Big Star - #1 Record and Radio City (Third/Sister Lovers to come)


Ott 26 2008, 4:49

I think it's about time I wrote about Big Star, really.

The story is simple and sad, though I don't know it in that much detail. Basically they started with Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens. Chilton and Bell were lead singers and guitarists and the principal songwriters, having arranged a Lennon/McCartney type crediting system between them. Andy Hummel played bass and wrote a couple of songs, Jody Stephens the drummer didn't get his own song until their third album. If you can call it that.

See, they are awesome. Truly amazingly awesome. But in their time (early to mid seventies) they had next to no success and fell apart piece by piece. Listening back to #1 Record, as I am now, I'm staggered all over again that they weren't huge. I defy anyone to listen to The Ballad Of El Goodo and not be blown away.

I was going to go through all the albums, but I've written about two and I'm just about spent, so the grand finale will come somewhat later. I'll just do their two albums (which, incidentally, come very cheaply on one CD. I got it for twenty dollars, and I'd have willingly paid triple that) which were properly released and official-like.

First is, fittingly, #1 Record. Funnily enough, this is my least favourite of the three. Only because the next two are superbrilliantlyexcellent. This album is the only one where Chris Bell was officially in the band, and I think it's his influence that makes #1 Record so much sweeter and more innocent than those following it. I have been meaning for a while to listen to his solo album I Am the Cosmos but keep forgetting.

Highlights from this album are Thirteen, a glimmeringly, waveringly vulnerable song sung by Chilton and later brought to the people by Elliott Smith, another person on my to-listen list. Just so you know, in my opinion, his version of Thirteen doesn't even come close to the original, but then how could anything. The Ballad Of El Goodo I have already mentioned and is also a Chiltonsong. I want to post lyrics here but I'm struggling not to just post the whole song. Here is the beginning:

Years ago, my heart was set to live, oh
And I've been trying hard against unbelievable odds
It gets so hard in times like now to hold on
But guns they wait to be stuck by, and at my side is God
And there ain't no one goin' to turn me 'round
Ain't no one goin' to turn me 'round

I find the idea of guns waiting to be stuck by quite empowering. It's an empowering-type song. Now if only I could find out what the hell the title meant.

Also excellent on this album are Don't Lie To Me, a fierce and lyrically uncomplicated track that always makes me think of John Lennon for some reason, happy-happy handclappy When My Baby's Beside Me, and Watch The Sunrise, with an acoustic guitar intro to die for.

The weaknesses in this album are only weaknesses in my perception, but that's enough to make it less than the others. The sequence late in the album of Give Me Another Chance and Try Again can get boring. Listening to the songs on their own, sure, they are really good. But they're slow, and soulful and what comes before on the album breaks me out of the mood where those songs are what I want, so as a result the end of the album tends to drag for me. The other blip is The India Song, the one song written and sung by bassist Andy Hummel. It's a nice song, very peaceful and pretty, but doesn't really gel with the rest of the album.

Overall the strengths of this album are the glimmering guitars and the high, sweet vocals. Also, the album cover looks like this:

Apparently Big Star was a supermarket chain or something in America. Maybe it still is. Anyway, it's a great name for a band. And #1 Record is the best name ever for a debut record. Because it's their first record. So it's #1. But it also suggests it's their best record. Which just isn't true.

Radio City is.

I've read about the place that Alex Chilton isn't very fond of this album. At all. I like to think I'm a better judge of his music than he is, because this is one of my favourite records of all time.

It kicks off with O My Soul, a song which I loved to begin with but now may actually be my least favourite on there. Probably because it goes for 5:40 and I want the rest of the album to hurry up. Because it's that great.

This album is the album where Chris Bell is all but gone, their really good first album has gone nowhere and Alex Chilton takes the reins. It's got edge, both in the music and in the lyrics, and Jody Stephens really takes off and makes himself one of my favourite drummers. Though some drums were also done by Richard Rosebrough, and I'm not entirely sure which. Anyway, nothing I can say can properly convey just how good this album is.

The new attitude in Radio City is exemplified by the opening lines of the second track, Life Is White:

Don't like to see your face
Don't like to hear you talk at all

Together with the love-it-or-hate-it blaring harmonica, this song is made of attitude.

Way Out West, Andy Hummel's song (though he does contribute to the songwriting of four others on the album) is glorious. It's one of those songs which I love but have no idea why. I think it's something to do with the harmony, and the one extra voice on the word "west" in the chorus.

What's Going Ahn, with its inexplicable misspelling is a throwback to the old style, with acoustic guitar, ethereal harmonies and introspective lyrics.

Alex Chilton showed he didn't have only one vocal style on Mod Lang. Also there is cowbell. Chilton yelps and snarls his way through this song, where all the lyrics were lifted from blues songs thus:

I can't be satisfied
what you want me to do
and so I moan
had to leave my home.
Love my girl oooh yeh
she got to save my soul
I want a witness I want to testify.

How long can this go on ?
All night long I was howling
I was a barking dog
aaaoow aaaoow.

This was cowritten by Chilton and Rosebrough, so I guess it's safe to assume that the drums on here are Rosebroughs.

Chris Bell, although uncredited, is widely known to have contributed to at least O My Soul and Back Of A Car. Similarly, some of the songs from his next album were songs originally from Big Star. Back of a Car has a pretty distinct Bell footprint on it. From what I can work out, it's about a younger man in the car of an older woman, trying to decide if he should "fall and lie" with her. It's endearingly innocent and genuine, but musically it fits right in with the rest of Radio City, with sharp drumming and a heavier sound than #1 Record.

Daisy Glaze starts off slow and calm, with slurred, almost indistinct lyrics. He's sad about his girl. Then the drums go bang ... bang ... bang, and he's on the rebound, loud and clear.

Now I'm in a bar
That's got to be where they are
Gonna dance in the bar

And it has the most concise statement of despair I've come across in a song, where it calms down a little and he just sings:

And I'm thinking, Christ
Nullify my life

It's powerful, it's painful and it sounds damn good. This is Stephens' sole songwriting credit (the song is Chilton/Hummel/Stephens)

I'm leaving tracks out here, because I'm listening as I write and I don't want to get too far behind. A song I can't avoid mentioning is September Gurls, their most famous song. It's not really one of my favourites, but it is nice.

Then the album closes with two songs, short and sweet. The first, Morpha Too came as a big surprise. Gone are the guitars, and the sole instrument is piano. For the first time that I ever noticed. Here Chilton reaches for the very top of his range in segmented and abstract lyrics that I don't really notice. It's just plaintive, simple, and one and a half minutes long.

The next song beats that length by all of 15 seconds. I'm In Love With A Girl (Why not Gurl? Who knows) is Chilton and his acoustic guitar, in a complete turnaround in attitude.

I'm in love with a girl
Finest girl in the world
I didn't know I could feel this way.

Think about her all the time
Always on my mind
I didn't know about love.

All that a man should do is try
All that a man should do is try

I'm in love with a girl
Finest girl in the world
I didn't know this could happen to me.

Which, if you ask me, is the most excellent and contradictory way to end an album full of desperation, anger and scorn since just about forever.


  • teleburst

    The Ballad of El Goodo was a reaction to Alex becoming eligible for the draft during the Vietnam War. I'm not sure about this part, but I think he actually had to report to the draft office and it triggered this song. The song is clearly an endorsement of dodging the draft and a protest of the Vietnam War.I guess you could take the title as an innocent having to be confronted with war, although that's just a guess. The telling line is "They zip you up and stand you down/And put you in a row/but you don't have to/You could just say no". RIP Alex.

    Mar 19 2010, 4:00
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