Big Star’s#1 Record and Radio City are as good as any in the list of holiest of holies. I must admit that I’d never bothered to listen to Big Star before I read a review of the Keep an eye on the Sky box set on Popmatters about six months ago (the box set is the usual collection of remixes, unmixes, and rehearsals and no less charming for that) and the joy that review communicated to me as a reader was enough to send me out to find #1 Record and Radio City. And they are works so wonderful that it is astonishing to me that I had never heard any of the songs before, not at all.
When people talked about Big Star I always figured it was another one of those kind of moments, ah hah, I’d think, they’re telling me how pure, how untainted by commercialism they are or would like me to think they are. But now I have to take it back. It is all true. Big Star were a great band. I never knew, I had thought it was pomposity and pointless elitism. Maybe it was, maybe it still is, but I can now verify that the fact remains: Big Star were fucking brilliant.
#1 Record is the smoother, tighter, poppier of the two records; Radio City is somewhat rockier and less ornate. #1 Record flows with considerable skill and fluency, songs that you think have very little to them turn out to be graceful lunges toward the sublime. Songs that appear muscular rockers of a generic kind, appear that they’ll turn into Ballroom Blitz any second turn out to be visceral confrontations with vulnerability. Lead breaks that suggest an abject genericism go atonal and wilfully out of tune, but only ever so slightly. Lyrics that on half an ear listening present as a pointless silly love songs are revealed to be destructive rejections of just those (in “what’s going ahn” there’s the great line: I like love but I don’t know/all these girls they come and go/always nothing left to say). In other words this is an indie band doing really very clever and beautiful things in wonderfully subversive ways, but they aren’t ironic.
These guys are trying to make pop records but they’re not doing it to undermine the concept: Big Star love the idea of pop music. If it was all directed toward a kind of self loathing, or self flagellation, that ultimately takes the piss out of the audience for getting into it (a very popular process at present) it wouldn’t carry much weight but I think the key to Big Star is naivety. The songs aren’t mocking pop music or the pop music buying public, they’re extending them. There are a multitude of references mostly to British Invasion bands (Beatles, Kinks, Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, et al) and some lovely Stax moments with horns and rhythm guitars. But the references aren’t like, say, The Books or Vampire Weekend where there always appears to be some postmodern conflagration of imagery leading toward some kind of sabotage of the music itself. Big Star aren’t doing sabotage, they’re doing homage.
But for me the songs really are the key, the shape of them is conventional but substance is not. The Ballad of El Goodo on #1 Record is a song that for several listens bears a kind of Osmonds/Partridges cleanliness mixing with the tunefulness of Carole King but just layered underneath is a Pixies like simmering discontent and a narrative of steely tough flintedness: the chorus, harmonized to within an inch of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” or “Carrie Anne”, appears a warm celebratory refrain but in fact it is a kind of zealous call (“well, I’ll fall if I don’t fight”) to maintain the rage: “ain’t no-one going to turn me ‘round”. This is not a song about fitting in, conventionality, or the safety of love. It is about holding course when exactly those forces would prefer suffocation and closure. It is about not reforming, and from this unlikely topic comes a tune of considerable beauty and poise. #1 Record maintains this curious and enchanting balance throughout its thirty eight minutes or so. Radio City, as I mentioned is slightly less polished, largely because #1 Record was so unsuccessful and Alex Chilton was beginning to believe it was all a shitty front for screwing his talent. Quite possibly he was correct but he still had hopes on Radio City.
There are some fantastic songs, for instance “You Get What You Deserve” has all the aural appearance of being some kind of Eagles tune with a Crosby Stills & Nash flavour but by the end it sticks the knife in: “so much pain down the drain, a lot of us ain’t got any friends” are the crunching closing lines. The song also has a glorious Ray Davies style lead break that reaches for misaligned stars because it is shapes like a chocolate bar plump with sweetness but it twists it ever so slightly just enough to make you think this is in fact cabbage covered in chocolate. Not sweet. In “Mod Lang” desire is still marked by fuzztone chords and cowbell, just like the Stones and Ike and Tina Turner, but it is reduced to a relentless scowling frustration: “I can’t be satisfied/with what you/want me to do/I was howling/I was a barking dog”.
Love is no redemption here, quite the opposite, love is what reduces, love is what brings you down and nullifies language yet it remains the focal point for desire. These contradictions are so rich, it moves all the songs and provides the listener with something that cannot be reconciled, something that can never be sorted or straightened out. The tortuous play of sweet and sour is grand here, unencumbered by irony or a punchline (to make it clear which side we should be on), the records speak so powerfully of the awful negotiation of knowledge and naivety. How can one ever co-exist with the other, how can pop music not be stupid and fun, how can music reflect the deeper mysteries but still evoke the simplicities of sex and dance?