Welcome to my column.
I may be alone in this, but I strongly believe that a person’s taste in music is largely defined by the music that they are exposed to in the formative years of their life (whatever those are. 12-18, maybe). In an age where finding good new music is literally as easy as clicking a few buttons, it’s not absurd to think that our generation may have been the last to rely on the good will of a few friends with a surplus of blank CDs for our sonic fix.
However you ended up getting your feet wet, it can’t be denied that there are certain correlations between past and present. For example, if your dad showed you Elliott Smith as a kid, as only a truly sadistic dad would do, you’re probably going to go through a pretty intense Death Cab phase. If you dug Pavement you’ll probably dig Built to Spill. And if you listened to Radio Disney you’re probably destined to become the third member of Die Antwoord.
My biggest musical influence growing up was my father. And that, ultimately, is what this column is about. With each article I want to share with you guys an album that my dad showed me when I was 13, when my musical education began. I want to talk about where these albums took these bands, where they took the music industry, and where they took me. Most, if not all, of these albums are going to be old. Like, 40th anniversary old. My dad is an old dude. But I can promise you that none of the albums will be shi**ty. And, if they are sh**ty, I promise they’ll be interesting in some other respect.
The inaugural album for this column has to be #1 Record by Big Star. Released in 1972 by Ardent Records, #1 Record was the debut album of this Memphis “power pop” group. Big Star was composed of primary songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, who were determined to model their songwriting style and process after the Lennon-McCartney partnership. Bell and Chilton were both, at the age of 13, profoundly affected by the Beatles’ 1964 debut US tour, and, as a result, ended up crediting the vast majority of the material on their first album to “Bell/Chilton.”
This partnership was made more apparent by the track order, as they alternated vocals on each song before wrapping the album up with a 57 second closer entitled, “ST 100/6.” Bell and Chilton harmonize the 4 simple lines, “Love me again / Be my friend / I need you now / I’ll show you somehow.” They each brought individually composed songs to the table as well, Bell with “Feel,” “My Life Is Right,” and “Try Again,” and Chilton with “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “In The Street”, and “Thirteen.”
Critically, #1 Record was a huge success, as Billboard commented, “Every cut could be a single.” Bud Scoppa from Rolling Stone reflected that “…even the prettiest tunes have tension and subtle energy to them, and the rockers reverberate with power.” Unfortunately for Big Star, the music industry is a fickle, unpredictable mistress. They would go on to sell only 10,000 copies of #1 Record.
There are plenty of potential reasons for this, but the most likely is that Stax Records, a label based out of Memphis known for its role in the creation of Southern soul music (as well as Ardent Records’ distributor), was incapable of marketing Big Star, and as a result couldn’t get their albums on record store shelves. Many believe that a label like Stax, with its emphasis on soul, gospel, and funk, just didn’t know how to market a power pop group like Big Star. And who can blame them? They weren’t making music that many would anticipate to rocket to the top of the charts, despite the optimism that the title of their debut album elicits.
With #1 Record came a cult following, but the frustration of their lack of commercial success eventually bubbled over, resulting in typical pseudo rock star behavior. Andy Hummel, Big Star’s bassist, punched Bell in the face, Bell smashed Hummel’s guitar, Hummel stabbed Bell’s guitar with a screwdriver, and Bell quit the band. Big Star went on to release two more albums without Bell before 1974, including Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers. Both would go on to meet enthusiastic critical response paired with similarly little commercial success. Shortly after the release of Third/Sister Lovers, Bell passed away in a car accident, losing control of his car while driving alone.
Big Star peaked at a time when people just weren’t interested, or at least didn’t have the opportunity to be interested. To put into perspective what people actually were listening to at this time, the top 5 albums of 1972 are as follows:
- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars by David Bowie
- Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones
- Pink Moon by Nick Drake
- Harvest by Neil Young
- Transformer by Lou Reed
While it’s true that some of Big Star’s sound can be synthesized down to the melodies of the Beatles, the guitars of the Who, and the harmonies of the Byrds (with maybe a dash of swagger from the Stones), they were largely alone in the kind of music that they were trying to make. Light pop, pure harmonies, and jangling guitars wasn’t exactly what was selling in ’72.
Even so, Big Star’s cult status has never gone away, and they have since influenced plenty of bands that have gone on to at least moderate commercial success, including successors like The Replacements, Elliott Smith, Matthew Sweet, and even Wilco. Many have covered classic Big Star “hits,” while The Replacements actually wrote a song entitled ‘Alex Chilton,’ in which lead singer Paul Westerberg imagines a world where Big Star reached mainstream stardom, singing “Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round / They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song? / “I’m in love with that song / I never travel far without a little Big Star.”
Perhaps Big Star’s best-known song, and, predictably, the song that affected me most as a 13-year-old kid, was “Thirteen.” The song was never released as a single, nor did it get any radio play, and is musically simple because, according to Chilton, he “…was still learning to play and stuff.” The song is a celebration of adolescent love, and it captures perfectly the simplicity and whimsy of those feelings, with lyrics like, “Won’t you let me walk you home from school / Won’t you let me meet you at the pool / Maybe Friday I can / Get tickets for the dance / And I’ll take you.” Thirteen captures the aching innocence of a 13-year-old narrator bashfully reaching out to his crush, and resulted in my 13-year-old self considering little else for the next 9 years or so. ‘Thirteen’ has been covered, officially, thirteen times, including iterations by Wilco, Elliott Smith, and Garbage.
Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens eventually reunited in ’93 with a new lineup that included guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow (coolest f**king name for a bassist) of the Posies. They played songs primarily from their first 3 albums throughout their second era, but did eventually release In Space in 2005 on the Rykodisc label. David Fricke of Rolling Stone claimed that the band “achieved its power-pop perfection when no one else was looking,” back in the early ‘70s, but also noted that In Space was “…no #1 Record, but at its brightest, it is Big Star in every way.” Big Star continued to tour and play their old hits for 16 years through 2009, until on March 17, 2010, Chilton suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away.
Big Star’s story is not one of supreme uniqueness, and though their influence may not be the most widespread of any band from the ‘70s, it is certainly one of the most intimate. Big Star was both ahead of their time and behind it. #1 Record paved the way for me to discover the likes of The Replacements, The Lemonheads, Husker Du, and Elliott Smith, and now I am passing them on to you. Go listen to #1 Record. Then go listen to Tim. Then go listen to It’s A Shame About Ray. Or, be patient and wait to read about the next album that my dad showed me when I was 13.
All together now:
Thanks for not having sh**ty taste in music, Dad!
JACK FEHRENBACHER | KXSU Reporter