1974: Big Star / Radio City

by J A Gray

Radio City

1974.  Even by 1975 people were beginning to realise that 1974 had been a bit of a lame dog in musical terms.  Progressive rock was in full-blown bombast mode, and fast disappearing up its own cul de sac.  At the other end of the scale, glam pop had by now become so ubiquitous that every other overweight guitar player was squeezing into a sequined jumpsuit and slapping on as much sparkly blue eyeshadow as his girlfriend would let him steal out of her handbag.  In short, it had become very silly.  (Not that silly was much of a problem to an 8-year-old kid.)  Top Of The Pops was still wonderfully entertaining, and the likes of Slade and Mott The Hoople were still making great singles.  Any glance down a list of the albums made that year though makes for a dispiriting read.  Even the top tier artists seemed to be lost: The Rolling Stones were going through the motions on It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll; John Lennon sounded positively ordinary on Walls And Bridges; and Lou Reed apparently slept through most of Sally Can’t Dance.

I didn’t hear what I consider to be the greatest album of 1974 in 1974.  Few people in the UK would have heard it back then.  And not many people in the USA heard it either, despite Big Star being an American band.  Radio City was their second flop album.  The lack of any commercial success for their optimistically-titled debut, #1 Record, left founding member Chris Bell so devastated that he left the band*.  In fact for a few months all of them appear to have thrown in the towel.  The remaining three members only regrouped when they were persuaded to play a gig for an upcoming rock writers’ convention.  They went down so well that they decided to give it another shot.  However, a roomful of enthusiastic rock critics does not always a successful band make.  Distribution problems didn’t help either, and Radio City went the same way as its predecessor.  Nowhere.

And that really should have been that.  It happens to countless records and for countless reasons.  Even some genuinely great albums, they just don’t sell.  There’s no earthshaking youth-quaking revolution for these guys.  Time papers over the cracks, and it’s like they never even existed at all.  Except, that is, for a select group of albums that refuse to stay dead, the ones that eventually do find their audience.  Back in the 70s, this happened very, very slowly, through word of mouth.  And those mouths usually belonged to charismatic hipsters with influence.  That’s how cult bands and cult records were born then.  These days, it seems more down to imaginative advertising executives using long-forgotten tracks, but the end result is often the same.  Without either of these processes, you probably wouldn’t have heard of The Velvet Underground or Nick Drake.  And Vashti Bunyan wouldn’t have come to the music media’s attention in 2006 via a TV ad for a mobile phone.  And I would now be writing about Slade In Flame.  And Dave Hill’s haircut.

In Big Star’s case, those enthusiastic rock critics wound up making a difference after all.  Big Star continued to be mentioned in dispatches, and even more so following the belated 1978 release of a third album, variously known as Big Star 3rd or Sister Lovers.  This ongoing attention prompted Marcus to buy a second hand copy of a double album combining the first two LPs.  I’m not sure where or when he picked it up, but he certainly had it by 1985.  After I’d moved to Birmingham, we’d started swapping mix tapes.  I had been getting very switched on by all the American college radio rock which had started to fill the racks of the import shelves in my local Virgin Megastore in the wake of R.E.M.  I filled my tapes with the likes of The Replacements, The Long Ryders, Green On Red, et al.  I named the first of these tapes Westmount Waxings after the student hostel I was living in.  Marcus sent one back called Surface Noise And The Savernake Scratch, named after both the road he was living on, between Camden and Hampstead, and the less-than-pristine condition of many of the albums he was picking up from charity shops and record exchanges.  Around this time I visited him, and he pulled out the Big Star records.  He must have been thinking that the music I was championing wasn’t a million miles away from what they did, so that I’d probably quite like it.  I’m sure he chose September Gurls as the first thing to play me and it later found its way onto one of the mix tapes he sent me and became a favourite.

These days I have just about everything Big Star ever breathed on, but in my opinion Radio City remains their finest 36 minutes.  In comparison, #1 Record sounds perhaps a little overworked.  It also suffers a little by being the work of two distinctly separate talents, and although I rate some of Chris Bell’s material, I much prefer Alex Chilton’s singing and songs.  On the other hand, Big Star 3rd, a group album in name only, chronicles Chilton’s increasingly disturbing attempts to explore his dark side, which often included sabotaging any of the commercial potential that his songs had left.  This was most likely due to frustration and a cynical reaction to the commercial failure of the previous two LPs.  It’s an album with an enormous cult following, but it’s certainly not an easy listen.

Chilton had been a teenage pop sensation, the lead vocalist with The Box Tops who hit big with The Letter in 1967.  He left that band after a couple of years mainly because it didn’t offer him much creative freedom.  He was expected to sing what he was told to sing.  He managed to sneak a few of his own songs onto albums and the occasional b-side, but it wasn’t enough.  He was all set to begin a solo career when he was sidetracked by Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens, who were gigging and recording under the name of Icewater.  Chilton liked what he heard and joined the group.  They changed their name to Big Star soon afterwards.  Bell and Chilton enjoyed an equal partnership for the first album, but Bell’s departure left Chilton as the main writer and lead singer.  Radio City was the result.

Radio City is the perfect midpoint between the carefully calculated studio textures of #1 Record and the chaos of Big Star 3rd.  It’s tough and gritty but it has just enough production sheen and shimmer to make it sound like a continuation of the debut album.  And John Fry’s engineering is second to none – the way he recorded Chilton’s chiming guitars and Stephens’s energetic tom-tom rolls puts you right there in the room with them.

I should point out at this stage that Big Star don’t sound your typical early 70s band.  As I said earlier, this was an age of progressive rock excess.  There was also plenty of heavy blues rock and Southern-fried boogie.  These bands would routinely feature marathon jams during which each musician’s solo lasted long enough for everybody else to have a cigarette and coke break.  It was also an age of wistful and romantic singer-songwriters gazing into their own navels and occasionally finding more than just fluff to sing about.  Anybody wanting to take a more pop-oriented route was tending to glam up and dumb down.  There weren’t many bands – and especially not in Memphis, home of blues, soul, and rock & roll – that still wanted to sound like an English beat group from the 1960s.  Big Star played concise and hooky songs.  Their guitars were bright and trebly rather than distorted and heavy.  They sang harmonies.  But they also had muscle.  It was like somebody had taken a band from 1965 and put them in a 1973 recording studio.  You hear that mid-60s British Invasion sound but it’s much more powerful and dynamic.

September Gurls is one of the greatest hit singles that never were in the history of rock and pop.  (The Bangles covered it much later and it failed to chart for them as well.)  It’s such a catchy song, yet it’s not as straightforward as it seems.  Chilton’s guitar rings out with such a Byrdsian twang that you’d swear he was playing a Rickenbacker 12-string, but no: it’s a Fender 6-string with the treble EQ pot turned way up high.  Just like The Beatles on Nowhere Man.  The words are filled with yearning yet there’s all this astrological obsession with the months of September and December.  And why on earth is Alex singing “I was your butch”?  A pet name maybe?  And why does the Gurl of the title have a ‘u’ rather than an ‘i’?  Maybe bitch becomes ‘butch’ in the same way that girls become ‘gurls’?  It seems like a plain and simple song about loving and losing love, but there’s just enough playful mystery going on with all of these elements to keep it interesting.  Or maybe, as Chilton later claimed, the words were knocked out very quickly and didn’t really mean that much at all.  Ultimately though, it’s all about the music.  It’s one of the most perfectly arranged and executed 3 minutes in the history of popular music.  It soars.  It never fails to make me feel giddy with Joy.  Instant euphoria.  It’s the very essence of what gets called Power Pop**.  Distilled.  It sounds purpose built for hearing over the airwaves on a summer’s day.  Radio City indeed.

September Gurls may be the obvious star of the album, but it doesn’t dwarf the songs surrounding it.  Back Of A Car and Way Out West are cut from a similar cloth.  Just listen to Jody Stephens’s audacious round-the-kit drum rolls on Back Of A Car!  Jody has said that playing as a three-piece band gave him much more room than he’d had on #1 Record, and his new-found freedom to express himself gives the record much of its life force.  Then there’s Daisy Glaze which starts out all gossamer light, shimmering, slow and sad, before Jody signals for a gear change and suddenly we’re off, rocking out with abandon.  And then there’s opener O My Soul with its twitchy, funky, organ-driven musical backing that prefigures Elvis Costello’s Attractions.

Radio City‘s is its sequencing.  The two songs that sound most like hit singles, September Gurls and Back Of A Car, were tucked away on the original vinyl’s second side.  And the last two songs on the album, both short solo Chilton numbers***, one on piano and one on acoustic guitar, make it sound like the record has utterly run out of steam.  Better to have separated them and put one on the end of each side, à la Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush, so both songs would have had a better chance to shine.  But this is a small niggle, especially in the age of programmable CD players and MP3 playlists where you can change the sequence of songs to suit.

Chilton himself always tended to underrate the work he did with Big Star.  He dismissed most of the songs as being “written by committee”, and always gave the impression that he only really played Power Pop because of Chris Bell’s influence.  Certainly the music he made post-Big Star was nothing like that.  He went on to play experimental rock, rockabilly, blues, soul, jazz, swing and country, but only ever revisited the Big Star style in concert during their reunion tours in the 1990s and 2000s.  This touring band only included Chilton and Stephens from the original group, and you got the distinct impression that Alex was only doing it for the money.  He sounded incredulous in interviews that anyone could consider Big Star as a band of any worth.  Sometimes musicians are their own worst critics.  Indeed sometimes musicians have surprisingly little insight into what the rest of us consider to be their strengths.

Bell died in 1978.  Chilton and Hummel both died in 2010.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing left of them now except a very fine drummer and a handful of brilliant records that utterly failed to set the world alight 40 years ago.  Except that a bunch of enthusiastic rock critics spawned an ever-increasing fanbase, built solely on word of mouth recommendation.  It has ensured that all their albums have remained in print for decades.  There’s even a box set now.  It’s time to rethink that underdog reputation.  Turns out that Big Star were a success story after all.

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* Never the most emotionally stable of men, Chris Bell struggled with depression for years and attempted suicide at least twice (as he openly admits in his song Better Save Yourself).  After years spent getting nowhere with his solo career, he died in 1978 when he lost control of his car and hit a street light.  His solo recordings have since been compiled and issued as I Am The Cosmos, which is also available as a superb, albeit pricey, ‘Deluxe Edition’ double CD pack on the Rhino Handmade label.

** The Wikipedia page for Power Pop defines it as follows: “[Power Pop] typically incorporates a combination of musical devices such as strong melodies, crisp vocal harmonies, economical arrangements and prominent guitar riffs. Instrumental solos are usually kept to a minimum, and blues elements are largely downplayed. Recordings tend to display production values that lean toward compression and a forceful drum beat.”  That’s Big Star right there.

*** These songs, Morpha Too and I’m In Love With A Girl, aren’t the only examples of songs on the album which aren’t true group recordings.  Mod Lang, She’s a Mover and What’s Going Ahn were cut by Chilton and other musicians (calling themselves The Dolby Fuckers) during those uncertain months between Chris Bell quitting and Big Star reforming for the rock writers’ convention, though Hummel likely overdubbed a new bass part onto one or two of these.  The band did attempt to recut their own version of She’s A Mover, but they ultimately went with the superior feel of the ‘Chilton and friends’ take.

N.B. Radio City is currently available, in remastered form, as a CD with a bonus track single edit of O My Soul.  An older CD edition presents the album as a ‘twofer’ with #1 Record.

My other nominations for 1974 albums of merit:

Slade In Flame

Richard and Linda Thompson / I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight

Neil Young / On The Beach

Roy Harper / Valentine

The Kinks / Preservation Act 2

Funkadelic / Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On

David Bowie / Diamond Dogs

Gene Clark / No Other

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