#1 Record

Big Star

Ardent Records, 1972


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s certainly true of most art forms, where, once you really dig into the details, almost everything is derivative of something else. Most artists take the lessons learned by admired forebears and peers and then try to add their own imagination and personality to deliver a fresh twist.

In the realm of music, there’s also the reality that when as a listener you’ve become very familiar with the second and third generations of a genre, and you then go back farther and experience a key artist from the first generation of that genre for the first time, the music can sound a bit primitive, because you’re experiencing it outside of the context of the times in which it was created.

All of which brings us to the debut album from a band that’s been called “one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll,” an album that you’ve likely either (a) never heard of, or (b) worshipped for years as one of the founding documents of power pop (deftly defined by AMG as “a cross between the crunching hard rock of the Who and the sweet melodicism of the Beatles and Beach Boys, with the ringing guitars of the Byrds thrown in for good measure”). Either way, there’s no question that the ironically-titled #1 Record and its two sequels were among the albums that captured the imaginations of future members of bands like Cheap Trick, the Replacements, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and many more.

Big Star surely didn’t set out to launch a new genre—and to be fair, peers like Badfinger and the Raspberries were working in the same sonic sandbox around the same time. They just wanted to make music that felt right to them, drawing heavily on the British Invasion sounds they had grown up on, while infusing their lyrics with a sort of hangdog fatalism that cast Big Star as tragic figures even when they were just trying to make you dance.

In that sense they may have been prescient, for this album barely left a ripple commercially, selling less than 10,000 copies on its initial release in 1972, and the band’s founding lineup of Alex Chilton (guitars/vocals), Chris Bell (guitars/vocals), Andy Hummel (bass) and Jody Stephens (drums) promptly imploded, with Bell—co-credited with Chilton as writer of eight of my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 #1 Record’s 10 tracks—departing. Chilton, formerly of The Box Tops (“The Letter”), cast about briefly as a solo act before reforming the band as a trio that would produce two more legendary discs in Radio City (1974) and Third/Sister Lovers (completed in 1975 but unreleased until 1978).

Heard in the context of 2019, #1 Record manages to feel both ordinary and extraordinary, unremarkable and monumental. Certainly nothing about the chugging opening sequence of leadoff track “Feel” feels groundbreaking—at least until you get to the first pre-chorus. Then one after another the harmonies kick in, the lead guitar asserts itself, a horn section comes blasting forward, and all at once you’re in a whole new place musically. The density of sound and seething energy continues to build even as Bell wails “I feel like I’m dying.”

“Years ago, my heart was set to live, oh / But I've been trying hard against unbelievable odds / It gets so hard in times like now to hold on” sings Chilton as we move into “The Ballad Of El Goodo,” all tragic melodicism until the bridge lifts the song into the sky. Up third, “In The Street” forms the heart of the album, its bold, churning guitars and superb layered harmonies transforming a song about boredom and romantic longing into a genuine anthem for suburban losers. (Which in turn offered it a memorable second life as the pitch-perfect theme song to That 70s Show.)

From there the band veers from teary ballads (“Thirteen”) to Beatles pastiches (the bitter Abbey Road-ish “Don’t Lie To Me” and Hummel’s Sgt. Pepper-flavored “The India Song”). Throughout, as the two subsequent Bell-less albums would reveal, Chilton’s heavier, darker instincts are balanced by Bell’s lighter, brighter touch. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” turns the familiar theme of redeeming love into an anthem that’s by turns foreboding and effervescent, while the guitar-and-drums manifesto “My Life Is Right” sticks to the sunny side of the street.

“Give Me Another Chance” combines Bell and Chilton’s sensibilities beautifully, a pretty acoustic ballad in which the narrator confesses that “All this time since you've been mine / I've been angry, so angry.” A mellotron and Beach Boys harmonies take over at the bridge to give the closing moments a dreamy, nearly angelic cast. “Try Again” feels like a slower, airier rewrite of the same song.

The late-album run of primarily acoustic songs continues with “Watch The Sunrise,” initially a slow-burner until handclaps, harmonica and bass gradually infiltrate and the harmonies kick in. Closer “ST 100/6” offers an eccentric coda, 57 seconds of echoey acoustic chords and doubled Bell-Chilton vocals in a final plea for friendship and comfort.

#1 Record feels like it closes with more of a whimper than a bang, but even so, and even lifted entirely out of its original context, these songs hold up. The combination of assertive guitar lines, rich harmonies, and reflective angst would inspire generations of power pop songwriters and bands from The Replacements and The Beat to the Gin Blossoms and Fountains Of Wayne. Big Star’s position in the rock and roll firmament is secure, and whatever its flaws, #1 Record is unquestionably a milestone, one of the foundational albums of an entire, vital subgenre of rock music.

Rating: B+

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© 2019 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Ardent Records, and is used for informational purposes only.