Forgotten Gems of Rock and Roll: #1 Record

21 February 2016 in Heroes -

#1 Record by Big Star.

One cannot talk about power pop without mentioning their name. By now you probably would have heard of a band called Big Star, but in 1972 it was far from the case. #1 Record was headed for its eponymous place in music history but no one had predicted it to be four decades later. The debut album by Big Star was a commercial failure at the time although, for the reasons I will cite later, the record was ahead of its time.

Big Star was a four-piece band that recorded very few albums due to rising tensions between band members soon after the release of their debut album. The initial lineup didn’t last long after members realized the lack of interest in their creative endeavors. Frontman Alex Chilton recently died of a heart attack and co-leader Chris Bell joined the 27 Club long ago making #1 Record the only album with Bell credited.

Although many claim the record to have been badly produced, I would argue for the complete opposite. The songs are precisely well-arranged and composed to a relatively higher standard compared to pop records of their era with more dauntless bridges. Their vocal harmonies and melodies have Beatles-like sonorities due to their admiration of the band since the age of thirteen.

The opening song “Feel” introduces the record on a powerful note with a chromatic riff that climbs up to an intense bridge with a blues riff. Generally, the songs led by Bell’s vocals such as “Feel” and “Don’t Lie to Me” tend to be more powerful than Chilton’s more popular and modern-sounding vocals on tracks such as “The Ballad of El Goodo”.

Speaking of which, “The Ballad of El Goodo” has a chord progression that stems from popular folk songs but like many songs on this album, they have a distinct twist. In this case the verse break features a military rhythm foreshadowing an engaged message of freedom in the chorus.

I find the song “When My Baby’s Beside Me” to be somewhat unfortunate and sad in retrospective to Chilton’s death events. The irony of it all is that many artists of the era such as Peter Frampton in Humble Pie’s “I Don’t Need No Doctor” project their strong rejection of the medical system. Indeed, Chilton’s verse states “Don’t need to talk to my doctor, don’t need to talk to my shrink”. It turns out that before his fatal heart attack in 2010, he refused to see a doctor even though he was experiencing heart problems.

Leaving these facts aside, I really love the electric guitar work in this song (and inherently in the album overall) with an emphasized twangy Stratocaster sound in the doubled bridge. The chorused guitars are also sounds that define Big Star and many bands of the 70s.

Indeed, what I mostly love in this record is the mix. The dry and wide drums as well as the percussive and bright acoustic guitars are sounds I always sought after in my songs. The choice of instrumentation, being the 12-string guitar, the mellotron, the saxophone or the harmonica, is also very similar to my instrument selection.

I strongly believe that each song on the record has something different to say and brings depth to the album. Acoustic songs such as the last four tracks describe a more melancholic mood with reflective lyrics centering around themes of human existence, whereas amplified songs have stronger statements about identity and love. They probably felt that a good blend of these two would make a #1 Record. They certainly didn’t see their label’s financial crisis coming.

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