January: “Radio City” by Big Star

Of all the hard-luck stories in rock – and there are many – you’d have to go a long way to beat Big Star. Perhaps only Badfinger (look em up on Wikipedia – a properly tragic tale) have a more depressing backstory. Big Star are one of those quintessential rock fables: a band with ridiculous talent who made 3 astonishing albums, who made no impact at all and fell to pieces – and who are now lauded by all and sundry as one of the great rock bands. Indeed, if you ever do a search under ‘Power Pop” (that is, rock music influenced by Brit invasion bands that are strong on melody and jangle, but are definitely crunchy rock pop rather than pop), Big Star will invariably be mentioned as one of the finest exponents: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_pop

And yet none of you own a record by them or have heard of them. Cruel old world, eh?

Big Star were formed in the early 70s in Memphis by Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, once of the teen-pop Box Tops, whose song The Letter you’ll remember:

Never have a band sounded less like they were from Memphis or from the early 70s. Bell and Chilton were both obsessed with The Kinks and The Who and I think Chilton even sings with a bit of an English accent! They certainly don’t sound like they were from the US South. And therein lies their tragedy. Their first album, the brilliantly titled Record #1, garnered amazing reviews, but Big Star were signed to Stax, a soul label who had no idea how to deal with them and seemingly underinterested in marketing them. The first album bombed. Bell’s drug use got out of hand. He and the band fell out and by the time their second album, Radio City, came around, he’d left – though the record bears some of his playing and songwriting. The second album fared as badly and the band only managed one more record, the bleak, harrowing Third/Sister Lovers, before disbanding. Soon afterwards, Bell died in a car crash.

Over the years, successive generations of musicians have discovered and their reputation has grown – R.E.M. were hugely influenced, as were The Lemonheads, Teenage Fanclub, Wilco and so on. They’re the basis, really, of melodic American college rock, except that makes them sound so-so when they’re so much better than that. I first came across them via 4AD’s supergroup This Mortal Coil, whose albums feature several covers of what I later realised were Big Star songs. You’ll also recognise September Gurls from The Bangles, who scored a hit with a cover. In the 90s, Chilton reformed the band with some success – he at least, got to see what the band’s reputation had become. Sadly, he died in 2010.

As with Bowie, there was a temptation to give you the most obvious album, which in Big Star’s case is their first album. It’s probably the most accessible, though their music is hardly difficult. But I think Radio City tells us the most about the band: despite Bell’s absence, it’s a band at the top of their powers making a bunch of quite incredible songs that burrow under your skin the more you listen to them. But you can also hear the strain on Chilton and a sorrow and tension in his songwriting and in his voice. Despite the chiming guitars, exquisite melodies and crunchy rock, it’s somehow quite a melancholy record. I also think it’s a beautiful piece of production. So much space between the instruments. Somehow both stripped back and yet really full. The guitar sound alone I could wax lyrical about endlessly. For me, it’s where chiming 60s pop meets 70s rock. It’s been often copied but never equalled.

Big Star have become a very, very important band to me. They’re one of the few bands whose work I can’t live without. When people first ask me who I’m into, I mention the three Bs: Beatles, Bowie, Big Star. I hope you feel the same.


8 comments

  1. Guy Hornsby

    Passionate stuff Brother David. The name did ring a bell, but I couldn’t place it. It’s an intriguing story, one that’s been played out before many times, but the fact they’ve influenced so many (that’s probably where I’d heard it) would suggest there’s more to them than mythology. But my god, releasing rock on Stax? What WERE they thinking?

  2. misterstory

    … still not had mine Brother David. Not sure what’s up? I’ve been trying not to watch the Vids so that I have a totally fresh experience with the album!

  3. David Allison

    Sorry, Brother Joey. I thought they’d all been dispatched ages ago, but then just got an email this morning saying yours had only just gone out today. You should have it tomorrow.As for our other two cohorts: any thoughts yet chaps?

  4. misterstory

    Hey Brothers. 2013 has been a bit of a suck for Brother Story and family thus far. Sorry for blog silence. Ok Brother David. I feel bad. I know putting up one of your loved albums for brotherly scrutiny is like posting a picture of your child on cuteorbrute.com. I am unable to say much about this album I’m afraid. The reason is, I’ve just not been in the mood since I received it. We’ve had loads of family crap to deal with and hand on heart I’ve just not been able to get into it. I do think its me and not the album though. Sorry Brother David. I will get into it and I will have something to say soon. What does everyone else make of it?

  5. David Allison

    Man, really sorry to hear that Brother Joey. Hope everything is OK. As for other two brothers, any thoughts? Your silence is deafening.

  6. Guy Hornsby

    Drop Joseph, sorry to hear things have been rough. Hoping for a February upturn for the Stories. I must likewise apologies for lack of response, due to moving house. It’s taken up most of the last 3 weeks of my life, and I’m finally in my new place. But… that’s not meant I’ve not been listening. I’ve given this 4 or 5 uninterupted (mostly) whirls. And I like what I hear, but I just struggle to connect with it. It may yet happen, and maybe this is the same as the Josh Rouse album, where it means a lot to me, above and beyond the music, but to a user that’s come to it cold, it’s just a nice album, doing some good music. I can see all sorts of bits of other bands I like in here, but approaching it arse about face (knowing the bands music that was influenced by Big Star way before I knew of them or their music) means I’m constantly referencing forward, which is a strange way to do it I guess. And I know that they’re a band that mean a lot to you brother David, so it’s hard to force that connection in weeks, just as for you, it’s not as easy to understand why they may not just click. But while it’s an album I enjoyed, I’m not sure I’d continue to head back to it against all my other loves. I have to admit that it’s harder and harder to get into older albums as I get older as I’m probably increasingly set in my ways. This, I think, says more about me than it does you…!

  7. Nolan Kane

    Now then Brothers; I too have not been the best on the uptake on this. I’ve been away pretty much solid for a month and have had limited access to get involved with this. I did give it a few goes when I first recieved it and struggled with it. Brother David’s explanation has helped me to get my head around it. Over all I look at it as a bit of a platform that was never fully expanded. I like what they are doing, and think that they would have released some great music if they kept on going. With that we need to consider where they were coming from and where they hopefully would have ended up. There are some great parts of songs that seem to be missing a follow through. I’m going to keep with this though as it has started to grow on me in the last week. Thanks for sharing this brother David as I think it’s still got a bit more to give me!

  8. David Allison

    Mmm. Interesting responses. I’m kind of wondering if I made an error by not going for the debut album, which is certainly their most accessible. And the beginning of their story too. Do stick with them if you can, because they are a hell of a band and once they get under your skin, you will return to them.But I do concede the jury’s out for this month at present…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s