Rock and roll is here to stay. Longtime music maven and writer, Steven Prazak, navigates us through the heavyweight catalog of influential and mythic, '70s cult power-poppers, Big Star, in one of our favorite music pieces we've ever published.
No doubt you’ve heard musos and critics, often of advanced age, coo and swoon over early ‘70s band Big Star and their melodic and occasionally mischievous ways. No doubt you know of the Memphis band’s famous fans and inspiration-receivers—R.E.M., the Replacements, and Teenage Fanclub top those oft-repeated lists. And you’ve likely heard a re-tooled version of their “In The Street” opening every episode of That ‘70s Show.
Now you might wonder why Big Star was such a big deal. And why they still are!
The early ‘70s
To best understand the appeal of Big Star, you need to understand the early ‘70s. The ‘60s are gone, of course, and with that departed decade go both the Beatles and their unique sense of songcraft. In its place—on the rock 'n' roll front, at least—comes a battalion of hard rockin’ boogie bands, inoffensive if hooky Top-40 fluff, sensitive singer/songwriter musings, and virtuoso-fired progressive groups more intent on performing “compositions” than “songs.”
The more passionate record reviewers and critics, employed by the music trade and underground presses of the time, were mostly rock 'n' roll fans and pretty much weaned on the ‘60s palette of inspired songwriting and execution that either now appeared to be dead or at least hopelessly quaint. So, imagine the critics’ glee when into this sonic abyss appears, the first Big Star album, the boldly titled #1 Record.
The first Big Star album, #1 Record, released in 1972, on Ardent Records, distributed by Stax Records.
Not merely a songwriter’s album, this is a full-tilt rock band performing imaginative, yet straight-forward songs, with ringing guitars, layered harmonies, and more hooks than the proverbial tackle box. All immaculately recorded by engineer and Ardent Studio head, John Fry. Indeed, the whole sonic brilliance of the recording itself was very novel for its time—there were few 1972 rock 'n' roll albums sounding as good as this one.
What sets Big Star apart from the other bands with which they are often compared—i.e. the ‘power pop’ tandem of Britain’s Badfinger and Cleveland’s Raspberries—is that they did not wear their ‘60s inspiration on their sleeves as overtly. The songs on this album, nearly all written by the band’s Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, have an organic freshness that rely on neither nostalgia nor pastiche. This was truly a sound inspired by ‘60s tunesmanship, that somehow managed to sound nothing like the ‘60s.
The Big Star sound was heralded by giddy critics and reviewers in the pages of Rolling Stone, Fusion, Billboard, Cashbox, Crawdaddy, and many other music pubs. And “wide-eyed and wide-eared” music fans, like me, who took these critics on their word, snapped up #1 Record wherever they could find it—sadly, a very limited landscape. Ardent label distributor, Stax Records in 1972, didn’t have the distribution presence or muscle to get the product out to the places where it could have done well. But that didn’t stop Big Star album #2, Radio City.
The second Big Star album, Radio City features an iconic photo by William Eggleston. It was released in 1973 on Ardent Records and distributed by Stax Records.
The band, with the exit of Chris Bell, is now relying on Alex Chilton as its chief songsmith and lone guitarist. And, boy, was Chilton up for the task! The man’s shimmering Stratocaster picking on this LP was an enormous leap over his already fine work on the first album. Guitarists far-and-wide have marveled at Chilton’s singular guitar sound on this very album. The songs took a slightly more oblique and difficult melodic trajectory than before, but still chock-full of harmony-heavy hooks and rousing refrains. Indeed, the band thought every one of the tracks on this LP would’ve sounded just fine on the radio, hence the album title. Though, few radio stations at the time apparently thought so.
Radio City’s most renowned tune, “September Gurls,” actually released as a single at the time to the same deaf ears who seem to have bypassed all Big Star releases, finally got some traction thirteen years later thanks to a version by the Big Star-loving Bangles.
Despite many glowing reviews, the Radio City album was sadly anchored down by the same distribution woes that plagued the previous album. Folks wanted to hear it, they just couldn’t find it. Feeling that their time had come and gone, Big Star called it a day. Sort of.
Big Star Third
After a year or so had passed, an emotionally weary Alex Chilton wandered into Ardent Studios with a handful of equally weary but curious tunes destined to form an album that, some four years after the fact, would be released and entitled Big Star Third. Only Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens remained, with other instrumental roles filled by assorted Memphis players and even a string section.
Stephens contends that this was largely a solo Alex Chilton project as there is obviously little of the Big Star jangle and sheen to be heard here. Instead, here comes a harrowing and spare collection of fragile little songs that some claim is a damaged Chilton purposely sabotaging what’s left of his career. Many others, instead, see beauty and brilliance in a, “head-on collision between inspiration and frustration.” The best cushion to prepare you for this trip is in Third’s lead-off track, the baroque-string leaden, “Stroke It Noel” (Noel being one of the violinists, by the way), before the vibe turns noticeably more barren and dark, but no less beautiful.
The ‘90s and beyond
With now 4+ decades for all of Big Star’s three-album ‘70s output to gestate and flower, new generations have grown to appreciate this briefly shining beacon of melody and color released during a relatively mild time for popular music. Wilco, Primal Scream, and literally countless others, have incorporated Big Star-esque chording and melodies in their own albums. And Big Star itself even managed to reform, once in 1993 and again at the beginning of the century to play live their celebrated ‘70s material.
Since then, an astounding and revolving collection of musicians, under the conductorship of dBs’ mainman Chris Stamey, have been playing the entire Big Star Third album to ever-swelling ranks of Big Star fans of varied vintage throughout the U.S. I caught this very same Third show in Athens, GA a few years back and was so moved by its timeless beauty and vibrations that I got a little misty!
So there you have it. Three largely ignored album releases in the ‘70s that didn’t sound like anything else at the time and, in hindsight, didn’t really sound much like each other. But they still pack enough emotion, melody and guitar-based power to inspire generations of music fans and players decades down the line.
Want to stick your toe in the water? Try The Best of Big Star for a taster. If you’re sold, then go for each album (#1 Record, Radio City, and Big Star Third/Sister Lovers). Best to stick to the order they were released for maximum enjoyment and context.
- Steven Prazak
Steven Prazak is a former A&R consultant with Geffen Records and program and music director with WUSC-FM. His first concert (the Nice and the Byrds) was at the Fillmore East in 1969 when he was all of 11 years old, and was reviewing the first two Alice Cooper albums in Hit Parader magazine the year after. He’s also appeared on numerous national TV wrestling shows over the years as commentator, interviewer, or annoying bad-guy manager, though he’ll deny it. Prazak is presently a marketing content and corporate communications writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.