Big Star – #1 Record / Radio City
Ardent / Fantasy (Remaster: 6/16/09)
Rock / Power pop
Hangin’ out, down the street / The same ol’ thing, we did last week”
Recognize these lyrics? If you’re a fan of That ’70s Show, then they probably ring a bell. Taken from Big Star’s “In the Street”, the originally-recorded version was the hit show’s theme song in the first season until it was re-worked by Cheap Trick.
This is the most recent remaster of a collection that was first released in 1992, comprising Big Star’s first two albums, #1 Record (1972) and Radio City, (1974) on one disc, with twenty-six songs that have been out of print in every format for some time now. Featuring killer, dual-guitar riffage and R&B-inspired rhythms, this Memphis band’s most standout quality is their Beatles/Monkees-esque harmony vocals. Chris Bell’s throaty gravel and Alex Chilton’s calming falsetto combine beautifully to create some of their generation’s best power pop.
Unfortunately, these two under-rated and unknown singer/songwriters can only be heard together on the first album of thirteen tracks, due to a very messy falling-out that included physical altercations as well as the destruction of innocent instruments (sounds like your average rock band if you ask me). Bell subsequently departed the band (also including Andy Hummel on bass and Jody Stephens on drums), leaving Chilton with primary song-writing, vocal and guitar duties. Third/Sister Lovers, the third and final effort from Big Star, was released in 1978, four years after its completion. Bell released his own album in 1978, I Am the Cosmos, shortly thereafter, though he would die in a car accident later that year—apparently falling asleep behind the wheel.
#1 Record is chock full of classics, making almost every song of the first album a winner. Obviously there’s the familiar “In the Street”, while “Thirteen” is a mellow, acoustic-driven number touching on the subject of teen angst. It’s layered with beautiful, harmonic vocals and a very well-written, memorable guitar lead. “Don’t Lie To Me” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me” (two personal favorites), both rock out with that early-’70s Rolling Stones sound, offering ultra-catchy hooks, from the blues-rock riffs to the boogie-woogie rhythms. Also included is a “Single Mix” of “In the Street”, which, while not as good as the original, is still worth a listen.
Radio City has a noticeably different vibe than the first, most notably the lack of harmony-vocal fluidity and songwriting prowess the tandem of Bell and Chilton had created on the debut. It’s still a very enjoyable record, but just a bit more polished and considerably less edgy.
“O My Soul”, with its surf-guitar sound and funky groove is an uplifting tune that kicks off the set, though the shrill background keyboard could have been left out of the mix. Written in a minor key with a cave full of reverb, “You Get What You Deserve” has a haunting tone and a CCR-type dimension with its jangly guitars. “Mod Lang” is another Stones’-inspired tune that sounds like it’s taken right from Sticky Fingers—country-flaired rock licks and all, while “Back Of a Car” and “I’m in Love With a Girl” are two more catchy tracks worthy of note. Just like on the #1 Record half of the set, the Radio City half ends with a modest “Single Mix” of its opener, “O My Soul”.
You might have never heard Big Star’s music before, but artists including Wilco, Matthew Sweet, Garbage, The Replacements, R.E.M., Jeff Buckley, The Bangles and Teenage Fanclub, have all cited these pioneers of power-pop as influences, even covering tracks from their catalog. All and all, this two-album package, complete with twenty-six songs and very thorough liner notes summarizing the band’s rise and fall, is the perfect introduction to Big Star.