Big Star – #1 Record/Radio City

Big Star Radio City
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INSTANT REPLAY: overlooked moments in music history — by Ryan Kailath

Big Star
#1 Record/Radio City
Fantasy | 1972, 1974, 1992

In 1967, a journalist asked Pete Townshend what kind of music his band played. “Power pop is what we play,” he responded, coining a term that is as widely misunderstood today as it is used. Big Star keeps true tradition with the genre’s confused legacy, as an impossibly influential band eclipsed by its own imitators.

Big Star has oft been called “the most famous obscure band in the world.” Formed in Memphis in 1971 and comprised of Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens, the band recorded three albums in three years before breaking up. This CD combines the band’s first and best two records onto one disc.

Bell, Hummel and Stephens had been playing Led Zeppelin covers in the back room of Bell‚Äôs house for close to a year when Alex Chilton, a teen star who sang The Box Tops‚Äô #1 hit ‚ÄúThe Letter,‚Äù returned to Memphis and was invited to join the band. Influenced heavily by the sounds and styles of the British Invasion, Bell & Chilton decided to share songwriting credits for #1 Record, à la Lennon/McCartney.

One listen through the record shows this was not the case. Bell’s darker, edgier contributions (“Feel,” “Try Again”) stand clearly distinct from Chilton’s pop-inspired melodies and world-weary lyrics on songs like “Watch the Sunrise.” The songwriting duo’s love of The Beatles may not have been evident in their creative method, but they certainly shared Lennon and McCartney’s famous tension. Bell, clearly the team leader of the first Big Star record, left the band after the album failed miserably in both sales and charts, though it was critically acclaimed across the music press.

Big Star disbanded upon Bell’s departure, but reunited a year later after playing a successful reunion show for a music journalism convention in 1973. Now a trio, the band recorded their second album, 1974’s Radio City, with Chilton at the controls. This second record, marked by it’s pop sensibility and stripped-down production, is generally hailed as the band’s masterpiece. Many songs off Radio City are thought to be originally penned by Bell, though Chilton is vague on the subject. Chris Bell, who never fully recovered from the crippling failure of #1 Record, died tragically in a car crash in 1978, his promise unfulfilled. Bell’s solo project, I Am The Cosmos, was finished and released in the 90s by his older brother David.

Big Star’s artistry and influence, though unrecognized during the band’s time, has proved indisputable in today’s music scene. R.E.M., The Replacements, The Posies and others all cite Big Star as one of their primary influences. In a recent poll conducted by Magnet Magazine, eighteen artists including Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney), Davey von Bohlen (The Promise Ring), John Davis (Superdrag), and Phil Elvrum (The Microphones) named Big Star tracks as their favorite power-pop songs of all time. If this record is not in your collection, it should be now.