Big Star | #1 Record & Radio City – Classic Commentary

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Big Star was a wondrous anomaly in the heavy-duty early 70s. All the proggy, acid-fueled, blues-based dirge couldn’t diminish the group’s pop sensibilities, despite the infighting and distribution hassles. Now, three decades later, the group’s legendary debut and sophomore releases, #1 Record and Radio City, have been remastered and bundled onto a single CD for the second time by Fantasy Records. This set, along with an upcoming documentary and box set with unreleased demos and live tracks, are helping to resurrect the memory of Big Star like never before.

Big Star was the creation of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, singers and songwriters from Memphis. The two had worked together as youngsters before Chilton found minor fame as the vocalist on the Box Tops 1967 hit, “The Letter.” In the early 70s, singer/guitarist Bell had already formed an alliance with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. Chilton had returned to Memphis, set on establishing a solo career. But then he teamed up with Bell and the new group, christened Big Star, latched onto a slew of influences like the Beatles, the Who and the Byrds, peppering the music with ringing guitars echoing catchy riffs, luminous vocals and harmonies, and songs built for the radio airwaves.

#1 Record, the group’s 1972 debut, came together very quickly, but never reached potential buyers because of distribution problems. Nevertheless, the tunes are at once melodic, magnificent and moving. “Feel” chugs along like a Badfinger who just got a tetanus shot — a couple of guitars knocking back and forth, an explosive and tight rhythm, a Bowiesque sax solo and superlative vocals that confidently paint the picture as they round the verses with an extra whine. “The Ballad Of El Goodo” is just as alluring — its honeysuckle harmonies swimming joyfully in a hook-filled whirlpool of sonic origami.

“In The Street” would become best known as the theme song of late 90s sitcom That ’70s Show, although Big Star’s version was recast by Ben Vaughn and Cheap Trick for the popular show. Here, the song is, at first, little more laid back before a Beatle-like guitar assault takes the song in another direction. A single mix of the song on the new Fantasy reissue offers a much stickier stance that have very well paved the way for the group had it fell into enough hands.

The true beauty of #1 Record is in its intentional evasion of predictability. Who could have imagined the psychedelic aura of “The India Song” right after the straight-ahead bop of “Don’t Lie To Me”? Coming around the final stretch, the big guitars on “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and “My Life Is Right” give way to the sweeping acoustics on “Give Me Another Chance,” “Try Again” and “Watch The Sunrise.” At the heart of all the songs was the turbulent chemistry of Bell and Chilton. All was not well in Big Star’s camp, however, and Bell left the group after ceding control to Chilton. Two years later, Big Star made a second album just as good as the first.

Radio City offers up guitars with more bite, a livelier approach overall, and more catchy melodies that some how sprung forth during a difficult time in the band’s short history. With Bell somewhat out of the picture (he supposedly reunited briefly with the band and his imprint is on the raucous opener “O My Soul” and “Back Of A Car”), Chilton got dirtier on numbers like “She’s A Mover,” but stayed the Big Star course on “You Get What You Deserve” and “September Gurls,” which was covered by the Bangles in the 80s.

Radio City was plagued by the same distribution problems of its predecessor. Andy Hummel left and a replacement was brought in for a handful of concerts. After that, the group lost focus and hope, although they managed to record some songs for a third album in 1974. Four years later, Third/Sister Lovers was released to mild reception. It, in many ways, was more of an Alex Chilton solo effort than a Big Star album. Any chances of a full-blown Big Star reunion were dashed when Chris Bell was killed in an auto accident in 1978.

But that hasn’t stopped Chilton and Jody Stephens from carrying on as Big Star over the years. Cited as a major influence by members of REM, the Gin Blossoms and the Replacements, attaining cult status alongside Velvet Underground, and the invaluable exposure on That ’70s Show — this is what has kept Big Star on the radar. All of which has resulted in intermittent reunions and a new(er) Big Star album called In Space released in 2005, with two members of the Posies, guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow, along for the ride. Even with the reunions, the documentary, the box set and who knows what else — going back and discovering #1 Record and Radio City is really where all the attention starts to make sense. With both available in 2020 from Craft Recordings on 180 gram vinyl, featuring all-analog mastering by Jeff Powell at Take Out Vinyl, what better way to get acquainted or reacquainted with Big Star.

~ Shawn Perry

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