Big Star - #1 Record - Review
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critics' view

During their brief existence in the early ’70s, Big Star put together a run of heightened musical creation that unfortunately became plagued by both inner-band disputes and musical mismanagement. For the most part since, history has looked extremely favorably upon the Memphis rockers, with #1 Record and Radio City comprising a definitive recording era for these highly regarded Stax Records alumnae. Almost forty years since Big Star made these two masterpieces, both records have not only withstood the test of time but have also aged nicely as an integral forerunner to understanding the legions of rock bands influenced by this cult power-pop outfit.

For all intents and purposes, #1 Record and Radio City need to be considered together when looking at these recordings today. Go ahead, try and find a copy of each separately. Unless you’re a vinyl junkie or a collector of imported CDs, your chances of finding each album separately are slim to none. Despite the fact that #1 Record came out in 1972 and Radio City in 1974, the two-for-one combo presents both albums side by side in a 26-song collection affirming the critical praise and cult status attributed to the band over the course of the past several decades.

From the opening seconds of “Feel” to the waning moments of “I’m In Love With A Girl”, Big Star’s music possesses tremendous confidence, particularly for a band writing their first two records together. Alex Chilton, informed by his prior stint with the ’60s pop group the Box Tops, adds a musical accessibility that set Big Star apart from their peers. The band wrote the rules for power-pop in its early years with these records, particularly through their incorporation of harmonies and guitar riffs at the center of the sub-genre’s sound, while maintaining a sense of gritty warmth and determined energy that rings throughout their sound.

Big Star’s largest appeal, however, can be found most within their depth. While the band often gets credit for being power-pop progenitors, they were more than just that. For every rollicker like “In The Street” or “O My Soul”, there is an equally compelling ballad like “Thirteen” or “Try Again”. Whereas many modern power-pop groups try to continually keep the pace at eleven, Big Star were extremely adept at maintaining a precise tempo and dynamic within their records. As a songwriter, Chilton knew exactly when and where to include swooning harmony, a riveting drum fill or a loaded guitar lick. “September Gurls” prevails the most in this regard, emerging as a perfect storm where all these musical elements come together in a three-minute bout of power-pop glory.

Once seen as the next in a string of Alex Chilton projects, Big Star rose to relevancy through the praise of later artists following their initial breakup. In the decades since #1 Record/Radio City came out, their impact has been felt throughout American rock in the 1980s and beyond, comparable to the effect that the Velvet Underground has had on art-rock and punk’s aesthetic. Without Big Star, there would be no R.E.M., The Replacements, or Cheap Trick – the latter of which covered and used a Big Star number for the That 70’s Show theme song (let the collective “ooh”s ensue). Paul Westerberg wrote “Alex Chilton” to honor the band’s frontman.

It’s that kind of reverence that only begins to describe the band’s understated significance to the sub-genre it helped craft. While a number of unfortunate mishaps disrupted the group from achieving its full potential over the course of a longstanding, established career, #1 Record/Radio City nevertheless represents a band amid of one the great recording runs in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Max Blau
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