Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"#1 Record," by Big Star

Everyone from Tom Petty to REM to Teenage Fan Club to Matthew Sweet to Fleet Foxes and still others claim to have been influenced by Big Star’s brand of classic power pop, and their influence is certainly palpable via popular music that arrived in its wake, but paradoxically, their albums sold merely handfuls of copies upon release – literally. So unless the dozen or so fans who purchased their early-mid seventies albums went on to become the above-mentioned artists, someone’s fudging a bit on their hipper-than-thou claim on this legendary underground band.

But it’s a rock-n-roll cliché, isn’t it? Artists who should’ve been huge, but never quite make it past a cult following: musicians like Nick Drake, Josh Rouse, or bands like Love and Big Star are but a few. So why did Big Star not quite hit the big time? Insider sources cite lackluster promotion from their record company. Others indicate it was just bad timing. But apparently there were the few fringe, ultra-cool (or ultra-lucky) rock aficionados, who discovered the group and passed along bootleg LPs, 8-tracks, and cassettes to friends and family, keeping alive the music of this jingle-jangle, rocking band.

My first exposure to Big Star was actually in 1988, when I heard my first REM song, the top-ten hit, “Stand,” that bears the heavy aforementioned influence. REM’s “Stand” is a sunny pop song, with brimming, jingle-jangle guitar, and a vocal style taken straight from the Big Star playbook. “Stand” was an amiable, whimsical, nonsense song for a high school kid like me to sing (e.g., “If wishes were trees, the trees would be falling, listen to reason, reason is calling…”), and REM was my first rock concert (The “Green Tour,” with shout-outs, here, to my friend Rachel, who drove us to the University of Iowa for the show).

And even though I never heard Number One Record when it was recorded in the 1970s, I might as well have, because when I hear it today, it takes me back to that decade, or at least what I remember of it. Fresh out of their teens themselves, Big Star (named after a now-defunct supermarket chain) opted for songs that described overcoming familiar, tried-and-true, far-out teenage obstacles. Name the teen trepidation, and Big Star sings about it on Number One Record. You know, like the dumb adults “who tell you that they know…they'll zip you up and dress you down and stand you in a row.” Ugh! I hate when adults do that. My favorite angry, teen irritant moment on the album is the adolescent tirade, “Don’t Lie To Me.” A sentiment doesn’t get simpler than that. Or what about annoying dads, as described in the staggering, “Thirteen,” dads who need to be told to “get off my back” or need to be educated on “…what we said about 'Paint It Black’.”

Ah, the turmoil of teenage life. But there are plenty of songs for grown-ups, as well, including the joyous, “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” and the reflective, “My Life Is Right.” Songwriters, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, wrote these songs at a time in rock music when it was en vogue for musicians to feature pseudo-religious lyrics in their songs and have hits with them. Artists as varied as The Doobie Brothers (“Jesus Is Just Alright”) and George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord”) were selling millions of copies of love songs to God, and in this same era, the soundtrack to the Broadway musical, Godspell, had a top 40 pop hit with, “Day By Day” (and remember, Jesus Christ, Superstar?”). Similarly on “Try Again,” Bell writes, “Lord I've been trying to be what I should, Lord I've been trying to do what I could, but each time it gets a little harder, I feel the pain, but I'll try again.” Religious or not, it’s “little engine that could” message resonates. The most brilliant, spiritual moment of the album, however, is the ethereal hymn of assurance, “Watch The Sunrise.” It’s understated and sincere guitar hook is met with hopeful lyrics and one of the most exquisite vocal harmonies in rock-and-roll.

And while I was not one of the groovy few who heard it on release, Number One Record resides on my current list of the “Ten Greatest Rock Albums Of All Time.” And thanks to That 70’s Show, almost everybody's familiar with the Cheap Trick version of Big Star’s “In The Street,” that served as the show’s theme for eight hilarious seasons. The producers of the show said that the song was, for them, the epitome of the sprawling, stressed-out, uninhibited spirit of the Seventies. And I have to admit, it’s hard not to look for my packed-away 1970's lava lamp to plug in when I listen to this enduring album.