Quite often, when an album that becomes highly regarded and hugely influential, is released, it isn’t a huge commercial success. Even if it’s critically acclaimed, and a few music critics realize the albums importance, its release passes almost unnoticed. This album is loved by critics and a small coterie of fans, who treasure the album. They await this band’s next record, while the music industry moves on, each week another new batch of albums being released. When Big Star’s second album Radio City was released, critics loved it, they forecasted great things for them and the album. On its release, the album wasn’t the commercial success it should’ve been, and sales were poor. That wasn’t the end of the album. Through word of mouth, people heard about the album, and it became a favorite among aspiring musicians. Since its release, it has influence two generations of musicians, including groups like Wilco, R.E.M. and Teenage Fanclub. Through their patronage, a whole new generation have discovered Big Star’s music.

Alex Chilton truly was a highly talented musician. Aged sixteen, he’d recorded a solo album, only for it to be rejected for being too commercial. When he was seventeen, he became lead singer with The Box Tops. He was their lead singer between 1967 and 1970, when The Box Tops had a number one single with The Letter. By 1971, he was almost a veteran of the music industry. It was 1971, when Alex Chilton asked Chris Bell to collaborate with him. Chilton’s idea was a duo like Simon and Garfunkel. Thankfully, Bell rejected the idea, and instead, asked Chilton to join his band Icewater. Icewater comprised Alex Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel. Soon, Icewater became Big Star, after a visit to grocery store they visited for food, gave them the idea. By now, the band had written several songs, of which two, Thirteen and Watch the Sunrise, would appear on their debut album.

By April 1972, Big Star were ready to release their debut album, Number One Record. They’d signed to Ardent Records, and the company founder John Fry recorded the album. Initially, all four band members were going to contribute towards writing material for the album. Eventually, Chilton and Bell’s compositions dominated the album. When they recorded the album, Big Star became one of the first groups to use a sixteen track tape recorder. This allowed Big Star to experiment, and during the recording sessions, they learnt how best to use the new technology. 

By the time the album was due for release, critics loved Big Star’s music. Big Star were a group who had been influenced by many British groups. This included the Beatles, Kinks, Rolling Stones as well as, The Byrds, Otis Redding, Joni Mitchell and Simon and Garfunkel. This melange of musical influences would influence the band’s music. On its release, Number One Record wasn’t promoted or distributed properly. Stax, who were meant to promote and distribute were struggling. They couldn’t generate airplay for the album, and couldn’t even get the album into many record shops. Eventually, Stax signed a deal with Columbia Records to distribute their whole catalogue. However, Columbia didn’t seem interested is using the independent distributors previously used by Stax. This resulted in Number One Record being removed from the stores who previously sold Stax releases. 

After the problems regarding the distribution of the album, tensions arose within the band. Fights erupted between band members, instruments were destroyed and Chris Bell left the group. He decided to record his own solo album. After a few months, they decided to reform the group who by now, were down but not deterred or defeated. Problems galore occurred. There was drug abuse, instruments destroyed, band members became ill and a master tape went missing. Again the band spilt up. Eventually, the band reconvened and Chilton, Stemphens and Hummel decided to record an album as a three piece band. Chris Bell did help write some songs on the album, but isn’t credited. Radio City was the album that emerged.  Like Number One Record, the theme that continued throughout the album, was the theme of a big star’s popularity and their success. Just before the album’s release, Hummel too, left the band. And then there were two.

On Radio City’s release on February 1974, the album was again well received by critics who loved the album. Again, because of distribution problems, and a disagreement between Stax and Columbia Records, the album sold poorly, and only about twenty-thousand albums were sold. Since then, the album is recognized as a classic, and was included by Rolling Stone magazine in their 500 greatest albums of all time. 

Big Star would only release one further album, Third/Sister Lovers. By now, there was only two remaining members of the band Chilton and Stephens. So, in September 1974, they entered the recording studio for the last time. The duo enlisted the help of various musicians and producer Jim Dickinson to complete the album. Only 250 copies of the album were pressed, and they were used to promote the album, and generate interest from record companies. Amazingly, no record company wanted to release the album, deeming it not commercial enough. That was a tragedy, because when the album was eventually released, in 1978, it was a brilliant album. Critics recognized the album’s potential when the group were promoting it, and many wrote paeans exalting the album’s beauty. Looking back, that was an opportunity spurned by many record companies. Not long after the album was eventually released, tragedy struck, and Chris Bell died in a car crash. 

Interest in Big Star grew and in 1993, the group reformed. Chilton and Stephens, were joined by guitarist Jon Auer and bassist ken Stringfellow. Their first concert was at the University of Missouri Music Festival. This concert was recorded, and released as an album entitled Columbia: Live At Missouri. The new line up toured extensively, and a new album was released in 2005, entitled In Space. This album consists mostly of new songs, songs written by Chilton, Stephens, Auer and Stringfellow. When it was released, it was well received by critics, who welcomed the return of Big Star. Sadly after over ten years of belated success and recognition, Alex Chilton died of cancer on 19 July 2010. That day, music lost one of its most creative and greatest musicians.

Having told you about the career of Big Star, I’ll now tell you just why, Radio City is such a great album. Radio City opens with O My Soul. As the song opens, guitars and drums play, it’s a sound harking back to the late fifties early sixties. The tempo is quick, Big Star don’t pause for breath, it’s a big sound, loud, plenty of glorious guitars, pounding drums and Alex Chilton singing above everything. Here, the rhythm guitar playing is brilliant, no other word can describe it. It makes the track. This is a sprawling track, one that enthralls you. So much is going on, your ears hardly know what part of the track to focus on. In the end, you end up submitting to the track’s charms, and sit back and revel in a magnificent track, played by three hugely talented musicians.

Life Is White opens with guitars chime intermittently, space left between each lick. A harmonica shrieks. Completing the line up, drums play. Chilton’s vocal sounds strained. Then the sound builds, itand suddenly, out of nowhere a jangly piano plays. It brings order, to what could end up a near chaotic sound, that’s glorious. Overall, the effect and sound is big, bold and impressive. Just as impressive are the lyrics, which Chilton delivers passionately, his voice pained, as if he’s experienced the pain he describes. 

As Way Out West starts the tempo is slower, the sound isn’t as full. What you hear is Chilton singing and guitars that twinkle and chime. You can hear a slight Byrds influence in the guitars. The arrangement is much simpler, just guitars drums and vocal. The way the guitar is played, space is left between the notes. This is effective, as it allows the music to breath. Way Out West is quite different from the first two tracks on the album, but still is a good track.

What’s Going Ahn begins with a guitar gently playing, and drum slowly, providing the song’s heartbeat. When Chilton sings his voice is quite, restrained, almost understated. He’s joined by the rest of the band who provide tight vocal harmonies, again, reminding me of The Byrds. Their voices combine beautifully, the result the sweetest, tightest vocal harmonies. The result is one of the best songs on Radio City.

Guitars jangle and drums play as You Get What You Deserve begins. It’s another slower song, one benefiting from a looser, more understated arrangement. Alex Chilton’s voice is quieter and softer, yet he still manages to hit the higher notes. Chilton’s guitar playing is magnificent, producing an aural delight. It’s accompanied by drums which play subtly, behind the guitar. Hummel’s bass joins the drums, proving a steady backdrop. Here, Chilton is the star of the show, his vocal and guitar playing the reason for this hook laden track’s success.

It’s a darker sound that greets you at the start of Mod Lang. Straight away, I hear a Rolling Stones influence. Chilton’s voice is rougher, he almost growls as he sings, rasping the lyrics, whooping and hollering in delight. While he sings, a gloriously bold and loud guitar plays. Its sound dominates the mix, everything else, plays second fiddle. Jody Stephens drumming fills out the sound, with him using his full kit during the track. Between guitar and drums, the track has a solid bedrock, and Chilton’s growling vocal is the icing on what is, a musical feast of a cake.

One of Big Star’s finest moments is the next track on the album. Ask any fan of Big Star to name their favorite tracks, and Back of A Car will be among them. Chilton sings as the track open. Around him the sound is reminiscent of some if The Who’s early music. It has the same huge and impressive sound. Layer upon layer of music emerges. Sometimes, it seems as if it’ll end in chaos, but, at the last minute Big Star, avert disaster. Out of potential chaos, Chilton and company produce a musical masterpiece. 

The funny thing when you listen to this album, is that you can hear how Big Star have influenced other groups. When you hear a track, it reminds me of a track produced by groups influenced by Big Star. That reminds me just how hugely influential a group they were, and how we must never underestimate their importance in the history of music. Even as I listen to the next track, Daisy Glaze, I can compare the sound to that of more recent bands. Daisy Glaze has a subdued introduction, just Chilton’s slow, sweet and spacious vocal, accompanied by guitar and drums. Both guitar and drums set a sedentary pace, and the song meanders beautifully along. Everything changes just before two minutes when the song suddenly builds up. Then Big Star, kick loose, tempo and volume increase. Where there had been space before, theres music, great music, music that hesitantly emerges. When it does, the guitars chime, jangle and sometimes, even shriek. It’s very much a dichotomy of a song. The first time you hear it, it catches you unawares, it creeps up on you and then, bang, you’re caught in its wake, swept along gloriously for ninety more wonderful seconds.

When you hear the start of She’s A Mover, it’s hesitant, you can hear background chatter in the studio. However, once the track starts properly, this hesitancy disappears. Instead, Chilton’s vocal enters, slightly strained, yet confident. Around him the band play, sounding slightly like The Beatles circa Sgt. Pepper. It’s as if Chilton’s paying homage to his idols, who he saw back in 1964 in Memphis. The sound features guitar and bass, almost dueling for prominence, as they chug along. Drums join in, contributing to the retro sound. What they end up with, is a slice of the sixties, and Big Star’s fantastic faithful interpretation of one the previous decade’s biggest acts.

September Gurls starts with Big Star’s trademark jangling guitars playing and features some of their tight vocal harmonies. Again, the sound reminds me of the Byrds. It’s the guitars and vocal harmonies that does it. On this track, although the guitars are the mainstay of the track, the drums fight for prominence. Chilton’s vocal is one of the best on the album. He neither strains to reach the higher notes, nor sings too loudly. His vocal is perfect for the song, as is the arrangement. The success of the track, is down to a group effort.

A piano plays, it’s sound slightly discordant, accompanying Alex Chilton. He sings the song quietly, but as he does, it seems as if he’s struggling with the vocal. Whether it’s the key he’s singing in that’s the problem. The sound is minimalistic, just piano and Chilton, it’s not unpleasant, but just as you’re starting to enjoy the track, it’s over. It’s just under ninety-seconds long, and to me, it has an unfinished quality, and I wonder what the song would’ve been like had it been developed. 

Radio City ends with another of the album’s highlights, I’m In Love With A Girl. Like the previous track, it’s a shorter track, lasting just under two minutes. This time, it’s a much better song, one you can’t fail to enjoy. It begins with an acoustic guitar strumming, Chilton sings along. His voice sounds fragile as he sings some lovely lyrics. The arrangement is subtle, allowing the song to breath. Nothing overpowers Chilton’s voice, and as you listen to the song, you’re enthralled, caught in the song’s spell. It’s the perfect way to end the album, and demonstrates that there’s more to Big Star than meets the eye.

For many years, I’ve been a huge fan of Big Star. I’ve always loved their music, and spending time researching this article has been a labour of love for me. The time I’ve spent revisiting their music was a pleasure, and reinforced just how hugely talented a group Big Star were. In their heyday, they only released three albums, but what great albums they were. Number One Record was one of the best debut albums of that era, and it was the only album recorded by the original four members of the group. Radio City was recorded by the group as a three piece band and, to me, is a much better album than their debut. Their final album Third/Sister Lovers, saw only two of members of Big Star remain. That album is a hugely underrated album, and many people overlook this album when talking about Big Star’s music. 

Should you never have heard Big Star’s music, you’ve probably heard numerous albums influenced by them. If you’ve an album by amongst others, R.E.M, Wilco or Teenage Fanclub, you’ve heard music influenced by Big Star. Anyone wanting to buy this album, can buy it on a CD which features both Number One Record and Radio City. Their third album Third/Sister Lovers, is also available on CD. I would recommend these albums to anyone who hasn’t heard their music before. Once you’ve heard these albums, you too, will become a fan of Big Star, and will be enthralled by their brilliant music. Standout Tracks: O My Soul, What’s Going Ahn, Back of A Car and I’m In Love With A Girl.


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