Big Star Albums
Big Star was a band that existed in the early 70’s that not many people knew at the time, but their sound is as radio friendly so to speak. Like Badfinger, The Raspberries and other “Power Pop” groups around the same time, the band was very Beatles influenced and accessible. The band went largely unheard though, and today has a very loyal cult. They were not outed because of their odd music, as many bands such as The Velvet Underground, Fugs, and Love were in the 60’s, but just because of poor distribution and promotion of their albums (a problem largely fixed 21st century with the Internet). Whatever the specifics were, the fact that a band this likeable was not popular in the 1970’s is a pretty stupid thing. Anyone can like Big Star, and most people should, because they have an accessible sound and some great, classic melodies. They have influenced countless acts, some with legend and some with music. Songwriters Chris Bell, Alex Chilton and Jody Stevens are a shining example for what pop music should be, quality wise. They only had three albums, and all of them showed a different side of the group off as they evolved. If you haven’t heard Big Star, hop to it and get # 1 Record/Radio City, 2 albums on one cd for the price of one; one of the best deals you’re ever going to find for great music. Hopefully these reviews can open you up to a whole new world.
Alex Chilton – Vocals, Guitar
Chirs Bell – Vocals, Guitar
Jody Stevens – Drums
Andy Hummel – Bass
Biggest Influences: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Bryds, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Buddy Holly
#1 Record – (4 / 5)
Big Star start off with an album that has a very confident sound. With tunes such as “My Life is Right” and “Don’t Lie to Me”, you can hear it in the song titles that the band has a kind of attitude that makes them fresh, even heard many years later. So many things have been said about this album already, and its legend has almost worn out in certain circles. While the record is timeless and could have been recorded in any time period, the first four songs sparkle beyond anything else in the early 1970’s. “Feel” and “In the Street” are soulful rockers sung by Chris Bell, in that great high voice of his, but a dark undercurrent of sadness is also present. The soulful chug “Ballad of El Goodo” and the nostalgic mourn of “Thirteen” are Alex Chilton’s ballads that go along great with the opening rock vibes and could easily stand on their own on any record. Which of these four songs is your favorite is a personal opinion, but I don’t think anyone can deny the first four songs’ timelessness.
The rest of the record cannot hold up to these songs, nor should they really try to. Everything else kind of pales in comparison, except the luminous “My Life is Right” which is an underrated later tune. The blistering “Don’t Lie to Me”, Byrds-ian jangle of “Watch the Sunrise” and “Give me Another Chance” are good songs, but not particularly great or unique to the band, more of a sign of the times. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” is a decent rock song that could have been a left over from Chilton’s previous group, the 1960’s soulful The Box Tops. Some of these blunders don’t succeed at all though, with instrumental “The India Song” and sad “Try Again” both testing the listener’s patience. Despite a couple of average moments, there is there’s plenty to love on #1 Record, so I’d suggest the first Big Star record for anyone who likes good power pop music. What’s power pop you ask? The first four songs on Big Star’s debut.
Greatest Songs: Thirteen, In the Street, The Ballad of El Goodo, Feel
Radio City – (5 / 5)
If those first four songs on the last record defined how good power pop could be, this record displays a whole album of it. “Back of a Car” is an epic ode to teenage car rides, “September Girls” is one of the most perfect melodies ever put to tape, “Way out West” is one of the greatest of all rock music power ballads, and “Life is White” is a close second; these are four new classics that match the greatness of the earlier singles, by simultaneously showing accessibility, depth, and meaning in pop music form. They are spread out on the record though, which helps the blend, and there are also other songs that expand the band’s sound. “Daisy Glaze” starts off a slow ballad but morphs halfway through into a robust rocker; “You Get What You Deserve” and “What’s Going On” bring a hidden depth of Chilton to the surface; and “Mod Lang” and “She’s a Mover” just rock your pants off! There are too short ballads at the end, with “Morhpa Too” weirding the band’s sound up, and “I’m in Love with a Girl” doing just the opposite by being a short and sweet love ballad.
Radio City is such a varied and exciting listen all the way through though, and it fulfills every music lover’s dream by giving a perfect example of how a record should be made. Great moments in lyrics: the heart-wrenching “I don’t want to see you there, ’cause I know what you lack, and I can’t go back to that” in “Life is White”, and “She thinks she’s a mystery to all, but I know what’s behind those eyes” in the great, non-rhyming “Way Out West”, penned by the bass player Andy Hummel, and one of my all time favorite songs. Though Bell left the group before the record was released, his presence can be felt in “Back of a Car”, “She’s a Mover”, and “O My Soul”, whether he’s mixed in to some of the background vocals or not (this is the subject of conjecture). In my opinion, though little flaws like the extra-long length of “O My Soul” and the quirkiness of “Morpha Too” take a while seep in the psyche, this is the best Big Star album, and one of the best pure pop albums of all time. Enjoy at anytime, anywhere, all the way through.
Greatest Songs: Way Out West, Back of a Car, September Gurls, Daisy Glaze
Third/Sister Lovers – (4.5 / 5)
Recorded in 1975 but not released officially to the public until 3 years later, the final Big Star record has become sort of a cult classic. Lack of success took its toll mentally on Chilton, hence the Third Big Star record has a new sort of quality to it: it is scary! With Big Star’s other two albums, scary was not even part of the vocabulary, but here it is. This album seems to have some songs that would have fit well on Radio City: “Kizza Me” and the magnificently catchy “Thank You Friends” lead people to believe this album was like their last. But no! After the magnificent two first songs, the album hits you with “Big Black Car”, which can be interesting after a couple of listens, but it is verrrrry challenging, and that is the key word here. Every other song on the album that follow sounds extremely demented: “Holocaust” sounds like a Beatles song from written from someone trapped in the depths of hell; the cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” is spaced out and slowed down, like Chilton was delivering vocals from under his bed sheets; “Jesus Christ” has the same feel and some of the same chords as “Thank You Friends” but the words are more like a hymnal brought forth from Chilton’s demented psyche.
As for the latter half of the album, it goes even further down the abyss. “Stroke it Noel” uses a string section recalling Nico’s Chelsea Girl album, “For You” is an bombastic, pensive ballad written by drummer Jody Stevens, “Nightime” and “Blue Moon” are both outstanding melodic ballads with heart drenching lyrics. Then we have “Kangaroo”, one of the more bizarre songs ever written with an apocalyptic atmosphere, dragging tempo, and guitar feedback used throughout. Only “You Can’t Have Me” and “O Dana” have failed to ever really move me. The closer “Take Care” is a perfect summation of every strange twist and turn, and its oddly effective just like the greatest songs of its kind. Truly, Third/ Sister Lovers is an album that requires multiple listens to fully appreciate.
Rock n roll is littered with bands that were not popular or understood at the time they made music but years later, they are more listened to than any other. While it was a mystery why Big Star’s first two album were never bigger successes at the time of their release, 3rd / Sister Lovers is the result of a man who was a great songwriter but misunderstood by the people of his time and driven to the point of madness. It is madness that he did not want to be heard at the time, but we are all better off having listened to it and while not perfectly consistent, it is perfect in presenting a songwriter as a true artistic wonder.
Greatest Songs: Thank You Friends, Blue Moon, Holocaust, For You