#1 RECORD ________________________________________________
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#1 Record / Radio City
1. FEEL 3:30
2. THE BALLAD OF EL GOODO 4:17
3. IN THE STREET 2:53
4. THIRTEEN 2:34
5. DON’T LIE TO ME 3:08
6. THE INDIA SONG 2:18
7. WHEN MY BABY’S BESIDE ME 3:20
8. MY LIFE IS RIGHT 3:03
9. GIVE ME ANOTHER CHANCE 3:23
10. TRY AGAIN 3:32
11. WATCH THE SUNRISE 3:41
12. ST 100/6 0:56
13. O MY SOUL* 5:35
14. LIFE IS WHITE 3:17
15. WAY OUT WEST 2:46
16. WHAT’S GOING AHN 2:38
17. YOU GET WHAT YOU DESERVE 3:05
18. MOD LANG 2:43
19. BACK OF A CAR 2:43
20. DAISY GLAZE 3:50
21. SHE’S A MOVER 3:10
22. SEPTEMBER GURLS 2:47
23. MORPHA TOO 1:28
24. I’M IN LOVE WITH A GIRL 1:46
All selections published by Almo Music Corp./Koala Music ASCAP
TOTAL TIME: 73:00
Total time has been rounded off to the nearest minute
STEREO (except * MONO)
ALEX CHILTON – guitar, vocals
CHRIS BELL – guitar, vocals (#1-12 only)
ANDY HUMMEL – bass, vocals
JODY STEPHENS – drums
Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis
Summer and Fall 1972 (#1-12)
Fall 1973 (#13-24)
Engineer – John Fry
Remastered in 1990 at Sound Mastering, Ltd., London.
Selections #1-12 originally released as #1 Record (Ardent 2803);
Selections #13-24 as Radio City (Ardent 2806).
Front cover design – Phil Smee (Waldos, London)
Layout – Deb Sibony
Big Star have long remained one of the truly essential groups. Led by ex-Box Tops singer Alex Chilton and supported by Chris Bell (vocals, guitar), Andy Hummel (bass) and Jody Stephens (drums), their inspired mixture of sixties pop, powered interplay and irresistible melody contributed to a music that was both exciting and special.
Long deleted, the reissue of “No. 1 Record” and “Radio City”, the two albums released during their lifespan, merely reaffirm their excellence and deservedly brings Big Star back into focus.
“Rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely.”
Greil Marcus once used this description while discussing Rod Stewart; the same words could easily refer to Alex Chilton. But during a career which can at best be called erratic and frustrating, his work in Big Star will always remain innovative.
Alex Chilton emerged out of the morass of groups playing around Memphis in the mid-sixties. He’d begun by hanging around several local high-school bands, but increasingly stayed with one in particular which also featured at various times, two other hopefuls in Chris Bell and Richard Rosebrough. Alex almost joined them, but not yet sure about taking singing seriously, decided on college instead. Perhaps too he wasn’t convinced by Bell’s love for British Beat, Chilton preferred Soul and when he did finally opt for music, joining Ronnie and the DeVilles, he sang Stax-styled R&B.
With Alex as frontman, the DeVilles grew in confidence and profile and by 1967 had evolved into a newer aggregation, the Box Tops. Having built a solid reputation in Memphis, the Box Tops presented themselves at Chips Moman’s American Recording Studio where they were subsequently passed on to staffers Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. It was Penn who took a demo tape compiled from material by an untried writer, Wayne Carson Thompson, pulled off the strongest track and gave the group a smash hit with ‘The Letter’. A wonderful stab of blue-eyed Southern Soul, it deservedly scored in both the U.S. and Britain, with its effortless commerciality made more special by Chilton’s gruff, gravelly voice which came on like a gritty blues singer rather than a pretty-boy teenager.
‘The Letter’ was followed by the equally good ‘Neon Rainbow’, which if lacking the immediacy of its predecessor was nonetheless strong. However, its chart position was somewhat less secure and the Box Tops’ career seemed to flounder almost as soon as it began. The original line-up, Chilton (vocals), Gary Talley (lead guitar), John Evans (organ), Bill Cunningham (bass) and Danny Smythe (drums), began to fragment; Rick Allen joined from the Gentrys while Tom Boggs came in from Flash and the Board of Directors, replacing the departing Smythe and Evans. In truth it made little difference to their overall sound, at least on record, and the changes were doubtless due to extensive touring. In the studio the Box Tops were often augmented by American Studio staff musicians, Chilton occasionally being the only member present on the final cut. Several more fine singles, including ‘Soul Deep’ and ‘Cry Like A Baby’ followed, as well as a series of patchy albums, but the group’s career struggled on with music which was an awkward compromise between pop and soul. Too often the material lacked the grit of Chilton’s voice and it was he who in late 1969, ended the Box Tops’ lifespan, storming off-stage midway through a gig and out of the group forever.
In the meantime Chris Bell was hanging around another Memphis studio, Ardent, founded by John Fry in 1966 who ran it in partnership with Terry Manning, another individual who’d been in Bell’s earlier band. Chris doubled as occasional engineer and session guitarist, a role also enjoyed by Richard Rosebrough. The two worked on Manning’s solo album, “Home Sweet Home” released on the Enterprise label, while at the same time Bell played on the local circuit with his newest group, Ice Water. A trio, the band was completed by Andy Hummel (bass), a college friend of Bell’s and Jody Stephens (drums). They played the grab bag of English and American pub rock. Chris also had a cache of his own songs, some of which he demoed at Ardent, songs which would form a basis of interest when Chilton returned to Memphis in 1971.
Alex had moved to New York when the Box Tops disintegrated, attempting a folkie-type career with acoustic guitar and original material. He had even attempted to lure Chris Bell into a duo, but Chris preferred to stay at home and so, with this solo gig making little impression, Alex decided to return to Memphis. He too could be found at Ardent studio, piecing together sessions for an abortive solo album, which had Rosebrough and Manning lending a hand. Although some tracks would (much later) appear on the import collection “Lost Decade”, the project was abandoned and Chilton teamed up with Ice Water. However, instead of maintaining their live work, the new combination decided to retreat and embark on some rigorous studio sessions. After one such evening the quartet trooped out of Ardent to note the name of the supermarket across the street, ‘Big Star Foodmarkets’, and thus Ice Water became instead, Big Star.
Rehearsals and the recording of what became Big Star’s debut album were spread over several months. In the meantime Fry and Manning set up the Ardent label, tying it to a distribution deal with Stax Records. Cargoe, a group from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the company’s debut offering, followed closely by “No. 1 Record.” It’s difficult not to simply trip out superlatives when discussing this album. It remains a glorious mesh of British-influenced pop, Los Angeles-styled harmonies, taut edginess and studio expertise. Traces of the Beatles, the Byrds, Badfinger and the Kinks pulsate through what is a remarkable collection, beautifully balanced between Bell and Chilton’s alternative preoccupations. The songs, such as ‘The Ballad Of El Goodo’ or ‘Thirteen’ have gorgeous tunes, recalling a lost innocence, while the snarl of ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ show the tough lack of compromise which was the other side of the group. The production was wonderful and the hard work and discipline resulted in a deep, mature resonance which was the perfect foil to the songs. Released during 1972, in the midst of that period’s blundering excesses, “No. 1 Record” was an essential breath of fresh air.
Two singles, ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me’ and ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ were taken from the album, but they were largely unsuccessful, as indeed was the LP itself. The piecemeal Stax distribution system was simply insufficient and although a new deal was struck via CBS, Ardent had become something of a lesser priority. Tension was growing within Big Star. Chris Bell saw his role as leader eclipsed by Chilton’s dominant personality and there was a basic disagreement over policy – Bell preferred a studio group while Chilton wanted them to become a live act – which similarly caused problems. A break was inevitable, and around Christmas 1972, Chris Bell quit his own band.
Following his departure Big Star struggled on as a trio. Gigs, somewhat few and far between, were often haphazard and messy and the group ground to a halt. Chilton returned to Ardent and according to a ‘Bomp!’ retrospective, once again began a solo career, recording with Danny Jones and Richard Rosebrough. However, this combination quickly folded and Alex was then persuaded to rejoin Stephens and Hummel in order to play at a local rock writers convention. This gig has since become a legend and the response to Big Star was so positive that they decided to reform. It has been suggested that Chris Bell was also briefly involved, but if so then the old animosities soon resurfaced and he again would bow out, refusing any credit for work he may have done on some of the material making up ‘Radio City’, Big Star’s second album.
“No. 1 Record” was certainly wonderful but “Radio City” actually managed to surpass it. The same gasp of pop’s past history and heritage survived, but instead of the gloss which Chris Bell’s presence added, here was a collection of more rough and more raspy songs, with their rawness intact, tense, brittle and exciting. ‘O My Soul’ which opens the album surely sets the scene, the mix is erratic, the voice unpolished and the feeling of imminent collapse adds to the power of the performance. The same seems true of ‘She’s A Mover’, this album’s equivalent to ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ from “No. 1 Record”, where Jody Stephens’ seemingly unshakeable determination holds everything together with some thundering, furious drumming. This atmosphere of wild spontaneity pervades the whole album, giving it a special quality.
The vision of the original group, however, was still intact. ‘September Gurls’ remains one of pop’s classic songs, with its mesmerizing chorus and Chilton’s ringing guitar break sounding like the Byrds but played with the venom of the early Kinks. ‘Back Of A Car’ and ‘Mod Lang’ are cut from a similar cloth, while ‘Life Is White’ (with its madcap barrelhouse piano) and ‘Way Out West’ show the band’s slower (I hesitate to call them ballads) side. There are times on this album that the tension is virtually unbearable, the ever present aura of something gradually becoming unhinged, combined with masterly songs, somehow gets to create a remarkable collection and makes ‘Radio City’ one of rock’s most seminal albums.
Sadly, the corporate clumsiness which destroyed “No. 1 Record”’s hopes, resurfaced here again. Columbia and Stax were at loggerheads, distribution was minimal and a second brilliant collection languished virtually ignored. Once again, disappointment caused upheavals within the group and Andy Hummel quit. Alex and Jody remained together and embarked on a short East Coat tour with John Lightman on bass. That over, they went back to the studio to work on what became “Big Star 3”.
Also variously titled “The Third Album”, “Femme Fatale” or “Sister Lovers”, this somewhat perplexing collection remained unissued for several years, until the myth surrounding the group grew to titanic proportions. On occasion it sounded like a band in control, at others, the haphazard feel of “Radio City” was pushed to the limits of disintegration, resulting in performances which were at best, bare-nerved, at worst, harrowing.
Chilton’s grasp of structure seemed to be slipping away. Gaps, pauses and an eerie silence punctuated some of the songs, others floundered to a clumsy conclusion, resulting in a collection which was both strange and compulsive. Matters of confusion also arose when record deals in different countries resulted in different tracks being pulled from the whole session, while habitual remixing by these companies added yet another dimension.
In the meantime Big Star finally gave out, folding as those final sessions petered to a halt while veterans such as Steve Cropper, Tap Tarrant, Jim Dickinson and the steadfast Richard Rosebrough came in to prop up a disintegrating dream. Chilton laid low for a while, before emigrating again to New York and there embarking on a stammering, shambolic solo career. Among many sidelines, he produced Chris Stamey’s solo single ‘The Summer Sun’ adding some guitar in the process and issued his own rough E.P. “The Singer Not The Song”, both of which appeared on Ork Records. A remake of the Seeds’ classic ‘Can’t Seem To Make You Mine’ followed that, before a series of flawed albums, including “Like Flies On Sherbet” showed a talent falling apart, eliciting a voyeuristic response rather than that of excitement. His work with ramshackle units such as Tav Falco’s Panther Burns offered the same ragged indiscipline, although his best ‘outside’ project, producing the early singles and debut album by the Cramps, was an inspiring combination. Mixed at Ardent Studios, the pairing of seminal figures from the 70s and 80s brought out some brilliant performances.
Out of all his extra-curricular activity, the most poignant moments came on ‘You And Your Sister’, the flipside of Chris Bell’s lone solo single, released on the Car label in 1978. Recorded at Ardent it featured Alex singing in the background and recalled all of the acoustic beauty present on “No. 1 Record”. The top side, ‘I Am The Cosmos’ was equally wonderful; Big Star music in all but name, carrying with it the same haunting depth. Since leaving the Star, Bell had been working on a solo album and had even made a trip to London, hoping to find a deal in Britain. Sadly no one picked up the option and the collection remains unreleased, save for the two tracks making up the 45. Tragically this was the last record Chris Bell made, as he died in a car crash just outside Memphis in December 1979. At that point he was working in his father’s restaurant, depressed and out of music. Although overshadowed by the Alex Chilton presence, Chris Bell’s contribution to the greatness was that Big Star must not be underestimated or overlooked.
It seems an appalling end to a group who offered such limitless potential. But if that career was cut short, at least now it is possible to enjoy again the optimism, fire and inventiveness that was Big Star.
There’s a lot of truth to the statement that art lives on, long after the artists has gone or changed directions. This is certainly the case with Big Star, a Memphis band forged out of a willful vision, whose brief existence profoundly affected scores of artists spearheading the post-punk/alternative power pop schools of music throughout the Eighties and Nineties.
R.E.M., the Replacements, Game Theory, the Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream, Bill Lloyd, This Mortal Coil, the Bangles, Steve Wynn, and the dBs (Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey) are just a few of the artists who have acknowledged a huge debt to Big Star.
During the early Seventies, rock was groping around in a muddle of overblown symphonic statements and pyrotechnical overkill. The idea of creating well-crafted Anglo-power pop was, more than likely, perceived as a quaint notion, practiced by nonprogressive nostalgia lovers. For most rock radio listeners, Big Star was hopelessly out of step.
In their hometown of Memphis, the birthplace of blues, rockabilly, and soul, Big Star was also an anomaly.
“We were all Anglophiles. If it came from England, it must be good. That was our view,” laughed John Fry, Big Star’s producer/engineer and owner of Ardent Recording. “We ordered every English import that we could get, in the pure form, the way it was mastered and recorded. We felt the only good records from outside of England were R&B records, and half of them were made in Memphis.
“I think that’s what’s interesting about Big Star, is you had people who grew up on, in, and around R&B, who then became Anglophiles,” Fry continued, “and that makes for an interesting combination of influences.”
While mid-period Beatles, Kinks, and the Byrds (an American band) were influences, it’s obvious that Big Star’s earthy roots gave the genre a uniquely fresh face, displaying vocal and instrumental parts that were simultaneously delicate and edgy. They possessed a capacity to deliver innocence and believable vulnerability in a fashion that a million cloying singer/songwriters could never accomplish, and turn around and rock with reckless conviction, thanks in no small part to Jody Stephens’s concisely splashy drumming and Andy Hummel’s melodic meat-and-potatoes bass work.
Underneath the careful layers of ringing guitars and shimmering harmonies, Big Star’s music always conveyed a kind of frailty, a sense that things could fly apart or evaporate at almost any moment. It was a tension that gave their sound an unsettling beauty.
In a sense, their art truly reflected their world. By the time their 1972 debut (#1 Record) was released, Big Star was struggling to hang together. Chris Bell, who along with Alex Chilton wrote the bulk of the songs, parted ways and divided up the remainder of their co-written tunes, before the recording of Radio City. Nevertheless, Bell’s influence is pervasive throughout the album.
“Chris had an awful lot to do with the sonic part of Radio City, and its vision,” stated Fry. “There are somewhere between two and four tracks on Radio City that Chris had a hand in writing, where he said, ‘We’ll get rid of my interest in those.’ ‘Back Of A Car’ was certainly one of those. You can probably figure the rest out by listening to them.”
It has been said that art should create the sense that time has stopped. Big Star transcended normal escapist pop convention by creating music that somehow froze moments that were concurrently vibrant and startlingly brilliant, yet oddly spent. It was a picture of hanging on to youthful dreams, already fraying at the edges.
Somehow, Big Star could make you feel good, in the face of dashed expectations and decay. It’s that realness, in the band’s lyrics and urgently bright sound, which has allowed Big Star’s vision to endure way beyond its brief lifespan. There’s no doubt that something truly timeless has been achieved here, and Big Star will continue to touch many more in the coming years.
– Rick Clark
Stax Records, Tenth and Parker, Berkley, CA 94710.
(P) & © 1992, Fantasy, Inc. All rights reserved. Printed in U.S.A.