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.