Thursday, June 11, 2009
I discovered Big Star when I was 18 years old, about a week before I started my freshmen year of college. It was during what was possibly the most awkward transitional period of my life - leaving home for the first time, saying goodbye to high school friends, trying to tie up as many loose ends as I could before the summer ended and I left town for good. For me, it wasn't just the usual nerves that inevitably accompany going to a new school; always a dramatist, I honestly felt that after the summer of 2005 ended, my entire life would irrevocably change, and coming back home would never be the same again. And so it was in this state - lying in my basement room with half of my belongings scattered around me, awkwardly stuffed into suitcases and boxes - that I listened to #1 Record for the first time. And of course, the timing was perfect.
I don't remember how I first heard about Big Star - most likely, it stemmed from hearing the Flaming Lips' LateNightTales compilation, which includes a Chris Bell track. All I know is that, upon hearing them for the first time, I felt like I had hit the motherlode - the crown jewel of cult rock bands, America's greatest lost pop stars, the first alternative-pop band, whatever hyperbole you could heap upon them. Up until that point, I would mostly buy records my more knowledgeable friends recommended to me; rarely would I take it upon myself to find my own music and recommend it to them. So my discovery of Big Star was, at the time, a moment of irrepressible excitement. After reading Allmusic.com's claim that the band were second only to the Velvet Underground in terms of revered American cult bands, I managed to find their two-fer CD with #1 Record and Radio City tucked away in my local Best Buy's CD rack without a label - as if it were some kind of hidden treasure. And upon actually hearing the music at hand, I realized the hype was justified - and thensome. It baffled me that such beautiful, accessible pop music could be created by a band that nobody had ever heard of.
And I mean nobody. Nobody. Even the Velvet Underground had a place in the public consciousness, what with Lou Reed's solo success and whatnot. But even my friends, well-versed in the world of indie rock, had never heard anything about Big Star - and indeed, many people I have met since display similar confusion whenever I mention them in conversation. Maybe the reason Big Star remain such a well-kept secret in pop music is that, unlike most cult rock bands, they should have been famous. Compared to the Velvet Underground, whose avant-garde leanings guaranteed them zero mainstream success, Big Star's #1 Record sounds like a ready-made hit - loud hard rock guitars, bright vocal harmonies, and even a healthy dose of acoustic sensitivity. Some claim that, in 1972, people just didn't want to hear the sweet power-pop Big Star were performing, but I just don't see it. What about the Raspberries? Or Badfinger? In that vein, could #1 Record songs like "When My Baby's Beside Me" or "Don't Lie To Me" NOT be huge radio-hits? The only thing to blame for Big Star's lack of success was lousy distribution from an uncaring record label. As such, they are maybe America's only cult rock band that never should have been one in the first place.
It's a chicken-or-the-egg sort of thing. Once the nigh-perfect #1 Record didn't even chart, folk-rocker Chris Bell left the band and Alex Chilton further subverted the Big Star formula with Radio City and Third, two albums of utter sadness and confusion intermixed with power-pop wonder. Big Star were never a band that wanted to be a cult band; it was, unfortunately, foisted upon them. For me, this is why if I were to recommend any one Big Star record, it would have to be #1 Record; unlike the albums that would proceed it, it is an unhinged burst of enthusiasm coming from a band who probably felt they could take on the world. But even on #1 Record, Side 2 offers up mostly lovely acoustic ballads, a palpable tinge of melancholy already seeping into their sound.
#1 Record and Radio City are being re-released sometime soon, both on CD and on vinyl; not to mention that a giant four-disc Big Star boxset is underway, consisting of everything the band ever recorded from '68-'75. I can't tell you why there is such a sudden outburst of new Big Star releases this year - what I can tell you is that, most likely, I am going to seek out #1 Record on vinyl. Four years ago, the sheer beauty of Big Star's music gave me hope in the midst of horrible uncertainty - and that's still something I need.
(Fun bonus: A music video for "Thank You Friends," pieced together using lost studio footage of the band. This was especially exciting for me to see - Big Star barely performed in their brief lifespan, and certainly never filmed any promotional vidoes. As such, they have always felt aloof, almost invisible. Just seeing them, even in unexciting candid moments, is really wonderful.)