#1 Record/Radio City

Big Star

album cover

Key Secret Texts of Power-Pop

In its September 9, 1972, report on #1 Record, the debut release of the Memphis rock four-piece Big Star, the music industry trade magazine Billboard enthused: "Each and every cut on this album has the inherent potential to become a blockbuster single. The ramifications are positively awesome."

Needless to say, the predictions of imminent stardom were greatly exaggerated. Despite across-the-board raves from critics, no blockbuster single was forthcoming. In fact, Big Star fell victim to utterly typical business problems: Its label, Ardent Records, had trouble with distribution from Stax and later Columbia Records. As a result, there were no records in stores for people to buy. The positive notices were squandered.

Disillusioned, principal writers Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, who in Lennon/McCartney fashion wrote strikingly different types of songs but shared writing credit, had a falling out. Bell left the band in December, during work on the follow-up Radio City. As a result, the second album (and a third, the more psychedelic Sister Lovers) is mostly a showcase for Chilton, though the liner notes indicate that Bell did contribute ideas to a few of the revved-up rockers.

The first two Big Star records, now reissued on a single CD, are great treasures, if for somewhat different reasons. #1 Record offers Bell's fierce, unapologetically grabby pop ("Feel") as well as Chilton's more philosophical songs ("The Ballad of El Goodo"). The Billboard scribe might have been a tad too generous—several tracks, like the rollicking Stones-influenced shout "Don't Lie to Me," are sparkling album tracks, not singles. Still, the basic Big Star equation—an appreciation for Memphis R&B backbeats, elaborate vocal harmonies, and other British Invasion finery—is hard to deny.

Bell's departure took away that vocal-group dimension, but it unleashed a torrent of staggeringly creative songs from Chilton. Radio City spans quite a range—there are contemplative ballads that make the most of Chilton's bewildered voice; shadowy, sinister rockers; and even a slowly unfolding space trance in the style of Pink Floyd, "Daisy Glaze." The album didn't fare any better than its predecessor in the marketplace, but to those who love power-pop, its exultant melodies are essential texts.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1972/1974, Ardent (Reissued 1992, Fantasy)
Key Tracks: "Feel," "The Ballad of El Goodo," "In the Street," "Thirteen," "You Get What You Deserve," "Back of a Car"
Catalog Choice: Sister Lovers
Next Stop: Badfinger: Straight Up
After That: The Raspberries: Raspberries
Book Pages: 88–89

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#1 from Paul Malden, USA - 11/14/2008 10:09

In my opinion, there is no pop/rock better than Big Star. There are equals. But no one ever did it better.

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