Big Star - #1 Record / Radio City

Big Star
#1 Record / Radio City


First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2009, Volume 16, #9

Written by John Metzger

Wed September 2, 2009, 05:15 AM CDT


In late 1967, as a member of The Box Tops, Alex Chilton scored a major hit with a cover of Wayne Carson Thompsonís The Letter. A few months later, he nearly repeated the feat with Cry Like a Baby, a song that was written by producer Dan Penn and his frequent accomplice Spooner Oldham. Although The Box Tops has several other finely crafted tunes to its credit ó Neon Rainbow and Soul Deep, among them ó the group never again cracked the upper echelon of Billboardís pop chart. By the end of the decade, The Box Tops collapsed amidst a dispute between Penn and Chilton over creative control of the outfit: Penn merely wanted to sell a lot of 45s, while Chilton, who wasnít necessarily averse to commercial success, was focused on making a grander statement. Chiltonís desire to prove his case ó that art and commerce could mix ó has driven him ever since.

With Penn out of the picture, Chilton fulfilled The Box Topsí recording contract with Dimensions, an outing that not only tested the waters for his ideas but also served as a precursor for Big Star. At first, Chilton didnít know what he was going to do after The Box Tops dissolved. He tried to settle into the New York City music scene but quickly realized that he didnít belong. Chilton subsequently retreated to Memphis, where he reconnected with Chris Bell, an old pal from high school. Chilton wasted little time assimilating himself into Bellís outfit, which soon was re-christened Big Star.

As if its name wasnít optimistic enough, Big Star titled its debut #1 Record. This might seem like a remarkably bold and brash proclamation for the group to have made. However, Big Star very well might have filled the vast crevasse left after The Beatles disbanded, if only Chilton and Bellís ensemble had been nurtured rather than ignored by its label. With its songs split largely between those written by Bell and those penned by Chilton, #1 Record features a weird, mishmash of styles and conventions, which mostly were drawn from the 1960s scenes in the U.K. and California. The gentle folk of Thirteen, for example, pulls from Stephen Stillsí work with Buffalo Springfield, while Donít Lie to Me turns The Beatlesí Revolution into an explosive blues anthem. Elsewhere, My Life Is Right feels like a lost track from The Byrdsí Notorious Byrd Brothers, while Feel taps into the sonic space of The Whoís Sell Out.

Nevertheless, #1 Record is more than just a series of musical collages that surveyed the then-recent history of rock ínĎ roll. Its sharp production, which sounds even crisper now that the album has been remastered, captures the energetic sting of youthful angst and rebellion as well as the wistful reflection that emanates from opportunities that have been lost to time. It is easy to become enthralled with the setís melodic structures, and the music ó from Jody Stephensí vigorous drum beats to Andy Hummelís aggressively euphonious bass runs to the ringing guitar tones and acoustic vibrations provided by Chilton and Bell ó is dispensed with power and grace.

As much as #1 Record was a promising debut, it should have been the end of the road for Big Star. Spurred by financial distress, feuds erupted within the ensemble. As a result, Bell departed in the midst of the sessions for Big Starís sophomore set Radio City. Pared down to a trio, Chilton, Hummel, and Stephens plowed forward. Miraculously, they produced a collection of songs that were even better than those that had filled Big Starís debut.

With #1 Record, it often felt as if Chilton and Bell were tugging each other in opposing directions. Although Radio City largely extended the ideas that Big Star had presented on its debut, with Bell out of the picture, Chilton was able to refine the bandís approach, thereby producing a synthesis of styles that was more seamless, fluid, confident, and cohesive. While #1 Record had looked back, Radio City sounded like the future. Its melodies were indelible; its arrangements were pristine; and its songs were painted in the brightly hued kaleidoscopic swirl of paisley sunshine. From the hazy heaviness of Daisy Glaze to the chugging, Drive My Car groove of Sheís a Mover and from the shimmering heartbeat of O My Soul to the lovelorn, bittersweet beauty of September Gurls, Big Star turned Radio City into an onslaught of deliriously well crafted pop tunes that collectively rivaled the sheer perfection of The Beatlesí Rubber Soul.

Without a doubt, even with the enormous amount of press they have received, both #1 Record and Radio City are overlooked gems in the annals of rock history. It is inexplicable, then, that they have oscillated in and out of print over the years. Spurred by the attention given to the group by its followers ó from R.E.M. to Teenage Fanclub to Wilco ó Big Starís story has grown legendary. The latest incarnation of #1 Record and Radio City, which once again have been paired on a single CD, serves as a precursor for the four-disc, 98-track boxed set Keep an Eye on the Sky. With a film based on the bandís history also lurking on the horizon, it looks as if Big Starís days as an obscure relic from the 1970s are finally over for good.

#1 Record - starstarstarstar

Radio City - starstarstarstarstar


Of Further Interest...

Frisbie - The Subversive Sounds of Love

The Jayhawks - Music from the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology

R.E.M. - Monster


#1 Record / Radio City is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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