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

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Big Star was a seminal power-pop band of the 70s. They achieved little commercial success but have been elevated to a legendary position over time.  They massively influenced bands such as Matthew Sweet, R.E.M, The Posies, and Teenage Fanclub.  Elliott Smith and Son Volt covered their songs.  Sadly, Big Star is probably best known now as the band that wrote That 70s Show theme.

I think the reason their music is so timeless is that they were able to perfectly capture what it is like to be a teenager. That combination of feeling like anything is possible while at the same time being a slave to emotions, Big Star’s songs capture that feeling better than anyone else’s.

Their sound was relatively simple. Jangly guitars and clear delicate vocals play over straightforward rock drum and bass lines.  Their harder tunes were bluesy, but there are no guitar-wanking solos. Their sound was very influenced by from 60s bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys but it was clearly a product of the 70s.

The two albums released here are classics. To choose highlights from them are nearly impossible; the whole playlist is so strong.  Still if forced to choose “The Ballad of El Goodo”, “Thirteen”, and “In the Street” from their first album, #1 Record, are the most timeless.  On their second, Radio City, the best cuts are “September Gurls” and “I’m in Love With a Girl”. They tell complete stories of life, and the songs’ emotions really come across.

The two main songwriters of Big Star were Chris Bell and Alex Chilton. Chris Bell left the band between #1 Record and Radio City for a variety of reasons.  While the song quality did not diminish, there is a noticeable difference in the sound.  The songs on #1 Record were more poetic and otherworldly, and at times more delicate.  Radio City feels more direct and honest.  Which sound is better is really a matter of personal preference.

These two albums were also reissued in one package a few years ago.  This reissue is nearly identical. The liner notes are exactly the same and the there are only two new tracks. The two new tracks are only remixes. The remix from #1 Record is “In the Street” and the remix from Radio City is “O My Soul”.  They sound like remixes of the same instrument tracks, it does not even sound like a different take was used.  They are unessential to Big Star fans.  There has to be some more interesting material lying around that would be more illuminating than these remixes.  

If you have never bought these two albums and are a power-pop fan than this is a perfect package for you.  These albums are absolute essentials. Big Star fans invariably own all of these songs already and have little to no incentive to re-buy.

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About Mark Kalriess