Big Star's #1 Record  Gets Five Stars From Our Newest Contributor

We find ourselves during the ongoing pandemic abstaining from pleasurable activities like hanging out on the street. Listening to the 1970’s power pop group Big Star will one day help ease the way back to that once taken for granted lifestyle.

Discovering older musical acts like Big Star is for a child of the 21st century like me mostly a matter of pure luck. I happened upon Big Star’s song “Thirteen” on an episode of “That ‘70’s Show” airing on Netflix. That tune, a captivating piece of tender musical perfection, led me to discover Big Star the group and boy, am I thankful for that!

Big Star, originating in bluesy Memphis, Tennessee was one of many groups influenced by colossal ‘60s acts like The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Kinks, and of course The Beatles. The original 1971 lineup consisted of Alex Chilton on guitar, Chris Bell also on the guitar, Andy Hummell on bass guitar, and Jody Stevens on drums.

Chilton and Bell co-wrote nearly all of the songs on the group’s optimistically titled debut album #1 Record, with Chilton playing “Lennon” to Bell’s “McCartney”. Chilton’s presented edgy, apprehensive songs to the group that Bell sweetened up to make them more commercially appealing.

The band entered the studio with most of the songs written and ready to record. Though the album jacket credits John Fry as executive producer, bassist Andy Hummell would later say in an interview, “Chris was in charge. I would pretty well credit him with recording and producing that LP. Of course, he had a lot of artistic help from Alex, but Chris was the technical brains behind it. He was the only one of us at that time who knew how to record.”

From the twangy guitars to the simplistic yet song-fitting drums, Big Star’s Beatles influence is made clear many times throughout the album. Big Star takes the two and three-part harmonies heard on earlier Beatle records and refines them. Big Star’s polish separates the group from that era’s other acts. Chris Bell’s obsessiveness in the studio prevented Big Star from being a Led Zeppelin clone. Instead, we are given music that will surely keep your toe tapping and your head banging but won’t summon your parents and their suspicions that you are listening to the devil’s music.

Big Star makes their debut with “Feel.” After undergoing feelings of desperation and simultaneous obsession over a lover on the opening track, the equally sorrowful “The Ballad of El Goodo” follows. Unlike the opener, “The Ballad of El Goodo,” introduces a more hopeful message.

Track three, “In The Street,” may be recognizable since Cheap Trick’s cover is “That 70’s Show”’s introductory theme (year one used Todd Griffin’s cover). The energetic tune about boredom and teenage frustration is an ideal fit for the late ‘90’s through mid 2000’s television show, centered around six teenagers living in a fictional Wisconsin town in the late ‘70’s.

“Thirteen” approaches the topic of love as a gentle request, unlike many other early ‘70’s songs that had more of a now dated “forced offering” feel.

Next up is “Don’t Lie To Me,” a song sharing the same obsessive nature as “Feel,” however in this case it’s over being deceived by someone thought of as a lover.

Side A closes with Andy Hummel’s “The India Song”. His sole contribution to the album, a satire on seeking spiritual nirvana, is a playful commentary on The Beatles’ trip to India, complete with instrumental references to “Strawberry Fields Forever”.

Side B exits from the first side’s “victim mentality rock” and shines a light on guilt and forgiveness. “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” and “My Life Is Right ” demonstrate the emotional and mental relief delivered by love. Lyrically, “When My Baby’s Beside Me” isn’t a song I’d advise living by, if you plan on remaining well and healthy as an individual, but it’s sure got energy!

“Give Me Another Chance” is the plummet from a towering roller coaster climb. Not once have I failed to shed a tear as this is, by a longshot in my opinion, the most powerful and devastating song on the album. Immense doses of guilt and depression embed themselves into the listener throughout. It’s unavoidable… trust me.

“Try Again” continues the topic of depression, swapping out guilt for hopelessness. “Watch The Sunrise” provides the same welcome home feeling you get from driving through your neighborhood after an unpleasant two-week vacation. This is where you begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The closing track, “ST 100/6,” returns to the longing for love many of the album’s songs express, though unlike those it radiates trust in future greatness.

#1 Record” was indeed very well received by music critics upon its initial release in 1972. I wouldn’t argue with those who back then asserted that each of the album’s songs could stand strong as a single. Unfortunately, in part due to Stax Records’ poor advertising and the soul label’s unfamiliarity with the rock distribution channel the album was a commercial failure. Chris Bell grew unbearably frustrated with the vegetative state of the album at release, and soon left the band. By the end of 1972 #1 Record reportedly sold fewer than 10,000 copies.

My rating of the sound quality was a judgement of the 2020 all analog vinyl reissue. Mastered by Jeff Powell at Take Out Vinyl and pressed at Memphis Record Pressings, my copy was nothing less than phenomenal. It weighed in at 185 grams, not only meeting, but ever so slightly exceeding the 180 gram advertising. After wet cleaning (and even before), it was free of pops and clicks and had no scratches, scuffs or dents on either side, plus it was flat and the spindle hole was as centered. Mine was not a hand-picked review copy.

The tip-on laminated paper over cardboard jacket features vibrant artwork and Memphis Recore Pressings even included a poly-lined paper inner sleeve, which is something I do not take for granted.

Many criticize Big Star’s recordings for being tinny and treble-heavy. I did not find that to be the case here. Not only did the music sound balanced, but everything from the gritty attack of a guitar pick to the frantic strikes of a cowbell felt present and allowed for an already outstanding album to be more immersive.

It is a true shame that Stax Records dropped the ball with this album back in 1972. Despite that, #1 Album has gone on to be regarded as one of the most influential albums of the 1970s. Big Star has inspired acts as big as R.E.M. Within a variety of top five-hundred albums lists you will be sure to find Big Star in there somewhere, and that is an occurrence backed up by reason. #1 Record is an album that belongs in your collection, it’s as simple as that. Thanks to the sonic wonders of all analogue mastering, this album is now available in a form that pays tribute to the artist’s original intentions.

(16 year old Nathan Zeller from the chilling lands of Western Canada is a music-adoring Beatles fanatic. Born with a piano teacher for a father, and a teacher at a music-oriented elementary school for a mother, you could say he didn’t choose this life, rather it chose him. If Nathan isn’t spending his time listening to music, he’s most likely learning to play more music. Follow Nathan on Instagram @nathanmzeller)

(Ed. Note: With this thoughtful review we welcome Nathan Zeller to AnalogPlanet. As someone who was involved in radio when #1 Record was originally released, I can add that yes, Stax, which distributed Ardent, wasn’t really prepared to deal with the distribution and promotion of a rock record, though it did a very good job in Boston. When I was on the air at WBCN, I played both this record and the band’s equally excellent 1974 release Radio City. I played the crap out of “You Get What You Deserve”, “Back of a Car” and of course “September Gurls” but unfortunately it was also true that the band’s rock and roll dream came somewhat late. By the early ‘70s the culture was more into James Taylor, singer songwriters and more mellow fare of the “hippie era”, which really was in the 70’s not the 60’s. R.E.M. and other groups took notice of what Big Star did in the early to mid ‘70s and young bands still do. These are two classic albums that, as Nathan says about the debut, belong in every rock record collection.

As for the sound, I concur with Nathan’s assessment. However I compared Jeff Powell’s mastering to both the original pressing and Classic Records’ Clarity Vinyl version. The original mastering did cut the bass as was sometimes common back then, which brought out the “jangly” top. That did produce a bright overall sound that didn’t “play well” on most kids’ stereos of that time. The Classic version, which has no mastering credits, has far more detail than the original and somewhat more bottom end, but it’s still somewhat thin. Powell’s mastering adds tasteful bottom and mid bottom to produce the overall best versions of both Big Star records, though if you already own the Classic Records Clarity Vinyl versions, no need to buy again. Instead invest in your fourth version of Aqualung or Kind of Blue (lol)_MF).

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Tom L's picture

when this album came out. Didn't hear it until several months later, when a dozen copies showed up in our cutout bin for $1.99. Curious, I opened a copy and was promptly knocked out by the timeless music. I bought several copies (with employee discount!) and gave them away to friends. It's still one of my favorite albums after all these years.
The original release did require quite a bit of bass boost, and the same thing applies to all the CD versions I've encountered.
BTW their second album Radio City is just as good.
Welcome, Nathan! Excellent review.

Chemguy's picture

Well done, fellow Western Canadian! Your review was insightful and very well written! Thanks!

PeterPani's picture

No no no. I will never buy another version of Kind of Blue. Never. Never again.
(except, AP throws a Ultra Tape of Kind of Blue on the market. Then I might buy two copies...)

Steelhead's picture

Excellent review Mr. Zeller

I am going to have to check out this band as I have read nothing but positive reviews most of my life. However, at the end of the day I know I will just play Revolver or Rubber Soul over most anything (or my third or fourth copy of Aqualung).

Western Canada Hey!!

Can you find a decent vinyl of the Tragically Hip? I bought Day for Night when new but it is thin, bright, and not worth the coin. Maybe the new half speed will improve it????

Jazz listener's picture

and from a fellow Canadian no less!

Trevor_Bartram's picture

Yes, Big Star were a fabulous discovery when the first Ardent twofer CD came out. I've been searching for equally deserving nuggets ever since and I know I found them (because of repeat plays) in the music of: Cotton Mather's Kon Tiki, The Shazam's Godspeed The Shazam (featuring the stupendous Hans Rotenberry) and, from my homeland, The Electric Soft Parade's Idiots by the White brothers. All totally under valued bands. Enjoy!

Tom L's picture

but the other Cotton Mather and Future Clouds & Radar releases are uneven. Just a couple of killer songs per album.

amusia's picture

I was lucky enough to get two mint copies of both Big Star albums in the 1970s. My jaw drops when I see them on sale for $400 up to $1500. Wow. I had heard the band was great (back then) so I grabbed them quick, and boy were they ever! Later on I got to meet Alex, and I even made a boot of them playing at CBGBs with a Farfisa player (and great falsetto singer) Fran Kowalski (a big guy!). [Someone has finally mastered my cassettes, but I haven't heard them yet.] Anyway, the new version of the Big Star albums is supposed to sound great AND have more bass, so I must get them both. The originals are great, but they are a bit over-trebly - which I always thought was fine for their music. But I love bass, and now that they can fix that I am happy to shell out for these new ones. Thanks for the great review, and I hope everyone who doesn't have $400 gets one and is happy. Have a great day, Charlie