Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dust It Off: Big Star - #1 Record/Radio City

#1 Record/Radio City
Album: #1 Record/Radio City
Fantasy, 1992
Recording Date: 1972-1973

Mention Big Star in a room of musicians and most will probably know exactly who you're talking about - and could even name the band members and more than a few songs. But outside of the world of indie rock and rock criticism, you'll get blank stares far more often than not. And it's not that Big Star's music requires a great spirit of adventure or high level of technical understanding to appreciate - in fact, it's some of the most straightforward pop of its era.

No, Big Star were one of many victims of bad luck and poor marketing, and their albums simply never sold. But those who were in the habit of seeking out under-the-radar music found the album and it changed the course of rock history. A list of bands that include Big Star as a key influence would be too long to attempt, but it would certainly include the likes of R.E.M., Wilco, the Cars, the Smashing Pumpkins, Teenage Fanclub, Cheap Trick -- well, you get the idea.

As one of the first "power pop" bands, Big Star drew songwriting influences from the Beatles, the Byrds and the Beach Boys, but carried out these ideas with a mindset taken directly from arena rock - though Big Star may never have filled an arena, they played as though they were born in one. Even the most subdued, acoustic numbers sound like they were not only meant for the big stage but actually create the illusion of a big stage wherever they're played.

The band's first two albums, #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974), were combined into a single release by Stax in 1978, but the version most commonly found is the joint release first issued in 1992 by Fantasy Records. In any case, this double LP offers well over an hour of consistently excellent songs, ranging from the wistful "Ballad of el Goodo" and the simple, finger-picked folk of "Thirteen" to the guitar-rock arena-screamer "Don't Lie to Me" and the pure radio pop of "September Gurls."

Listening to Big Star, it's obvious how they became such an icon in the history of indie rock. Though their melodies were as good (no, better) than any charting band of their time, they also displayed an edgy, noisy experimentalism. "The India Song" has an arrangement that's just plain bizarre, while the unpolished aggression of "O My Soul" is far grittier than most 1974 rock. Warm ringing guitars and sweet tunes are impossible to separate from the album's dark side. The band sounds out of their time, not ahead of it, but they predict indie and alternative rock - a world where the 1960's models of radio pop, large-scale rock and arty psychedelia were reconfigured to accommodate a more versatile, more honest weapon.

It's hard to imagine what indie rock would look like if it hadn't had Big Star as a root. The good news is, we don't have to.

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