One of the best feelings in the world is listening to music that reaches down into your body and attaches itself to your soul. You know what I’m talking about. That moment when you first hear a song (or maybe rehear it after many years) and get this amazing euphoric feeling that seems to come out of nowhere. This is what happened to me when I first heard Big Star’s first album, #1 Record.
I was told about Big Star by a family friend in 2007, who was recording my band, The All New Cheap Moves (where I got the name of the blog from). He was a good friend of my dad’s, and one of the few people I really trust when it comes to music recommendations. This was actually not the first time he had mentioned Big Star to me, but this time around it wasn’t just in passing. I had played a gig with his cover band where we played “The Letter,” which I had only heard done by Joe Cocker on Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and I ended up playing the beat differently than they anticipated (I didn’t practice with the band before this gig). We talked about it after the set, and though I was sure I played it right, I went home and checked YouTube for different versions of the song. I came across the original version of the song done by The Box Tops. I liked their version, and randomly bought a greatest hits CD of theirs at Borders sometime soon after that. I told my friend about this, and he told me about how he was a huge fan of Alex Chilton (the lead singer of The Box Tops), which came from the fact that he was the lead man of Big Star. While he was talking about this I could sense his enthusiasm, and made a mental note about Big Star. Fast forward a few months, and I find myself sorting through another friend’s iPod only to find he has the first two Big Star albums. He claimed another friend of his put it on there, and really didn’t care for it. I decided to take a listen based on the earlier recommendation. What I heard caught me off-guard, not in a bad way, but in that way where you don’t expect something to be so fantastic. I couldn’t believe how much I was loving what I was listening to. I’ve been a huge fan ever since.
#1 Record is a lost classic that is being listened to more today than it was when it was released. It was released in 1972, receiving incredible critical acclaim, but due to a distribution snafu, was a commercial failure. (Their subsequent albums had the same fate.) All four members of the band, Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens, were 21 or 22 when this album came out, and you can only imagine what might have been if this album was heard by more people when it was released. Simply stated, the album is power-pop at its finest. An incredible blend of heavy rockers and contemplative acoustic tunes, all with fantastic hooks, #1 Record is a musical journey that you never want to end.
(Note: I am going to go through the entire tracklisting, discussing some songs in more detail than others, but making comments about all.)
The first track, “Feel,” starts the album off with intensity. Beginning with a half muted guitar playing a descending line (that is doubled by an acoustic), an eerie, jangly, electric guitar lick is heard a few times, before Jody Stephens’ drums break down the door. Chris Bell screams his head off during the verse, which rocks a lot harder than you might anticipate. The chorus comes in with an eerie feel, similar to the intro, as Bell sings, “I feel like I’m dying/I’m never gonna live again/You just ain’t been trying/It’s getting very near the end.” After a guitar solo (Alex Chilton?), played over the verse, the bridge comes in with a whole new feel. A chorus of saxophones and an electric piano are added to the mix, sounding like it came straight out of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. After a chorus, a verse, and a final chorus, the outro takes another turn, having a syncopated feel thanks to Andy Hummel’s bass line and a pseudo two beat feel from Stephens, all while another guitar solo takes the song out. The energy and intensity of the song never wanes, keeping the listener wondering what might happen next. What a way to start an album.
The schizophrenic feel (no pun intended) of the first track, gives way to a more somber, contemplative tone with “Ballad of El Goodo,” my favorite song on the album. For those of you who own the soundtrack to Empire Records, or have seen the movie, you may recognize this song, since Evan Dando (of the Lemonheads) covered it for the film. The song, sung by Alex Chilton, is lyrically and musically beautiful. The music of the verses and choruses match the sentiment of the lyrics perfectly. Each verse is laidback, allowing Chilton to sing about what he’s been up against, or what he’s seen going on, without much interference, while the chorus booms as Chilton exclaims, “There ain’t no one going to turn me round,” several times. The bridge begins with a bit of an excited feel while Chilton sings about being “built up and trusted/Broke down and busted,” before the music relaxes as he explains that things will be fine if we all just “hold on.” Another verse and chorus follow, with the bridge closing the song out. I can tell you right now, what I wrote does not do the song any justice at all. You need to listen to it. This song is a piece of art.
The third track on the album, “In the Street,” is likely to be recognized by many people. The reason is that it was the theme song for That ‘70s Show, though Big Star’s version was never used as one of the theme song’s incarnations. The song is classic power-pop, full of jangly, slightly distorted, electric guitars, a powerful melodic hook, and vocal harmonies during the chorus. It is nothing mind-blowing, but a great song, nonetheless.
“Thirteen,” the fourth track, is a simple acoustic love song. Lacking any percussion, the song is colored by beautiful harmonies, and guitar lines that fluidly overlap each other.
The next track, “Don’t Lie to Me,” continues the trend of alternating rockers and acoustic numbers. The song is a simple hard-nosed blues rocker, the shows that the band knows how to rip it up and kick some ass (musically).
Side 1 ends with an Andy Hummel penned song called “The India Song.” While the song is not bad, it definitely does not meet the standards set by Chilton and Bell (who co-wrote the rest of the album, except for one track). The lack of lyrical power of the song is made up by the beautiful music that envelops the tune.
Side 2 of the album opens with a straight-ahead power-pop rocker, “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” Like “In the Street,” there are no frills to this song, but seemingly has no flaws to it at all, and a hook that will stay in your head for days (trust me!).
“My Life is Right,” follows and opens sounding like it will follow the mold of “Ballad of El Goodo,” but instead has a much more euphoric feeling, especially in the chorus. With layers of acoustic and electric guitars, wonderful vocal harmonies, and an anxious, upbeat drum part, Chris Bell is seemingly able to let go of some of the dark feelings he had on Side 1. This song is the highlight of Side 2, having a perfect blend of energy and beauty that is not heard on any other track on the record.
The album ends with four acoustic numbers, all with an extremely ethereal feel, and all lacking a rhythm section. Yet, the first three of these tunes, “Give Me Another Chance,” “Try Again,” and “Watch the Sunrise,” are beautiful, well-written songs. Of the three, “Watch the Sunrise” stands out the most. The vocal harmonies are exquisite, flowing beautifully alongside the layered guitars that drive the song. This is a song you could easily be the soundtrack for a beautiful spring day.
The album ends with “St 100/6,” a short, acoustic number that sounds much darker than the tracks that just preceded it. Due to its tone and length, the song definitely leaves you wanting to hear more (which may or may not be a good thing). It’s an interesting way to end the album, though something that was not uncommon during that time.
#1 Record, is truly a fantastic album. The highlights are mind-blowing, while the “low-points” never disappoint. Filled with extremely well-written (and produced) songs, the album is a classic, having influenced a generation of artists and is still having an impact on musicians today. While they may not have created the genre of power-pop, Big Star nearly perfected it. Like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon, Big Star didn’t get the notoriety they deserved until well after their heyday, but had a profound influence on the artists that followed them. Between this album and the one that followed (Radio City), you can hear where the likes of R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, Jellyfish, Teenage Fanclub, and the Posies (whose members were in a later incarnation of Big Star) learned to write music. Though #1 Record never made it that far up the charts (or even to the charts), for many people it lives up to its name.
Do yourself a favor and go take a listen.