❉ Johnny Restall looks back on Big Star’s debut album #1 Record, released fifty years ago.
If there is one thing to be learned from the fractured, sad story of the band Big Star, it is that you should never tempt fate. Although their name was actually taken from a local Memphis supermarket, selected for lack of any better ideas rather than personal hubris, it could scarcely seem more ironic in retrospect. They then compounded their folly by calling their first album #1 Record. Fifty years after its 1972 release, it remains a criminally underheard album; few other bands have inspired such gushing praise from writers and fellow musicians, only to remain so little known amongst the wider public.
The group was initially established under the moniker Icewater by vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Chris Bell, along with Andy Hummel on bass and Jody Stephens on drums. It was with the addition of fellow Memphis singer-songwriter-guitarist Alex Chilton that Big Star was born. Chilton had already found fame in his early teens fronting The Box Tops, whose hits included The Letter and Cry Like A Baby. Ominously, the career of his former band had been undermined by record industry dealings that left them with little financial restitution, despite their apparent success.
While the prematurely-seasoned Chilton affected increasing flippancy towards critical and commercial acclaim, the hugely talented but idealistic Bell seemed to hang all of his hopes on the band. In some ways, the tension between these two attitudes defines their work together on #1 Record, the songs torn between nonchalant bravado and impossible tenderness. Sadly, it also laid the foundations for the disappointments and jealousies that tore their partnership apart, and Bell’s subsequent heart-breaking decline.
Though it would be far-fetched to retrospectively pin a prophetic narrative to #1 Record, the sequencing does suggest an increasingly disillusioned clash between dreams and reality, with the more upbeat first half gradually giving way to introspection and doubt. The tentative, descending introductory chords of opener Feel soon burst into bombastic swagger, the offbeat rhythmic emphasis giving the song a gleefully woozy lurch only strengthened by the Rolling Stones-style boogieing brass of the instrumental break. Yet even here, the fierce, high vocal of the verse gives way to a more cautionary chorus (“Feel like I’m dying / I’m never gonna live again”).
Likewise, The Ballad of El Goodo balances its determined, righteous draft protest with hints of deeper vulnerability. The soaring defiance of the chorus highlights the album’s gorgeous vocal harmonies for the first time, lifting the song into thrilling territory somewhere between the ramshackle majesty of The Band and the chiming tumult of The Byrds, while foretelling the likes of Teenage Fanclub. By way of contrast, the same layered vocal approach brings a more pensive feel to its repeated “Hold on” refrain, the transcendent union of words and melody a reassuring balm for the song’s troubled undercurrents.
The youthful, energetic ennui of In The Street gives way to the more reflective richness of Thirteen. Inspiring dozens of cover versions over the years, the song is easily the best known track on #1 Record, and the closest thing Big Star have to a hit, alongside September Gurls from 1974’s Radio City. Put simply, it is a perfectly formed slice of wistful magic, deftly combining a certain Autumnal melancholy with gentle, unaffected naivety, navigating its tender depiction of the titular age with charm rather than condescension. Its searching guitar and sun-bleached harmonies evoke such a vivid sense of the joys and sadness of early adolescence that you could almost be that painful, inexplicable age again when listening.
Don’t Lie To Me abruptly slaps aside the nostalgia, the first serious explosion of the disquiet fermenting beneath the optimistic mood. Despite the petulant lyrics, the guitars are startlingly abrasive, their attack so sharp that the song almost derails at the end of the solo, forced to re-establish its structure all over again from scratch. As if recoiling from such rage, The India Song is laden with escapist dreams. The only track penned by bassist Hummel, it is often unkindly if not entirely inaccurately cited as the record’s weakest point. Despite its admittedly slight content, I still find charm to spare in its ornate mellotron arrangement and winsome vocal.
When My Baby’s Beside Me and My Life Is Right open side two. The first is an irresistible stomp of pure power-pop joy, the second a piano ballad rolling into a rollicking chorus that echoes ‘El Goodo’s righteous belief, recast in personal rather than political terms. Yet an increasing fragility seems to underline their romantic declarations, placing an impossible weight of faith in finding salvation through somebody else’s love.
Inevitably, Give Me Another Chance provides the crushing flip-side to the preceding songs. Arguably one of the saddest personal pleas ever written, its achingly beautiful melody belies a deep fatalism, as though the singer knows that even if he wins a second chance, he will only self-destruct again. The vocal harmonies and gorgeously dense clarity of John Fry’s production are never better showcased than here, and the effect is quite devastating. The wordless harmonies at the climax of the track, combining vocals and mellotron, must break even the hardest of hearts. They recall the loneliest sides of Pet Sounds/Smile-era Brian Wilson, crying into the void beyond word and thought, where only music can soothe the emptiness.
Lyrically, the countryish Try Again attempts to rebuild a sense of purpose and faith through religion, but offers no glib spiritual gloating. Instead, it feels as though the band are stuck in the pit, gazing upward but with no idea how to haul themselves out beyond sheer thankless, miserable resilience. If the streams of cascading acoustic guitar that herald Watch The Sunrise suggest some kind of hope has been found, its vision is hard-won and bittersweet. Day may follow night but its shadows remain, tempering any return to the youthful joy of earlier songs. The album concludes with the brief, beguiling fragment ST 100/6, all wintery harmonies and uncertainty.
Despite enthusiastic reviews, #1 Record was released to minimal sales in 1972. The primary reason appears to have been the poor distribution afforded to their record label, the Stax subsidiary Ardent. Stax was already mired in the financial and organisational troubles that would finally bankrupt them in 1975; their severely overstretched resources were concentrated on established stars, with little to spare for a novice rock band, especially one so out of step with the heavier mainstream trends of the time. The lack of commercial success took the greatest toll on the increasingly troubled Bell. Adding salt to his wounds, the press attention they received usually focussed on the already-famous Chilton, despite Bell’s considerable contribution not just as writer and performer but as a studio engineer alongside Fry. Relations deteriorated, and he left the band he had founded.
The remaining members regrouped to record 1974’s Radio City, an excellent record in its own right but notably rougher without Bell’s ambitious studio skills. Again, Stax’s ongoing disintegration effectively buried the album, and Hummel left to complete his degree. Chilton and Stephens tried to continue, recording the mercurial Third/Sister Lovers in 1975 – it remained unreleased for three years, by which time the band had ceased to exist entirely. Tragically, Bell was killed in a car crash in 1978, following unsuccessful attempts to establish a solo career. The B-side of his one single, the same year’s wrenchingly desolate I Am The Cosmos, featured his erstwhile friend and nemesis Chilton on backing vocals; hearing their delicate harmonies intertwine again on ‘You And Your Sister’ is almost unbearably poignant. Alongside #1 Record, it stands as a bittersweet monument to what could have been – remarkable, haunting, and neglected, even all these years later.
❉ Big Star: ‘#1 Record’: A digitally re-mastered and expanded edition of #1 Record was released on CD via Universal/Fantasy, 2009. Click here to buy.