Saturday, May 5, 2012

Big Star: #1 Record

Something I don't like to talk about very often is the very real social aspect of listening to music. There are a lot of thorny sociological issues that go along with any album, stuff that I'm aware of, but not as comfortable or competent in talking about. My policy has always been to look at an album stripped of its baggage and determine, based on my subjective (but critical) tastes, what's valuable about it and if people should hear it. That said, there will always be that aspect of what your music says about you, and who you are able to talk about it with. There's the case of Big Star. I was going to say "There are two types of music geek, those who've heard Big Star and those who haven't" but the thing is, I'm not even sure I can recognize you as a true music geek if you're not familiar with this record.

That's not a statement that has anything to do with Big Star's music, what it sounds like, or what it means to me. You could hear this album, dislike it, and still call yourself a music geek. Big Star as a band and a musical entity has two lives: Its content and its reputation. It has a marginal place in mainstream music history, but has been taken up by music writers like myself with great passion. Finding it, and making the decision to listen to it (not even liking it, just hearing it at all) means you have done some serious digging, and are trusting tried-and-true devotees in their opinion, and have the right frame of mind to judge. Basically, to me, the moment you decide Big Star is something you need to hear even once, is the moment you truly dive into the great depths of popular music. There's a lot of dialogue about this band and shockingly little of it has to do with what they actually sound like. When I first got the disc, I was worried that nothing it contained could justify that reputation. But if you take that leap, you will be rewarded.

At the time this CD, which comprises Big Star's first two vinyl releases (#1 Record and Radio City,) found its way into my hands, I was a more guarded listener than I am now. I had seen it listen on numerous lists of greatest, favourite, and most influential albums, and I was afraid to peel back the curtain. I wasn't sure, based on what I knew about music history and music of that era, what could have been so revolutionary and yet remain so obscure. And the truth is, when I first heard it, I didn't quite get it. It was so unassuming, so in-line with what else was being done at the time, and so overshadowed in my mind by what came later. I had a hard time believing the album I listened to had the reputation it did. I realized later that it was simply that good at being what it was. Albums aren't generally recorded with the intention of revolutionizing pop music or being mind-expandingly brilliant (albums that are usually end up as a chore to listen to.) Sometime later, I realized that an album can be that great merely because it is so enjoyable to listen to.

The standout track for any new listener will be "In The Street," which is familiar as the theme song to That 70's Show. At first I thought the cover improved on the original. Where Cheap Trick were one of the great late-70's stadium fillers, who knew how to build an anthem, Big Star sounded stuck in the garage, much smaller and quainter. But of course, it is small and quaint and garage-sized. It's about being a bored teenager, and Alex Chilton's voice reflects that so well: how else are you supposed to sing, "Wish we had / A joint so bad?" but in the frustrated whine of youth?

All through the album, lead vocals (by either Chilton or Bell depending on the track) are spot-on for rock and roll. It's not that they're technically accomplished, but that they're "in character" for the song. When theyneeds to sound young and exuberant, they do, and then when they needs to sound aged and wizened, they do that too. By 1971, he was already an old pro from his time in the Box Tops, now playing his own material for the first time. The songwriting is acutely aware of what it's like to grow up listening to music, and to find yourself in a world where it's possible to make those records for yourself. The style of a blend of post-hippie early 70's folk and pre-arena hard rock: a blend we'd now call power-pop, but was at the time not recognizable as anything but "music."

It immediately announces itself with the first track, "Feel," a blend of post-psychedelia and garage rock, with the vocals seeming to melt all over the song while the guitars (and saxophones and other instruments) claw their way up from a deep chasm. This is, I think, one of the album's most inventive songs, while also having somewhat rudimentary musical theory. A great show of bombastic rock misery. You can also see a different sort of late-psychedelia in the mellotron-led "India Song," a Lennonesque bit of escapism, idealizing British colonialism, hopefully sarcastically. It's a good example of how Big Star was taking what their heroes did and remade it with their own quirks intact. They were, again, that first post-Beatles generation, who had learned to play because of them.

That exuberance is on full display on tracks like the shout-along "Don't Lie To Me" and the stomping "When My Baby's Beside Me." If this were a fair world, we'd be hearing these tracks on the classic rock radio every weekend between Bad Company and Rush. The guitar break on the former is pure rock, and the latter is one of the last vestiges of a time when writing a "rock song" meant aiming for Chuck Berry: the missing link between Lieber/Stoller and Free. "My Life Is Right" is a hard one to pin down. In fact, it closely resembles an extremely epic version of the theme song to Cheers, with its earnest, melodic verses and its humongous, drum-led chorus, and more gorgeous harmonies. It seems like a roadmap for a lot of power-ballads, although it isn't one, again you can see Big Star bridging the gap between the styles of eras. They could be the common denominator between Whitesnake and the Replacements, and isn't that just totally fucked up?

There is a run of ballads leading up to the end of the album. "Give Me Another Chance" is yet another perfect deployment of harmonies. Chilton starts on his own, then the rest join in on the chorus, deepening and strengthening his longing, "Don't give up on me so fast / I see it's me who's wrong at last / Give me another chance..." what you see here is a spot-on understanding of what background vocals are for, what they add to a song. By comparison, "Try Again" is stark and haunted, simply worn out but determined, pushed forward by those steady-beating guitar strums. "Watch the Sunrise" comes as a relief after it, ebullient and sweet, like Chilton and Bell's own "Here Comes The Sun," especially that little giddy-up riff.

The real superstar ballad on this is the beautifully earnest hymn to childhood music love, "Thirteen." With a gently-picked guitar and a trembling voice, Chilton recounts the timid movements of a preteen during the British Invasion, crystallizing a moment when music suddenly becomes important as a means of expression, reflecting on the very reason for this album's existence. The modest songwriting includes a brief guitar break that says more than words could, although the heart still lies in lyrics like "Won't you tell your dad, get off my back? / Tell him what we said 'bout Paint It Black." Suddenly, you speak a language your parents don't, and everything starts falling into place.

As you can tell, I certainly believe in the greatness of this album. It's all over the place, infusing every track with musical love and a blueprint for the future. I can still remember the exact moment I realized this was an excellent, singular piece of work, not just a collection of songs I thought were pretty good. It was in that moment when Chilton's voice hiccups just a little bit on "The Ballad of El Goodo," when he sings "At my side is God", and you can feel he's getting just a little twinge of barely-suppressed excitement in anticipation of jumping into that chorus, that indelible, unforgettable round: "And there ain't no one going to turn me 'round." This album is absolutely teeming with love for its craft, the desire to match its influence in greatness, to be to the future what those old records were for them.

But wait: There's more. As I mentioned, #1 Record is now only available on CD as a package deal with Big Star's second record, Radio City. It is absolutely loaded with great moments, and is in many ways an even more interesting piece of work than its predecessor. It also was recorded amidst frustrating conditions (always a plus for great art) and without guitarist Chris Bell, who brought much of the mellow, folk sensibility, leading to something a bit more raw. But it's definitely a different record, one that I feel deserves more attention than a tacked-on summary in this review.

For people like me, it feels fresh an exciting because it's an excellent, new version of music we already liked. What's more, it's a window into an alternate dimension, because it was created at a time before "how to sound like The Beatles" became codified in our minds. Big Star wanted to make music that would appeal to a lot of people, but we'll never know exactly how it could have been, because a bad business deal basically ruined anyone's chances of hearing this album. They were making music very few people were destined to hear, falling through the cracks of history. But since picking it up, the music journalist community has protected it fiercely, examined it, lauded it, and rediscovered it every time a young curious soul reads an article like, well, this one, I hope. If nothing else, it feels excellent because it was made by people with the same level of love for music as the people now most likely to discover it.

Buy this album now! iTunes Canada // iTunes USA // //

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