Monday, March 12, 2007


35 years ago: April 1972

Big Star isn't a band I heard of at all in the '70s. I didn't even know who Alex Chilton, the leader of the group, was. Sure, I knew the song by The Box Tops, Chilton's initial band, called "The Letter" but it was made dated, in my middle school years, by Joe Cocker's frenetic version. So it wasn't until Big Star started showing up on lists of all-time favorite music compiled by the likes of Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Paul Westerberg of The Replacements, two front-runners in the mid-80s "bands of my generation" sweepstakes, that I took notice of the previously overlooked Big Star. And, as they say, I'm glad I did!

This is the first album and it's imbued with an "essence of the '70s" that is hard to place, since it wasn't part of my consciousness during that decade. I think that's one reason I'm so fond of this band. When I think back on the '70s I think of the prog-rock I actually listened to; I think of glam, which I grudgingly accepted; I think of heavy metal, which was a passion for a brief time; I think of getting to know the past work of '60s greats now absent or in decline. But it's an album like #1 Record that provides a glimpse of the spirit of a cooler version of the '70s. I know it was there in the '70-'72 period in CCR and The Kinks and The Who and The Stones -- it's rock that has fully come into its own: a pop sound with harder edges, a bit of country twang here and there, a sense of the "happy trails" era giving way to grimmer, more stressed psychic vacations. Chilton and Chris Bell, his collaborator (on this album), give Big Star equal parts of kick and contemplation. Like Badfinger, another band of this period which pinpoints the feel of the times (and I did have a few of their 45s), Big Star has a sense of melody that is crisp and never cloying. But for some reason there aren't any hits here. That has something to do with what I see as Chilton's calculated "underground" persona. Having scored big hits (to become a "big star") with The Box Tops while still a kid, Chilton seems to be highly ambivalent about going down that road again. But that's probably just hindsight. At the time there was no reason why #1 Record shouldn't have hit the way The Eagles' first album did (released the same year).

Big Star fuses Byrds-like harmonies with the kind of power-pop riffs that The Kinks originated. Probably their best known song these days is "In the Street" which I'm told was the theme song for That '70s Show -- "wish we had / a joint so bad," yup -- but songs like "The Ballad of El Goodo" (maybe a bit too existential for AM) and "Thirteen" (which sums up young teen love without condescension or sappy nostalgia) and "Give Me Another Chance" and "Try Again" give us a taste of the introspective Chilton who will eventually create Big Star's Third / Sister Lovers, one of the greatest albums of the '70s. Period. Big Star's gifts are subtle -- it's in the arrangements, of voices especially -- and when #1 Record rocks ("Feel"; "Don't Lie to Me") it doesn't go for the kind of cranking riff-rock that could be found at the time in the likes of The Guess Who or Free or Foghat; it's the kind of music I can imagine the more discerning teen heads listening to, the kind of guys that know a bag of good stuff from run-of-the-mill and would pass on the latter.

It's an image I can't suppress when listening to this album: '70s rec-rooms and multiple sibling bedrooms where, surrounded by the trappings of middle-class suburbia, the kids would get blitzed and float away on serene voices and hard guitars. As one who was only thirteen in '72, this album pre-dates my actual exposure to such scenes, but it registers my sense of things to come, in more ways than one.

Tell your dad, Get off my back
Tell him what we said 'bout 'Paint It, Black'
Rock 'n' roll is here to stay.
Come inside, well it's OK

--Bell and Chilton, "Thirteen" (1972)

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