Monday, February 10, 2014

40 Year Itch: Music So Loud

Big Star are the greatest thing to happen to American rock since The Buffalo Springfield
Jon Tiven, Circus

   At the Tulane University radio station, WTUL-FM, in the mid-80's,  the name Big Star kept coming up over and over again in interviews with all the jangle pop bands that came through town: R.E.M., The dB's, Let's Active and others talked about this Memphis band with reverence. I'd even run into Alex Chilton in New Orleans once and could only bring up The Bangles version of "September Gurls". Hard to believe but we didn't have a copy of any Big Star albums in the stacks. Even though the station had a budget to buy albums we'd never been sent, we couldn't find anything by Big Star. Not until I visited Recycled Records in Reno, NV where I was visiting my mom  in 1986. I don't recall what I paid for Radio City or whether anyone at the cash register had anything to say about my purchase. I just knew I had found the Lost Treasure of Powerpopotopia.

 On my Mom's cheap lo fi stereo system, I placed the needle on Side One. The rocking and chiming guitars, the hand claps and the drum fills of "O My Soul" converted me within seven seconds. Badfinger and the Raspberries got nothing on these boys! One perfect song followed the next.

   Writer Bruce Easton, who would get to play these songs onstage with Alex Chilton,  recalls a similar introduction:

Why did it take me so long to hear Big Star? Why wasn't AM Radio cranking "September Gurls" between "The Night Chicago Died" and "Takin' Care of Business"? Apparently that's the result of  label infighting between Ardent, Stax and Columbia.

Radio City is Big Star's second album but the first without singer/songwriter Chris Bell. Compared to #1 Record,  Radio City is more gritty and more of Chilton's show. Most striking to me on my latest listen is how his guitar so organically switches from jangly lead lines to meaty rock god hooks. 

For an album that had a decidedly "cult following " in the 1980's, Radio City was hardly ignored by the critics when it was released. Remember, the New York press had been dazzled by a Big Star show just months earlier. 

 Of the new album Rolling Stone's Ken Barnes wrote 

 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.

Robert Christgau gave the album an A rating, writing 

 This sounds completely unique if you don't count Beatles '65. Especially if you remember the Beatles as spare, skew, and sprung, which is hard, since they weren't. Can an album be catchy and twisted at the same time? Find out. 

The most ironic review belongs to the Billboard critic who wrote :

This set brings good news from a young Memphis band that nearly expired when their premiere set, a commercial gem, got missed in the rush. Don't expect the new disc to die so easily...


  1. Spot on comment about perfect pop record September Gurls! And love the comment about it not being played between The Night Chicago Died and Takin Care of Business, superb.

  2. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has absolutely no credibility without Big Star (and Jackie DeShannon,….). I found my copy of Record # ! in a 99 cents discount bin not long after it was released. It's become a prized possession. Especially with the hole punch. Just sheer joy. Radio City and SisterLovers as well. In the middle of all this other over-produced, commercial pandering, air guitar $h!t a band collaborates, not without angst, and quietly builds this beautiful baby, that spawns hundreds of bands in garages, in small city neighborhoods and at colleges. Bands. The music of Big Star still sounds wonderful, jangly and sinisterly innocent. There is a reason one of the The Replacements' greatest tracks is called "Alex Chilton". They bang it out to be worthy. Hahahahaa. Almost….. Every person I ever turned on to Big Star would say "How come I never heard of this band???" Hey… that's rock and roll. True rock and roll. Man. Big Star. Even their name is confounding. Damn. :)))) Thanks for letting me spout off. I've been holding this in for quite awhile. (Hahahaha)