, and the harmonies are nice, but I find Bell’s vocals (similar to when McCartney tries to rock out) to be uninspiring. The first standout is “Ballad of El Goodo,” which is surprisingly earnest and vaguely religious, packed with sweet harmonies, while panoramic tom rolls direct your attention to Chilton’s straightforward life-affirming entreaty. This has a very John Lennon feel to it. There is no denying “In the Street” – it’s hard not to like this teenage anthem, the perfect soundtrack to aimless suburban driving and coming-of-age boredom; again, I don’t love Bell’s straining lead vocals, but the guitars, harmonies, and cowbell are fantastic. The third crag on this early peak is “Thirteen,” another classic teenage track, with Chilton’s straightforward lyrics acting as the amber encapsulating young love. You will never convince me that the Clash did not steal from this (“If it’s so, well let me know / If it’s no, well I can go”) for “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

As far as I am concerned, “Don’t Lie to Me” is basically a throwaway, with a beefy, conventional guitar track and quasi-macho lyrics sung in a decidedly blues-rock style. That said, the freakout in the middle of the song is pretty cool.  Much more unconventional is “The India Song,” which is a harbinger of a second half of the album that is much quieter than the first. Orchestral pop from Memphis in 1972? Yes. The arrangement here is the draw (those woodwinds!), as the melody is pretty slight; the multi-tracked vocals sound nice. I have little use for “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” with a chorus that is content to remain in first gear, as well as an underdeveloped melody in the verse. “My Life is Right” starts out sounding like a cousin of “El Goodo,” but a quick left turn finds the band picking up steam for the chorus before returning to the ballad-like tempo and vocal of the verse; repetitive but fun and well-constructed, with excellent vocals and another positive message. Credit where credit is due: this is probably Bell’s best vocal on the album, and the drumming is good.

Another very Beatles-sounding number (but with Beach Boys harmonies), “Give Me Another Chance” relies on strummed acoustic guitar and piano; Chilton does a nice job with this one. Some great guitar work opens “Try Again,” with Bell sounding quietly desperate over a relatively spare but expansive backing; probably the best of the side two tracks. Another mostly acoustic song, “Watch the Sunrise,” doesn’t really go anywhere – the backing vocals are the only thing special here. As for “St 100/6,” let me say that I don’t even know how to pronounce this title, but by the time I’ve taken a stab at it, the song is over. The cover art is fantastic – simple, direct, and colorful, it does everything it needs to. It was designed by Carol Manning.

By the way, Big Star was named after a Memphis grocery store chain.

Radio City

Radio City (which is an excellent title) is mostly a Chilton vehicle, with even the Big Star rhythm section absent on some tracks. It’s rougher than the debut (and missing the second guitar; I also think the drums are mixed too loud) but I can’t say I feel strongly about one album over the other.

The surprising first track is “O My Soul,” a lengthy, funky, self-referential slab of chunky riffing and organ chords. I guess this is what rock from Memphis would sound like in 1974; I find Chilton’s vocals to be pretty annoying here, though the drumming is enjoyable. The deliberate and desperate “Life in White” is characterized by sustained harmonica chords washing across its surface; the vocal and melody are things Matthew Sweet copied about a million times in his career. One of the best songs on the album is “Way Out West,” written by bassist Andy Hummell. This sweet bite of jangle pop is underrated and overlooked amongst Bell and Chilton’s work.

Chilton retakes the mantle with “What’s Going Ahn,” and specifically his haunting, overlapping “oh no”s towards the end. Things threaten to fall apart on “You Get What You Deserve,” a glorious stew of battering drum rolls, a spiky guitar lead that shows up out of nowhere, harmonies galore, arpeggios everywhere, and a sinister lyric you can’t get out of our head. “Mod Lang” sounds like Faces fronted by Mick Jagger, basically; loose and ragged and gritty, and sort of a throwaway. “Back of a Car” is another of the band’s teenage songs. I think the drums here (as on every other track, dominating the mix) to be too busy for the pace and sound, and it’s incredibly distracting. Beyond that, there’s not much of a melody to work with.

The schizophrenic “Daisy Girl” morphs dramatically from its somber, plodding beginning, and if you can stick it out for about 1:50, you will hear the origins of Teenage Fanclub. “She’s a Mover” is more bluesy rock that I can do without. By leaps and bounds, the best things Big Star ever recorded, “September Gurls” boasts a wonderful melody, chiming guitars, a fantastic vocal, and excellent lyrics. Again, Teenage Fanclub owes their career to this sound. “Morpha Too” sounds like Abbey Road Beatles if they were all in the middle of acute opioid withdrawal. “I’m In Love With a Girl” is as the title intimates, a simple, acoustic love song. Both of these very short songs seem like afterthoughts. The cover, a disturbing splash from photographer William Eggleston, is excellent, and I love the font.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Thirteen” is bigly stellar. And as for “September Girls,” well, I’ve got it bad.

Release Date

1972 (#1 Record), 1974 (Radio City), and 1992 (reissue)

The Cover Art

You’ve got to hand it to Ardent/Stax. Two decades after fucking up Big Star’s career, they have learned exactly zero lessons. I don’t know how you compile two albums, each with outstanding cover art, and release it with this abomination on the front. It’s lazy, messy, confusing, and ugly.

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