Stuff That Doesn’t Suck Presents…#1 Record by Big Star
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.
Stuff That Doesn’t Suck Presents: Lorca by Tim Buckley
Today is a big day for Culture Fusion: our efforts to expand to a wider range of writers and musical interests has hit pay dirt with the introduction of new reviewer Audrey. She enjoys exploring the realms of the strange and unusual and who’s innate understanding of music helps create an informative and enjoyable read.
Her first review delves into the strange and unusual world of Tim Buckley’s experimental period with the classic album “Lorca.”
I’ve found that it’s impossible to have a conversation with someone about Tim Buckley without the subject of his son immediately slipping into the dialogue. So, I will get this out of the way right now: I am not a fan of Jeff Buckley. There, I said it. Shoot me.
Don’t get me wrong: Jeff isn’t bad; I just don’t find him all that interesting. He has a nice voice, and 1994’s Grace had a few good songs on it (his cover of Hallelujah brings me to tears), but as an album, I find it to be completely unremarkable; this is a lot of why it enrages me when he inevitably gets brought up every single time I try to talk about his father.
Seriously, people – I just want to talk about one of my favorite songwriters, not his son. Jeff couldn’t even swim! (Okay, that was bad.)
Also, Tim was just so dreamy. I mean, look at those curls. Swoon.
When I listen to Tim’s output from the year 1970, I can’t help but wonder why he isn’t more recognized and revered. He released two of his strongest records that year: Lorca and Starsailor. The former of these two releases is not only the Tim Buckley album I enjoy the most, but also one of my all-time favorite records.
It was recorded during the same sessions as his 1969 album, Blue Afternoon but they couldn’t be any more different. Tim was trying to fulfill contractual obligations to his record labels during this period and was creating and releasing a lot of new material.
Perhaps as a response to creating so much at once, his music started becoming eccentric. Rather than writing catchy tunes, Lorca found Buckley completely abandoning the binary structure of his songwriting to explore a more free-form style: this led to his songs being much longer than on his previous records. Leaving behind the verse-chorus format allowed him to focus on creating immersive pieces that highlighted his astonishing vocal range and his poetry.
Not only did his lyrical approach begin to differ, his musical approach was similarly altered: this certainly wasn’t the hippie-folk sound that he used on his earlier albums. On Lorca, Tim started incorporating free jazz and avant-garde elements into the compositions, which undoubtedly alienated his fan base.
Fans may have also been alienated by the minimal levels of acoustic guitar on the album. It was no longer the musical focal point and driving force of the tracks. There is almost no percussive element on the record, except for congas in the background of a few songs.
With the exception of perhaps the track ‘Nobody Walkin’’, these songs don’t sound like traditional rock or folk. His voice completely took over and led the songs in much different directions. Largely owing to the unexpected nature of the record, the album was a financial and critical failure.
Side one opens with the title track, which is much more jarring than anything he had previously released. The song begins with the sound of various keyboards (including the pipe organ), an immediate and complete departure from everything he had done before. Tim plays in an unusual and uncomfortable 5/4 time signature, which creates an brooding atmosphere he maintains for 10 long minutes. This is easily the most difficult track on the record, and I’m guessing it probably scared a lot of his folk-oriented fans away from the album.
The other track on side one is called ‘Anonymous Proposition’. I get the impression that Tim must have been depressed when he wrote most of songs on this record: almost every track creates a strong feeling of isolation which is especially strong on this song. The track (which is easily my favorite on the album) features what I feel is the best vocal performance Tim ever recorded: the song appears to deal with an uncommitted relationship, and I cannot help but be moved by his authentic-sounding delivery of lyrics like “love me as if someday you’ll hate me”, knowing that his romance was doomed before it even started. When asked about the piece, Tim said, “It deals with a ballad in a totally personal, physical presentation… It has to be done slowly; it has to take five or six minutes; it has to be a movement. It has to hold you there and make you aware that someone is telling you something about himself in the dark”.
Side two of the record is significantly less challenging than the first. It starts off with the beautiful ‘I Had A Talk With My Woman’ which initially seems to be more uplifting than the rest of the record.
However, when you listen closer to the lyrics, the song reveals itself to be just as depressing as the rest of the album. The track has similar lyrical themes to ‘Anonymous Proposition’: Tim alleges singing about his love from the top of a mountain in one verse, but questions how long the love is going to last in the next. Fans looking for an accessible starting point on Lorca could do well to start here, as it features more similarities to his older work than anything else on the LP while still retaining some of the jazzy elements that are present on side one.
Next, we find a moody piece called ‘Driftin’’. Like the rest of the album, this song reaffirms my belief that Tim was dealing with depression over a break-up or a stagnant relationship. It is a slow, dreamy song which features some very lovely guitar work. If I had to identify a low point on the record, I would say that this wonderful song is it.
The final track is ‘Nobody Walkin’’, which presents a musical change of pace. The slow moodiness of the rest of the album is broken by an upbeat, fast-paced groove which feels out of place in the context of the recording. As alien as it is, the song leaves the listener with much better feelings than that rest of the songs.
Lyrically, the song is also different in that it sees Tim take initiative by leaving his lover rather than wait to see whether or not she is going to leave him. This more proactive approach makes ‘Nobody Walkin’’ an appropriate, somewhat positive conclusion to the story of Lorca.
Much like the love spoken of in ‘Anonymous Proposition’, it seems Tim knew that the record would be doomed from the start. Larry Beckett, Tim’s early songwriting partner, said that he wanted to purposefully alienate his fans with his new direction. Tim was once quoted saying that Lorca is a record that “you can’t put… on at a party without stopping things; it doesn’t fit in.”
I would definitely have to agree with him. I’ve tried playing it for a group of friends and everyone in the room immediately stopped talking and started listening. It’s definitely a record that demands your attention.
For the time, there aren’t many albums to which you can compare Lorca. The 1970s weren’t a time when popular folk artists were incorporating avant-garde and jazz elements into their sound. Buckley’s use of the chromatic scale sets Lorca apart from the more conventional and melodic folk music which lived (and lives) as the norm. The most obvious contemporary of Lorca’s would be Nico’s ‘Desertshore’, but even that record doesn’t have the desolate and stark qualities of Lorca.
My opinion of Lorca, much like my opinion of Jeff, is the unpopular one. Most people I know prefer Starsailor. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on that album; it’s a fantastic record and certainly deserves all of the acclaim it receives. The two albums receive comparisons quite often since they’re both products of his avant-garde period and they have some similar qualities.
However, I think it’s unfair to compare the two as they have many important differences that separate them more than their similarities unite them. First of all, Starsailor is a much more adventurous and genre shattering album. Tim dove even further into experimentation on that record and came up some very interesting and unique songs as he moved further and further from the folk norm and format. Lorca does not dive as fully into the uncertain waters of the unknown and holds more strongly to traditional folk music formats.
While I usually tend to favor weirder albums, Lorca is my favorite album by Buckley. Starsailor is a fascinating listen, but it lacks intimacy, whereas when I listen to Lorca, I feel like I’m getting a better look at what Tim was like during this point in his life. It has a very atmospheric quality to it that few other albums I’ve listened to are able to achieve, and for this reason alone, it is worth your time and effort to enjoy.