If you don't know that Big Star is a band, you probably don't care. If you do know, you probably have your own opinions, and might or might not be interested in hearing mine. But what's the point of having a blog if you don't opine on what interests you?
Big Star, by the way, is also the name of a regional grocery store chain. I've always supposed that name of the chain suggested the band name, with the fact that they were a brand new band whom nobody had ever heard of making it funny. (Wikipedia confirms this.)
A capsule history of Big Star: The band was formed in Memphis. In 1967 sixteen-year-old Alex Chilton became, in fact, a big star, but not under his own name. As the singer in The Box Tops, he had a hugely successful Top 40 hit, "The Letter." By 1970 he had left that band. In 1971 he formed Big Star with Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel. They recorded two albums for Stax Records, which were well reviewed but not well promoted or distributed and were commercial flops. By 1974 the band had effectively broken up. Chilton and Stephens recorded a third album in 1975. It was deemed commercially non-viable and not even released until ca. 1978. The band, their three albums, and Chilton himself became legendary, the other members less so.
I never even heard of them till the '80s, when R.E.M. named them as an influence, and it was another twenty years before I heard them. A friend sent me a mixtape (way back when) of the third album, or, more accurately, his selection of eight or ten tracks from an album which contains as many as nineteen, depending on which release it is. Before I say anymore about that I'll back up and mention the other two.
I figured that the title of the first album, #1 Record, reflects the same sense of humor that got the band its name. I didn't realize until a few days ago when I read an interview with Jody Stephens that the title of the second one, Radio City, does, too. There was at the time, maybe still is, a common figure of speech in which the word "city" was a sort of emphasis: "It was cop city," i.e., there were a lot of police there. So "radio city" was exactly what the first album had not been, i.e. heard on the radio.
#1 Record / Radio City is the title given to a two-CD set of the first two albums, and combining them was a good idea. They're so similar that only someone who was already familiar with them separately would notice where one ends and the other begins. I guess I've heard the whole set at least five times now, twice within the past couple of months, so my opinion is probably pretty well fixed. And I'm going to have to damn with faint praise.
It is praise, though. It's only damning when compared to the wild enthusiasm with which many people, and most critics, speak of these two albums. This is very good music; I just don't think it's absolutely great, landmark, essential, desert-island music. I'm perfectly willing to chalk that up to personal taste. I can point to one specific feature of many of the tracks that bothers me: a jerky, stop-and-start quality. The first track of #1 Record, "Feel," is as good an example as any.
There's a lot of Beatles influence in that song as in many, especially the backing harmonies, and sometimes specific guitar tones, and those horns in the break, which remind me of some particular Beatles song that I can't quite place (I'm not a true Beatlemaniac). It's all extremely well crafted, but I don't love it. And that applies to at least half the tracks on the two albums. The lyrics are so-so, and there aren't a great many memorable tunes among the up-tempo tracks, though the riffs are catchy, as in "Feel." I find that the songs I like most are the simpler ones. And as for tunes, and just for overall appeal, "September Gurls" [sic], which appears near the end of Radio City, is probably my favorite of the whole two albums.
("I was your Butch"--Butch was a dog.) I should also mention "Try Again," a poignant song about sinning repeatedly but never giving up. I could and may create a playlist of my favorite ten or so tracks from these albums, and that might add up to a desert island choice.
But then there's that third album. I spent some time with it over the past couple of weeks, and now it's definitely on my list of all-time greats. To get straight to the point: it's like Astral Weeks or Nick Drake's best work. The means by which it accomplishes this, as with the others, is a musical and lyrical package that's unlike anything else, and that somehow creates an emotional world of great depth and intensity. And just as with Morrison and Drake, some people just don't react to whatever it is that seems so magical to others and makes fanatical devotees of them.
It turns out, as I mentioned earlier, I had never actually heard the whole thing. My friend had selected the best tracks, certainly, but the inclusion of a few others, and some attentive listening, made me appreciate it all the more. It's not very much like the other Big Star albums, and that's partly because it isn't really a Big Star album at all, but rather an Alex Chilton album, with the participation of Jody Stephens and a host of session musicians and other guests. Chilton and Stephens were all that remained of Big Star by the mid-1970s when the album was recorded.
Not all that much remains of the Big Star sound, either. There's Chilton's voice, of course. But there's relatively little of the basic guitar-pop sound that characterizes Big Star. Instead, there's a wide array of instruments, including on several songs some lovely and/or strange string arrangements. The lewd-sounding title of "Stroke It, Noel" puzzled me, as it's a pretty and delicate song. Then I noticed in the credits that the violin is played by Noel Gilbert. The title is indicative of a sort of self-subverting spirit that appears now and then on the album. Is "Jesus Christ" really the odd Christmas song it seems to be, or is it a joke? How much of "Thank You, Friends" is sincere, and how much is sarcasm directed at those who "made this all so...probable"? The ellipses are for a distinct pause in which your mind expects "possible," only to hear "probable" in what seems distinctly a sneer.
The album is strange to say the least, the songs veering from celebratory to anguished and almost disoriented--maybe not even almost. One reviewer says it's the sound of a band breaking up, but it had already broken up. Is it the sound of Alex Chilton breaking up? Some of the songs sound that way. But there are also several love songs which are sweet and beautiful and devoid of anger, irony, or bitterness--"Blue Moon," especially, stands out. Part of the answer seems to be that Chilton was in the middle of an intense, stormy, and ultimately failed love affair. Jim Dickinson, the producer, said the album is about deteriorating relationships, and that seems as good a summation as any.
It's intense, beautiful, and different from anything else I've ever heard. Trying to describe music is frustrating and not all that useful, so I'll include one song here, with the proviso that it shouldn't be taken as typical of the album, which I'm not sure has any "typical."
One of the oddities of the album is that it's been released several times with significant differences in both the selection and the sequencing of tracks. Even the title, which you may have noticed I haven't mentioned, is questionable. The most frequently seen is Third/Sister Lovers. It was released under each and now both of those titles. Third is self-explanatory. Sister Lovers is not, as you might fear, some perversity, but a reference to the fact that Chilton and Stephens were dating sisters.
The double title belongs to what is apparently the definitive edition, in what Dickinson says is the originally intended sequencing. That's important, because putting, for instance, "Thank You, Friends" at the end creates a very different experience from ending with "Take Care," as sweet and sad a goodbye song as you'll ever hear.
That edition, however, also contains four bonus tracks, only one of which, "Dream Lover" (not the Bobby Darin song from the '50s), really belongs with the rest of the album. The others may or may not be interesting in themselves but don't fit. So make yourself a playlist, maybe putting "Dream Lover" somewhere in the middle, but put "Take Care" at the end.
There's a very well-done and very interesting documentary called Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me in which someone relates Alex saying "Music is something I can take or leave." It seems significant, because his career after the third Big Star seems to have been somewhat desultory. I haven't come across anyone saying that his later work is desert island material.
I'll have to give these a listen. I first heard of Chilton via The Replacements' song about him that came out in the mid-80's. Never followed up on him or Big Star though.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/14/2023 at 06:11 AM
My guess is that your reaction to the first two would be somewhere in the same area as mine. The third, I don't know.
Posted by: Mac | 02/14/2023 at 07:34 AM
I watch these YouTube guys "Tastes Like Music" way more than I need to. As a side note, Rob, I am pretty sure they are located in Pittsburgh. They have exhaustively been going through the rating of musicians catalogs, doing the "best of" for years beginning in the 1960s, etc. As a result Big Star was named quite a few times during those years. I had never heard of them and gave a very short listen, wasn't much immediately interested, so now I have forgotten what they sound like even. I will revisit and listen to these you have here when I have a little time.
Back to the Tastes Like Music threesome. They appear to be in their mid-30s and I find it quite interesting what their musical likes are since my assumption is that we all tend to veer towards music that is around during our formative years. By the time I was a kid listening to music in the mid to late 1970s The Beatles were no longer recording - BUT, at least they were all still alive (though not too long for Lennon), and as a result any mention of them would include the exciting possibility of their getting back together. That also went on and on and on for Led Zeppelin - just add a new drummer and make more music! One of these guys is a huge Beatles fan; another is a huge Zeppelin fan.
I also find it interesting that they latch on to sort of "fringe" bands - like Big Star, like T-Rex, like Mott the Hoople, etc. When I listen to T-Rex and Mott the Hoople I just think, "This is why people don't listen to them anymore, just not that great!" I prefer David Bowie's version of "All the Young Dudes" (a song he wrote) to the more famous Mott version. Just as I prefer Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light" to the one by Manfred Mann.
I am intrigued by this third album though, Mac...
Posted by: Stu | 02/14/2023 at 08:22 AM
Pretty much the same thing I said to Rob: I don't think you would be enthusiastic about the first two albums, and I don't know about third. It's a really odd album.
And I'd probably have a lot of disagreements with the Led Zeppelin fan on that music show. I don't know that much about Mott the Hoople but I think T-Rex still has a fair number of zealous fans. I see their big-selling albums of the '70s have 5-star ratings from AllMusic.
There are a couple of young or young-ish guys at National Review who do music podcasts. The ones I've listened to were quite good. One I especially enjoyed was about Hendrix. They love him, or at least one of them does, and they had as a guest commentator a young woman who writes for Vox. They're probably political enemies so it was nice to hear them all being enthusiastic about Hendrix.
Posted by: Mac | 02/14/2023 at 12:26 PM
Re T-Rex: I was never a big fan but I do recall a radio hit, "Ride A White Swan," that I liked at the time. Better than the ones like "Bang A Gong" that came a bit letter.
Posted by: Mac | 02/14/2023 at 12:30 PM
I sorta don't think I've ever liked a song in which the words "get it on" occur. Can't think of one anyway.
Posted by: Mac | 02/14/2023 at 12:31 PM
Interestingly, the guy who loves Zeppelin also really loves Stevie Wonder and ABBA. He has the most diverse taste of the three. The Beatles guy talks about production a lot, and apparently has a background in sound audio type stuff. The third guy I find the most annoying because he is kind of a naysayer; if any song was a huge hit it's always his least favorite on an album, that kind of guy. I think his favorite group is Radiohead. Not sure what to make of that except that I went through a Radiohead phase and now I've decided that since Thom Yorke's lyrics are indecipherable I don't enjoy them much anymore.
Posted by: Stu | 02/14/2023 at 01:59 PM
"Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye is a fantastic song, Mac.
Posted by: Stu | 02/14/2023 at 03:52 PM
Sorry but it always sounded like a smarmy seducer at work to me.
I agree with the Zeppelin guy about ABBA, maybe about Stevie Wonder as well. I finally admitted to myself some years ago that I love several of ABBA's singles and bought a greatest hits cd. Used, and I don't know if I would have paid full price, but still....
Posted by: Mac | 02/14/2023 at 03:56 PM
Don't know that "Tastes Like Music" thing. The only youtube music person that I really pay much attention to is Rick Beato.
I've never been a big fan of Radiohead, although I recognize/appreciate their influence. And I do love Kid A.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/15/2023 at 05:49 AM
Didn't I rhapsodize about Ok Computer here not so long ago? ... yes:
I've heard Kid A and Amnesiac but not for a while. Pretty sure I like them though.
Posted by: Mac | 02/15/2023 at 01:26 PM
Not long ago they re-released Kid A and Amnesiac as a double album. Called it 'Kid Amnesiac.'
Posted by: Rob G | 02/16/2023 at 10:58 AM
I listened to Amnesiac last night. Not enthused. I sort of think I liked Kid A better but I can't find my copy of it.
Posted by: Mac | 02/18/2023 at 12:56 PM
I feel the same way. Amnesiac has a few good tracks but overall Kid A is much better.
A number of very good albums came out around the year 2000, or a year or two on either side of it. Kid A is one of them.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/19/2023 at 07:12 AM
I listened to Amnesiac again last night. I think maybe about half the tracks would be keepers. I agree with Stu about the lyrics. The packaging is annoying, too--the unappealing at best graphics, deliberately difficult or impossible typography.
Posted by: Mac | 02/21/2023 at 10:33 AM
OK Computer is the one CD I have held onto by Radiohead. As much as their music no longer is intriguing to me, I am a big fan of Jonny Greenwood's movie scores for Paul Thomas Anderson and am always rooting for him to win an Oscar. He so far loses to musicians that are a little less rock and roll.
Posted by: Stu | 02/24/2023 at 08:30 AM
I don’t know any of those, not surprisingly.
Posted by: Mac | 02/24/2023 at 04:17 PM
On every Radiohead album there are at least two or three tracks that are very good. If someone had the time and inclination he could curate a pretty substantial "best of" playlist for himself. I used to do that sort of thing a lot when I was younger, but nowadays I think Radiohead might be the only current band I'd attempt it with.
Radiohead's drummer, Philip Selway, has a new album out but I haven't heard it yet. Not sure if he sings, or if he uses guest vocalists.
Posted by: Rob G | 02/25/2023 at 07:00 AM
I have a number of cassettes that are mixtapes made for me by friends 20 or more years ago. And some mix cds. Since I moved I've been debating whether to discard them or not, mainly to reduce clutter. Of course a lot of them are really good, but I can hear most if not all of the music via streaming now. I discovered in several cases that my friends' idea of the best tracks from this or that album or artist was not mine. Or that what I had taken to be a single album was actually the best tracks from two or three.
There are some albums that really need that kind of editing. One that instantly comes to mind is Rupert Hines's Waving Not Drowning. It's a dark, mysterious, haunting album which ends with a hard-to-imagine-worse closer about getting sick after eating at a Chinese restaurant. I'm not sure it was on the original, maybe just thrown in with a re-issue, but it's bad on its own and horrendous in context.
Posted by: Mac | 02/25/2023 at 11:22 AM