Saturday, March 20, 2010

Big Star - #1 Record

This week, Alex Chilton passed away. The lead singer of the Box Tops, in music circles Chilton was more remembered and more influential for his work leading the band Big Star. In one of those wonderful American second acts Fitzgerald said never happened, Big Star was becoming more and more recognized of late for its pioneering work in creating the power pop genre.

As the rock scene was splitting into what became "classic rock", "prog rock", "light rock" and disco, Big Star's music was a straight line from the earlier pop of the '50s and '60s. Bright chords and simple progressions played with energy and sweet harmonies on the vocals. While they never achieved great commercial success (despite the ambitious title of this, their debut album), they were consistently namechecked as a huge influence on the wave of bands to emerge as "college rock" in the early '80s like R.E.M. and The Replacements. The Replacements even named a song after Chilton, so I've known his name long before I'd actually known his music. The only song from this album that I knew coming in was "In the Street" (later covered by Cheap Trick for That '70s Show, which I hadn't known was a cover in my ignorance.) Knowing much of what came in their wake, and saddened by the sudden death of their leader, I turn the journey this weekend to Big Star's first album.

What impressed me initially is the variety. Despite knowing the trappings of the power popgenre they are said to have created, and #1 Record does kick off in that fashion with, "Feel", it moves immediately into a more understated number, "The Ballad of El Goodo." I don't suppose I was expecting a dozen songs in the same mode, but I wasn't expecting to get much variety for some reason. So I was already pleasantly surprised.

By the time #1 Record gets down to "When My Baby's Beside Me" and "My Life Is Right," I had settled into the groove of the album. When Big Star is feeling it, they're playing songs of pure joy in the everyday setting. By that I mean, these aren't symphonies of pop grandeur celebrating the ecstatic moments of life. These are songs that revel in the simplicity of a single good day. Even "Give Me Another Chance," the pre-emptive pre-break up strike, has a sweetness to it that gives one a smile (like, hopefully, the girl in question would be forced into upon hearing it.) It's a truth in writing that the specifics are universal, and when Chilton writes songs about this slice of life moments and surrounds them with just the right accompaniment from the band, his specificity evokes the universal truth. Just imagine the warmth of watching the sunrise after a long night with the one you love, and then listen to Big Star's "Watch the Sunrise." It captures that feeling, even if you don't know it from experience.

Walking away from Big Star's debut album, I have a greater respect for Chilton and Big Star's lasting impact on the genre. What they were doing isn't as fundamentally drastic as perhaps I'd expected (so much "creating a genre" praise can lead to a significant expectation.) These songs are just good. Well crafted pop is an art form, and while some of the songs didn't do much for me, I never was displeased with any of them. That's a big part of the Big Star sound, I think: pleasure. These songs will get you feeling good, even the ones that emerge from pain, because this is a band (and Chilton was a writer) that knew good times were ahead. It's a shame I only got here after his tragic death, but it's better late than never.

(Note: #1 Record was re-issued in tandem with its' follow-up Radio City, which contains the only other Big Star song I knew coming in, "September Gurls." It's in the Lala embed and be sure to check it out, as it's a sweeping power pop masterpiece.)


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