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Big Star

'Big Star?' '#1 Record?' These guys had balls...

 

Introduction

#1 Record

Radio City

Third/Sister Lovers

 


The Lineup Card (1971-1976)

Alex Chilton (guitars, vocals) also of the Box Tops

Chris Bell (guitars, vocals) until 1974

Andy Hummell (bass)

Jody Stephens (drums)

A whole host of people played bass on Third/Sister Lovers, so I'm not even gonna get involved.

 

Big Star is an alt-rock fan's wet dream. A 70's power pop band led by former Box Top blooze growler Alex Chilton (think 'My Baby She Wrote Me A Letter...', yeah, that guy), making sweet, jangly, zippy Byrds-rock, completely ignored by the bloated (why is it that whenever 70's music is described, they never get past the word 'bloated'? What about 'pretty fucking good in comparison with the recycled toxic waste we have strewn on us now?' Oh, well, see, I've forgotten...none of the Big Bands This Month That Are Cooler Than Thou (The Strokes! The Hives! Coldplay! oh my god, uh...uh...unggghhh....*SPLOOOGE!!!*) existed in the Seventies! So, therefore, Seventies rock is only fertile ground for kitsch, like KC and the sunshine Band and the Village People. It's not to be taken seriously, not outside the confines of punk rock and maybe 4 or 5 other bands, anyway. And Big Star? Well, they just happen to be one of the 'chosen few' amongst the 80's/90's-era alt-clan. The Replacements wrote a song about the storied crackup lead singer. R.E.M. loved the shit outta them. And just about everyone's taken more than a few nibbles of influence from them.

Which is pretty remarkable since Big Star mostly just takes all of its cues from rock circa 1965, pre-Psychedelia, post-Dylan synthesis of the Byrds and the Beatles and probably a zillion other British Invasion bands. Big Star was simply unique in that they were the only group I can think of that was making this kind of music in 1972. Everyone else was off either pursuing heavy, distorted blues to its dead end, or were mellowing out and dressing up in the Denim Waffen SS Uni, smoking Winstons and forgetting to shave and beating wives and such. Singer-songwriters, you know. The slimiest bunch of macho poseurs in the entire history of Rock Music. Big Star was neither of those, and they weren't even particularly weird, either. No Velvet Underground influences (not until the third album, anyway), a knack for sweet harmonies and killer vocal hooks, is all. And for this they get exalted as the Great Lost Rock Band just because no one ever bought their albums. Well...maybe they have a point there. Big Star starts out just fantasically tuneful and poppy, power zip for zippy kiddies, but as time passes and the bands' financial fortunes go south, so does Alex Chilton's mental state. Their final album took two years to finally get made and another three to get released. So maybe there's a good example in Big Star to all the nihilists out there, a grand example of a band crushed under the weight of the Bloated Seventies. Thank God the Eighties were so much more forgiving of alternative rock bands...(*snicker snicker*).


#1 Record - Ardent 1972

This album has no fat on it. Should I have reviewed this together with Radio City? Well it is only available packaged with its follow-up on one CD, and that CD definitely rates an A on the strength of the two albums together, but I figure that, at one time, for about five minutes, these albums were released a year apart from one another, and more than that, I like to think that I've written two reviews when I could've only written one. It help my numbers and, thus, my reviewing ego. See what I did with Minor Threat? I made this whole huge long page full of different reviews out of one measly CD! Heh Heh!

Anyway, if you were to take a jigsaw and cut this CD into two consecutive rings and then place the innermost one on your CD player (not recommended...though it probably would sound pretty cool to slice through a bunch of plastic resin with a saw) you'd find one of the most engagingly tuneful and smart albums of the early half of the 70's. There's so much joyful pleading and heart-wrenchingly gorgeous singing by Alex Chilton (who I would lend the term 'helium-voiced' to here, quite a shock to the system when you realise he growled like a Rottweiler on Quaaludes when he was with the Box Tops when he was, like, in first grade or something). Most of the second half of the album is lent over to this gorgeous folk-rock, which I'm guessing was the specialty of Mr. Bell, because you ain't getting much more of this after this album, his only one with the band. Not that these guys are necessarily bluegrass wizards on acoustic instruments...actually sound quite a bit like slow George Harrison on 'Try Again', complete with lyrics about God and guitar about slide, which is a pretty fucking cool trick. The God business doesn't stop there, either...'The Ballad Of El Goodo' (no, I don't know who the fuck that is, either) also references The Big Mythical Grandpa In The Sky, and in a pretty neat way, too. I like it when songs are very evenhanded about God, and 'El Goodo' even seems to be about some zealot guy who's so convinced of his righteousness he's 'never gonna be turned around', rather than, you know, a good person or anything.

Man, this stuff goes all over the place, from the Led Zeppelin III cock-folk of 'Watch The Sunrise' to the rippin'-stars glam-stomp of 'Feel' and 'Don't Lie To Me' (these guys, if I remember correctly, tried to hit the glam-rock wave to hit stardom...didn't work) to the high school power-pop of the cowbell-thwonkin', Seventies Show-themin' 'In The Street', but none of the songs lacks a reason for being, and there's so much diversity a-happenin' here, a dude'll never actually go all the way to boredom. Maybe they wear their influences hard, and while they have a pretty recognizable sound here, its a sound that seems derived from everyone, and simply given the million-dollar production job that hadn't existed ten years prior. 'The India Song' is dopey, evoking my worst possible impression of what a bad Donovan album must sound like, and, umm....that's the only song I don't like here. All these songs are just soooooo welllllll writtennnnnnn!!!! Aw man, if you have a thing for super-tight pop by a band who likes to add so much zest to their music that they'd probably had to close down the spice factory if they'd attempted the same thing on the followup, #1 Record is just your can of dog chow, slice.

Capn's Final Word: Lotsa Byrds, lotsa Beatles '65, mixed up and cleaned out, and everyone goes nuts because there aren't too many albums in this world that sound like this....it's a perfectly reasonable approach to rock music.

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Radio City - Ardent 1973

Happy, wistful, folk-rock guy Chris Bell didn't return for Radio City, so we're left with Alex Chilton as the only songwriter. So what does that mean for you? Well, not each and every song on the second half of your Big Star twofer is a complete winner, that's what. Alex is a much more one-dimensional guy, or maybe its just that Alex and Chris are both one dimensional, but when you had them in the same band at the same time, they automatically became two dimensional by default? Aw, well, I could sit here and ponder metaphysical questions like these and the location of a frog's penis all day, but I'd rather describe to you this still-good album before me. First off, we're a tad less 'heavy' in subject matter (a distinct lack of God songs, I'd say), yet leaning a lot more on depressing subjects like heartbreak and locking your keys in your car and having birds crap on your brand new suit while out on a first date with that really hot smart chick in your trig class who looks kinds like Sabrina the Teenage Witch who really must be like 33 by now, but oh well.

Shit, do you remember when the Olsen twins were infants? Fucking shit, I do! Now there these little mini-Britney's and everyone's snickering about when they turn 18 and all the twin-incest porn films they're gonna spew out. I mean COME ON!!! These girls used to be on Full House in diapers, back when only Uncle Joey got to spend 'special times' with them. You know, this has so much to do with Radio City I think I may just stop the review right now.

Capn's Final Word: Boy that Soleil Moon Frye sure turned out well, huh? Big tits and not at all slutty trashy like Alyssa Milano. And what about that black Wayan on In Living Color? That was the first black chick who ever turned me on, I swear!

...what? That isn't enough? Me blathering all over my lap about these television stars who used to turn me on in 1990? Don't even get me started on Joanna Kerns from Growing Pains. FUCK!!!

Radio City relies a whole lot more on formula 'power pop' than did #1 Record, and while I may really dig stuff like 'Way Out West', I begin to seriously miss the thicker cream that was the acoustic salad dressing on #1 Record. While Alex Chilton's guitar playing is always functionally interesting, and I would never go as far as to say that songs on this album become monotonous (they aren't riff rockers, you understand), but I really sense a distinct lack of 'Big Star Sound' here. That is, if you can 'define your sound' after only one album. But I think they had...this is just jangle-pop. Good jangle pop, but any old band with one good songwriter could do this. Err...so maybe not too many bands have one good songwriter. And most bands would kill for jangle pop of the quality of 'Back Of My Car' (a rewrite of 'In The Street', but who cares? Did I mention that Alex Chilton's voice makes most of these songs believable? That and the Byrds-y jingle itself? Without those two elements, we might as well be listening to....oh, just wait, I'll tell you...)

When gears are changed, you really wish you were just back in overdrive again. First change-of-pace? 'What's Going Ahn', which unceasingly brings visions of Barry Mannilow in my mind, though of course it isn't as bad as all that! 10CC maybe? Ugh, who plays so slowly and self-pityingly? Anyone? Eric Carmen? Oh let it STOP! ''You Get What You Deserve' is just a nasty, deceiving little song dressed up in Rubber Souls but actually a lot uglier under the surface. 'She's A Mover' is a pretty neat little bit of Revolver pulse-rocking, but I never remember a damn thing about it after the record has spun on to the next track. Perfect definition of a filler tune, I'd say.

Best track is the jangle-overdose 'September Gurls'...'September Gurls, mean so much...I was your butch, until we touched....I was in love, but oh, never mind....December Boys got it bad.' There's the song. A simple bit based on two ringy chords and an underdeveloped bridge, but oh shit, has this little bastard got a meloncholic motor under its smiley-face demeanor. What a little fucker in straight-A clothing. If you find yourself singing 'December boys got it bad...' over and over again during inopportune moments like church, or in bathroom stalls, or maybe in the middle of a business meeting, join the club. And this song is huge among the intelligentsi, so if you're one of those image conscious people, pick another song as your favorite on here, if you pcik this one, you won't be being 'ironic' enough. Notice how I put 'ironic' in quotes? Isn't that so 'ironic' of me to do such a thing? Fucking idiotic thing to do, it was, but not as idiotic as the two throwaways that end the album. Dammit, I say such a thing, but then I still like them. Could it be that this album is still really really good, and I've spent the last 45 minutes trying to convince myself it isn't? I'm such a tool...

Capn's Final Word:  Fewer moments of Greatness in your face, and some hints of the scourge Filler in the form of some underdeveloped quieter numbers, but still a fine friend to take with you on your road through Life and the drive through of the Dairy Queen.

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Third/Sister Lovers - Ardent 1975


A dark, difficult album mostly because it still tries its little heart out to sound like Big Star's first two albums, but Alex Chilton was so fucked up and angry over his band's bad rap in the marketplace that he just can't help seething with rage. The running order seems to conspire to fool us into thinking all is well, when actually the worms are digging ever deeper with each passing track number (sorry for the Pink Floyd reference, I apologise. I never thought I'd stoop so low either.), but after starting off with the still-poppy 'Kizza Me' and especially 'Thank You Friends', one might be bamboozled into thinking that all is right in Big Star Land. But it ain't. The drugs veritably drip off of 'Big Black Car' in translucent lumps, and the whole rest of the album has this hollow, exhausted vibe. This isn't pop! This is just the feel-bad disc of the year, and forgive me if I preferred Alex when he sounded like he was going off to conquer the universe, or at least was going to conquer that really fine girl in the bar like on Radio City. Here he sounds beat, and it's all the band can do to just follow along as he drags them through the gutters of mid-70's drug rock. 'Jesus Christ' marks a return to the God Songs of #1 Record, but if someone were to actually gleam some spiritual inspiration from this track, I'd have to say that person has cabbage for brains. Alex may say 'may good prevail', but what he means is 'I think I'm gonna sleep right here on the studio floor tonight.' A cover of the Velvet's 'Femme Fatale' follows, one that sounds like said femme just ate his soul raw with some fava beans and a nice chianti. This was one of the more upbeat songs on the Velvet's first album, and look what's been done with it.

Okay, so it's not all rough going here, and I do agree that some of the tracks have a bit of nice power from their very fucked-uped-ness, like, say, 'Oh Dana', and it's pretty interesting to see the smiling pop Adonises immolate themselves in front of the world like this I mean, would we expect anyone to do this kind of music in public nowadays? Mariah Carey has too many handlers to let the tentacles creep out of the cracks in her psyche when she goes a little batty. All she does is start to striptease on TRL, fer chrissakes. Nah...not even the most 'alternative' folks would be allowed to hoist something like Third on the world. Alex wants to write 'Oh Dana', but all that comes out is suicidal lines like 'your mother's dead, you're on your own...' (the dreadful 'Kangaroo', where the liner notes say the album 'finally comes together'....whatever.) over windswept fields of out-of-tune strings. Was someone listening to a bit too much Berlin lately, possibly? Comparisons to Neil Young's contemporary seminal downer Tonight's The Night abound, but this album doesn't convince me it has as much of a reason to be so unbearably depressing. Neil had two friends OD and he made an album whilst drunk off his ass. Alex just needs a good nap and a better record deal. And besides that, Neil Young was always sort of a 'tragic' figure, writing about heavy shit. Big Star's a goddamn pop band, and I'll just say right here that Sister Lovers comes across to me as pretty unconvincing stuff, at least for a car wreck. So, maybe Alex was really cracking up, maybe his marbles were finally dribbling one-by-one out of the side of his head. His later 70's solo work supposedly supports this theory, but I can neither confirm or deny. All I'm saying is that right now, this album isn't near as effective as you might have been told it is.

Just one draggy, drugged-out Byrdsy number after another, maintaining a certain quality of melody, I guess, but just about as anti-inspiring as #1 Record was positive and energizing. There's plenty of weirdness that must've seemed like a good idea under a major 1974 coke high, like the funk bass underpinning and backwards guitar soloing of 'You Can't Have Me' or the strings and woodwinds that pop up every now and again, but there's also this uncountable number of acoustic whine songs that sound exactly like one another, and, even more damning, exactly like the acoustic stuff on side 2 of the debut. Self-cannibalization ain't just fer breakfast anymore. And if anyone makes it to the bonus tracks alive (or, rather, awake) you're going to hear a version of the Kinks' 'Til The End Of The Day' that proves that all this tiredness and drugginess affects your ability to keep time on the most simple rock song ever, and there's this deconstruciton of 'Whole Lotta Shakin Going On' that signals only one thing: THIS BAND IS DEAD! No wonder no one wanted to release this album until years later, not even the band.

Capn's Final Word: Slowly driving nails in the coffin of Big Star, this is a slow motion drugged-down car wreck with all of the gore and bodily fluids you could ask for. But the thing is, watching wanton self-destruction going at this speed just gets dull. And dig that nauseating flesh-colored album cover....ick!

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Mike K. soul_crusher77@hotmail.com      Your Rating: B
Any Short Comments?: I believe you have "Kanga-roo" and "Holocaust" confused. Understandable since they've got similar moods and are right after each other I guess, but "Holocaust" is the one with the out of tune strings and lyrics about your mother being dead. "Kanga-roo" is the song after that, and is actually a quite pretty song that just happens to be presented in a really ugly manner, if that makes sense. The second half of it is more difficult to tangle with than the first, but I've actually gradually come to love a few of those songs, possibly because I happened to have spent a particularly gloomy and malaise-filled winter with the album (goddamn that makes me sound emo and pretentious, but it's true). The ballads do sound like less-catchy retreads of the folky stuff on #1 Record but with strings at first, but there's something subtly off about them that makes enough of a difference to keep me coming back. But yes, overall I do agree there are better, more convincing ! albums of messed up druggy depression out there (I haven't heard that Neil Young album, but most of The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett comes to mind), and overall I appreciate the other poppier stuff more than this one.

 

Pat  patrickshea1@gmail.com   Your Rating: A+
Any Short Comments?: Before I comment on Sister Lovers, you have a great site which I'm making my way through a little at a time, learning a lot with many laughs along the way. The Woodstock generation assessment was the best!!


As for Big Star Third, people seem to come down on one side or the other of this if you check the Amazon reviews. Me, I think it's one of the best things in my collection and positively the best after a night out and return to an empty apartment. That's the best, possibly the only time to listen to this. As the guy on Amazon puts it (better than I ever could)

"This record is to me the real essence of Big Star. Have you ever gone on a dark drinking binge, levitating on the edge of the abyss, while at the same time feeling the bright light of cosmic consciousness beckoning you back to better things, but feeling that you may fall in nonetheless? I was at that stage when I found this album (thank you Paul Westerberg) in 1987. It resonated with me in a way that very few records ever have (perhaps Quadrophenia in 1978 hit me the same way), so that I felt that I went there with Alex on that journey, that I understood where he was coming from. So, do not compare it to the first two records."

 


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