Thursday, September 29, 2011

Big Star: Radio City (1973)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Where do you begin talking about an album stacked with one undeniable genre classic after another? Everything that's ever been called "power pop" leads back to this, and pretty much all of it is inferior.

Alex Chilton was clearly a talent in the Box Tops, clearly a maverick by the time of #1 Record, and clearly a peak-level pop genius once Radio City rolls around. His expertly crafted but emotionally bleeding pop-song forms are so perfect they seem almost manipulative. He is in a league with almost no others, and the songs on this record are as close as anyone's come to that sudden rush of "I Get Around" or "I Want to Hold Your Hand" since the '60s.

It's helpful to Chilton's quirky focus that the late, great Chris Bell left the band before this album was recorded (though he does show up on a couple of tracks). Without Bell, there is nothing holding Chilton back; he dives full force in both of his natural directions -- the rock & roll purist with every second engineered for life-shaking effect, and the psychologically exhausting avant-pop mastermind. #1 Record was the pop record, Third/Sister Lovers would be the shattering, dissonant masterpiece, but Radio City is the perfect fusion.

The songs here that foreshadow Third would sound perfectly at home on that record, so delicate they threaten to fall to pieces, almost unearthly in a way sensed only in the paranoid drama of Chilton's voice. "O My Soul" is his "Good Vibrations," the most unconventional and jarring of the lot, with its lurchingly messy musical narrative and a shreiking, hanging-from-the-rafters band performance. "Morpha Too," near the end of Side Two, provides the payoff, Chilton alone on piano sounding devastated: "I don't know shit, and I don't know what to do / I'm in love with you." His fragmented, hellish rock move "Life Is White" (a rejection of the first album's love song "My Life Is Right"?) turns evil harmonicas into a wall of fire, with Alex crushing everything under his brilliant teenage lyrics: "I know what you're like / And I can't go back to that" turns to "I know what you lack..." Again, he has the most important skill for a true rock & roller, and the one most of them after the mid-'60s blatantly lack: he is blind to banality, and he understands that rock & roll is a different world in which literary standards do not apply. He intends to speak to an audience that does not like flowery poetry any more than they like being looked upon as dimwitted tickets to wealth. His sincerity and lack of pandering make his work that much more moving... and disturbing. He is so much like Brian Wilson in this sense that it's hard to contemplate.

The shuddering, mad intensity of Third is predicted as well by "What's Going Ahn," a psychological trauma set to music that means to rivet us in its slow pace, and does. But the song is far more conscious of its blunt power and wit than, say "Kanga Roo": "Well, I like love, but I don't know / All these girls, they come and go / Always nothing left to say." Turning adolescently filthy '70s riff-rock on its head with its adruously crawling, tentative pace, the song's tracking of emotional depth in simplicity of expression is startling. But that's merely a preview for the almost voyeuristic breakup ballad "Daisy Glaze." Never did Big Star seem more prophetic, predicting (and bettering) alt-rock's traditional dynamic of the whisper-quiet ballad building gradually to a full-out emotional explosion. A pity that no one who copped this technique ever matched it remotely so well to so harrowing a series of fragmented but illuminative setiments. The lyric reads like someone's diary in the midst of a breakdown, even quoting at its glorious climax the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" directly and brilliantly -- "And I'm thinking, Christ / Nullify my life, nullify my life." The song ends in the oddly joyous announcement that "You're gonna die, yes, you're gonna die," by which time the emotional ambiguity of Chilton's particular brand of power pop has proven itself many times over.

All the same, Chris Bell and #1 Record are hardly absent here; they shadow over the more commercial material, and it's in the fusion of Radio's rambling and Record's bliss that Big Star hits their peak. "Way Out West," written by bassist Andy Hummel and sung by drummer Jody Stephens, is wonderfully unpretentious, a worthy sequel to "The India Song." The breathless, Beatlesque "You Get What You Deserve" is another powerful angry-male diatribe, with such familiar speeches as "Try to understand what I'm going through" and "You've gotta have a lot of nerve."

But in ascending order, "Mod Lang," "Back of a Car," and "September Gurls" are just about the three most perfect pop songs ever written -- that is no exaggeration applied to an indie friendly underground group; the fluke is not them, it's the rest of the marketplace. "Mod Lang," written several years earlier, is a blues imitation (its words built largely from the clichés of that genre) that endlessly exhilarates in its simplistic chorus: "How long can this go on?" Similarly unforgettable is "Back of a Car," Chilton's most vivid illustration of teenage nights and showcase for masterful melodic sense. With Chilton's best chorus -- "I'll go on and on with you / Like to fall and lie with you" -- it evokes youth with a feverish, fast-paced beauty that defies the walls of trends and (with no small thanks to the uncredited guest appearance by Bell) feels like the absolute apogee of '70s guitar pop, so drunkenly joyous it threatens to burst through the eardrums. The Cars spent ten years trying to manage that song, but as good as they were, they couldn't get a glimmer of the magic in Chilton's guitar, and certainly none of them had a voice like his. These are short, sweet, loud pop songs, their insane perfection and appeal infinite -- the difference between Big Star and the Cars, and the Raspberries for that matter, is fragility. Even at their most robust and hook-filled, Chilton's compositions still sound poised to fall apart at any moment, moments and memories too delicate to last.

An equally grand demonstration is "September Gurls," the song that dispels everything that you ever loved about rock & roll into three minutes of something like bliss. It encapsulates all elements of Big Star's seductive urgency, with the desperation in Chilton's voice, the tower of glory in the guitar solo, and the stinging energy of the lyrics: "I loved you... well, never mind." After hundreds of listens, the song can still induce the kind of chills that pop composers are seldom able tow ork toward. It is not only a wonder that this wasn't a huge hit, it's completely mystifying that it didn't overcome the odds to make this band a household name.

But the album went nowhere, and cult status or not, we will always be missing the impact it could have had on the world at the time. Instead, we get to experience it for ourselves, which may be even better. Chilton was a genius and rock & roll, whether its larger faction knows it or not, will never recover from his loss. Radio City closes out its wonderfully concise command over the attention with Chilton strumming a guitar and serenading us with the romantic, divine truths of "I'm in Love with a Girl," because he knows that's what we'll always need the most, and it's like he's still fucking there, man.

[Edited and revised from a review I posted in 2004.]

Keep an Eye on the Sky (1970-74)
#1 Record (1972)

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