A Week With… 13. Big Star


You know that feeling when you become completely and utterly obsessed with an artist? You track down every little detail, attempt to get hold of the rarest of releases and even, if you’re me, find yourself buying multiple biographies in the hope of somehow further enhancing that irresistible buzz. You arrive at this point from any one of numerous reasons known to prompt such an outbreak of hysteria and teenage style fandom. On this occasion, it was the sad news of the passing of Alex Chilton.

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Last week, I wrote about how this initially sent me scampering towards prime Teenage Fanclub, a band oh so very heavily indebted to Chilton’s band, Big Star. However, after doing a little reading and digging out a few items from the shelves, it’s been all things Big Star this week.

I should say now that I’m not writing this for the Big Star aficionados of this world. They will likely think me a gibbering brain dribbler based on my current depth of understanding of this quite magnificent group. This is for those of you who haven’t really given the band any of your time in the past or who simply haven’t really heard of them before. The crux of my message is: you need Big Star in your life. If you’re weak-willed and easily led and that has already done the trick, off you go and order the records now. Should you need a little more convincing, read on.

To be assured of musical greatness, you really need to have a couple of songs which make the alternative music world swoon. Too popular? Fear the backlash. Too obscure? Nobody can buy your bloody records. In fact, it took until the early nineties for Big Star’s albums to be anything like readily available again after their initial shelf life in the early seventies. Those reissues came about due to said alternative types swooning over some of the finest power pop music ever pressed to wax and while they came to it late, thank fuck they got there in the end.

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The ‘couple of songs’ which make Big Star essential? Well, firstly, it’s got to be four actually and, secondly, you should really just buy all the albums and get going. ‘Thirteen’ and ‘The Ballad Of El Goodo’ from their debut, ‘#1 Record’, along with ‘September Gurls’ and ‘I’m In Love With A Girl’ from ‘Radio City’, would make up my Big Star primer EP. Two janglers, two acoustic heart-melters, this quarter of brilliance are, arguably, all songs which no self-respecting music fan should be without.

‘Thirteen’ recounts the beautifully observed feelings and experiences of being that particular age, expertly capturing the absurdly real fashion in which we amplified the trivial and lived in the, albeit adolescently awkward, moment. ‘I’m In Love With A Girl’ pretty much does what it says on the tin. It is all the more effective as a result of its simple structure and purposeful brevity. Its breezy excitement about the power of human emotions is fabulously infectious and I’m not sure that there’s a better sub-two minutes song in the world. ‘The Ballad Of El Goodo’ is the blueprint for about a third of Teenage Fanclub’s output (and, if I’m being ever so slightly disingenuous about one of my favourite bands, ‘In The Street’ accounts for close to another third) and is ludicrously good for the second track on a band’s debut album. ‘September Gurls’ is a summer song in the same way that Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ is a winter song. Think of hazy sunshine and the last of the drawn out days so prevalent in the titular month and that’s what this song sounds like. It’s the sound of looking out over open fields, stillness in the air, a cold beverage of your choice in your hand and not a care in the world in your head.

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I have, thus far, not commented on the band’s third album, variably titled ‘3rd’, ‘Sisters/Lovers’ or ‘Third/ Sisters Lovers’, which was never properly finished, emerged six years after the group stopped working on it and is widely regarded as NOT the place to start with Big Star. That’s not to say it’s not worth your time, or quids. A sprawling, audibly unpolished set, it still contains some enchanting tunes. The concise, breezy jangle is less conspicuous however, and, to carry on the Teenage Fanclub references, it’s a bit like how every time the latter band release a new album these days, loads of people hope that it’ll contain some of the fully upbeat number last really attempted on ‘Grand Prix’ or ‘Songs From Northern Britain’. The fact is, they’ve been there and done that. Similarly, Big Star’s third record is a fairly logical progression, in the same way that ‘Radio City’ followed on from ‘#1 Record’.

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Last year’s superlative box set, ‘Keep An Eye On The Sky’, is an absolute feast for the ears with remarkably decent sound for a modern mastering job, alongside delightful packaging and a robust bit of writing in the accompanying booklet. While there’s much to take in, once the three albums have taken hold this box is absolutely the way to go. For now, in order to gain my additional fix, I’m juggling Rob Jovanovic’s biography of the band and Bruce Eaton’s 33 1/3 tome on ‘Radio City’. Chronic typos aside, the latter text features some hugely engaging recent interview material, particularly an extensive chat with Alex Chilton, while the former is the accepted (and pretty much only) overall guide to their music. There’s plenty to take in and much to love. The reaction provoked by the news of Chilton’s death demonstrates how much of an influence he had on many of today’s musicians and, in the hope of discovering the silver lining for this one, it should at least cause more people to discover some wonderful, wonderful music.