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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Big Star: #1 Record

BIG STAR: #1 RECORD (1972)

1) Feel; 2) The Ballad Of El Goodo; 3) In The Street; 4) Thirteen; 5) Don't Lie To Me; 6) The India Song; 7) When My Baby's Beside Me; 8) My Life Is Right; 9) Give Me Another Chance; 10) Try Again; 11) Watch The Sunrise; 12) ST100/6.

The legend of Big Star, the proverbial «out-of-time underdog», radiates such a strong field that for each of Big Star's three «classic» albums, there is its own group of champions — and then there is a fourth one that claims all three are equally great, but my understanding is that these guys are mostly poseurs, because there is no way one could have equally strong feelings for #1 Record, Radio City, and Sister Lovers, so different are they in terms of songwriting, production, attitude, and cohesiveness. Personally, I have always belonged to the #1 Record camp, and the more I listen to this album, the more I feel that the band's legendary status may be fully justified by it and it alone. Speaking of Big Star in clichéd terms of «the greatest band you have never heard of» is an uninteresting occupation, but, fortunately, one does not need to do that in order to just sit back and enjoy some of this wonderful music.

The actual «wonder» is generated by a brief, happy collaboration period between two talented songwriters — Alex Chilton, formerly of the Memphis-based blue-eyed soul combo The Box Tops; and Chris Bell, formerly of Rock City and Icewater, also Memphis-based but incomparable to The Box Tops in terms of chart success or overall notoriety. Chilton's original idea was to es­tablish a Simon & Garfunkel type of partnership, but Bell convinced him to retain the rock'n'roll band format, and, fortunately, good sense prevailed, or else we'd have no power-pop aesthetics and millions of aspiring indie kids and hipsters would be deprived of their biggest idols.

Of course, «power pop» is an extremely vague term, and if you think of it in purely musical terms («pop songs with hard rock guitar riffs» or something like that), #1 Record hardly even qualifies. There might be, like, just two or three «power pop» songs like that on the entire album — ʽFeelʼ, ʽIn The Streetʼ, probably ʽWhen My Baby's Beside Meʼ (ʽDon't Lie To Meʼ has more of a blues-rock feel to it, not a proper «pop» tune). Most of the songs are quite soft, with acoustic founda­tions, owing much more to the folkie idioms of the West and East coasts than to the Kinks, the Small Faces, or Cream. This, by the way, is the source of much misguided disappointment: plenty of people come to #1 Record, expecting «power», and come away disappointed because all they got was some sissy acoustic strumming and whiny vocals.

But the real trick of #1 Record is not «power». Its real trick is a mix of emotional simplicity, naïve idealism, musical honesty, and melodic talent. Chilton and Bell sounded just as passionate and convinced about what they were doing as the craziest prog rock stars of the time, but saw no need for infusing that passion into ever-more-complicated musical formats. On the other hand, they saw no need to pander to ongoing trends and fashions, either, eschewing excessive sentimen­talism or artificial sweetness à la Carpenters — everything on #1 Record sounds totally healthy and organic, no sappy strings or cheap Broadway inference allowed.

The second side of the album has been especially frequently subject to criticism by «power pop fans» — a silly thing to do, really, because, to my ears, it contains one of the finest sequences of beautiful ballads ever committed to tape. How they managed it is something I cannot understand, and can only ascribe to a great big positive influence that Chilton and Bell had on each other, and which neither of them could subsequently recreate on their own. ʽGive Me Another Chanceʼ deals with a fairly simple and well-studied topic — guy gets mad at girl, girl throws guy out, guy repents and begs forgive­ness — but each and every line of the vocal melody is so totally realistic (this may be the sorriest "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" I've ever heard) that one cannot help but be remin­ded of all those Lennon ballads, late in his Beatles or early in his solo career, that operated along the same lines: take a simple theme of love / repentance / sadness / anger, etc., and strive to make it sound like you really mean it.

Or ʽTry Againʼ — isn't it a wonder how its melodic twists so meaningfully echo its lyrics? "Lord, I've been trying to be what I should...", done in a slightly lazy, twangy, hammocky country mode (so you already get a feeling that maybe the hero hasn't been trying that hard). Chord change, a touch of tenseness and darkness, "but each time it gets a little harder", a Harrison-esque "I feel the pain" (and he does, he does), "but I'll try again" — loop, revert back to the beginning. ABC-level simple, 100% efficient. Then the vocal melody is lended over to the guitar, and they repeat the same stuff without words — to exactly the same effect. Chillin'.

When it comes to loudness and, well, «power», Chilton and Bell are equally capable. Look at how ʽFeelʼ is all based on descending chord patterns — echoing the «personal apocalypse» mood of lines like "you're driving me to ruin" and "I feel like I'm dying, I'm never gonna live again" — even though, in general, the song is so loud and rock'n'rollish and even has a brawny brass section during the instrumental breaks. Conversely, the main riff of ʽIn The Streetʼ is always rising and going in circles, well adapted to the song's «cruising anthem» stylistics. And ʽWhen My Baby's Be­side Meʼ is their equivalent of ʽI Want To Hold Your Handʼ — repetitive, triumphant, obli­vious to everything other than that overwhelming love wave.

But the album's magnum opus, no doubt about it, is ʽThe Ballad Of El Goodoʼ. A young pop boy's impression of a deep gospel-soul anthem — a song about standing up for oneself, with just a little help from God — it sounds particularly ironic in the overall context of Big Star's misfor­tunes, yet at the time it was written, the future did look promising, and Chilton's performance here is totally credible. The hooks are actually very simple: the song does not «properly» pick up until the chorus / bridge part, and, basically, all they do is hammer the same two-part message in your subconscious — "ain't no one going to turn me round" and "hold on" — but the first part is determination incarnate, and the second part gets by not through shouting, but through stretching out the "hold" part so as to actually convey the impression of hooooooolding on to something. So simple, so clever, so unforgettable. If ʽFeelʼ does not succeed in making you a lifelong friend of this band, ʽEl Goodoʼ will complete the task with a flourish.

Even though I have not mentioned all the greatness of this album (ʽThirteenʼ and ʽMy Life Is Rightʼ deserve their own extended kowtows), the things that have been said probably suffice — #1 Record is a product of spontaneously, perhaps even accidentally, generated melodic genius, and the first in a never-ending, though slowly dwindling, series of great records that kept the simplistic pop idealism of the Sixties alive and kicking through the following decades. From that point of view, there was no competition whatsoever for this sort of style in 1972, since the other two ends of the «holy power pop» triangle of the early 1970s, Badfinger and The Raspberries, did not have Big Star's ambitions. Chilton and Bell were «pretentious», yes, and it shows up not only in their chosen band name or their chosen album title, but in their playing style, in their vocal harmonies, in their quasi-religious attitudes, but all of that, when coupled with said melodic genius, is to their advantage. Pretentious, but simple; trivial, but bombastic; always accessible, but never «fluffy», #1 Record is certainly not an album that could be brushed off as mere light entertainment — it does lay a serious claim to the status of #1 record for the year 1972, at least in the «simple pop» department. (Although, for the record, I do wish they would have kept bassist Andy Hummel's ʽThe India Songʼ off the album — it is superficially pretty, but not only does it have nothing to do with India, being all acoustic guitars and flutes, it actually sounds like a se­cond-rate flower power era outtake from some long forgotten Frisco hippie band).

On a historical note, rumors saying that #1 Record was either ignored or maligned at the time are grossly exaggerated: most of the critical reviews recognized the album's genius (and how could anybody with ears not recognize it?), and, with proper marketing strategies, at least its rocking numbers, such as ʽIn The Streetʼ or ʽWhen My Baby's Beside Meʼ, could have been major hit singles like anything else at the time. Unfortunately, Stax Records, responsible for the distribu­tion, somehow flunked at it, and even though the record got sufficient airplay, it was simply un­available for purchase throughout the States, or so it has been said — a proverbial tale of bad luck and the importance of good management for great art to find its way. On the other hand, really great art will always find its way, eventually, even without proper management, so I am happy to know that #1 Record does not need my thumbs up endorsement in the slightest to help it achie­ve «classic» status: like the even less-selling Velvet Underground's debut, it is one of those al­bums that launched a thousand ships anyway.

Check "#1 Record" (CD) on Amazon


  1. I learned of Big Star four years ago after seeing a "milestones albums" section on iTunes. I got instantly hooked on the band; surprisingly my local retailer had copies of their albums. Undoubtedly my favorite song of the album is "Thirteen": a poignant, heartfelt, emotive ballad.
    Although I find the B-side slightly lacking I still maintain my opinion that this is a very good album- albeit not their best (this distinction has to go to "Sister Lovers".

  2. Yet again, this is another massive improvement on your original review, George. And that was already pretty damn good to begin with. I also notice that you're far more favourable about the album than you were last time - though why barely a word on my own personal favourite track on the album, thirteen?

  3. Don't know why India Song often gets criticized, I find it has the most sardonic lyric and some of the boldest chord changes on the album.

  4. This is simply a beautiful group of songs.

  5. Well I'm baffled - apart from the highly memorable "Ballad of El Goodo" and "Thirteen" this is a collection of okayish songs which range from the above mediocre to the mildly irritating.

    Don't get me wrong, it's all okay, just a long, long way from being a masterpiece.