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Music Review: Big Star – #1 Record/Radio City

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Written by General Jabbo

Big Star is one of those bands whose massive influence never translated into massive success. Bands such as R.E.M. and the Replacements worshipped the ground these guys walked on, yet many music fans have never heard of them. The re-release of the band’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City on one CD aims to change that.

Singer/guitarist Alex Chilton cut his teeth as the singer of the Box Tops, who hit number one with “The Letter” in 1967. Frustrated at just being the mouthpiece (the band didn’t write their own material), Chilton quit and headed to New York before returning to his native Memphis. At the same time, his friend of many years, Chris Bell, had formed a trio with fellow future Big Star members Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens called Ice Water. After Chilton’s failure in New York, he was persuaded to join Ice Water, who quickly renamed themselves Big Star after a local grocery store chain.

While Memphis was known for blues, soul, and R&B, and much of the rest of the rock world featured much heavier tunes, Big Star’s sound was firmly rooted in 1960s pop. Bell’s love for the Beatles inspired the Bell/Chilton writing credit on every song ala Lennon/McCartney and the band sounded like mid-period Beatles meet the Byrds with a little of the Kinks for good measure. Not many bands sounded like this in 1972 or even wanted to, and that may have hurt Big Star at the time, but they were very good at what they did.

Their debut mixed Bell rockers such as “Feel,” with its Robert Plant-like vocals, the urgent ‘Don’t Lie To Me” and “In The Street” (known more recently from the fine Cheap Trick cover used on “That 70s Show”) with the more wistful Chilton numbers, including the George Harrison-sounding “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen,” a look back at Chilton and Bell’s childhood. It’s a well-crafted, layered piece of pop perfection, with perhaps the only misstep being Hummel’s “The India Song.”

The good times wouldn’t last, however. Bell was battling depression and drug dependency and the poor sales of #1 Record didn’t help this any. He quit the band during the sessions for Radio City and while it is reported he worked on a few songs (“O My Soul” and “Back of a Car”) he is not credited on the disc.

That’s a shame as Radio City more than lives up to its predecessor. Chilton, now firmly in control, plays and sings as if his career depended on it and the tension of a band falling apart is noticeable. The song “September Gurls “ alone makes Radio City essential, as it is one of the all-time great power pop songs with its memorable chorus and chiming guitars. Sadly, Hummel left after Radio City, and Bell died a few years later in a car accident; his rock dreams never fully realized.

The CD is nearly a straight reissue of the previous two-fer, including liner notes from 1986 and 1992, but does include the single mixes of “In the Street” and “O My Soul.” With a Big Star box set in the works, one can speculate that the record label is holding off on bonus tracks for that reason. Still, if you are to own any Big Star, this is the disc to own. Chilton trots out a new version of Big Star every now and then, but it is the songs on #1 Record/Radio City that have cemented he and Bell’s legend forever.

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  • http://www.confessionsofafanboy.com Josh Hathaway

    Elliott Smith and Garbage both did covers of “Thirteen.” I’m familiar with Big Star by name but not music. I might have to plunk down for this one and check them out.

  • http://generaljabbo.blogspot.com General Jabbo

    If you like power pop, you will love this.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    “I never travel far, without a little Big Star” — now I’ll have September Gurls running through my head for an eternity. Great write-up.