In the late Sixties, a Memphis teenager named Alex Chilton won moderate fame and fortune as the lead singer for a sometimes inspired, sometimes insipid recording unit known as the Box Tops. The group was a vehicle for the ideas of producer-writer Dan Penn, and Chilton’s raspy, young punk voice was the focal point. After several erratic albums and a couple of downright classic singles, “The Letter” and “Cry like a Baby,” Alex tired of being just a mouthpiece. The final Box Tops LP, Dimensions, was a fairly successful attempt at being more than just a singles-making band (although, ironically, two well-made and moderately successful singles, “Soul Deep” and “Sweet Cream Ladies,” were drawn from it). But that was merely a last fling; the Box Tops were finished, and Alex Chilton, now writing songs and feeling rather embarrassed about his Top 40 credentials, was on the move. He cleared his throat, packed his guitar, and headed for New York City. When he came to realize that picking and starving in New York wasn’t necessarily on a higher karmic level than cutting slick singles in Memphis, Alex headed back home to reconcile his two musical stages and to see what he could get together.
What he got together was Big Star, and Big Star is really something. The group was built around Chilton and fellow writer-singer Christopher Bell. Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens got on bass and drums, respectively, and Big Star found a gracious and competent local producer named John Fry, who, conveniently, had both a studio and a label of his own.
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No. 1 Record isn’t revolutionary — the group works within the well-defined forms — it’s just exceptionally good. There’s not a trace of Memphis soul in Big Star: The group seems to have used the California bands of the mid-Sixties — primarily the Byrds and Moby Grape — as models, but there’s a brightness on the uptempo tunes that seems Beatles-inspired. Parallels are Badfinger and Raspberries, I guess, but Big Star shows more depth and consistency than either of those. A closer parallel is Todd Rundgren, who’s equally adept at evoking the Beatles, California rock, and 1965, but even Rundgren hasn’t made a whole album as impressive as this one.
The first side is dominated by rock & roll while the second becomes increasingly reflective and acoustic as it winds down. In both styles, the guitar sound is sharp-edged and full; even the prettiest tunes have tension and subtle energy to them, and the rockers reverberate with power. The rock & roll tracks can be seen as a succession of imaginative guitar and vocal ideas, but “When My Baby’s beside Me,” “Feel,” “Don’t Lie to Me” and the rest move so smoothly that you have to be technique-oriented to give the pieces conscious attention. It’s on the slower songs that the influences are more noticeable. The oddly titled “Ballad of El Goodo,” with modal harmonies and a great McGuinn-style vocal by Chilton, may be the best song here. The even more oddly titled “ST100/6” and “Try Again” sound like the tranquil Grape of “8:05” and “Sitting by the Window,” dominated as they are by weary harmonies. And Chilton’s unaffected vocal style comes across to best advantage on the quietest tunes, “Sunrise,” “Give Me Another Chance” (this one really reinforces the Rundgren parallel), and “Thirteen,” a wistful, funny remembrance of junior high.
All the songs I’ve mentioned carry the Bell-Chilton credit line and all of them are fine. The only unsuccessful track is “The India Song,” and that was written by Hummel; it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the music. But 10 out of 11 is practically unheard of. No. 1 Record is one of the sleepers of 1972. Well, you’ve done it, Alex: Your Big Star record even cuts The Box Tops’ Super Hits.
Big Star proved themselves one of the leading new American bands working in the mid-Sixties pop and rock vein with the release of their debut LP in 1972. Despite the loss of key composer and guitarist Chris Bell, and a few other disturbing musical developments, their second album, Radio City, proves they were no mere flash in the pantheon of one-shot burned-out artists. Radio City features plenty of shimmering pop delights such as “Way Out West” and “Back of a Car.” Sometimes they sound like the Byrds, sometimes like the early Who, but usually like their own indescribable selves. “September Gurls” is a virtually perfect pop number. They may not be as tight or as immediately mesmerizing this time out (the opening tune, “O My Soul,” is a foreboding, sprawling funk affair), but Radio City is one of the most high-spirited, thoroughly enjoyable recent releases.