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Music Review: Big Star – ‘#1 Record,’ ‘Radio City’ [2014 Reissues]

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What can be said about Big Star’s #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1973) that hasn’t been discussed before, time and time again? After all, Rolling Stone placed both releases on their 500 “Greatest Albums of All Time” list. Two songs from the albums, “Thirteen” and “September Gurls,” the latter famously covered by The Bangles, are also among the magazine’s 500 “Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Big Star 1 RecordThe irony, of course, is that it took a very long time for these records to take their place in the rock pantheon. As latter-day Big Star member Jon Auer told me, the principal motor of Big Star, Alex Chilton, used to joke the albums came with a “33 year marketing plan” as it took about that long for the collections to get much popular traction. Along the way, the group still managed to influence a host of fellow artists ranging from R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, The Replacements (who composed the homage “Alex Chilton”), Game Theory, to Wilco. In fact, the new reissues from Stax Records coming September 2 include effusive new liner notes by R.E.M.’s Mike Mills.

Since 2009, #1 Record and Radio City have been available together in one package, but have been out of print as individual CDs in the U.S. Now these seminal records, remastered from the original analog tape sources, will be available separately in standard, “Mastered-for-iTunes,” and 24-bit high-resolution audio. If you only know Big Star from the hits or only know the band by name, now’s the time to experience two albums that belong in every serious rock collection.

In brief, the history of the Memphis band began in 1971 with a lineup of singer-songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens, and bassist Andy Hummel. Chilton had already earned chart success as the lead singer of The Box Tops (of “The Letter” fame). After serving as a significant collaborator on #1 Record, Bell departed after its release and it was Chilton who helmed the follow-up, Radio City. In 1974, after recording yet another critical favorite, Third/Sister Lovers, the group broke up. Twenty years later, Chilton and Stevens came up with a new ensemble bringing on guitarists Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. Then Chilton died in March 2010, leaving Stevens the sole living original member of Big Star.

By many accounts, despite critical praise for the band’s first two albums, notably from both Cashbox and Billboard, it was a lack of support from Stax Records, the distributors of Ardent Records, that diminished any chance the albums could reach a wide audience. It’s worth noting that Ardent Records founder John Fry was the engineer for both records and executive producer of #1 Record. He fully appreciated the quality of the British Invasion-inspired group. But he had no control over why Stax, and then Columbia, didn’t bother to stock #1 Record or Radio City in many stores.

On another level, it’s possible to think of the first Big Star albums as simply being ahead of their time. The early ’70s were filled with the sometimes heady lyrics and melodies of tie-dyed singer-songwriters like Carole King, James Taylor, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on one end of the spectrum. The heavier sounds of Bowie, The Stones, and Led Zeppelin were on the other. While Big Star tracks like “The Ballad of el Goodo” (think George Harrison) could have easily stood alongside songs by these bands, the hook-filled style of what would later be dubbed power pop was a long time coming into popular favor.

In other words, Big Star just wasn’t part of the ’70s zeitgeist. That continued for most of the ’80s as well. For one example, in 1988, Auer and Stringfellow’s band, The Posies, would have seemed a clear musical descendent of Big Star. But Auer told me that it wasn’t until after the release of The Posie’s own debut, Failure (1988), that a manager at the record store he worked at steered him to a copy of one of the Big Star collections. The manager saw obvious parallels between The Posies and Big Star, and they are indeed hard to miss. It’s just one of those rock and roll ironies that two groups who independently drew from the same wells—The Beatles, Byrds, and The Stones—would one day more or less merge into a second generation Big Star.

Big Star Radio CityBy then, power pop—a loose definition if there ever was one—had come into its own as a subgenre of rock and Big Star was rightly hailed for helping pave the way. So it’s primarily, but not exclusively, performers from the ’90s and the first decade of the 21st Century who can point to #1 Record and Radio City as being part of their musical DNA. Of course, it really began in 1963 with The Beatles, Kinks, The Who, etc. whose influence runs through bands like Big Star who, in turn, ended up re-invigorating the rock and roll continuum with distinctive, original, polished, and extremely listenable melodies.

Now, Stax Records (via their affiliation with the Concord Music Group) can make amends for the oversights of 40 years ago and give a new generation the experience of the early Big Star. There’s no reason to think these recordings are mainly historical artifacts in which listeners can hear the seeds of bands that followed. Then and now, the albums stand very well on their own and are only slightly dated due to the analog production that isn’t as sharp and clean as recordings from the digital era. The songs are what Big Star were all about, and the songs have the same punch and pop as they ever did. So if you didn’t pick up the 2009 bundle of the two albums together, it’s time to finally hitch your wagon to Big Star. As history has shown, it’s never too late to rock.

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About Wesley Britton

  • John Fry

    It is flattering to be called the producer of these records, however I consider myself to have been the engineer. I was credited as executive producer on #1 Record, largely at the insistence of Chris Bell who though “engineer” sounded “ordinary”. Jim Dickinson produced Third. These CDs sound much, much better than the previous ones. There are also high res. download files

    • Charlie

      Article corrected – thanks for reading it! -Charlie Doherty (Blogcritics Music Editor)