If there’s anybody that knows anything about dance music, it’s Paul McCartney.
Clearly a man who knows what it means to dance. Courtesy Strange Cosmos
While it looks like his boy toy dance partner has two left feet, Paul has consistently shown he has a great ear for music that gets you on your feet and, to paraphrase George Harrison, “shaking your ass.”
So, when it comes time to create a dance mix you can trust, it’s obviously time to turn to MC Cartney himself. Paul’s career spans a whole bunch of crap, from hard core dance tunes, to rockabilly, to silly love songs, “Silly Love Songs,” synthesizer experiments, classical waltzes, and beautiful ballads.
Honestly, you could make a tub thumpin’ dance mix from his first 10 solo albums alone. However, we’re going full career spanning here, simply to maximize potential annoyance. And no Beatles: that’s too easy.
(I apologize for the mean spirited Linda McCartney joke: she was a lovely person, with a warm heart, real photographic skill and pretty.)
1. “Dance Tonight.”
Perhaps this comes across as a little cloddishly obvious: after all, the word DANCE is right there in the title. But hey, it’s catchy, I like the guitar solo and it’s so charmingly freaking PAUL that I can’t help but love it.
Besides, it’s kind of a nice warm up to later block-rocking-beats: the tone is low key, laid back, and rather chill. And if you’re more inspired to do the Charleston than you are the Dougie, that’s just fine. We’ll wait for you to stop.
2. “Transpirtual Stomp”
Raise your hands if you knew Paul did an acid house album. For those of you who have your hands up, kick yourself right in the arse because that was a trick question. Paul didn’t do an acid house album: Youth did in 1993, when he took samples from Paul’s superb “Off the Ground” and created “Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest” nine tracks of long, relatively throwaway electronic music that asks one question: do you know bogey music?”
3. “Bogey Music”
Because Paul certainly did! Get out your air vocoder, because we’re getting stupid! Ah, the early 80’s! Was there a more fun time to own a whole bank of synthesizers? During this period, Paul said “what the hell, I’m game” and tried his hand at creating some form of nascent synth pop.
Did it work? Sure! I definitely want to bogey after hearing this flawless masterpiece. The Sistine Chapel’s got nothing on getting down and dirty with the bogey!.
See also: “Dark Room” from the album album, “McCartney II: The Synthening.”
4. “Run Devil Run”
Oh my! Listen to those shouts! Paul is ready to kick down the door of artistic credibility by slamming together his own rockabilly standard. After two (or three, if you delved into “Dark Room”) songs of electronic trance strum und drang, it’s refreshing to hear an old-fashioned “shake yer hips” style dance tune. Your parents probably danced to songs like this the night they conceived you. GET INTO IT.
5. “Maybe I’m Amazed”
By now, your blood should be pumping. For many elderly MC Cartney fans, that’s not a good thing: it could mean they are close to a serious coronary infraction.That’s why we’re going to slow it down a bit with this jam.
It’s cliched as all hell, but what can I say? The song still works. So, let your favorite lover out of their lock box, stand cheek to cheek, and slow dance the night away.
So, “Maybe I’m Amazed” didn’t slow your heart rate enough? You’re still gasping for air? All right, let’s take a dance party break to avoid a true party foul heart attack. While you relax, listen to this piece of pseudo-classical nonsense. I won’t turn it off until you start dancing again. That should get you going.
7. “Rock Show”
Yeah! Put those lighters in the air! Whistle to the main synthesizer melody. And then get ready to grind, grind, grind on your favorite scratching post. What the hell did any of that mean? Who cares! MC Cartney is in the room.
Paul goes glam without make up and tames the genre to his rules by making everything as bogey as humanely possible. Or as lush. I get the two confused from time to time.
8. “Silly Love Songs”
Every dance party needs to have the “sell out” song that everyone outwardly hates, but secretly loves. This is that song. SHAKE YOUR ASS.
9. “Monkberry Moon Delight”
After that silly little frothy cash cow, it’s time to stomp your feet to something a bit weirder. Yet still danceable. Can’t you just imagine doing some variation of the “two-step shuffle” to this glorious little ditty? I know I certainly can: because I certainly AM. Let it all hang out.
(See also: “Let it All Hang Out”)
10. “Another Day”
It’s the end of the dance party. Everyone is worn out: they’ve danced to their ultimate limit. It’s time to ride out into the sunset and to celebrate…that’s right, the rise of a new day sun.
What better way to float away than nodding off to this feather-weight ditty? Just imagine the credits are rolling on your own private movie: it works better that way.
Well, that’s it. Hopefully, you danced so hard your pants fell off. Or at least you got wacky enough to put a lampshade on your head. Yeah. I hope that happened!
What a long strange trip…
You know what? I’m not going to throw down that hoary old quote like it’s some beatific mantra that distills the essence of life into seven simple words. It’s a petty and banal way to start a review and I won’t stand for own laziness. Especially as this is, indeed, my first review after a two-year break.
And, of course, I decide to review the Grateful Dead for some reason. And not only a Grateful Dead album: but one that has no recognizable songs and is, instead, edited together as one long continuous suite of keyboard noise, bass thumps, drum paradiddles and guitar scrapes.
What a way to reintroduce myself to the reviewing world! Indeed, what a long strange trip…
It’s been so long since I reviewed anything that my fans are likely unaware that I went and did something incredibly stupid and ill-advised: I became a Grateful Dead fan.
It started out small: just a single live album, “Live/Dead.” Then some MP3’s. Then all the studio albums… right now, as I type, I’m plotting how to afford the next massive multi-concert box set they’re sure to release soon. After all, who doesn’t need 17,000 variations of “Sugaree”?
How did this happen?
The Grateful Dead have a way of working their way into your mind and your musical sphere. Their songs are pleasant, melodic, harmonious, well-played and varied. They have pretty good lyrics. Sometimes their songs are excellent. They’re almost always good.
But then you listen to a live album. And it clicks: Jerry starts soloing, Phil starts zooming, Bob starts chicka-chicking, whichever soon-to-be-dead keyboard player they had was tinkling and the double drummers were thumping.
And off you went, on some musical adventure! Sometimes it really sucked, but it was usually listenable. Sometimes it was transcendent.
Jazz in a rock format.
Not jazz rock. Not fusion. But rock (and roots music) played as if it was jazz. Nothing quite like it.
Another reason the band is so addicting is due to what I call the “Walt Whitman” effect: so much of them, and all so luscious. Because the band was constantly up to…something. There was always some kind of music they were working on or a side band with which they were jamming.
Simply put, they released a ton of studio albums (better than most people think), recorded almost all their shows and had baffling solo careers that veered from Grateful Dead stylization straight up into funk, jazz and even mainstream AOR.
Jerry probably did the best: his literally all-solo self-titled album is a winner and one that that mixed folk songs with avant-guard noise. He also had a collection of standards with an orchestra, helped invent modern bluegrass and toured with his own band (imaginatively titled “The Jerry Garcia Band”) when the Dead wasn’t.
And Weir released a handful of solo albums (including the classic “Ace”) and was in half a dozen different bands that often released only one album before he got bored and wandered away. The best of these is probably “RatDog” which takes the Dead jam aesthetic and slams it into Weir’s surprisingly complex songwriting.
However, no record produced in the band’s camp (be it a Dead release or a solo album) was as strange as “Infrared Roses,” beyond, perhaps John Oswald’s legendary Plunderphonic “Gray Folded.” But that’s a topic for a different time.
“Infrared Roses” is a collection of the “space” and “drum” sections that started appearing in the band’s concerts in the 80’s and 90’s. These sections took the place of the standard “Dark Star” sonic explorations in the 60’s and 70’s, popped up at any time during a concert and were easily the most “out there” moments of the band’s decline.
For some reason (I’m not near my copy and am not willing to look it up for religious reasons), the band decided they would edit some of the best sections together and release it as an album. The producer (again, blanking on his name) skillfully slapped together weird jams and noise making and made it sound like…weird jams and noise making. For about an hour.
Such a description is, likely, very uninviting. In fact, this was the second Grateful Dead album I ever owned and it was quite a shock to hear what often sounded like harsh industrial synthesizers droning into a near Amon Duul II-type soundscape. Where the hell was “Uncle John’s Band”?
Probably playing to the time in a different dimension.
After the initial terror of the album wears off, it becomes surprisingly listenable and even diverse. Sometimes, it’s just Billy and Mickey locked into some interminable drum groove.
Other moments, it’s Jerry soloing dissonantly while Phil lets his bass feedback.
Occasionally, Michael McDonald look and soundalike Brett Myland runs his hands across the keyboard aimlessly while Bob Weir screws around with ridiculous midi sounds.
After awhile, the mind starts focusing in on the little details. That’s the secret of Grateful Dead jams: they go on so long that your brain starts focusing on the small things, picking apart weird little details and entertaining itself with moments it might not have noticed otherwise.
It’s very intuitive and, at its finest, something like meditation: that is, focusing your attention on something so fully that you grasp its essence intuitively.
Or maybe it’s just a bunch of noises. Could go either way. And don’t get your hopes up for a big epic solo or crescendo. After an hour, ust kind of ends after what seems like an eternity spent listening to the band make goofy noises for an hour.
But hey, it’s a journey that beats Journey, a long strange trip that beats “Strange Brew” and a noise rock experiment from a band that was square enough to regularly cover (the sublime) Marty Robbins.
So, it’s pretty epic.
It’s amazing to me that it’s been two years since I’ve updated this site. Two years! Oh, how much things have changed in that time. And how much they’ve stayed the same. For a long time, I considered the site essentially abandoned, like a boat out in the rain. I figured rust would set in and that it would stop getting hits or interest.
Much to my surprise, I found it actually got pretty steady traffic. Oh, nothing mind boggling: maybe 20-30 hits a day. But, it was clear that people were coming and reading. There have even been a handful of non-bot commentators.
As a result, I’ve been trying to get back into the habit of regular updates. There’s no way I could manage the mad daily update schedule I created in the beginning. I not only work too much at my full time job, I also have two busy freelance jobs, have a great girlfriend and am experiencing a fiction writing renaissance.
So, life has been pretty good for me, but things haven’t been perfect. I’ve moved at least three times since the last update. I’m probably moving again soon. A beloved family member died. Another beloved friend died not long after. I’ve gained weight. My dad is sick. And my finances have been a wild roller coaster of uncertainty that forced me to stay active as a writer primarily for profit.
But all that is going to change soon. My reemergence as a fiction writer has gotten my literary juices flowing. My confidence level is growing exponentially daily: not just in myself as a writer, but in myself as a human being. I’m attempting to find some source of peace and comfort in Eastern schools of thought and it does seem to be working.
2014 was basically one big great self-improvement experiment and I’m happy to say that it was very successful. Not perfectly successful. It wasn’t flawless. There’s still things I need to do, parts of me that need updating and changing. But I now believe I can do it. And that’s huge.
However, I’ve always wanted to come back here and start posting again. Just something here and there. Now and then. Maybe a post every week. Maybe two. Something I spent more than an hour on, something I didn’t just blaze through as quickly as possible and leave it as is, with annoying errors, word repetition and wildly inaccurate opinions left intact.
Start expecting weekly posts here again. Reviews of albums, mostly. I’ve been constantly listening to music, as always. And, as always, I have something to say about it.
The Gospel According To Presents… ‘It’s Not The Band I Hate, It’s Their Fans: A Look At The Culture Of Jandek’
Sorry for the delay in new content, folks: I’ve been trying to get my life back together lately, and my other writers have been busy as well. However, Jonathan has some great bile to spew towards a certain subset of fandom, while Danielle Bakker has pics that we shall post tomorrow! And now, without further ado…
I hate humourless, closed-minded people, and I continue to be amazed by how many of them I still encounter at the extremes of taste.
Amazed, but sadly, not surprised: I’ve been seriously listening to music for fifteen years (I turn twenty-five in a little over a week and I was ten when I bought my first Beatles albums; even though I’ve been a ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic fan since I was eight, I obviously wasn’t drawn in by my cognizance of his strength as a musician or brilliance as a satirist – just that the sound of his work made both inches of my pre-pubescent member shiver in juvenile delight), and it becomes apparent through conversation or analysis that most people don’t ‘get it’ in terms of the things that they digest, that there’s an innate quality to most things that becomes overlooked in peoples’ mission to derive a superficial pleasure from stimuli, in the process forsaking the infinitely fuller satisfaction from grasping the depth, context, intention, and consequent integrity of a work. It is in this regard that most people become complacent consumers instead of self-aware digesters of work – there is much to be gained from picking out and tasting the various flavours of a meal as opposed to indiscriminately shoving food down your gullet because you’re hungry, and although I’m spending my weekend indoors giving the shallowest of listens to my The Sea And Cake CDs (one skipped and needs to be replaced, so now I have to make sure that they all function), my approach to any sort of art is to try and get inside the head or heads of whomever dictated the artistic direction and process of the work.
You would think that the more difficult that a piece of art is to enjoy by conventional merit, the more scrutinizing and intellectual the individuals at the other end of the experience would be. I would hope this, too – it’s very difficult to find anybody to converse with that’s a fan of anything that isn’t able to engage in any sort of rational, balanced discourse that deviates from the party line or consensus. I’ve never been somebody that seeks to fit in or belong at the expense of blindly drinking in any opinions, as I wouldn’t want be held in reverence for holding my tongue on any matter in which I felt obliged to speak up about: as such, I have no issue poking holes in arguments or tipping sacred cows: in fact, I relish pointing out when I feel that the obvious solution or answer contrasts greatly with the accepted (which are generally easy) notions of what something stands for. Like I said, you would think that the more esoteric that one’s predilections stretched, the more amenable they’d be to constructive, enlightening debate – or, at least, to boast enough maturity to handle disagreement in a mature matter.
I would think this, too, but you and I would both be very wrong, and it is particularly related to my experience with Jandek fans that they have cemented themselves as the most myopic, blindly faithful, and ultimately pitiful group of people with whom I’d had the misfortune of consorting with.
Which is not to say that everybody that enjoys the music of Jandek has been a shitty person to deal with, per se: there is one notable Jandek fan of whom I’m fairly fond whose YouTube videos exhibiting his vast collection of every Corwood Industries product was one of the main influences in me pursuing my digestion of Jandek’s work when initial attempts to swallow it were met with results more befitting ipecac than the more-realistically vinegary nature of the artist’s catalogue. He’s also a fairly eccentric guy, and though we don’t see eye to eye on every matter regarding the artist (there is a very clear inherent bias on his end that needs to afford Sterling Smith – the man behind the Jandek moniker – an almost superhuman amount of proficiency given that he is convinced that the musical nature of most [if not all] of the work is both deliberate in composition and repeatable, if the constant player involved was at all moved to do so). It’s not that he’s untalented, this person opines, but that his talents are on a different plain.
While I wouldn’t call Sterling ‘talented’ in that he would be able to play conventional music with ease, I will certainly agree with the notion that he is capable on a level that is entirely his own: as a musician that straddles the lines of folk primitivism and free-improvisation without enough verve or understanding of what he’s doing to reach the logical ‘free-folk’ conclusions that the work of more traditionally competent acts like Thuja or Sunburned Hand of the Man has been designated to qualify as, the work of Jandek – particularly any record in which he is performing alone and on a stringed instrument – undoubtedly occupies a rather unique, inimitable territory: not inimitable because it’s hard to do, but because most people (especially those who are already musicians) would lack the ability to perform such convention-free music with serious, unwavering conviction, not to mention the self-release of 73 albums (that are repressed when one run sells out, too – and they actually do sell out!) since 1978. Even if one disagrees that there’s qualifiable or quantifiable integrity in the content of Jandek’s work, I can think of very few artists operating in any realm – never mind avant-garde music – with a comparable integrity in regards to work ethic or ensuring the availability of their work.
But, I digress – it’s not only this one individual with whom my fraternizing is owing to a mutual interest in this artist and his output. I’m friends – as in I actually encounter these people in my physical existence with some regularity – with an older, married couple, the female of whom is pursuing her doctorate in ethnomusicology with an academic dissertation relating rather specifically to the tunings employed on the early, definitive Jandek records. They have managed to accumulate the original vinyl pressings of the 23 Jandek albums that were issued in that medium so as to have the best possible sources from which to gauge the intervals (the sound quality is markedly better on the vinyl – not because vinyl is a better medium [it’s not], but because whoever is mastering the CDs is doing a very bad job). My first comment regarding my friend’s goal to determine the tunings used on the records was that it was a fool’s errand (Jandek is theoretically bereft and the microtonal tunings used on the albums are a result of his aleatory experimentation and not based on any aforethought science or contemplation), and I still hold to this, but I’ve come to learn that she didn’t necessarily disagree, preferring to catalogue the information as it’s a curious facet of the work that has been talked about for ages but never academically scrutinized. My point was that it wasn’t like the only factor precluding Sterling Smith from playing any previously-released material was his inability to recreate the tunings. After all, the improvisatory nature of the work in tandem with the necessary ineptitude of its principal performer guarantees the one-shot nature of any musical outing he takes.
But, you get a bunch of people – especially some denizens of the Jandek mailing list group on Seth Tisue’s otherwise wonderful (if not outdated) fansite – who refuse to subscribe to any beliefs or conversations that don’t give the Corwood proprietor anything less than omniscience and an ungodly amount of intentionality and control regarding his work. And heaven forbid you think of him as a mere mortal: there was a fantastic article published in 2009 by Houston-based singer/songwriter Andrew Karnavas wherein he turns a chance encounter at a bar with the man from Corwood into a philosophical conversation that gives a rare look into his process as an artistic entity as well as an even rarer degree of insight into how he perceives his work. As a fan, a musician/artist/what-have-you, and someone who gets a particular thrill from dissecting the intentionality of a work based on the instinctual stimuli of the listening experience in combination with what I can psychologically process from the artist’s mindset, an article like this was especially exciting. For me, held against some personal correspondence I’ve had with the man (I’ve been writing him since right before my first order in 2009), it confirmed for me Jandek had a strong work ethic and considerable naïveté regarding the sheer otherworldliness of his art. I found it to be an enthralling read and it made me feel positive about the man and his project. You’d think that other people would have found the encounter and its subsequent recounting as invigorating and empowering as I did, right?
Nope: the comments section for the article was flooded with hateful, arguably violent Jandextremist ranting and derision.
One user, Benjamin, was the first person to express dissent, albeit reasonably: do you really think Jandek would say it is okay to publish this private conversation?
You can see a bit of that ‘overprotective fan’ thing come out, but not in any way that attacks or persecutes the publishing. Given Jandek’s historical preference for privacy (which – since his initial 2004 live performance in Glasglow – have seen further precedents of undoing), this was a reasonable ethical consideration when held to the standard of his earlier days, but now – especially in the internet age – it hardly seems like a big deal. It’s not as if he’s truly a ‘recluse’ as was painted by the media: an introvert, yes, but he’s always had a public address and phone number. He doesn’t live behind a gate like your Tom Cruises, your John Travoltas, and innumerable other closeted Hollywood types, after all: I’ve always made the argument that Jandek’s an easier artist to have a direct interaction with than most other people working in the entertainment world – it’s just the aesthetic of the work that intimidates.
Another user, going by the pseudonym ctopshelf, completely embodies what I’d like to call sheer cunthood. I will publish their idiotic comment as it originally appeared, care for punctuation be damned:
I got lost in the blog thinking this was sneaky.Interesting your recollection of the conversation, maybe you recorded and transcribed, right? Nice. You got him though, he never suspected you to blog out his personal views, and of course you never asked. Even got a pic. Pat yourself on the back, but be careful there’s not much backbone there.
This person is clearly a member of the Jandek mailing list (or at least shares in their myopic dissent towards anyone daring to shed light on their proud little secret), because this is the sort of asshole that posts there: someone who – due to their own idiocy or their inexplicable need to elevate another human being to idol status – holds an artist as a sacred being worthy of more courtesy than anybody else they’d meet on the street. This phenomena isn’t only unique to Jandek fans, but I’m heavily into many acts, and I’ve only ever witnessed (both firsthand and otherwise) the level of overreactive drama – and to something as innocuous as a retelling of a simple meeting with an artist that all parties involved admire, no less! – with this pathetic, ultimately sad fanbase.
And I mean, as far as the sad thing goes, one clearly has to be sad or have considerably sadness experience to get Jandek’s work (I mean, it only clicked for me after my first relationship ended) but people like these – people who have the double-whammy of not only being shitty people to begin with, but also pitiful, emotionally-unfulfilled people who need to treat the artist as an enigmatic figure to replace a God (actual or metaphorical) that failed them, and they take it out on those who aren’t as conservative with the man and his image by denigrating our interest as predatory or of low ethical standing. Regarding the circumstance of the article, I think it’s fantastic that Sterling is open to discussing his work in public, and as relatively few Jandek fans exist to begin with, those of us with any knowledge of him beyond what the records may or may not provide are a privileged few to start with: the Karnavas encounter was the first published of what I’d hope would be many meetings with Jandek, but whether out of fear of reprimand or people realizing that ‘hey, this was just a conversation with another human being’, anything further is few and far between.
But, for every person like me who wants to piece together whatever we can regarding a great, prolific, and ultimately peerless artist like Jandek, there will be a ‘david ames’ to say ‘[y]ou violated his privacy. You are a lowlife.’
On that same mailing list, sometime in the Fall of 2010, you can find messages from various beta male pieces of shit condemning me to death based on a tongue-in-cheek review that I wrote for Jandek’s Chair Beside A Window – the version that they saw no longer exists because I didn’t think it was worth stoking the flames of their stupidity with further defiance (and also it was frightening to have such heavy hatred levelled at me over creative writing), but the gist of it was that ‘[a]t this blog, we respect Jandek, so you’ll have to go elsewhere to find out that his name is Sterling Smith; and don’t even think about finding out that his phone number is…‘ et cetera – all with published information. The kicker was that at one point, the article says ‘on an unrelated note, here’s what his house looks like’, with the Google Maps applet embedded underneath and set to view the lovely townhouse that he occupies in Houston.
Yes, my independent article was apparently worthy of my receiving death threats. My review of the fourth Jandek album had become the hobby-journalist equivalent of Rushdie’s Satanic Diaries.
Also, the new Jandek album – the 9-disc The Song Of Morgan – wasn’t particularly good. For starters, it’s just him fucking around on the piano (no vocals) for eight-and-a-half hours without any preconceived direction or thought. It’s pleasant at best and excruciatingly dull at worst. Anybody that thinks that the work has any merit beyond its volume is listening to the artist’s biography on loop in their head as they take it in: unless you were someone who was drawn into the artist’s fanbase because of Glasgow Monday (and nobody was), this is not what you signed up for and you wouldn’t even consider buying it if the box said Yanni or John Tesh on it instead. You are not a special snowflake because you enjoy a difficult artist. No matter who you are, you become pitiful when your idolatry of another human being (for whatever reason) causes you to encroach on anybody else’s feelings of security or safety.
This is going to get more hits than anything else I’ve done because Jandek fans – whether they want to admit it or not – have a ravenous appetite for any Jandek information they can get their hands on, so long as it’s not part of anyone else’s knowledge: I’ll be the first to say that I’m aware of (and have heard one firsthand) bootlegs of unreleased or extended Jandek material circulating, copied from tapes that were allegedly stolen from the man himself, have learned elements of his family history, as well as have accrued other miscellany about the fellow from conversations. Information like this – truly privacy violating stuff that is procured and traded by the same ‘fans’ who throw a shit fit when someone takes a picture of the Rep shopping at Whole Foods or recount an anecdotal conversation that they shared – is not the sort of stuff I’m willing to divulge (partly because a lot of it is speculative), and I also don’t want to create problems for anybody else.
In short, if you’re a Jandek fan who wants to attack somebody else because they wish to humanize the man behind the project, feel the need to express their natural curiosity about our shared hermetic hero (and we all have our curiosities; don’t lie), or – like myself – take humourous jabs at the ridiculous situation we’ve helped to create, you should go fuck yourself. Preferably with a bullet.
Doesn’t feel so good, now, does it?
Lucille Riley is an Oregon based photographer who has studied fine arts in the best schools in Canada, and who also has years of experience working in nurseries. She will be taking pictures for Culture Fusion sporadically. She prefers that her pictures speak for themselves, so without further ado, here are her photos!
All photography is the sole property of Lucille Riley and are licensed by handshake agreement to Culture Fusion.
The greatest power-pop album ever created is #1 Record by Big Star. This may seem like a bold, definitive statement, but I really don’t care. You can dispute me all you want, but if your opinion is otherwise, you’re wrong. I feel as if I could write a long essay about why “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen” are two of the greatest songs ever written, but it would just turn into me rambling and repeating myself. Instead, here’s a concise discourse on why you should be listening to this record right now.
Before I start gushing about how great this record is (too late – ed.), I’ll give you a little background information regarding it. Big Star were initially formed as Icewater in Memphis, Tennessee in 1971 and consisted of Chris Bell, Jody Stevens, and Andy Hummel. Subsequent to their founding, Chris Bell met guitarist Alex Chilton at a recording studio while they were both playing on different sessions where Bell – being impressed by the latter’s songwriting skills – invited him to join the band. Upon Chilton joining the group, they changed their name to Big Star, which was taken from a grocery store that the band often frequented when they wanted to purchase snacks. Bell and Chilton were the main creative force of the band and were both disciples of The Beatles, who were a huge influence on both of them; in fact, their stated mission was to be a songwriting duo with the same force of Lennon and McCartney.
Although they were certainly a team, the two had very disparate styles of songwriting. While, as I said, they were both extremely influenced by the Beatles, the Fab Four had a much bigger impact in Bell’s contributions to the band than Chilton’s. Chilton would write rough versions of songs, and Bell’s job would be to polish and refine them with pleasant vocal harmonies and arrangements. Bell was much more involved in producing the record than anyone else in the group; as such, his influence is very apparent on #1 Record. Chilton became more involved in the post-production of the following albums, and because of this, they sound much more rough and unpolished.
The one sentiment echoed by most scholars of rock and roll is history is that Big Star should have been huge (in fact, they should have been big stars and their records should have all been number one, hurr durr). After #1 Record was released in 1972, it received numerous critical accolades. Billboard went as far as to say that every song on the album could have been a hit single. Unfortunately, due to poor distribution, #1 Record sold less than 10,000 copies during the period surrounding its original release. Because of this, Bell and Hummel left the band. The group tracked two more records, Radio City and 3rd (Sister Lovers on some reissues), though only the former would come out during the band’s initial lifetime. Due to frustration with their label, poor sales, and a general lack of palpable success, they completely disbanded in 1974.
Of course, as most bands are wont to do, the Big Star banner was re-activated in 1993 – after nearly 20 years of silence – with a new line-up. Unfortunately, as Chris Bell died in a car accident in 1978, they were without his contributions. However, the revitalized lineup did contain some original members in the form of Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens.
That’s enough history for now – back to my ranting.
My personal highlights of #1 Record – as I mentioned before – are “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen”. The former is track two on the record, and while I have no idea who El Goodo is, Bell and Chilton sure did write a beautiful song about him. This piece is the best example of Bell’s beautiful falsetto harmonization on the album: they really shine through on this track. On the surface, it is just a simple ballad, but the arrangements and harmonies on the track really make it into something special.
“Thirteen” is even simpler than “The Ballad of El Goodo”. It utilizes acoustic instrumentation and has its lead vocal duties handled by Chilton. This track holds a special place in my heart, and I would say that it’s one of my favorite songs in general: it’s a beautiful, little portrait of teen love and perfectly captures the innocent spirit of the record as a whole.
Every other song on the record is fantastic as well, but those are the ones that really stand out for me. The lush production really shines on tracks such as the bright “Watch the Sunrise” and the somber “Try Again”, which sounds like it could have been an outtake from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. And, of course, who could forget the nostalgic teenage anthem “In the Street”? If you can get past the fact that a cover version of it was used as the theme song for That ‘70s Show, I daresay it is one of the best tracks on the record.
The thing that’s amazing about this record is how well it still stands up, even if you only listen to it for the first time later in your music-devouring career. If you’re like me, you probably heard a good number of the countless bands who were influenced by Big Star before you actually listened to this record and, because of that, one would think that this wouldn’t seem special at all. Yes, there have been countless other groups who have tried to imitate this sound; the simple pop structure, jangly guitars, and tight vocal harmonies were all oft-employed musical elements during the college radio days of the 1980s. However – even with all of the similarities to groups who found much more fame than Big Star ever did during their short career -, even being as familiar as I am with its derivatives, this record still feels magical to me. Most of the tracks on the album feel like adolescent anthems worthy of being blasted in a car filled with your best friends at age sixteen. (Yeah, yeah. Now I’m picturing That ‘70s Show). Chris Bell and Alex Chilton were magnificent songwriters, and their collaboration on this is truly wonderful.
As I write this article, I’m sitting in a coffee shop with my headphones on, and it just doesn’t feel right that I’m not singing along with it. I suppose that I could start belting out the lyrics, but I don’t think that the girl working on her chemistry homework across from me would appreciate that. #1 Record is just one of those perfect, infectious pop albums that begs to be echoed by an appreciative audience, whether that be one of the large crowds that saw them during their reunion concerts… or a single listener like me. In fact, I think that it’s time I finish my drink and go perfect my Alex Chilton impersonation.