This recording may be the finest rock recording ever reduced to vinyl or CD. Read this again for emphasis. This recording may be the finest recording ever reduced to vinyl or CD.
Contrary to the haunting, lurching words and refrain of “What’s Goin’ Ahn” on this 1974 masterpiece, there is much to say about this Memphis band and the album Radio City. A few have said quite a bit about the band and its story, and I will do my best not to rewrite the excellent pieces by Barney Hoskyns in Mojo and Jonathan Valania in Revolver. Both of these pieces have appeared in the last year. As one ardent fan of the band noted, more has been written about Big Star recently than possibly at any time.
References to the band are common in press releases, which I often find humorous, because unless I can hear through the speakers the sound of the interaction of a tortured, gay, intimidated genius with a crazy, hard-drinking, hard-drugging, Jerry Lee Lewis-like, cousin-loving (Alex-just kidding-don’t kick my ass), intimidating genius, it don’t sound like Big Star. It was a flammable combination that produced some classic music.
Yeah, Big Star had nice melodies, shiny guitars and lilting harmonies, but it was a lot more complex than that, and there was a reason that a recent Revolver story called “Big Star…America’s #1 Cult band.”
This review focuses on their second album Radio City, because many, including me, consider this to be the band’s creative peak, capturing on vinyl all the chiming glitter and power of melody that can be expressed with electric guitars and high, lilting, tortured, I-Don’t-Care-If-You-Like-It lyrics and vocals. Sure, Big Star have similarities to The Beatles. But not even Lennon had the pent up angst and raw anger of a real live Southern boy with Steve Cropper guitar chops and an attitude that allowed him to raise his middle finger to the record industry, you, me and the rest of the world. This, combined with awesome, spontaneous performances that seem to have been captured magically, made comparisons to The Beatles inevitable, except the majesty of Big Star on Radio City had everything to do with how Chilton appeared to want to break free from The Beatles shadow and the shadow that was his former bandmate, Chris Bell.
Like The Beatles, Big Star had at its core two great forces: Chilton, and the enigmatic, cult icon Chris Bell. The band started with Chris at the throne, and he was a died-in-the-wool Beatles disciple. There was a tacit power struggle as to the direction of the band during their first album, #1 Record, and Alex wanted control. By Radio City, Bell was intimidated out of the band and Alex had free reign.
No one before Chris or after ever really challenged Alex musically, and I think Alex might even admit that to himself. Radio City was Chilton’s way of showing only to himself that he could write better Beatles-like songs than Bell ever could. My theory is that Chilton’s motivation for Radio City was to show up Bell. That is the source of the passion, angst and intensity on Radio City. That type of rivalry made The Beatles great, except they stayed together despite their dissonance, creating a larger body of work. That Chilton showed up Bell with Radio City may have literally killed the late Bell, a tortured, complex man who never had the chance to find a support system that would have allowed him to accept his homosexuality. Indeed, his early death some label as a suicide was a tragedy of the highest order.
Radio City opens with the instrumental, “O My Soul,” putting on display the kind of guitar playing that only could be accomplished by mastering the guitar parts from the best Stax/Volt records. To follow, you have the classic “Life Is White.” There, Chilton speaks directly to Bell in response to Bell’s spiritual opus, “Life Is Right” off of #1 Record: “...don’t like to see your face, don’t like to hear you talk at all.” He sings about a girl named Ann, but I think he speaks directly to Bell here. Following that is “Way Out West,” with its stutterring, tension-filled intro and the magical bass line that follows the chorus.
The next track, “What’s Goin’ Ahn,” to me, embodies everything about Big Star that put them into Beatles, Brian Wilson category. When Chilton sings, “I like love, but I don’t know, all these girls they come and go, always nothin’ left to say…,” he is tapping into that honest confession-to-yourself territory that only greats like Brian Wilson can pull off. It is the type of line that could be put on the tombstone of many a lonely person. A literally perfect song. “You Get What You Deserve” shows the f… you side of Big Star again: another melodic masterpiece. “Mod Lang,” like “O My Soul,” puts Chilton’s guitar chops on display. A perfect sequencing breather for the anthem, “Back of a Car” which follows.
Any melodic music fan has to revel in the chiming, resounding arpeggio that explodes at the outset of “Back…”. The lyrics say it all: “...sitting in the back of a car, music so loud, you can’t tell a thing.” Anyone who hears this is “there” at a stadium Rolling Stones show with a bottle of Jack in one hand, and a bong in the other, listening to blaring Zeppelin out of distorted Jensens. For those with a drug-free past, substitute anything very exhilirating here.
“Daisy Glaze” is the ideal setup for the next track, “She’s a Mover,” a track that puts on display the style and taste of drummer Jody Stephens. The track is mixed in “Beatles stereo”, i.e., all of the drums are panned through one speaker. Stephens, on all the Big Star work, played sparsely where it was required, but had/has the skills of the best of the best drummers. Think Ringo, except he could play like Keith Moon.
The next track is considered the climax of the recording, “September Gurls,” an idyllic, synergistic combination of simple power chord structure, melody and harmony. It is the the model for many songs in the genre of “power pop”. The last two tracks, “Morpha Too” and “I’m in Love with a Girl” are perfect closers, allowing one to literally catch his or her breath after the power that has been experienced.
For the Big Star purists among you, I recite the above sequencing from the vinyl version of Radio City by memory only. I have a cassette tape of the vinyl version which I have misplaced, and, of course, someone has permanently “borrowed” my CD version. Isn’t that true with all your best CDs? If I have made an error in the sequencing order, I apologize, although I do not think so. I can “play” the whole album in my head.
It is an honor to write for PopMatters about this recording, a recording that influenced me in many ways. I urge you to buy Radio City, bundled with the first album, #1 Record, packaged on one CD. I also suggest you pick up this issue of Revolver which contains a great Big Star piece. The Hoskyns article on Big Star is definitive, and is worth making the effort to order a back issue from Mojo.
For more information, links and resources on Big Star, feel free to e-mail me at [email protected] or click on the following link: http://www.fufkin.com/music_rev.htm. When you get to the linked page, scroll down under the red New Media heading, and click on Back of A Car, an excellent website compiled by Judith Beeman. There, you will find the best Big Star-related material on the Internet.
// Notes from the Road
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