Originally released in 1972 and 1974, respectively, Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City have become legendary recordings for a few main reasons. First: Paul Westerberg. Second: Every alternative power-pop band that gained success in the early-’90s.
Without the Memphis-based Big Star and the writings of singing and songwriting duo Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, there may never have been the Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet or even R.E.M. Regardless of whether that’s a good thing or not, Big Star, which was mostly obscure until Westerberg let the cat out of the bag on the Replacements’ 1987 release Pleased to Meet Me with the song “Alex Chilton,” has had a tremendous influence, solidifying its place as a mythical cult rock ‘n’ roll band. Catchy harmonies, often compared to the Byrds or the Kinks, dominated Big Star’s sound, as did the obligatory jangly, if not raw, guitar.
Chilton joined Bell as singer for the band following a stint as vocalist for the Box Tops, which reached its peak with the 1967 classic “The Letter.” Big Star provided a venue for Chilton’s love of pop music and paired it with Bell’s affection for polished guitar rock and turned the prog-rock of the early-’70s on its ear. Unfortunately, few people heard the clatter. Distribution problems with the band’s label Ardent — an imprint of Memphis’ legendary R & B label Stax — and the inevitable “creative differences” split the band in 1975 after four years and two albums. Neither was in print for several years until the aforementioned mid-’80s revival.
These two releases were originally packaged into one definitive power-pop document in 1992. Rykodisc also unleashed The Big Star Story April 22, supposedly a greatest-hits compilation, though it’s proved hard to find.
#1 Record starts off slow, with the fairly weak “Feel.” What follows is the beautifully sweet “The Ballad of El Goodo,” which makes up for the faults of the first track. “In the Street” is a T. Rex-esque rocker (as well as the theme song for Fox’s That 70’s Show — you just know the show’s producers were aching for the line “wish we had a joint so bad” to pass by the censors), amply supplying power chords (and cowbell!) for all to enjoy. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” tells the tale of a man whose ails are soothed by the company of his lady and was originally released as a single to little fanfare. It is also evidence of Bell’s preference for swagger over Chilton’s fondness for melody, a distinction that no doubt signaled the first wave of disagreement that lead to the band’s demise.
Radio City, released following Bell’s departure, really shows the soul of Big Star and of Chilton especially. There’s a slight change to the band’s sound, with an emphasis on rawk and a demonstrated looseness where once everything fit together so tightly. “September Gurls,” probably the band’s most well-known song, is painfully pretty and calls back to that Byrds/Kinks influence, melding that beauty with more raw, jangly guitar work. Some critics have gone so far as to hail it one of rock’s classic songs.
One listen to “Life is White” will have you swearing you’ve heard it somewhere before. “Way Out West” evokes that same déjà vu feeling.
Bell died in a car accident in 1978, but Chilton went on to produce albums for several bands, including the Cramps’ first release and even a Replacements song. He continues to work as a solo artist. If either #1 Record or Radio City are on your List of Records to Buy at Some Point Because All the Critics Say they’re So Good, go get them. Now. It may take a few listens to really get to the heart of the music or to understand the importance of it, but if you are a fan of melody, guitars, or thoughtful lyrics, you owe it to yourself to revel in the Big Star experience.