Late to the Party: Big Star – #1 Record Radio City

Big Star 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”

12 thoughts on “Late to the Party: Big Star – #1 Record Radio City”

  1. Welcome to the party, Phil. Lep and I saved you a seat and some nachos.

    You mention What’s Going Ahn and Life Is White as stinkers (I sort of agree with you on the others, a little weaker than the rest). These two songs are really strong; Ahn has a pensive heartbreak to its slowness; how can you argue with incredible thoughts like: “I like love, but I don’t know / All these girls, they come and go / Always nothing left to say”. Wow, that kind of nails a heartbroken frame of mind. And Life Is White gets me because he’s obviously furious at the person he’s singing to, and the music suggests he’s angrily moving on. And I love that barrelhouse piano!!!

  2. Name-dropping Big Star is what record critics do when they’re too cool to say “The Beatles.” And Big Star suffers from that comparison when you actually hear them after hearing about them for so long.

    Big Star wrote concise, guitar-based pop songs at a time when it was highly unfashionable to do so. It’s those classic structures and angst-fueled personal lyrics that has helped them age well; I’d agree the production does them no favors. I remember thinking they sounded like a lower-budget Steve Miller (!) when I first heard the records.

    As it turns out I’m a bigger fan of Chris “September Gurls” Bell than of Chilton, so I actually prefer his solo “I Am the Cosmos” LP to any Big Star record (it is virtually another Big Star record).

  3. all i can really say, is that its a shame you did not show up to this party earlier. I have the replacements and paul westerberg to thank for my introduction to the band. Needless to say, since I first heard the band back in high school, some 8 years ago, i have never traveled far without a little big star.

    The songs you denote as skip worthy, are hardly such. After years of listening to these records you’ll find that they are just as good as the other songs. Particularly when a band of such great strengths has so few songs in its catalog. Watch the sunrise is great for the finger-picking introduction alone.

    If anything should be skipped over it is the entire reunion album that came out a couple years ago. Excpet for February’s Quite, maybe.

  4. Cauley, you really think India Song isn’t skip worthy? Come on? That’s a 100% useless song. No amount of time or perspective can make that track not skipable. I don’t agree with all of Derek’s pans, but India Song is pure crap.

  5. Oh, I totally disagree on “India Song”. It’s quirky and a little daft but it’s also charming. It sounds like it belongs on a Wes Anderson soundtrack (which is a compliment!). I love it.

    But I do agree that a lot of Big Star is spotty. #1 Record is by far the strongest; Radio City took a while for me, which like you I had trouble getting into because of the tinny production. Lately it’s been sinking in, though. And also like you my first experience with Big Star was Third/Sister Lover, which really is the worst place to start. Recently I’ve been digging into it a little more – there is a lot of gold in that album but you have to sift for it.

    And I second the recommendation on Chris Bell’s solo album, I Am the Cosmos. It’s also a little spotty but the best moments are as good as any Big Star. I’d place it on par with Radio City and better than Third/Sister Lover. I hadn’t realized that there were even two singers in Big Star–Bell and Chilton have nearly identical voices–until I got I Am the Cosmos. If you’re curious to hear any of it, I coincidentally posted the title track last week.

  6. The “India Song” is just plain stupid. But you can sort of appreciate it if you tell yourself that it’s tongue in cheek. Which it may be… (Nah.)

    Thanks for the shout-out Brovah Murph!

    And I vote “yes” to “Life is White” as well.

  7. I, too, had no idea who Big Star was until I read a Replacements story in some rag and Westerburg mentioned them. This is before “Pleased to Meet Me” came out. I wonder, D, what your take on the rest of “Third/Sister Lovers” would be at this point. It is a deeply weird album made by a band going off the rails. Some harrowing and great stuff, but not on par with “Radio City” or “#1 Record.”

    As for your pans, I gotta disagree on “Watch the Sunrise” and “What’s Goin’ Ahn.” The former makes me wanna learn how to play guitar every time I hear it. Then I remember that I’m lazy and talentless and I go have a beer.

  8. Great piece, Derek.

    With the exception of “Watch the Sunrise” I pretty much agree with your excluded picks. And while I hear you re: production on #1 Record, I must abandon you when it comes to Radio City, especially when it comes to guitar tones and drums. I was in my favorite watering hole this past Saturday night when “Back of a Car” came on the jukebox, and was enjoying for the upteenth time the bell-like Strat tone–which, granted, might be a little too upfront in the mix–and the crispness of the drums. IMHO, a lot of similar tracks of the time sound much smaller and not as warm in comparison.

  9. I’m glad I’m not the only person who hates “India Song,” but “Watch the Sunrise” is on my happy songs playlist — always puts me in a better mood. Sometimes I’d rather listen to that one than “September Gurls,” which is almost too perfect a pop song, so aggressively wonderful that it brings me down. If that makes any sense.

  10. I’m going to step in and stick up for the India Song. Then again, I love Donovan. But it doesn’t bug me as much as some of the other duds on the album (“Life Is White,” “What’s Going Ahn,” the first half of “Daisy Glaze,” etc.).

  11. Was there ever a song with such an internal conflict as “Daisy Glaze”? The second half of that song is incredible, the first I have to fight not to forward thru.

    Also, add my voice to those who think “Watch the Sunrise” stands above the other “skippables.”

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