Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Albums of 1972: Big Star: #1 Record

Release Date: April 24, 1972

Members: Chris Bell (guitar, vocals); Alex Chilton (guitar, vocals); Andy Hummel (bass, vocals); Jody Stephens (drums)

Produced by John Fry

Track List: Side One: Feel; The Ballad of El Goodo; In the Street; Thirteen; Don't Lie to Me; The India Song

Side Two: When My Baby's Beside Me; My Life is Right; Give Me Another Chance; Try Again; Watch the Sunrise; ST/100

I always imagined all three Big Star records as these floating talismans waiting for down on their luck devotees of rock to unearth. To paraphrase the Rolling Stone encyclopedia "there was this band who recorded a few records and vanished, but they synthesized the sound of The Beatles, The Who, and The Byrds" and it was something worth skipping a few days of school to seek out. 

Now that multiple reissues and deluxe releases, books, and documentaries the story of Big Star has been told many times. One must feel vindicated their music's been canonized, but also rueful over a selfish sense of loss. 

As pointed out by many before me, the power pop sound of Big Star may have seemed out of fashion in 1972. Maybe, yet the mystique of Lennon/McCartney still loomed over much of the '70s music scene. Time never moves in a linear path with cultural history. 

Alex Chilton, a teenage sensation as lead singer for The Box Tops, would continue to reinvent himself through the 1970s and Big Star marked a specific step in that evolution. Chris Bell, a prodigy on the Memphis music scene as songwriter and session guitarist, would share a short lived but fruitful collaboration with Chilton. 

"Feel" opens the album with punchy guitar riff that build into lacerating waves of sonic harmonies, punctuated by Bell's soulful vocal espousing truculence and defeat. Defeat edging into despair marks a recurring motif on the album. "The Ballad of El Goodo" lives in such a head space but allows a firm resolve to take hold as well. Chilton sings "It gets so hard in times like these to hold on" transcends being mere self-help prattle, but a mantra of defiance.

"In the Street" creates an indelible scene of youthful exuberance and malaise with Byrds harmonies and Harrison guitar leads. Chilton's "Thirteen" proves the record has way more heft than being derivative of British Invasion. At 2 minutes and 34 seconds, the ballad transcends love song clich├ęs and becomes pure poetic emotion.

"Don't Lie to Me" goes for a more conventionally produced rock sound, a defiance rearing its head as uncompromising anger. Bassist Andy Hummel contributed the baroque psychedelia of "The India Song" conjuring a blissed out atmosphere of stately decadence. 

Side two begins with "When My Baby's Beside Me", an array of delightful hooks that can be taken as pop song parody or pure sincerity. "My Life is Right" hints at a spirituality in a joyful song celebrating connection. 

"Give Me Another Chance" by Chilton begins the acoustic sequence of songs that close out the record. Melancholy and regretful, the Beatles style harmonies add poignancy to the track. "Try Again" glimpses into the cosmic nature of heartbreak. The opulent "Watch the Sunrise" could be a Neil Young closer, sunny ruminations after the dark night of the soul. "ST/100" serves as a coda to the comedown that is the second side of #1 Record

An album of dimming romanticism in the face of long odds, the first Big Star record stands as a metaphysical victory. Bell's sensitive vocals and intricate production skills alongside Chilton's exuberance reign on high 50 years later. 

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