My wife is the only person I know who can listen to a CD that I put on, hum all the way through it, and then, when it’s over, say “God, I hate those guys!”
There I’d be, so proud of myself for bringing home yet another brilliant CD (which I’d somehow come to equate with being brilliant) that gave her joy and broadened her horizons (my specialty, since my horizons are fine just the way they are) only to find that I’d merely given her yet another reason to question why she married me. Such questions arise frequently, but usually in regard to my character, so who cares? But when it comes to my taste in music…well now, that's serious.
And it keeps happening when I put on Big Star. You've heard of them. They’re one of those “seminal” (you know, important, but not necessarily good) artists you’re always reading about, but never finding yourself interested enough to investigate. Well I did all the work for you,
Their first two records are available on a single CD, and it’s one of the essential documents of 70s pop music – a critical piece to an otherwise confusing picture.
Their third record – recorded in 1974 but not released until 1978, rivals “The Basement Tapes” in hip aura. It also rivals “Tonight’s the Night” in its depiction of a soul’s – Alex’s Chilton’s – dark hour. I can understand someone just not getting it, but to me, it’s almost as good as their greatest pop moments.
I think they’re great. Not so my wife. What’s her problem? I’ll try to break it down:
What’s undeniably great about Big Star:
From “Number One Record” – "Thirteen", "India Song", "When My Baby’s Beside Me", "Give Me Another Chance", "Watch the Sunrise". In other words, perfect pop music.
From “Radio City” - "Oh My Soul", "What’s Goin Ahn", "Back of a Car", "Daisy Glaze", "September Gurls", "I’m in Love with A Girl". Even better now, but a little strange.
From “Third/Sister Lovers” - "For You", "Nighttime", "Blue Moon". Desolate, but beautiful.
The above, if combined into a single record would be one of the greatest of all time. And yet the above, burned onto a CD, still drives my wife nuts.
And I didn’t even get to…
What may be off putting about them:
“Number One Record” – "Feel", "The Ballad of El Goodo", "In the Street", "Don’t Lie to Me", "My Life is Right". Maybe a touch too ironic, and lots of adenoids.
“Radio City” - "September Gurls", "Life is White". Purposely out of tune, a little demented.
“Third” – Most of it. Tortured, dark.
Mind you, I’m not saying that this second list is “bad”. It’s just what I’d consider the most likely source of irritation if you’ve found yourself on the fence about them. But even the first list didn’t win anyone over.
Like me, my wife is a big Beatles fan. I consider Big Star to be the missing link between the Beatles and late 70s power pop/new wave. It would only be logical for her to love them, but no.
And she’s not alone. I gave copies of that same mix CD to my siblings a couple of years back, and haven’t gotten a word back. (I think they moved.) The mystery deepens.
Not the Beatles:
So, who the hell are they anyway? Jody Stephens and Chris Hummell make up the powerful rhythm section. Then there’s Alex Chilton, who you know from the Box Tops. That’s him singing on “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby”. Somehow, that deep, soulful voice went backwards through puberty, and with Big Star, he’s singing like a skinny twelve year old white kid.
The other major creative force was Chris Bell, who wrote or co-wrote the songs with Chilton. Chris seemed like the nice guy/Paul McCartney type, while Chilton was the loose cannon misanthropic/John Lennon type. Their songwriting partnership only made it through the first album. By the end of “Radio City”, Chris is gone and it’s the Alex Chilton show. Which is okay by me - Chris’s nasally voice was even more annoying than Alex’s could sometimes be.
Alex went on to make a lot of erratic music, and Chris died in a car accident in 1978. His solo album was eventually released, and while it’s not bad, it’s hampered by Chris’s vocal limitations. The highlight is “You and Your Sister” which has a guest harmony by Alex. This poignantly brief reunion has movie written all over it.
But while we wait for it to be made, buy the twofer. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.