Influential albums are something that I approach with trepidation, especially when they are by acts that are considered to be ‘cult’. As massively influential as albums like The Velvet Underground and Nico, Forever Changes and Horses have proved to be down the decades, they’ve never really made any connection with me. They’re great albums for sure, but I’ve never been convinced that they are really worthy of every word of critical hype that they are burdened with.
Perhaps this is why I hesitated listening to Big Star for so long. On paper there was no reason why I shouldn’t like them though. Formed by ex-Box Top vocalist Alex Chilton with fellow Memphis musicians, co-vocalist and fellow creative hub Chris Bell, and rhythm section of Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, they were a 70s rock act with a standard dual guitar / bass / drums line up, and since splitting they’ve subsequently been name dropped by acts as diverse as REM, Teenage Fanclub, The Replacements, Cheap Trick and almost any other act that has since fused jangly and fuzzy guitars, irresistible choruses and smart lyrics. Was I scared of being disappointed? Maybe. What if I thought they were just a bit ordinary? Perhaps the story of Big Star would be immeasurably more valuable to me than the music that they recorded?
I eventually took the plunge with Big Star’s debut, the expectantly named #1 Record, for multiple reasons. First of all, after a lifetime of immersing myself in music, I’ve found that the majority of the time, it’s better approaching an unfamiliar act’s output chronologically. Also, it’s the only Big Star album on which Chris Bell appears throughout, as he would depart before their second album, Radio City, was recorded, despite the fact he had contributed to the songwriting for the album. I still had my reservations though. Would they just be too cool for me? I mean, just look at that big glossy cover – a big neon star with the word ‘big’ in neon letters within it – there’s no denying it, that’s just cool.
#1 Record starts with “Feel”, a song on which Bell’s vocal sees him attempting to hit some high notes in a style not dissimilar from Geddy Lee. That’s where the Rush comparisons pretty much end though, as Big Star eschew heavy metal riffing and extended song structures in favour of something much more approachable and drenched in both harmonies and pop-smarts. “Feel” overflows with a good time vibe, with some gorgeously chugging guitar, backed up by stacked harmony vocals and saxophone.
If I had my reservations about the greatness of Big Star, they were absolutely obliterated by “The Ballad of El Goodo”, a song possessing such rare quality that even now, after dozens upon dozens of listens, I still have to catch my breath every time I hear it. Yes, many many songs have dealt with subject of an individual’s struggle against the odds (it’s apparently written from the point of view of a young US soldier serving in Vietnam), but few have ever done it with such yearning without descending into schmaltz. Such emotional intelligence is rare, but here it is, hitched to a heart-breaking chorus, Stephens’ glorious judged drumming and one of Chilton’s most heart-rending vocal performances. It may very well be one of the greatest songs ever written, and if Big Star had never recorded anther note, it would have cemented their legend.
Following up “The Ballad of El Goodo” is no easy task, but #1 Record neatly sidesteps the issue because next track “In the Street” is one of their more straight-ahead upbeat numbers. It’s a pure powerpop number, and avoids having to match the emotional impact of “The Ballad of El Goodo” by just going, ‘Hey, we can do riffs too’. This smart bit of sequencing allows a bit of a breather between #1 Record’s two most emotion-drenched tunes, as “Thirteen” plays the emotive downbeat card again. Such is “Thirteen”’s durability that acts as diverse as Garbage, Wilco and Kathryn Williams have all covered it. As is often the way though, Big Star’s original remains the ultimate version, and it remains one of their most celebrated songs.
Once again, the often tricky situation of trying to follow an emotive slow number is tackled by just sequencing a rocker straight after it. While “Don’t Lie to Me” may not be one of #1 Record’s most sophisticated numbers, you simply cannot dispute it’s effectiveness, neither can you argue with the rocker / ballad / rocker / ballad / rocker / ballad sequencing of the first half of the album either, as Hummel’s single songwriting contribution, “The India Song”, with its Byrds / Crosby Stills and Nash style harmonies, closes what would have been Side A of the original vinyl.
Powerpop service is resumed as Side B opens with Chilton’s “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, resplendent with joyous production, big chorus and chiming riffs. If you ever needed proof of Big Star’s enduring influence over the likes of The Posies, Teenage Fanclub and their ilk, just play “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and any slab of powerpop recorded after it and make your own decision.
If #1 Record has a flaw, it’s that the first half is so good, that the second half can only suffer by comparison. “My Life is Right” is unarguably a brilliant song, but it pales in comparison to what has gone before. Balance is restored a little by “Give Me Another Chance”, a heartbreaking slow acoustic tune sung beautifully by Chilton, whose voice seeps with regret throughout. It’s perfection is compromised a little by the addition of a bit of orchestral window-dressing towards the end of the song. It’s one of the few mis-steps in John Fry’s production job, but really, that’s just nit-picking, as Fry otherwise does a sterling job throughout.
“Try Again” is perhaps #1 Record’s weak spot. It just doesn’t seem as fully realised as the rest of the album. Sung by Bell and perhaps foreshadowing his later religious leanings, it also suffers by being buried on the second side of the album. If there is one song on #1 Record that could have been removed without compromising the album’s integrity, it’s probably “Try Again”.
The bar is raised again with “Watch the Sunrise”, a sonic relation to “Skyway”, a much celebrated song recorded in 1987 by self-confessed Big Star enthusiasts The Replacements. Granted, the album itself would have probably benefitted from a rocker towards the end of proceedings, but instead, we’re treat to a couple of more reflective numbers. Closer “St 100/6” is pure folk rock, as Chilton and Bell harmonise their way through a song which is little more than a sketch of a song, but it’s nevertheless beautiful.
And that’s it. Although he would contribute some songwriting and arrangements to its follow up, Radio City, Bell would not appear on another Big Star album after #1 Record, leaving it as the only album on which Big Star were a quartet.
Many people put Bell’s departure down to his disillusionment following the distributing foul-up that scuppered any chance of #1 Record being a success on its release. As effervescent as contemporary reviews were, they were for nought if their readers couldn’t find #1 Record in their local music stores.
#1 Record is that rare thing, an influential album by a cult act that’s genuinely worth the hype. If you haven’t heard it yet, you really should do, though be warned, you need to be prepared to have your heart broken.