The music industry is such a fickle bitch. Those are harsh words, and this book is full of sad tales of woe for acts who deserved more than they received, but Big Star could be the poster boys for good talent gone array by incredibly bad luck.
“#1 Record” was a perfect album in its time, sounding every bit as vital as anything by the Rolling Stones, Faces, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks or any number of other bands who enjoyed success in 1972. By the way, it is no accident that I compare Big Star with their British counterparts. The sound of Big Star had little in common with what America was offering in that year, resembling instead the raucous, melodic energy of classic British pop. In short, they were a succinct American pop band with the energy of a classic Brit band, and “#1 Record” is relentlessly tuneful, full of memorable songs and powerful riffs. Critics raved. Nonetheless, the record flopped miserably. Why?
Let’s be honest. Playing this album, it’s hard to control your first impressions. It’s beautiful, but it’s not a simple listen. The styles veer all over the place, and even the songs stray from predictable structure. They require attention, and multiple listens, before they reveal themselves, but once they do, look out, because you’ll be hooked for life. It may be the perfect charm of “Thirteen” which portrays puppy love as something real rather than ‘cute’, or it may be the raw-edged rock and soul of “Feel”, or the ‘Rubber Soul”-like aura of “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, but if you give it time, you’re going to succumb. Ultimately, none of this mattered because Stax completely botched the album’s distribution, and you can’t buy something that isn’t for sale.
Alex Chilton enjoyed fame as the improbably gruff-voiced 16-year-old vocalist of The Box Tops (“The Letter”, “Cry Like a Baby”), but who sings here with a keening angst that resembled the tenor of his bandmate Chris Bell. Andy Hummel (bass) and Jody Stephens (drums) provided support that should have warranted writing credits on some numbers, but the Chilton/Bell pairing had the allure of Lennon/McCartney, with similar talent.
What sucks is that it’s almost impossible to hear any of this today with fresh ears. They virtually invented ‘power pop’ as a genre (and did it better than their offspring), but you already know R.E.M., The Replacements, Cheap Trick, The Cars, the dbs, the New Pornographers, blah blah blah… there are probably dozens of bands that got famous copping bits from Big Star, and that is exactly why this album matters so much. It rivals The Velvet Underground for its influence, but it is also a genuinely pleasant listening experience. It deserved to be a #1 record, but it wasn’t. Not even close.
June 1972 - Billboard Did Not Chart
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