Big Star

TrackAlbum
The Ballad Of El Goodo#1 Record
Thirteen#1 Record
O My SoulRadio City
What's Going AhnRadio City
Back Of A CarRadio City
September GurlsRadio City
Thank You FriendsThird/Sister Lovers
KangarooThird/Sister Lovers
NightimeThird/Sister Lovers
Take CareThird/Sister Lovers

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Contributor: Keith Shackleton

I first listened to Big Star in the early 90s, when the two-for-one Big Beat CD comprising their first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, was released. I’d heard them name-checked in articles on bands of that era, either by the music writer or the bands themselves: The Posies, Gigolo Aunts, Teenage Fanclub and more. This was the second coming of Big Star … first time around, things hadn’t gone well at all.

Critics who heard #1 Record on its release in 1972 were hooked. Big Star’s blend of The Byrds, The Beach Boys and The Beatles was met by extremely enthusiastic reviews. Unfortunately if you’d read those reviews, liked what you heard and wanted to buy a copy, you were out of luck. A six month delay following recording, and appalling distribution difficulties, meant only around 4,000 copies were sold.

Alex Chilton (a big star in his own right with an international chart topper, The Box Tops blue-eyed soul classic, The Letter, under his belt), Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens, played a mere half dozen shows together as Big Star, until the debut album fiasco, internal strife, drinking and an incident where the band were arrested all took their toll. The fragile Bell quit.

Similar record company problems affected their 1974 sophomore set, Radio City. It’s a stronger record than the debut, and again the reviewers loved it, but the all-important distribution failed once again; it racked up better but still very disappointing sales of 20,000 or so, and the unravelling of the band continued.

Andy Hummel quit to go back to college, tired of being broke. Chilton had an all-or-nothing final stab at glory, taking a set of demos and Stephens into the studio with producer Jim Dickinson to record the extraordinary third album, alternately titled Sister Lovers. In the fog produced by downers and alcohol, and an emotionally disturbing environment, Dickinson captured everything that Chilton poured on to tape. Third is an appalling, but compelling, head-on car crash of an album. By the time it was released in 1978, Big Star had completely fallen apart. The band had appeared on stage maybe 30 times.

The resurrection of Big Star began in the mid 80s: crusaders like REM’s Peter Buck raised the band’s profile. Rykodisc reissued the original albums and some ‘new’ material: a Chris Bell solo compilation including the fantastic I Am The Cosmos, and a Big Star live album from 1974 featuring Hummel’s replacement on bass, John Lightman. Stephens popped up occasionally and Chilton continued to record the occasional erratic flash of genius amidst a lot of, shall we say, variable quality material, until Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies enter the Big Star story.

This was the last chapter of the band: The Posies-augmented In Space album surfaced in 2005, Rhino issued the Keep An Eye On The Sky box set in 2009, but the final page was written with the deaths of Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton in 2010, Stephens now the sole surviving founder member. A film biography, Nothing Can Hurt Me, complete with soundtrack album, was released earlier this year.

To my songs, all ‘original’ Big Star:

From #1 Record: The Ballad Of El Goodo which is autobiographical Alex Chilton and a fine song: the backing vocal harmony, the quiet/loud dynamic and the melody are all highlights. Just one more from this album (and it was a big wrench to leave out In The Street, covered by Cheap Trick and used as the theme for That 70s Show), the gentle ballad Thirteen. Chilton looks back to a time when the pressures of life for him didn’t go much further than wanting to take a girl to the dance or meet her by the pool, the first fumbling steps of a relationship under the stern gaze of watchful parents.

Radio City opens powerfully with O My Soul, Big Star’s best out-and-out rock tune with Stephens’ terrific drumming to the fore – very Bonham-esque, I think – and some great riffing backed by thick slabs of organ. The lyric “I can’t get a license, for driving my car, but I don’t really need it, if I’m a big star” tips a cap to the absurdity of the debut album failure and the band’s name.

What’s Going Ahn is a beautiful but melancholy tale of reaching out for love, and something else too, the growing realisation of how life is, “starting to understand, what’s going on and how it’s planned”. The picked acoustic intro fools you a little … pretty soon the drums, a touch of electric piano and Hummel’s bass come in and sound huge. This is a full, deep, sad song but it’s perfectly pitched, not overblown.

Back Of A Car is another adolescent anthem, trying to make out in (surprise!) the back of a car, listening to loud music, wondering what to say next. It’s a teenage theme as warm and comforting to rock music fans as a pair of old slippers. Finally from this album, September Gurls, a perfect power-pop song. How could it not have been a hit? Maybe you heard it first, like me, on Different Light, the 1986 international hit by The Bangles.

Let’s dip deep into the chaos of the third album … the rest of my selection comes from it.

Probably the best-structured song on Third, with swooping gospel backing vocals, Thank You Friends[1] reads at first glance as a grateful acknowledgement from Chilton of everyone who assisted him along the way – “wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you, I’m so grateful for all the things you helped me do” – but listen closely. “All the ladies and gentlemen who made this all so probable” Wait … probable? Listen to the song again, and Chilton’s delivery, he’s not being nice here, it’s barely disguised sarcasm.[2]

And now we go and wallow in the mire. The ghastly love song Kangaroo is the centrepiece of Third, spewed onto tape late at night by Chilton, who then challenged Dickinson to do something with it. Seasick guitar feedback and Mellotron augment the disoriented Chilton’s woozy crooning. Truly twisted rock and roll.[3]

In the haunting Nightime, Chilton is on the town in Memphis, just like he always used to, it’s his stomping ground, it still feels familiar, and yet … the state he’s in these days, he knows he’s an outsider, he’s asked too many favours from people, he’s too incoherent to cope. “Get me out of here,” he wails, “I hate it here, get me out of here.” The dreamtime arrangement of the song, with discreet bowed strings and slide guitar, accentuates his dislocation.

And we close[4] with Take Care. Strings, desultory drumming and glacial guitar barely hang together. Chilton signs off with some words of advice, but his halting delivery at first says to me, “Who am I to offer you advice? Look what I’m doing to myself, look what I’ve done, I’m no role model.”. He barely cares what he’s saying, but drags himself through it, and then suddenly the perspective shifts: “This sounds a bit like goodbye, in a way it is, I guess, as I leave your side … I’ve taken the air.”. It’s completely chilling: this is not merely signing off an album, ending a band, or terminating a career … all hope, all of it, is lost.

Phew.

I whizzed through that potted history, but the full story is well told in Rob Jovanovic’s biography. If I could recommend a little more essential listening, I would point you at the final disc of the Keep An Eye On The Sky box set and live tracks recorded in 1973, when Big Star were, rather inappropriately, opening for R&B vocal group Archie Bell & The Drells. There’s great playing and singing from the band, comparable to the Rykodisc live album, but the audience’s apathy for Big Star is palpable, which in a way seems appropriate: their early career in microcosm.

*

[1] Check out the “doot doooo” backing vocals on the Gigolo Aunts’ song Mrs. Washington – tell me that ain’t Big Star.

[2] Echoes here in R.E.M.’s The One I Love, popular as a wedding song the world over but only amongst people who never listen to lyrics. The ode to the one I love is a “simple prop to occupy my time” – how Chiltonian.

[3] It was either this or the damaged nihilistic commentary on a close friend, Holocaust, for my ten, but in the end I couldn’t have them both. Let’s try to keep our spirits up, if only a fraction.

[4] As did the original album, but not the Rykodisc CD re-release, with which most people will be familiar.

Big Star discussion board

Big Star biography (iTunes)

The Riverboat Captain – Keith Shackleton’s website

An Alex Chilton solo toppermost if you please ladies & gentlemen … ditto The Box Tops

TopperPost #136

1 Comment

  1. thecyclista
    Dec 20, 2013

    My Big Star top ten. It was hard to limit this to just ten, but here’s what I came up with: 1.My Life Is Right 2.Take Care 3.The Ballad of El Goodo 4.Daisy Glaze 5.Thank You Friends 6.Watch the Sunrise 7.Thirteen 8.When My Baby’s Beside Me 9.Kangaroo 10.Back of a Car.

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