Album Listening Club – #1 Record discussion post

Big Star

In June 1972, Big Star (Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel, Alex Chilton) released their first record, titled #1 Record. Both the name of the band and album reflected a kind of bravado – real or imagined – and while the music delivered on the promise, album sales did not follow. Praise from Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Cashbox magazines could not overcome the distribution problems faced by Stax Records, Big Star’s record label. (citation: Wikipedia) Other songs in the Billboard top 10 in June 1972: “The Candy Man” – Sammy Davis Jr.; “I’ll Take You There” by Big Star’s Stax labelmates The Staple Singers; “Nice To Be With You” – Gallery; “Song Sung Blue” – Neil Diamond; “Lean On Me” – Bill Withers.

The band has enjoyed a strong cult status since the end of their 4-year run in the early 70’s, influencing bands such as Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M., The Replacements, The Posies, and pretty much any band that has a clean, jangly sound with strong songwriting and harmonies. Such sounds also harken back to The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, but Big Star brought the mid-60’s sound into the 70’s, punching up the guitars with a bit of fuzz tone and real anger in the vocals on the harder songs.

Enough from me – let’s hear from you now! Tell me what you think of Big Star’s #1 Record, if it has had any effect on you and how you’ve experienced it through the years and the past two weeks.

For further viewing, see the film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me on iTunes


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Be the first to comment on this article.

Kevin Finnreply
August 11, 2014 at 12:07 am

This is a blueprint for the career of Teenage Fanclub (who I love). Delicate guitars, great harmonies, with occasional rocking guitars and throat-shredding vocals. This is pop / power pop / AM radio at its best. Whenever I hear any of these songs, it makes my day, and this album was released 42 years ago. Great stuff!

August Sreply
August 11, 2014 at 4:20 am

I've known about Big Star for some time since so many current bands I like have directly been influenced by them (as you and others have referenced), but even acts like Nirvana were, so their influence has been far reaching. I actually started out picking up an Alex Chilton 'best of' used cd years ago since I loved The Replacements & their song that was a tribute to him by the same name made me want to find out who this guy was. I liked the songs of Chilton's I heard on the cd but it didn't provoke me to check out any of Big Star's albums even though I knew they were so influential. Just didn't take the time, since I'm so absorbed with checking out new bands/sounds. My loss!

It's funny, listening to this album. The stand out favorite is 'In The Street' and when I heard it I immediately associated it with the sitcom 'That '70's Show' since they have a cover of it for their theme song. But even more humorous is I have a Wilco live set they released where they did a cover of it (great one by the way) and I thought they were covering the TV show theme. So you can imagine my surprise when I realized it actually was a Big Star song. This has happened to me with other songs that I thought were originals done by a current band. By the way, a musician by the name of Todd Griffin did the TV show theme the 1st season and then Cheap Trick did a cover for the 2nd season as per wikipedia

Anyway, back to this album. Hearing this now, I'm planning to listen to all of Big Star's albums to see what songs I already am familiar with after hearing this. Lots of catchy tunes on this. 'Feel' is quite an excellent album opener with it's over the top vocals. I also like your reference to the song title 'How did you feel?' in the email you sent letting us know this post was up, nice touch Sam. I find it quite interesting how this album is set up, juxtaposing the rockers next to the quieter tunes. I do find myself wanting the rockers all together to keep up the momentum at the start of the album rather than rocking, deflating, then rocking again. But that's just my opinion, not that they're going to change it after all these years.

The more I've listened to this the more subtle dividends have revealed themselves. Particularly the songs 'Give Me Another Chance' and 'Watch The Sunrise' with their great layered harmonies, intricate guitar work & sensitive lyrical content. So I definitely see why this has become such an influential album. I'll be coming back to it time and time again.

Alan Ralphreply
August 11, 2014 at 4:20 am

Listened on Spotify. Unlike Jack White, I didn't suffer from a growing sense of tedium – the tracks bounced along nicely. Hasn't tempted me to listen to any more of their stuff, but if this came up on a Spotify radio track-list I wouldn't fast-forward. *shrug*

Tony C.reply
August 12, 2014 at 8:45 pm

I've always liked this album. Good 70's power pop. Some nice rocking pop intermingled with ballads that don't disappoint. Hard to pick a favorite, since there are so many, so I won't. 😉

Question about "Fee", though: the horn bridge sounds very familiar. Did someone sample it somewhere?

Kelly T.reply
August 13, 2014 at 3:34 am

This album is for people who can constantly be seen shaking their heads and mumbling, “They just don’t make them like they used to” to just about every goods or service available.

And I fall squarely into that category.

My pops played/plays electric and acoustic six- and twelve-string guitars, so I grew up in a home filled with guitar-heavy riffs and album covers dotted with long-haired dudes all looking simultaneously longing and aloof. This genre just oozes nostalgia for me, thus, it’s almost impossible for me to hate on anything in this album. In fact, I’m pretty surprised that I hadn’t heard this band on repeat in my youth.

Two songs in particular, “Thirteen” and “Watch the Sunrise,” really stuck out for me and it’s not shocking that they were both acoustic guitar songs.

I don’t know if anyone else has this happen to them, but there are certain specific sounds that, when I hear them, make a spark at the back of my neck that grows and washes over my entire head, creating a delightful dizziness. The sound produced when fingers squeak across a guitar string has that effect on me. Both of the songs above have a lot of guitar squeaking, so I listened to them in a sort of blissed out trance. Totally normal, I’m sure.

I really enjoyed listening to the album in its entirety, I thought it was well-organized, which I know sounds really clinical, but in a time when you can download one song from an album and create your own playlist, finding a properly tailored album is becoming more of a challenge.

One of the songs on this album will likely become a shower sing-along favorite.

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
August 14, 2014 at 10:33 pm

My turn!

*Much of my feeling about this record is listed in my notes for "The Ballad of El Goodo"

"Feel" – Starts off with a slow chug and then busts in with the big sound & screeching vocals that give way to the soaring chorus. "Feel" is such a great title for the opening song because you feel this record. It's about feelings that you can associate with and understand, not abstractions.

"The Ballad of El Goodo" – This song & Thirteen inspired me to write my own song about the experience. I hadn't listened to Big Star much prior to receiving this album from BMG Music Service. Jon Auer & Ken Stringfellow had just joined Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens in a Big Star reunion and there was a bit of buzz about the band. There were lots of style checks in articles about bands like Teenage Fanclub, and of course one of my favorite songs ever is "Alex Chilton" by The Replacements, notably with the line "I never travel far/without a little Big Star." I sat down one day with a burrito and put the album on and I was surprised by the beauty in the songs and how clear the guitars were, how well produced the album was. I wrote some lyrics that were fairly vague (in Big Star fashion) but in my head, specifically about the band & songs. Titled "#2 Combo", it became one of my better songs and one of my favorite performances of our band Tucker in the studio.

"In The Street" – Would become famous as the main title music for "That 70's Show" Great song about fucking off. 🙂

"Thirteen" – If this song doesn't take you back to a younger, simpler time and make you a bit wistful, I'm not sure you're a music fan. In fact, I'm not sure you have a pulse. A gorgeous tune and one of my favorite songs ever.

Don't Lie To Me – Great song-opening riff. And then the rage starts.

The India Song – The flutes make it sound like a chamber orchestra or something. The lyrics sound like tales of colonialism that have to be ironic. Don't they? Or just upper-class boredom. At 2:21 it still feels too long. Similar colonial song done to much better effect by Camper Van Beethoven in "All Her Favorite Fruit". Don't really like this song.


-Your Older Brother, Samreply
August 14, 2014 at 10:34 pm

REVIEW PART II (or: 4096 character limits suck)

When My Baby's Beside Me – Another hooky opening riff. Another song about everything being ok – when his baby's beside him, anyway.

My Life Is Right – Another song of existential well-being.

Give Me Another Chance – Another song of existential uncertainty. A man looking for forgiveness. He sounds like he's making an honest plea, and then gets to the middle eight of the song and it sounds like he's going to end it all. He comes back to begging for forgiveness at the end, and you get the sense it might work out. But the despair is something we're all familiar with, and it's spelled out in the title of the song.

Try Again – The guy is still beating himself up.

Watch The Sunrise – Feels like part of the 70's singer-songwriter era, and yet wholly separate. Chilton's voice is no James Taylor or Eagles or Nick Drake or Tim Buckley, but it fits the song. The way he sings has a more honest feel to it, not as low and Memphis Soul influenced as the crooning growl he used in The Box Tops on songs like "The Letter" or their version of "Whiter Shade of Pale". The guitars on the slower songs are close in style to Nick Drake, but Big Star is more cleanly produced and recorded. For me, the song ends up being like Otis Redding's "Cigarettes & Coffee" – you want to have that "time of day" experience.

St 110/6 – Interesting tracking here, ending the album with a song that clocks in at less than a minute and is a downer minor key compared with the ebullience of Watch the Sunrise. I don't know if it was an iconoclastic edge that led them to end the record with this song and not "Watch the Sunrise", but it's odd for me. I'd prefer they'd moved this to the end of Side 1 or something. Would be interesting to know how that tracking came about.

That's what this album ends up being in my view – an album we've lived, mistakes and triumphs. It's an album we identify with and isn't just an extrapolation or fantasy: I feel like I'm dyin'. There ain't no one gonna turn me around. Hangin' out down the street. Won't you let me walk you home from school. Don't lie to me. Drink gin and tonic and play a grand piano, read a few books. When my baby's beside me, I don't worry. When you're around my life's worthwhile and now I long to see you smile. Don't give up on me so fast, I see it's me that's wrong at last – give me another chance. Lord, I've been trying to be what I should. Fears be gone, it won't be long, there's a light in the sky, it's okay to look outside. Love me again, be my friend – I need you now.

These are simple words, but they mean so much. They're about life.

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
August 14, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Definitely check out their "Third/Sister Lovers" album. It's really good and a stylistic departure from this record. Heck, even listening to the follow-up to this "Radio City," you can tell that they're moving on from the clean sound of this record.

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
August 14, 2014 at 10:37 pm

Exactly! I was a HUGE TFC fan when I finally listened to this record and it was like a spotlight went on. "OH! Yeah, this is where they (TFC) got it." 🙂

Incidentally, I still have my "Teenager" t-shirt that I bought at their concert in '94 – which happens to be the year I wrote my paean to Big Star. 🙂

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
August 14, 2014 at 10:41 pm

Glad you liked it, August! If you're a fan of This Mortal Coil (and who isn't ;), you'll recognise a couple of Big Star songs from the TMC catalog – "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust", both of which are on Big Star's "Third/Sister Lovers" album, which is actually my favorite record by Big Star.

The cool thing about tech today is that you (and I! see my review comment about "St 110/6") can create our own playlists of the album to see if they gel better in a different order.

I wonder if I could get Jody Stephens to comment here about it…Hmmm… 🙂

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
August 14, 2014 at 10:44 pm

I hear what you mean about the horn bridge. I think it may be reminding you (it does me) of "Lady Madonna" by the Beatles.

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
August 14, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Interesting that you say you thought it was well-organized, Kelly, when August and I had changes we would make. 🙂

And I'm hoping to find "Thirteen" on a karaoke list one day. LOOK OUT, KARAOKE WORLD. 🙂

It really is a classic album and easy to see how it influenced so many other artists, but also interesting that it must have been mostly word-of-mouth because it certainly wasn't through airplay. At least not in the states.

August 18, 2014 at 3:53 am

Gosh I voted for this one because it's one of my favorites, but now I'm nervous to even talk about it here, for fear of not being able to capture how I feel as well as Chilton and Bell captured their feelings so fully. So I'll just say that The Ballad of El Goodo is just about as good as anything in this life gets. The melody and changes carry the emotion in such a way that the song could be wordless and still be moving. But the lyrics! "Years ago, my heart was set to live–but I've been trying hard against unbelievable odds." That's beautiful stuff, especially for a song about conscientious objection in the face of the draft.

It's the band's high water mark (until September Gurls), and the fact that plenty of other fans would fight me on that shows what a classic #1 Record actually is.

August Sreply
August 18, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Epic review Sam. I like your assessment about it being about the ups and downs of everyday life. I especially like how you made a 'story' out of the song titles too. Impressive!

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
August 20, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Thanks, August! I just really like the album. 🙂 I suppose it shows!

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
August 20, 2014 at 3:50 pm

It's the lyrics and the delivery, the way you can feel those unbelievable (but undefined!) odds. And then how the chorus soars – so magnificent.

Glad to hear from another Superfan. 🙂

ian pattersonreply
August 28, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Very Lady Madonna-esque. Also reminded me of "question mark" by Elliott Smith.

ian pattersonreply
August 28, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Sorry I'm late. Work got crazy.

Hearing this album for the first time was a strange experience for me. I'd always heard of Big Star but had never listened to them. I'd heard Evan Dando, Matthew Sweet, Elliott Smith, and the Bangles all cover Big Star songs, and loved the songs.

So to sit down and listen to #1 Record was… strange.

It felt, if I can be totally honest, like listening to covers. It will be very, very hard for me to ever hear "thirteen" as anything other than an Elliott Smith song.

It felt out of sync. It felt like seeing an old picture of your dad without his beard after seeing him with a beard every day for 40 years.

And even though it was early, it also felt late. When I heard Superdrag, Teenage Fanclub, Ride, the Lemonheads…. you get the picture… they were transcendent to me. Superdrag in particular had a huge influence on my outlook on music in my 20s. Again, if I'm being totally honest, if #1 Record came out today, I'd own it, but I wouldn't herald it as revolutionary. It'd get a solid head nod of respect when it came on, but I wouldn't go caps lock on it.

Big Star is in a small category of bands for me. Along with Joy Division and the Velvet Underground, no matter how much I enjoy and respect the original songs, I still find other people's versions of them to be better. I just listened to Matthew Sweet's version of El Goodo again and was struck by how much it's just… better. Not necessarily better recorded, or better performed… just better. More relevant to me personally.

I dunno. I don't have a good reason for it. The album itself is immaculately written, wonderfully recorded (1972? Seriously? that's AMAZING work), well performed. It's catchy, it's got great lyrics, it's everything a rock album should be.

And I'd rather listen to the covers.

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
September 1, 2014 at 2:14 am

Not late at all – in fact, right on time. 🙂

That's interesting about "Thirteen" and Elliott Smith. I suppose that's how a lot of people feel about "Hallelujah" and Jeff Buckley. (Although having seen k.d. lang sing it on Jools Holland, her version is my new favorite & standard by which I measure others singing that song)

Listening now to the Matthew's "Goodo" and while he's good with a harmony, it feels a little flat to me, actually. (I've got a lot to say about M. Sweet's output of the past 15 or so years, but perhaps that's for another blog) For me, the Big Star version is just so perfect in it's tone, both the words being sung, how the singer feels, and also the recorded tone. Matthew's version sounds lazy to me.

Of course #1 Record wouldn't be revolutionary today. That's like going back and watching film of Dr. J after years of watching Jordan and thinking "Is that it?" I see your point, but I guess my first listen to this record (and Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers) came at the perfect time for me. I knew Teenage Fanclub & Matthew Sweet really well, and while I connected some of their sound to Big Star, Big Star just sounded old and new at the same time. I'll post my song that I wrote about them so you can get a feel for how I experienced the album at the time and how it inspired me.

And I wasn't expecting to love it like I do. I mean, The Replacements' "Alex Chilton" is a burner. There aren't many Big Star songs in that vein, that just rock the fuck out. So to listen for the first time and have so many of the songs be so tender took me by surprise. Not that Westerberg wasn't writing tender songs, but…it's getting harder to explain. 🙂

I just love the records. They still sound fresh to me. Timeless, but of a time.

Gah. Words. I'm listening now and just loving it. Wish we could sit & listen together. 🙂

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
September 4, 2014 at 3:10 pm

As promised, here's my song inspired by listening to Big Star's #1 Record. Hope you like it. 🙂

September 8, 2014 at 10:43 pm

I think it's more Savoy Truffle than Lady Madonna

September 8, 2014 at 10:43 pm

absolutely agree about kd lang's version of "Hallelujah". Sh'e the first person I ever heard perform that song and it's yet to be topped.

September 8, 2014 at 10:43 pm

If you've ever heard "I Am The Cosmos", you can almost hear exactly what Chris Bell added to "#1 Record" and what's missing from "Radio City". It's kind of intangible, but unmistakeable. "Sister Lovers" seems like a different beast altogether and more like Chilton's later damaged art music, less like the previous Big Start LPs.

September 8, 2014 at 10:43 pm

Really fantastic review, Sam. I think you've kind of nailed why it's stood the test of time so well despite being a flop when it was released – it encompasses Life -sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes easy, sometimes hard. Open & honest lyrics, heartfelt performance. And the chime of the guitars…I have never heard such crystalline tones anywhere else, ever. How'd they do it?

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
September 15, 2014 at 10:43 pm

Yeah, I think Rhino released IATC in the early 90's, around the time they were releasing the Big Star stuff. I haven't listened to Chris Bell nearly as much as Big Star, and I'm mostly familiar with his music through This Mortal Coil, who covered "I Am The Cosmos" and "You And Your Sister." (TMC's Big Star covers were also off Third/Sister lovers, so they definitely had a thing for late/post Big Star)

This Mortal Coil also included a disc of the originals of their cover versions in their box set from 1993, which I LOVED that they did that.

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
September 15, 2014 at 10:45 pm

I don't know how they got that guitar tone, Dan. It really is a marvel. Recorded, mixed and mastered perfectly. I'm sure Jody might have some insight to that. Need to get a hold of that guy… 🙂

-Your Older Brother, Samreply
September 15, 2014 at 10:47 pm

I think most people know Buckley's arrangement – that's certainly the one that gets play on American Idol – but kd's version. Just absolutely gutted.

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