A Big Star That Still Shines
An album for these confinement times
The music that picks you up when you are confined is certainly a personal thing. It can range from very lively and optimistic to something truly melancholic and downcast. In most cases, it is different types of artists that come up with either. Yet, there is one, now long gone band that actually came up with both, Big Star. They were able to come up with the original pick-me-up music, power pop in their first album, and one of the saddest albums in rock music with their third. Quite a feat in itself, but maybe these times need a bit more of the former, and Big Star's '#1 Record' sadly never made it that far commercially.
Ah, Big Star and its #1 Record! All the prerequisites were there, but it never came to be, at least not when it should have mattered and that is when the band existed and both Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were still around. All that cult fandom and the fact that all three Big Star albums (Radio City and Third being the other two) are absolutely bona fide classics and are singlehandedly responsible for power pop, don’t matter when the guys didn’t make it when they were really supposed to.
So you have a guy in Alex Chilton who comes into the fray fresh from being a teen rock star, and whose gruff voice, even though he was 16 at the time became a signature for “The Letter”, one of the biggest hits of The Sixties and a blue-eyed soul number one that was “Cry Like A Baby”, and who turns out to be an encyclopedia of rock and a brilliant songwriter in his own right.
You combine him with Chris Bell, another excellent, albeit at the time unknown singer/songwriter, Star, one of the biggest independent soul labels at the time drops Ardent, a brand spanking new studio in their lap, forming even a subsidiary label around it. You name the band Big Star and name their debut #1 Record, what more did you need?
What was needed was for the band to make it, and unfortunately, they didn’t. Even though judging by the brilliance and timelessness of this album they were a certainly big star, it was never a #1 record. Shame.
Maybe nobody was expecting Chilton to actually have a smooth singing voice he exhibited on this album, even though it was said that the gruff stuff on “The Letter” came from a night of drinking and debauchery at a Memphis graveyard the night before that hit song was recorded.
Or maybe nobody expected the dual Chilton/Bell harmonies like on “In The Street” and truly melodic songs that dominate the album, the exquisite balladry of “Thirteen” or all those power-pop bands that came afterward that would cop the riffs and build their whole repertoire from say, “Don’t Lie To Me” or “When My Baby ’s Beside Me”. The Andy Hummel psych ditty “The India Song” just gives the album an additional touch, like a whiff of exotic perfume.
Or maybe the band, particularly Chilton and Bell were too sure that they were doing a good thing and lack of success just brought them down, particularly since neither was known for a healthy lifestyle. The inability of Stax to properly handle and promote the band and Ardent as a label didn’t help either.
Relatively quickly after the release of #1Record, the internal strife between Chilton and Bell culminated and Bell left. He came up with “I’m The Cosmos”, yet another brilliant melody rock song and album, only to soon afterward pass away. Chilton took over full reigns of Big Star, coming up with yet another two classics - Radio City, with absolutely iconic songs like “Mod Land” and “September Gurls” and Third, probably one of the saddest albums in rock history.
Still, #1Record by itself stands as a brilliant, uniform, trailblazing set of songs that still shine like that neon on the cover. Oh, and there was a brilliant ballad there, too.