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.

The Cocteau Twins – Treasure

Cocteau Twins' Treasure CD
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INSTANT REPLAY: overlooked moments in music history — by Ryan Kailath

The Cocteau Twins
4AD Records | 1984

Fans have said that after they first heard The Cocteau Twins, other music sounded pale and pointless in comparison, like shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. Plato’s allegory was concerned with waking from life’s slumber to find reality. This Scottish trio, comprised of Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde, has always been content to live in dreams. Their ethereal melodies set them apart from any artists then or now. It’s not that they have no competitors, but that they have no comparison. Their sound is truly unique.

The Cocteaux were signed early on to 4AD. Label founder Ivo Watts-Russell said that his aim was to unearth music that was timeless, free of any trend, movement or era. He lived up to this claim by housing some of the most avant-garde artists of the last 25 years, including Bauhaus, The Pixies and Mojave 3. After a handful of EPs and full-lengths, heavily promoted by the late BBC mogul John Peel, the Twins changed bassists and recorded 1984’s Treasure. The addition of Raymonde marked a departure from their heavier bass-driven sound, and Treasure was instantly recognized as a radical new chapter in the band’s unfolding story.

The gossamer textures of delayed guitars and drum-machine are now apparent as obvious precursors of the dream-pop sound that was to come out of the UK years later with bands like Slowdive and Galaxie 500. Rather than playing at the listener, the music invites you to come inside and explore its stream of conscious. The Cocteau Twins are to music what David Lynch is to film: never a consistent critic’s favorite, but always inventive and instantly recognizable spinners of surrealist dreams.

Old & In the Way – That High Lonesome Sound

Old & In the Way CD
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INSTANT REPLAY: overlooked moments in music history — by Ryan Kailath

Old & In the Way
That High Lonesome Sound
Acoustic Disc | 1973/1996

“That High Lonesome Sound” was the first bluegrass album I ever heard. My sister turned me on to it in high school and I taped it for all my friends, telling them, “If you don’t like this music, you’re just lying to yourself.” Within weeks I’d bought a mandolin, my best friend had a banjo, and we could perform the album start to finish, including the banter in-between songs.

It wasn’t just the music that inspired us, it was the culture and way of life captured on wax. We recruited friends and hauled our instruments downtown, playing on the sidewalk for awestruck children and an empty hat. We dreamed of escaping adolescence on a freight train and finding love in the arms of an upright bass. The bluegrass formula of heartbreaking lyrics set to upbeat music (also known as the reggae formula) is a pop tradition, as ingrained in American hearts as a Norman Rockwell painting.

Old & In the Way was together for only nine months in 1973, yet released the fastest selling bluegrass record in history, their self-titled 1975 LP. The bulk of their success lies in the eclectic mix of master musicians: Jerry Garcia plays his first love, the banjo, leaving the guitar duties to a competent Peter Rowan. David “Dawg” Grisman, not yet a roots-music icon, picks the mandolin, and old-time legend Vassar Clements bows the fiddle. They take turns on solos and sing four-part harmony. Even James Kahn, nicknamed “Mule” for his slow and bulky instrument, shines when driving his bass to a gallop on songs like “Lost” and “Orange Blossom Special.”

The 1975 release was immensely influential for it’s new-grass sensibility, where the band covered hippie anthems like “Wild Horses” and “Panama Red.” This melding of genres has become a tradition echoed ad nauseum with the increasingly ridiculous Pickin’ On series of bluegrass tributes. The tapes from the San Francisco Boarding House shows in 1973 (recorded by the infamous Owsley “Bear” Stanley) were mined again in 1996 to produce the criminally lesser-known That High Lonesome Sound. This release features more bluegrass traditionals than covers, including two foot-stomping fiddle instrumentals.

I recently found my copy of That High Lonesome Sound, after years of thinking it lost. I brought it immediately in to work, and was pleasantly unsurprised when a customer pointed upwards and asked, “What is this music?” I couldn’t help but smile as I wrote down the name of the album. “This is Old & In the Way,” I told her. “If you don’t like this music, you’re just lying to yourself.”

Shuggie Otis – A Legend Lost & Found

Shuggie Otis CD
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INSTANT REPLAY: overlooked moments in music history — by Ryan Kailath

Shuggie Otis
Inspiration Information
Luaka Bop | 1974/2001

If you’ve heard of Shuggie Otis, you can stop reading now. You already know that he declined the Rolling Stones’ invitation to join the band after Mick Taylor quit in 1975. You’ve heard the praise heaped on him by David Byrne, Tim Gane, and nearly every music magazine in print. You remember the Brothers Johnson selling a million records with their cover of Otis’ Strawberry Letter 23, which topped the R&B charts and made #5 Pop in 1977.

If you haven’t heard of Shuggie Otis, don’t feel bad. Until very recently, neither had anyone else. Otis disappeared soon after singlehandedly writing, arranging and recording his masterpiece, Inspiration Information, at the age of nineteen. The soulfunky experiment, lauded today by as many electronic artists and DJs as it is by traditional rockers, was too far ahead of it’s time to sell Gold in 1974. In 2001, David Byrne discovered this lost gem and re-released it on his Luaka Bop label. The whirlwind of press and rave reviews that followed was enough to coax Otis out of his premature retirement. He now plays occasional live shows, but prefers to remain out of the limelight. “I just wanted to do what I want to do,” he said in a later interview. “I had my own identity.”

When I play Inspiration Information for my friends, I like to make them guess who we’re listening to. Stevie Wonder is a popular mistake. “Didn’t Outkast sample this song?” The more soul-savvy bet money on Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes. I keep them guessing until I get the answer I want to hear. “Whatever it is, it’s really sexy,” declares one of my guests, inevitably. “Who wants to dance?”