Big Star – Radio City Ardent ADS-1501 (1974)
Going full-throttle, Big Star surpassed their debut with this set of charming little rockers. At times, their power pop approaches the audacity of glam rock. A haggard earthiness keeps Big Star from the heavy pretensions though. Haphazard arrangements and gritty performances do make it constantly thrilling.
Big Star was one of commercial music’s biggest mistakes of the 70s. A mistake because virtually no one took notice of the great music they produced from a tiny subsidiary of Stax Records in Memphis. They seem an unlikely group to have affiliations with legendary soul label Stax, but Memphis always has been the most eclectic musical center in the world.
At the center of it all was former Box Top Alex Chilton. His vocals with The Box Tops always involved grand, gravelly histrionics but there wasn’t always substance. Co-leader Chris Bell departed Big Star, co-writing some of the tracks here but relinquishing credit on the final product. Chilton steps up. He leads the band forward. Cool posturing takes a back seat to honesty. The rich harmonies and hopeful attitude of their debut album take a back seat to subtly darker themes. Good-natured pop remains in the drivers seat.
Rather than overpowering the simple tunes with precise arrangements and tight harmonies, the band focuses on their true strengths. They can really rock. Manipulating things in the studio, everything sounds perfect on the record. Radio City sounds personal — a kind of work that pleases its makers first and listeners second. Fame wouldn’t have made Big Star any better. It could only have torn apart their world.
“September Gurls” was posthumously one of the biggest songs ever to hit college radio. Radio City goes much deeper. “Back of A Car” is easily an equal of “September Gurls” with its rich harmonies and sweet hooks. “O My Soul” rocks pretty hard (not to be confused with Little Richard’s “Ooh! My Soul,” as Chilton often named his songs something familiar).
This record isn’t profound for sounding fresh. Radio City sounds more like a record you already love, something great you just can’t put your finger on. Big Star at their best just let it all hang out. No gimmicks. They made good music you shouldn’t be afraid to like.
Big Star – #1 Record Ardent ADS-2803 (1972)
Big Star’s debut, distributed by Stax no less, was a watershed event for pop music. This would be a little hard to guess at the time since it only sold maybe 4,000 copies on release.
Disillusioned with phony hit makers The Box Tops, Alex Chilton joined up with Chris Bell (and the group Icewater) to form Big Star. Memphis was certainly known for blending musical styles, but Big star was different. Call it power pop or whatever, it was “experimental” pop music. The group took big catchy melodies and combined them with smooth harmonies. This was not unusual, as British Invasion groups showed a few years before. The difference was the amount of “pop” they could cram into a song. They also used a personal and honest approach. These songs portray everyday life with a complexity and compassion not found elsewhere.
Though Alex Chilton was the big name (simply for coming from The Box Tops) that attracted the most attention, Chris Bell is perhaps the biggest force on #1 Record. Only briefly do the songs touch on the dark insecurities that Chilton later brought out. When they do, it is more of a recollection of times passed. Here, Bell conveys hope and perseverance. “My Life Is Right” shows satisfaction. “Watch the Sunrise” is triumphant in telling of the future success. Bell brings in some religion on the brilliant “the Ballad of El Goodo” and more explicitly on “Try Again.” Again, the beauty lies in the complexity of the emotions. “Thirteen” is about innocent teenage romance but it speaks only of timeless hopes that still remain.
The emphasis on acoustic guitars and smooth vocals is unique to the group’s debut. There is an “indie rock” kind of feel. It’s natural. #1 Record also has enough personal recollection and noble aspirations to make the material meaningful. Big Star had a vision of the world that is easy to accept. It is real, honest, and fun.
#1 Record was the last effort to really include Chris Bell. After the record’s commercial failure, the group split up. They did reform (actually multiple times), but Alex Chilton took control of the band. Bell turned suicidal and largely due to artistic differences did not take any credit for some contributions to the group’s second album. Big Star consistently released brilliant material but met stiff commercial opposition. Such a situation (think Vincent Van Gogh) is hard to take. Bell spiraled out of control, and died in a car wreck a few years later (recording just one solo album, posthumously released over a decade after his death). Alex Chilton alternated between heavy drinking and a solo career. But Big Star, especially on #1 Record, always sounded right.
Stax may have been failing, but groups like Big Star and Black Nasty proved there was great music still to be made — even if only on the fringes.