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Monday, July 4, 2011

25. Big Star: #1 Record

While it's too bad that some great bands have discographies as short as a Willamette Valley dry season, it often leaves them welcomely shrouded in mystery. Performers who are consistently producing records, making TV appearances, and touring are no longer strangers to their fans...that can be good, of course, but bad as well. A long list of records almost certainly contains some duds (especially as bands age and more current music sounds nothing like the music of the past). And fans are always craving something new...something unfamiliar. Some of the most influential bands had short careers...think The Clash, Joy Division, Pixies, The Smiths, and The Doors...and they all left their fans wanting more. Another band to include amongst those greats is Big Star.

Big Star was an American power-pop band and the brainchild of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. The two became smitten with the sounds of The Beatles during their 1964 U.S. tour. They decided then, at age thirteen, that they would someday be their own Lennon/McCartney songwriting duo. The most productive years for Big Star were from 1971-1974. In that time they recorded three beautiful albums, #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers (though Third was not released until 1978). The 1972 debut, #1 Record, contains twelve songs that could've all been singles. There are obvious 60s influences at work here (The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Byrds to name a few), and a strange flow to the album. The abrupt mood changes are exciting and a bit hard to get used to at first.

The opening song "Feel" provides a chorus that sounded familiar to me at once...even though I'd never heard it before. And for the first song from the debut album to bemoan the words "I feel like I'm dying/I'm never gonna live again/You just ain't been trying/It's getting very near the end" shows both confidence and, unbeknownst to the band, an incredible sense of foreshadowing. Internal strife and the frustration of critical accolades coupled with being commercially unsuccessful killed Big Star too soon.

The high-powered tension of "Feel" is followed by the wonderfully glowing melancholy of "The Ballad Of El Goodo" which takes its refrain..."There ain't no one going to turn me 'round"...from an old spiritual which had become a slogan for civil rights in the 60s. Soon after is "Thirteen", a song Rolling Stone includes in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all Time (#396). The song is based on Alex Chilton's inspiring Beatles experience from 1964. It's a mellow stroll of a song with no percussion, and covered by many throughout the years. "Thirteen" gives way to the high-energy "Don't Lie To Me" continuing the roller coaster pattern of contrasting moods.

The second half of the album is softer overall. "Give Me Another Chance" could've come straight from an Elliott Smith record. So strong is the connection between the acoustic strumming, the lyrics, and the vocal style of Chilton and what Elliott Smith provided his fans with decades later. And "Watch The Sunrise", though void of percussion as well, builds such a rolling momentum. It's a beautiful song that was responsible for the start of the band. The story goes that Alex Chilton, who recently had a number one hit in "The Letter" (when with the soul group The Box Tops), approached Chris Bell with the desire to get a Simon and Garfunkel thing going. Bell said no dice, but invited Chilton to come hear his band Icewater (which included Big Star bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens). Chilton came, showed the band one of his own songs and the band sucked him up on the spot. That song was "Watch The Sunrise".

Big Star combined dark, nihilistic themes with the sounds of the British invasion of the 60s and the jangly/power-pop sounds of the day into an overall body of work that became the seeds of today's alternative music. Big Star has been cited as a major influence for artists such as Elliott Smith, Wilco, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, The Posies, Primal Scream, and The Replacements (whose 1987 song "Alex Chilton" includes the lyrics "I never travel far without a little Big Star")...just to name a few. The band lasted only a few years, yet it continues to influence generation after generation of indie bands. As it does so, the popularity of Big Star grows and grows. Below is the song "Thirteen". No real video accompanies the audio as I wanted to include the album version. I've also included a video of "The Ballad Of El Goodo" from their 1993 reunion concert at the University of Missouri.

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