Reissue Reviews: Big Star, “#1 Record” and “Radio City”

Written by Music, Reissue Reviews

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The way I’m going to approach this is to pretend that I’ve never heard #1 Record or Radio City.  I’m going to write this as if these two vital albums weren’t cornerstones of my musical foundations, let alone my life.  I’m going to speak about them as if they weren’t my favorite band (along with The Beatles and The Who).  That’s the only way to do this, instead of my usual evangelical musings about the band that laid the groundwork for what later became known as (gags) “alternative” music.  I’m not going to pontificate on their impact; their influence – how many bands owe a huge debt to Big Star or how they were the embodiment of perfect power-pop.  I’m going to simply tell you why these two albums are more than essential; it goes deeper than that.  I’m presenting this to you with fresh ears…

Here are the immediate facts, however:  #1 Record and Radio City have now been re-released as separate entities.  Since 1992, the two have been available on one CD, but Ardent and Stax have remastered these two albums and sent them back out to the market, the way nature intended them to be.  And that’s more than fine.  By remastering the two albums, nuances and details that you may have never noticed nor picked up on before can be joyfully discovered.  The colors of the musical pictures are brighter; more vivid – the guitars crisper; the vocals sharper and the rhythm section of drummer-extraordinaire Jody Stephens and thunder-bassist Andy Hummel can be appreciated to a stronger, greater degree – this may, in fact be the secret weapon or ingredient here.   In a word, prepare for some delicious chills.

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#1 Record (1972) is Chris Bell’s album.  The short version:  he put Big Star together; had a good number of songs ready and navigated the recording, producing and mixing process, along with the patient and vigilant ears of Ardent Studios/Records founder, the visionary John Fry.  Bell’s mastery of the studio was crucial to how Big Star – this album – would sound overall.  By bringing in Alex Chilton and the cache of songs he had, the balance was perfected.  Layers of guitars spread evenly; bass and drums water-tight, keyboard embellishments and acoustic guitars shape the music with vocals that, at times, are other worldly.  The harmonies immediately will induce shivers and maybe even tears – they’re just that beautiful and seamless.  From the moment “Feel” kicks in with Chris Bell’s balls-out Zeppelin-esque delivery (“Woman, what are you doin’?  You’re driving me to ruin…”) the ROCK is ON.  And there IS ROCK.  “In The Street” (written by Chilton, sung by Bell), “Don’t Lie To Me” and the wonderful-for-all-time “When My Baby’s Beside Me” (one of the most thrilling sounding riffs I’ve ever heard) propel the band and the album forward with force.  And has anyone noticed that the uber-rocker “Don’t Lie To Me” sounds like it could have informed or influenced or inspired Wings’ 1973 hit single, the free-for-all “Helen Wheels”?  Considering that “…Lie…” came out a year earlier, it does seem to have some distinct parallels.  BUT…  I digress.  The most criminally overlooked track on this album belongs to neither Bell nor Chilton – bassist Andy Hummel penned “The India Song” which happens to be the first song that sank in with me.  It is a melodic, medium tempo piece with a wonderfully balanced harmony on the vocals, a flute-like mellotron riff, a sleigh-bell keeping time and acoustic guitars that warm and shine.  The album’s fulcrum.

The scales even out with the ballads – which is where Chilton rises:  the emotional turbulence of “The Ballad Of El Goodo”; the heartbreaking and perfect “Thirteen” and the pleading of “Give Me Another Chance” (with the most gorgeous mellotron strings on record).  Chris Bell’s acoustic offerings are no less gut-wrenching:  “Try Again” and “My Life Is Right”.  The album goes from the boisterous righteousness of the heavier songs to a sadness and desolation with the quieter songs, which again puts the album in a harmonious state.  However, Alex Chilton’s “Watch The Sunrise” brings a last glimmer of hope and optimism with the most delicious (and joyful) acoustic guitars you’ve ever heard.

On all levels, this album is lush, textured, filled in at all points on the canvas but never cluttered or over-layered.  It is a fully realized work.  It was, is and will forever be one of the most stunning debut albums by ANYONE.

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Almost as quickly as #1 Record was released and was not the projected/hoped-for success, Chris Bell left the band.  Big Star was, in effect, done.  But an offer to play the Rock Writers Convention in Memphis led Chilton, Stephens and Hummel to re-visit the Big Star name.  The performance sparked a renewed energy and with a new deal for Stax to be distributed by Columbia Records, it gave the hope that Ardent would be able to get a new Big Star record out to all radio programmers and retail outlets…

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1974’s Radio City is an altogether different affair from #1 Record.  Obviously, this is Chilton’s album but as #1 Record puts all the pieces together in a very methodical and finely-tooled manner, Radio City is looser; sparse, less colored but much more atmospheric.  Some of the songs are ramshackle; two of them aren’t even technically Big Star (!) BUT the sonic quality of this record is light years ahead of anything being released at the time, let alone decades later.  Not an exaggeration – Radio City is one of the best – one of the finest produced albums EVER.  The most head turning moment is on the dynamic track “Back Of A Car” – on the second verse, where Jody Stephens basically “circles” his drums – you can FEEL the drums go from left to right, as if you’re there in the studio – pay attention to it.  You will notice it. Considering Big Star were now a trio, they sounded bolder, more confident and no less powerful.

Now Chilton was in command of the studio – again, with the essential skills of John Fry – and his songwriting had grown in leaps and bounds, albeit to a sometimes very dark, almost desperate degree.  “You Get What You Deserve” (one of the album’s true standouts), with its acoustic body, tremelo’d riff and tight rhythm heightens a sinister lyric.  Andy Hummel’s “Way Out West”, sung by Jody Stephens with great warmth and sweetness, is a favorite – Chilton sings the on-point harmonies and incorporates neat little licks on the verses.  “Daisy Glaze” is another aural wonder – starting slow and mournful but with the most gorgeous of melodies and texture (a gentle keyboard to bring the song to that higher level of fullness), it stops and with Stephens’ bass drum kicks, goes into rock hyperdrive with the hilariously sung refrain “you’re gonna die, yes you’re gonna die – you’re gonna decease” and ends with a (now much more audible) gentle note.  The album’s opener “O My Soul” is on par with the pants-down ballsiness of the rock tracks on #1 Record but with a funky, loose groove and a kick-your-ass rhythm section (and very tongue in cheek lyrics).

Of course, the most beloved (or at least, well-known) of Big Star’s songs, the once-in-a-lifetime-spun-gold “September Girls” is part of Radio City.  With its chiming opening hook and crisp, razor sharp sound, this blueprint of ’80’s pop IS what one could define as a PERFECT track.  Everything about it is right.  A buoyant delivery, a melody that stays with you forever, words of longing and hope – Chilton mastered pop completely in that moment.  And if it sounded good before, it sounds even better now.

With Mike Mills’ liner notes coming totally from the heart, it adds to a most satisfying pair of re-issues.  If you’ve never actually heard Big Star before, do not miss the opportunity to have your musical head turned around completely.  One listen to each and you will understand why this band changed so many lives.  Long overdue?  Perhaps.  But goddamn it, Big Star will always have been worth it.

ESSENTIAL LISTENING (a must)

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