Sunday, March 27, 2011

Big Star: #1 Record (1972)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

What made Big Star so explosive? The "power pop" label they essentially created doesn't begin to explain it, nor does the almost chemical perfection of their music. Like no one since the Beatles, Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens of the legendary Memphis cult outfit took -- in their painfully brief period as an active and functioning four-piece entity -- the idea of the guitar band to its white-hot extreme of impassioned precision: loose in the right places, universally and permanently powerful and pertinent. All these guys knew was what they loved: Southern soul, British Invasion, and Byrds, and like their most hallowed heroes, they made assured hay of it all. In a world in which the marketplace (and their label's distribution) was built to handle this decidedly pure-pleasure, seemingly very commercial music, Big Star would have been one of the most popular bands of all time. That they were not resulted in one of the most fascinating and musically fruitful artistic declines of the twentieth century. But #1 Record captures the Big Star that was consciously intended, the moment before destruction, the initial masters meant to pack a wallop.

Striking the newcomer first is the easiness #1 Record has falling on the ear. Divorced from the self-conscious heaviness that has tainted and dated so much '70s rock, "Feel" breaks down the defenses immediately with its grinning anglophilia, but it's "The Ballad of El Goodo" that will win every heart but the most hardened. Alex Chilton had been the star of seminal teen-pop band the Box Tops, who recorded oodles of moving blue eyed soul singles in the '60s, at which time he was affecting an unnaturally gruff tone designed to match up with the popular R&B of the time. But here he sings in his frayed, sweetly lilting real voice for the first time and unleashes an almost hymnal lament of such unpretentious, ground-level power and personality it threatens to tear apart at any moment, but it never does -- the band maintains their committment to pop throughout this naked emotional moment, leveling all the record-collector rock trappings the production might entail. It's a ballad played by giant Kinks / Who fans, but written by someone of astoundingly personable talent.

The late Chilton was not a prolific master, but he was the greatest white American rock composer aside from Brian Wilson; his compositions inspire well-deserved reverence because to devalue them is to devalue the very idea of rock & roll, and more importantly rock & roll as a beloved youthful force, before it became what Neil Tennant later called "the safest institution of all," before adults pretended to understand it. It is this strange moment of purity that the greatest, most transcendent practitioners of adolescent pop from Martin Gore to Paul Westerberg must tap into, but none ever seemed to have the direct line Chilton did. This isn't to discount Chris Bell's contributions -- he was the force behind this album, and more on him in a bit -- but Chilton's youth-solidarity, lyrically and musically, is a remarkable element of what has lent his work its lasting impact.

An explanation: There is the high school counselor who will tell you that you, the dumb kid, are being naive. There is a better than outside chance that the counselor is quite correct. But the failure -- and the reason you hated your high school guidance counselor -- is in his or her failure to see the humanity in that naivete. That is what "El Goodo"'s magnification of trivial problems, or human reading of massive ones, offers: a pillow of empathy. Chilton's Friday night teen dream "In the Street" and shatteringly beautiful young love anthem "Thirteen" take the concept to its most unadulterated. He is truly speaking a language, an elusive vernacular of never-condescending youth, from a palette of emotions at their most unadorned and intense. "Thirteen" especially, against its snowy-soft acoustic backing, is a love letter of sympathetic arrogance, achingly real and personal: "Won't you tell your dad, get off my back / Tell him what we said 'bout 'Paint It Black'"... with all the awkwardness and false-starts of an early relationship. "If it's over, let me know / If it's no, well, I can go." Chilton's elegant simplicity of sentiment and complexity of expression at this stage recalls Boudleaux Bryant ("Problems") and of course Buddy Holly ("Not Fade Away") and Brian Wilson ("I'm Bugged at My Ol' Man") but somehow, his steadiness seems singular -- a force even he is so afraid to tamper with that he would offer it rarely.

Chris Bell is no less idiosyncratic, but his approach is more indirect. The abstract anger of "Don't Lie to Me" is admirable ("I told my dad, and now I'm telling you, don't push me 'round!") and bears solidarity with Chilton's approach, but he is far more intrigued by contrasts of style than the sheer force of a melody and vocal. "Don't Lie to Me" is a British hard-rock assault, very similar to Badfinger or to Get Back-period Beatles with its hotly compressed guitar solos and general air of chosen, contained madness, but whereas a dichotomy of brash words and gentle music would likely fascinate Chilton, Bell is (at this point) eager to separate the two. "My Life Is Right" is given the album's most rote, conventional arrangement -- an almost by-the-book 1970s torch ballad -- but Bell sings it with such stunning force ("Once I walked a lonely road / I had no one to share my love" seems incalculably serious and real in his context) that it overwhelms its musical context until everything seems gorgeously synchronized, the band sympathetic to Bell's every tic (listen carefully to the way the track skitters and bounces on "Lonely days of uncertainty"). His vision of the rock song as singular emotional force -- his vehicle even more than Chilton's -- is never so elegantly realized. However, it is "Try Again" that comes across as his loveliest success here, a simple and leaden force of sorrow, his equivalent to "El Goodo" and one of the most bracingly sung ballads of the period; calculated or not, the pain is palpable here, and a comfort to behold.

Bassist Andy Hummel contributes "India Song," a moment that escapes all of Bell and Chilton's preoccupations but equals them with its sweetness and adorably untouched lyric ("let no one know until I've gone" as the all-time middle class fantasy). It's neatly placed at the halfway point, but something sadly goes slightly awry with the sequencing afterward. Discarding the ethereal outro "ST 100/6," Side Two is bookended by Chilton masterstrokes: his most complete rocker up to now, the celebratory and perfectly performed "When My Baby's Beside Me" and the jaw-dropping ballad "Watch the Sunrise," a delicate, knowing, alarmingly adult life-saver, Chilton's voice showing delicacy on a level with Nick Drake or Richard Thompson. Three strong ballads make the balance, but stringing them together was perhaps a mistake; "My Life Is Right," Alex's groveling, teasing "Give Me Another Chance," and "Try Again" are all strong on their own, but become numbing when piled together (at least, until you've heard the album five hundred times, by which time all you notice is how much you love every second). This in a sense is a function of Bell's vision for #1 Record (the Beach Boys used to arrange LPs with ballads all on the second half), the album he waited his whole life to make and spent a chunk of it tweaking and perfecting, the project and notion that consumed him, whose commercial failure would truly break his heart, perhaps irreparably.

Everything about the album reflects both the excitement of creation and discovery and a remarkable degree of care. Chilton was just a voice in the process here, a star performer, a featured songwriter. Big Star was Chris Bell's vision and consumption. He had a vision of a permanent youth, a defiance against the widespread adulteration of the music he loved, and he yearned to capture every pop conceit and guitar-rock juggernaut of his world into an LP, a band. #1 Record is not an album about hooks, or an album about emotions... it is an album about well-crafted, perfectly engineered hooks in humane but impressive sync with purest, ebbing and flowing emotions. It's about being young and impressionable and stupid and alive, it is specifically designed to enter the heart and swell, to become part of a life. That was all Chris Bell wanted. The ultimate tragedy is that he would not live to see it become that important to legions of people, as it is today. With Jody Stephens now the only surviving member of Big Star, we are left with a ghostly moment in time, a capturing of moments of optimism and determination that meant so much to these people. The way those aspirations would be ripped to shreds would become the subject of music scholarship and fandom, giving Big Star the extra push to become one of the most seriously beloved and analyzed bands of the last forty years. But #1 Record brings back the moment when they were as they (especially Bell) intended: a guitar band doing absolutely everything right, no stone unturned. It is still a beautiful creation.

[Editorial Note: This review contains some very minor elements from a quite awful piece I wrote about this album in 2004. Just FYI.]

Keep an Eye on the Sky (1970-74)

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