Big Star: The Best of Big Star
Another compilation album from Big Star? Should we care? Yes. Yes we should.
Brian Eno’s statement has almost become a cliché: "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band." Well, the same is nearly true of the first Big Star album -- 10,000 people bought it, but they all went to write for the music press and work in record stores. Big Star remains the biggest cult band ever -- lauded by the press, spoken about in hushed whispers by all the most literate musicians but remaining left field and obscure enough to avoid mainstream adulation. They’re the Beatles of the “High Fidelity” generation.
So, who is going to want an album which collates 16 tracks from the band’s first three albums who hasn’t already got them? Fortunately for Stax, Big Star fans tend to be zealous to the point of obsession, and the lure of single versions and edits will be too hard to resist, so The Best of Big Star will join the ever-growing pile of reissues, boxed sets, compilations and DVDs already on the pile/shrine. In the era of streaming, Spotify playlists and YouTube, will it tempt any new fans to the record store? The jury is out.
You can’t argue with the tracks on The Best of Big Star. Load it up, hit the shuffle button and satisfaction is guaranteed. From the obvious (“September Gurls”, “In the Street”) to the slightly less so (“Nightime”), this is probably the definitive collection of American '70s pop rock. Seriously, how many songs are better written, better played and more poignant than “The Ballad of El Goodo”? Think about that for a while… I’ll wait for you. When these songs were originally released, they were almost comically out of time. Who the hell wanted to hear concise, melodic pop songs when you could go to your local EnormoDome and watch some rock leviathans puff out their chests and fill the air with scrap metal?
The great thing about being out of time is that you’re not anchored to any dubious fashion decisions or flavour of the month production tricks, which indelibly date-stamp some recordings. How many great songs released in the '80s are hobbled by drum machines and all the reverb in the world used on everything? Big Star were set to be a footnote in a fanzine until sometime in the '80s, a bunch of tastemakers led by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck started championing the band. By then, the band’s chief songwriters were either dead or on a path that started with eccentric solo records and led to some very dark places.
Other than the single version and edits, there are no real surprises here. Sonically, the album is excellent, but there wasn’t much wrong with the way the original albums sounded back in the '70s. The songs from their first album, the ironically titled #1 Record were recorded with meticulous care and attention and the songs sparkle and shine like cut glass. The darker third album is well represented here, with four of its more commercial tracks present. It would have been nice to include a track or two from the reformed band’s 2005 album In Space as there are a couple of gems on that record.
Big Star aficionados may be interested to hear that the liner notes are by Robert Gordon, who won a Grammy for his writing for the Keep an Eye on the Sky collection.
Sixteen songs. Forty-six minutes. All killer and no filler. If you’re looking for just enough Big Star to fit in your pocket, then this will do. If you’re a card carrying uber-fan and you’re missing the single edit of “Jesus Christ” or “O, My Soul”, here you go. To the uninitiated, this could be the first step on the road to enlightenment -- this music has changed people’s lives -- just ask Peter Buck.