Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Big Star: Great Expectations?


Expectations are tricky things. A lot of the time, especially after anxiously waiting for something for a long period of time, our expectations are so impossibly high that when the real thing arrives it’s a letdown. On the other hand, when expectations are met, or even exceeded, it can be an earthshaking, memorable event. I remember thinking, when I finally tracked down a tape of Springsteen’s 1978 pre-Christmas Seattle show, that the concert couldn’t possibly be as great as I remembered it. However, the tape tuned out to be a whole lot better than I ever imagined. Even fellow tape traders who didn’t actually go to the show agreed that the performances (Bruce’s singing and guitar playing have rarely been better) and the song selection made the concert special. I’ve been thinking about how expectations have played a role in my discovery of some of my favorite music, specifically the music of Big Star.

My expectations could not have been higher for Big Star’s music. Around 1980, I noticed the name Big Star cropping up in the music press all the time. Power pop bands were sprouting up everywhere and many of them were being compared to this band called Big Star, and I gathered from what I read that they were a Beatle-like cult band that put out a few albums in the seventies. I’m an absolute sucker for Beatlesque pop if it’s done well, so I set out to find anything released by the band. I soon found out that all of Big Star’s albums were out of print and impossible to find. The closest I could get were albums by Alex Chilton, former member of the Box Tops and one of the founders of Big Star, but they were expensive imports and I wasn’t sure if they were a good place to start. Reviews of his concerts and LPs at the time said they were drunken, sloppy affairs and every write-up seemed to say that Chilton’s best work was behind him. Of course this best work they were talking about was the music of Big Star. The music I could not find anywhere on the face of the earth.

Finally, after at least six years of searching (with my expectations rising all the while) a small American label released Big Star’s third and final album called Sister Lovers. The album was recorded in 1974 and never completed, but various record companies around the world had released their own versions of the album using the tapes. Sister Lovers could almost be considered a Chilton solo album since at this point the band had deteriorated down to only Alex and drummer Jody Stephens. This was sure a strange place to start my journey into Big Star’s music, with an unfinished work by just two members of the group. And to top it off, my pressing of the record was awful.

Well, I ended up adding a whole new layer of noise to it since I wore the damn thing out! Sister Lovers is darkly beautiful, not unlike the Velvet Underground’s third album (the Velvets comparison is really quite obvious since Alex covers their “Femme Fatale”). There are traces of power pop on songs like “Kizza Me” and “Jesus Christ,” but most of the album is made up of bleak ballads like “Holocaust” and “Big Black Car.” The whole thing is more reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Berlin than anything like the Beatles, which sure confounded my expectations at the time, but Sister Lovers got me hooked on Big Star anyway.

It seemed like the Big Beat label in England was just waiting to satisfy my hunger for more Big Star, because they reissued the band’s first two records only a few months after I found Sister Lovers. I snapped them up immediately. I remember strapping on the headphones and putting #1 Record on the turntable for the first time and my jaw dropping in wonder a short time later. I can only recall a few times previously or since that I’ve been so floored by music so wonderful. I am still awed by the beauty of “The Ballad of El Goodo,” which just happens to be playing at the very moment I write this. The gentle “hold on” refrain and the tuneful guitar riffs always get to me.

#1 Record is the cause of all the comparisons to the Beatles. This is mostly because it is the only album that band cofounder Chris Bell was heavily involved with and his approach was more smooth and melodic than Chilton’s rough-edged style. Beatle influences certainly abound but I hear traces of other British too, especially on the song “In the Street,” which sounds like a marriage of the early Kinks and Who at their most powerful.

As good as #1 Record is, The next Big Star release, Radio City, is even better and is one of my all-time favorite records. Chris Bell had left the band by this time because of conflicts with Alex and frustration over the lack of success of the first album, so on this second album Chilton is more in charge. The sound is predictably rougher, led by Alex’s distinctive guitar, which is somehow incredibly distorted and clear at the same time. The songs are still melodic (I can’t think of a more melodic tune than “September Gurls”) but are more unpredictable. “Daisy Glaze” for example starts off soft and slow then kicks into overdrive with the best guitar hooks this side of Badfinger’s “No Matter What.” These two records are only about 35 minutes each, so I played them back to back the first day I got them and have done so ever since. I recommend that you do the same, especially now that both albums are now available on one CD.

I’m a little envious of people who are just discovering Big Star today since all their stuff has been reissued on CD and is easily found. Ah well, this music deserved to be heard, so what am I complaining about? Rykodisc not only issued an expanded version of Sister Lovers a few years ago, they also released a live radio broadcast of the band from the early seventies, and Chris Bell’s solo work. The live album is wonderful enough (The rockers are tougher, the ballads more tender than on the studio albums), but the real surprise is Bell’s I Am the Cosmos collection. His work on #1 Record only hints at the pop greatness found here. Like Big Star’s first record, Beatles/Who/Kinks influences are apparent, but the songs seem more distinctive and focused on Chris’s own album. The title track is a classic bit of psychedelic Lennonism that could’ve, should’ve been a hit single. With the song “Speed of Sound,” Bell somehow makes the cheesy synthesizer sound that was so popular in the seventies heartbreaking, and I melt each and every time I hear it. I Am the Cosmos received good reviews when it came out but I doubt that very many people heard it. You don’t even have to wait years to hear it like I did, so check it out as soon as you can. It will live up to your expectations, I promise.

“I Am the Cosmos “ is also the highlight of the new live album made from the Big Star reunion concert that took place last year. Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens got together with two members of the Posies to play the music that Chilton has all but refused to perform for over a decade. Chris Bell was killed in a car crash in 1978 but this version of “Cosmos” is so nice that I’ve got to believe he can hear it as he floats about the cosmos himself. Sure, the performances are a bit rough and bumpy in spots, but they play most of the Big Star songs that you would want to hear plus a couple of covers (T. Rex’s “Baby Strange” and Todd Rundgren’s “Slut”). A fan’s expectations met again.

In the song “Thirteen” on #1 Record, Chilton evokes the magic that music held for people who grew up in the sixties. A new song by the Beatles or Stones wasn’t just a new record release, it was an event. An event that maybe could change the world. Yeah, music could change the world, right? Well, I’m older now and more realistic but that doesn’t mean music can no longer be magical. I am still floored whenever I listen to Big Star. Every single time I put on their music, I’m truly amazed at how great it is. All my expectations fulfilled. Every impossible time.

--Steve Rostkoski is a life-long music fan and studied recording engineering and library technology. He has worked as a library technician, archival cataloger, freelance journalist and publisher. His essays and reviews have appeared in Crawdaddy!, No Depression, The Rocket and other periodicals. This essay is from Rostkoski's Letter to the Vatican which began in 1991 as a self-published zine created for the writers' group APA Centauri.

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