Radio City-era Big Star
Listen – Big Star – O My Soul – MP3
As is often the case in my little corner of the blog-o-mosphere, the tunes I select for inclusion therein are often picked at random, the result of yet another safari into the crates. I’ve discussed the phenomenon before, but so vast is the selection of vinyl piled in my lair, that I often find things I’d forgotten, or forsaken having assumed that they were forever lost.
The tune I bring you today was just such a record.
But first, a nostalgic interlude…
Back in the day, when my brothers* (blood and otherwise) were being inundated with sounds alternative (back when that really meant something), there were a few bands from the days of yore that were for youngsters like ourselves (and many before us) cornerstones of an even earlier alternative.
This list included such rediscoveries as the Sonics and the 13th Floor Elevators (on the garage/psyche tip) and most prominently (on a much larger scale), and most importantly to the formation of my own musical worldview, the Velvet Underground and Big Star.
Now, the Velvets had – thanks to the long and successful career of Lou Reed – a foot placed firmly in the present. I forget who said that everyone who bought a Velvets LP in the 60s went on to form a band, but that particular equation was multiplied exponentially in the 80s where no band from the 60s loomed larger.
Big Star was another story entirely.
Though Alex Chilton was something of an indie darling, no one sane would describe his post-Box Tops career as having seen any financial success. That said, in the 1980s the ears of anyone with even the tiniest bit of pop sensibility were filled with the music Chilton created with Big Star.
Formed in 1971 by Chris Bell, Andy Hummell, Steve Ray and Jody Stephens. Ray soon left the band and was replaced by Chilton. They were signed to the Stax Records subsidiary Ardent, and released their first album, ‘#1 Record’ in 1972.
If you haven’t heard ‘#1 Record’, back away from the interwebs (or open a new browser) and find yourself a copy, because – and you can trust me on this – it is one of the finest pop records ever recorded, by anyone, anywhere. That record, in which all but one of the songs were collaborations between Chilton and Bell (rife with Lennon/McCartney-esque creative tension) was the only one recorded by that line up.
By the time they released their follow up ‘Radio City’ in 1973, Bell had departed, along with a certain amount of their polish, which as we shall see, was a good thing, because that albums spontaneous feel was something of a shot heard round the world (with about a ten year delay) appearing a decade on in the sounds of REM and the Replacements among others.
Today’s selection is the only OG Big Star record I’ve ever come across in the field, and if memory serves was scooped up for chump change in an old record store.
‘O My Soul’ opens with wild, shambolic rhythm guitar, laced with bits of keyboard stabbing through the somewhat awkward beat. Chilton’s vocal is spot on (though if all you’ve ever heard him sing was ‘The Letter’, you might be surprised). The song sounds every bit as fresh today as it must have in ’73, which is probably a testament to the band’s far reaching influence (though I suspect that so much time has passed that there are tons of bands out there working a Big Star vibe who have never heard of Alex Chilton or Chris Bell).
It’s a great bit of power pop, and as I said before, if you’re not already hep to Big Star, go out and get you some.
See you on Monday.
*In 1990, my brother Chris and I took a road trip down south, mainly to visit friends in Georgia, but including stops in Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis. A big part of our Memphis visit was a pilgrimage to Ardent Studios, where we saw the very Big Star supermarket that inspired the bands name.