How does a mega fan of both the Beatles and 70s drug music miss Big Star for 30 years? Even he isn’t sure anymore.
Given my lifelong love of the Beatles and my near-freaky obsession with Elliott Smith, you’d think it a natural fit for me and Big Star: the band who lived in the long shadow of Badfinger and never quite hit the Big Time but walked in that shadow while serving the same Liverpudlian masters. And yet…and yet…
My hesitation with Big Star started in college. Like all good indie kids, I knew of Big Star and the long list of more contemporary bands who name them as an influence, bands I loved. I finally heard Big Star while working a shift at my college radio station (how High Fidelity of me!) when I dug out a beat up CD of Third – Sister Lovers and dialed up the lead track, “Kizza Me” for what I expected to be a life changing event. Well, maybe that wasn’t the best choice for an introduction to Big Star. And so it was years before I returned to Alex Chilton, et al.
My next brush with the band came in September 1998 when GLONO founder Jake Brown put “September Gurls” on a mix and my interest was duly piqued. I loved the melody and the lyrics but there was something that bugged me. I couldn’t put my finger on it for the longest time.
It’s the production.
It’s hard to imagine how a band that so desperately wanted to capture the Beatles’ sound ended up with such thin production. We all know how difficult it is to capture that mysterious Abbey Round mojo, but the one thing we should be able to agree on is that it’s a warm, rich sound that surrounds the harmonies and melodies that make up the Fabs’ most admired albums.
So, it’s a bit baffling how Big Star ended up with razor thin guitar tones and tone smothering reverb on the drums. I can hear what they were going for, but warm it ain’t.
It was just a year or so ago that I finally got beyond my issues with the tones to finally see the music for the songs. It came to me via my iPod, God bless the bastard. I sometimes employ the master shuffle option and just let all 40 gigs negotiate their way to my ears. Sometimes you get the bizarre juxtaposition of “Bush Killa” by Paris alongside “Portland, Oregon” by Loretta Lynn. But then you’ll get a sublime streak of semi-related songs and artists that makes you wonder if the little maggot brain is tapping your inner thoughts and DJing on the fly. Sometimes you get “Day After Day” followed by “The Ballad of El Goodo” and you’re forced to rethink your entire values system.
I don’t know if anyone can argue against the brilliance of El Goodo. The chorus is enough to make you fall down and cry for no good reason. There’s a strange sadness that draws from the same pool that turned Elliott Smith into a George Harrison disciple and led that broken man to drive a knife into his own heart…twice. This is the kind of pop music that drives people insane. It is perfect.
I can be stubborn but I am not (often) unreasonable. I am painfully aware of my own shortcomings and failings so I am not adverse to reexamining decisions made when I was younger and less open to the simpler things. I had to see what I’d been missing with Big Star and I had to find out immediately. It was late on the Brown Line when the grace of God struck me with El Goodo and I could not wait until morning to hit my nearest local to pick up #1 Record/Radio City. I was also too impatient to search it out on less reputable online sources. And since it was my Apple iPod who awakened my curiosity it was Apple again to whom I would turn. I downloaded the album(s) from iTunes and soaked in the pop bliss of Chilton’s best.
I won’t go into a track-by-track analysis of this double album repackaged as a single masterpiece, but suffice it to say there are some major unsung hits and some lame misses. The hits include the lead off track, “Feel,” which is a perfect 70s mix of Alice Cooper weirdness and arch nemesis (though equally doomed) Badfinger. The early 70s were a strange time for everyone. The hangover from the 60s was still lingering and the teeth gritting madness of the 80s was still nearly a decade away. You could still buy ludes. The pop hits of the day were weird, so just imagine what the “underground” was up to. The band that was built on the musical foundation of the Beatles couldn’t help but be influenced by the darker elements of the times.
The album starts off so strong it’s hard to imagine there’s a stinker in the bunch. The third song, “Thirteen” is such a perfect summation of teenage awakening and angst that it’s inspired countless open mic balladeers and blows the mind when you contemplate that it’s barely more than two and half minutes long. We’re seriously talking about an F. Scott Fitzgerald level of economy and storytelling here.
Other hits include “In the Streets,” which shot into popular consciousness some 30 years later as the theme to That 70s Show. It, again, is such a great synopsis of the genius of teenage boredom that you start to wonder why you ever graduated from high school in the first place.
One shouldn’t think #1 Record/Radio City is front loaded just because the lead off is so strong. In fact, it could be argued that the very best Big Star songs are found in the last quarter of this collection. Starting with the daze and confusion of “Mod Lang,” the album settles into a closing groove so unblemished it is still the blue print Sloan has been building from for nigh on two decades. To end with “I’m in Love with a Girl” is to break every heart who listens. If you have a girlfriend, end every mix with this song and she will NEVER leave you…or you’ll have the perfect story to tell the next honey you want to get with when you start the first mix you make for her with it.
I did say there were turds among the roses though and so it is my duty to identify them, though I reserve the right to not explain what is lacking in these songs. It’s not so much that they miss some cosmic mark as they stand out as so bland next to the shining musical gems for which they must share their space. Let’s just say that they seem to veer a little too close to the namby pambiness of the most earnest Beatle’s more spiritual work and end up hitting closer to parody.
The songs to skip (for various reasons) are:
• India Song
• Try Again
• Watch the Sunrise
• Life is White
• What’s Going Ahn
I am prepared for the backlash and am ready to defend myself. Bring your vitriol to the comments and I’ll take my licks like a man.
After all these years, I am not sure exactly why I resisted Big Star. Yes, the production annoyed me, but that never stopped me from obsessing over a band before. There are some horrid production decisions on my favorite Smiths albums. I was heavily into garage rock (neo and paleo) for the better part of my 20s and you’d be hard pressed to find worse production than on some of those disks. I STILL love psychedelic and that genre almost destroyed responsible production on its own. So maybe I’ll never know what kept me from Big Star, but I am pretty sure I would be the one to tell my dad to get off their back and tell them what we said about “Paint it Black.” Yes, I want Big Star to take me to the dance even though I’ve ignored them all school year.
Video: Big Star – “September Gurls”