The Album List: #49 Big Star “#1 Record”

The world would never be the same…

When Alex Chilton died last year, I was quite devastated. He was still relatively young, still touring with both a version of Big Star and his earlier band, the Box Tops.  But it was also very much about the lost opportunities. Alex Chilton could have been the biggest thing in music. He never quite got there.

I mean, he did have a number one hit at sixteen, all hunched over and spotty, singing the sixties classic “The Letter” on TV with the Box Tops. The song is among the standards of pop music, covered many times, most famously by Joe Cocker.  But Chilton would end up being even better and more influential when he joined an existing trio and recorded with Big Star. The band invented the rules of power pop, an underrated and magnificent subset of rock and roll that favours melodies and harmonies over distortion and feedback. The band would produce three near perfect records in a short span before breaking up.  All three records are fantastic. But this one is just that step closer to pop perfection. Plus it has three songs that if I were on a desert island, I’d be missing terribly.

Three of the greatest pop songs ever are on the first half of this record- the sweet “The Ballad of El Goodo”, the blast of nostalgia “In The Street”, and the melancholic love song “Thirteen”.  The most famous of these three songs, “In The Street”, served as the theme song for the long running sitcom That 70s Show, which was at first funny before sinking into tired sitcom tropes, but always held my interest by having an amazing soundtrack. The version that was used was naturally NOT Big Star, but Cheap Trick’s cover, which is fine, but lacks the sweetness of Alex Chilton’s voice. The song remains a three-minute slice of pop loveliness, with lyrics about driving up and down the main drag, hanging with the friends. “Thirteen”, the band’s most covered song, is the tale of first love, opening with a hesitant request of walking the girl home from school, asking her to the dance, difficulty with the dad, and all the other pains that teenage romance leads to. Twin acoustic guitars by Chilton and Chris Bell, with soft vocals and beautiful harmonies and counter harmonies, create a gentle and gorgeous memory.

“The Ballad Of El Goodo” is easily among the top twenty songs ever written.  Again with the great vocal harmonies, great chiming guitars, melodic bass lines and crisp drumming, and the air of memory and nostalgia. As the protagonist stands up for battle with whatever forces he feels he must fight, he sings over a melody so magical it makes me misty eyed.  Songs are not supposed to be this amazing from young Memphis blue-eyed soul singers suddenly creating a new subgenre of music, especially on their first album.

The album is full of other pop gems as well. Bassist Andy Hummel, who also passed away in 2010, wrote the charming “The India Song”, with its sitar like guitars and clever organ set pieces. “Don’t Lie To Me” is a raucous pre-punk anthem. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” sounds like Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, only better somehow ( I’m pretty convinced in my head it’s a lost Badfinger track).  “St100/6” is a small slice of psychedelia, inspired by the best of Syd Barrett that only lasts for one minute. The mournful “Give Me Another Chance” is pretty much as the title says-  pleading for forgiveness over acoustic guitars. If all apologies ever given to me were this open and melodic, I might be a more forgiving person. “Watch the Sunrise” makes clear why Wilco exists, as Jeff Tweedy has tried to write that song for two decades. The piano lead “My Life is Right” soars on the choruses with Byrds influenced guitar work.  Opening track “Feel” twangs and strums before they let loose a full-throated vocal assault. “Try Again” is a rumination of failure and success over slide guitar.

Over and over again, the band created some of the sweetest, most enchanting pop songs in history. It’s one of the great tragedies of music that they never sold well, and that they continue to be one of those bands people vaguely know but never buy. They remain one of my favourite bands, not only because of their music, but of who they influenced. They  were major inspirations to many of my favourite bands, like Wilco and R.E.M., the Replacements and the band who has the number three record on this list.

The band no longer exists. Chris Bell dies in a traffic accident in December 1978, and without Chilton and Hummel, drummer Jody Stephens declared the band dead earlier this year on the band’s website. The loss shook me to my core. There is no pop music today worth listening to without this band.


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