“I never travel far / without a little Big Star.” – The Replacements, “Alex Chilton”
Big Star is the best band you’ve never heard of. Their recording history spanned only three years, with only one album (#1 Record) that was completed with the full line-up, which featured two excellent singer/songwriter/guitarists (Chris Bell and the above-mentioned Chilton); they lived and recorded outside of the rock and roll mainstream, in Memphis, where they rubbed shoulders with the remnants of the multi-racial rhythm and blues scene. They were obsessed with teenage love, the the Kinks, soul music, guitars, and, if their last album Third is any indication, mixing their records while on a copious amount of drugs. Now that’s rock and roll.
In his teens, Alex Chilton recorded Dan Penn-produced gems like “Cry Like A Baby,” “The Letter,” and “I Met Her in Church” while fronting The Boxtops before a hiatus in NYC’s Greenwich Village awakened his own “voice” and writing talent. Returning to Memphis, he soon convinced Bell (who was a long-time friend of Chilton’s and only missed being a Boxtop because he couldn’t catch a ride to the studio on the day the band was named) to form a group that would be the next step in the logical progression past their primary influences — The Beatles-Byrds-Kinks-Dylan nexus — creating original, American rock and roll with an ear-catching British flair.
While I mainly learned about Big Star through the accolades of their acolytes — The Replacements, REM, The Posies, The Bangles — absolutely nothing prepared me for what #1 Record sounded like. If the Velvet Underground were from Mars, Big Star were from Venus. The first four songs are almost too much to wrap your head around at first listen. “Feel” (whose main riff was later nicked by Stone Temple Pilots) sounded like a bubblegum pop turned on its head: all glistening and shiny, but with lyrics (“I feel like I’m dying / never gonna live again …”) that directly undercut the mood of the melody. The electric guitars whilred, rang and chimed, every note dripping with compression; the rhythm section (Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel) tumbled and stumbled, utterly overpowered by the wall of glistening guitar notes … yet, somehow, it all sticks together. “The Ballad of El Goodo” followed, with its folk song-like structure and ooh-aah backing vocals smacking right up against Stephens’ rolling tom-fills. “In the Street,” later co-opted by Cheap Trick into the them of That 70s Show, is a blistering anthem of teenage ennui (“wish we had / a joint so bad”). The fourth track, “Thirteen,” takes an entirely different, yet similarly resonant tack: it’s a straightforward, acoustic paen to early teen love (“won’t your tell your dad, get off my back? / tell him what we said about ‘paint it black'”) from a point of view that’s used very sparingly in literature because it is so difficult to capture. Think James Joyce’s “Araby,” but as a two-minute pop song.
All that being said — and I’ve probably waxed nerdy on this far too long already — my song choice for 1974 is from Big Star’s second record, Radio City, which was recorded by the line-up of Chilton, Stephens and Hummel. “September Gurls” might be best known as a cover — The Bangles had a small hit with it in 1986 — but it is a beautiful encapsulation of everything Big Star did right: a simple melody, ear-catching guitar lines, lyrics that capture a unique voice (“september girls / do so much / i was your butch / and you were touched / i loved you / well, never mind / i’ve been crying / all the time / december boy’s got it bad …”).
This choice has some deeper personal resonance for me in that I was indeed a “december boy” in love with a “september girl” — my lovely wife — and put this tune on the first mix CD I gave her. Everyone in unison: “aaaawww” (or TMI). So, while the baby is sleeping, I think I’ll start working on learning this bad boy. Wish me luck!