Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Earthbound with Big Star (Part 1)

Big Star should've been huge. When I say "Big Star should've been huge," I don't mean it in the "there is no justice in this world, musical or otherwise" sense. I don't mean it in the "if everyone was as smart as me, everyone would've loved Big Star" sense. I'm not that smart, and I believe in karmic justice (feel free to ascribe the second statement to the first). By any measure of what makes a band popular, Big Star should've been huge.

For example, I understand why Nickelback is huge. They wouldn't have to be good to be huge (they aren't, and they are). I understand why Radiohead is huge. They wouldn't have to be great to be huge (they are, and they are). For a band to be huge, they don't have to do everything well. They have to know their time and place, and write the type of music that a lot of people will respond to in that time and that place. Huge bands can vary as much as Radiohead and Nickelback, because the mainstream audience does.

In 1972--in the wake of the second British invasion, at a pivotal and largely sterile moment in American rock--Big Star's should've been huge. They effortlessly blended contemporary influences: the prevailing soul and pre-funk of Al Green and the Staples Singers; the back-to-basics Americana of Neil Young and the Band; the glistening, harmonic pop of The Beatles and Beach Boys and Byrds; the muscular rockabilly of Chuck Berry. Their studio wizardry alone was something to behold--#1 Record's polished, sparkling production of still felt live and intimate. It was an impossibly clean record that still sounds new today. Their lead singer/songwriter boasted an actual #1 record to his credit (Alex Chilton sang the Boxtop's "The Letter," which supplanted the Beatles at #1 in 1967). In 1972, at a time when anything could've gone so long as it sounded like something else, Big Star released the powerpop record that The Beatles would've co-written with Gram Parsons and recorded at Stax.

Which is to say, if you liked anything in 1972, you would've liked Big Star. But you probably didn't hear them.

Maybe you still haven't.


Part I: Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay (The Music)

A song is a song. Before Big Star, a song was a song. Sad songs were sad songs, and happy songs were happy songs. Some were pretty, and some were vibrant, and some were an aesthetic mixed bag. The best songs related a feeling, communicated an idea, sparked some kind of revolution in feeling or thought, or did all of the above. They stated their purpose, and moved you somewhere.

The opening track of Big Star's 1972 debut, #1 Record, is the riff-rock wonder "Feel," which wakes itself up and rocks with a Stones-derivative energy anyone might expect and enjoy. Upon very first listen, the song and band don't stick out, because they're trying to fit in. Everything from the syncopated guitar lick to the bouncy horn line asks the audience to sit back, relax, and mistake them for the Stones. And because the song is so immediately likable, and the performances so adept, anyone would be happy to. But there's a tiny, nagging detail of a dragging non-chorus, with the moaned refrain, "I feel like I'm dying/I never want to live again." It is a bizarre and morbid trap door at the heart of a happy song, an incredibly sad lyric in the midst of a party. The band slows down and punctuates just enough that you can't ignore it. Just as quickly, it's gone, and something like a celebration ensues.

Track two is the anthemic wonder "The Ballad of el Goodo." It is, quite deliberately, everything you'd expect from a powerpop ballad in 1972, and everything you wouldn't. Having established themselves as a band you can mindlessly rock to (if that's your style), Big Star tells a story of tribulation backwards--setting up a redemptive chorus only to betray it. Through the trial of each verse, we arrive at what should be a triumphant refrain: "there ain't no one gonna turn me around." But the hook--unlike the lyric--doesn't survive on its own momentum. The drums kickstart it back to life after literally every turn. The bridge is an extended minor-to-major uphill battle that tries desperately to "hold on." What is ostensibly a song about hope and redemption is actually an exercise in self-persuasion. Our heroes haven't survived, and they might not. They ain't turning around, but they probably should; they're resolute, but maybe not right.

In the hands of the Beach Boys, "el Goodo" would be earnest, optimistic and ultimately winning. Its chorus would be a triumph of hope over fear, an individual beating "unbelievable odds." But Big Star's artistic persona is something new--in their America, the individual has lost. Rather, he's losing, and he knows it. Their hero puts on a brave face as he's audibly wracked with self-doubt. His "unbelievable odds" are unbelievable; there's no realistic way to face them and win. But he fights anyway, perhaps more heroically.

This battle doesn't go away. Almost the entirety of #1 Record develops this conflict of hope in the face of defeat, optimistic songs belying a sense of doubt, fear, and gorgeous melancholy ("My Life Is Right," "Try Again," etc.). Subsequently, its moments of unqualified joy soar even higher ("Watch the Sunrise," "When My Baby's Beside Me"). They're earned. Every song plays out this conflict with such ease, such effortless pop brilliance, that it challenges (and invites) the listener to ignore the conflict altogether. Casual rock fans can casually love the accessible rock of "In the Street" (as they do in the opening credits of That 70's Show). Pointy-headed critics could also discuss its importance (as I'm doing right now). It is a record to be enjoyed on every level, because the best (and smartest) things find ways to bring people in.

And then there's "Thirteen," arguably rock's most influential non-hit. Its title and premise come from Alex Chilton's desire to "write a song the way I would if I was thirteen again." Everything from the picking, to the singing, to the lyric-writing assumes the role of Chilton as a teenager. The result is something wholly derivative (a G-C finger-picking that sounds like a million other songs a thirteen year-old would practice with) and breathtakingly new. By juxtaposing an adult's performance with a teenager's perspective, we're invited to hear the song as sincerely or ironically as we want. From its explicit use of rock-fanship as a lyrical device ("tell him what we said about 'Paint It Black'/rock and roll is here to stay") to its faux-schoolyard setting ("won't you let me meet you after school?"), you can hear its influence in everyone from Weezer to the White Stripes, from Elliot Smith to Wilco, from the Counting Crows to Death Cab to Three Million Emo Kids on YouTube. A serious song that you never know how seriously to take, "Thirteen" was both of its time and far ahead of it.

1974's Radio City picks up where #1 Record leaves off: the infectious riff-rock of "O My Soul," a lament disguised as a party. The song itself would be familiar to a Big Star fan--inclusive, high-energy blues-based rock. It's also indicative of what makes Radio City new: fierce disloyalty. While #1 Record used old forms to say something new, Radio City embraces, combines, discards, revisits, and reinvents every available form. Almost every track establishes a foundation, sets an expectation, then abandons it.

For example, something unexpected happens at the 1:30 mark of "O My Soul": a pick sliding down the guitar's neck signals the song's lost momentum; it literally sounds like a train running out of steam. The predictable rock song unexpectedly stops itself cold. Just as suddenly, a new song has begun, more vibrant and memorable than the last. It's still "O My Soul," it's still the same track, but it's not coloring within its lines. It is incapable of holding back.

Track after track of Radio City begins one song only to abandon, improve, or expand upon it minutes later. Half the songs ("Life Is White," "Back of a Car," "Daisy Glaze") sound like they start in the middle. Others ("What's Going Ahn," "She's a Mover") don't have a true ending. For all the record's rapid motion, there's an incredible sense of continuity. These songs don't just sound good together, they fit like the jagged and incongruous pieces of a giant puzzle. If unfocused, incontinent songwriting is the flaw of some major records (Beatles' White Album, for example), it's the unexpected triumph of Radio City. With it, Big Star proved that a pop song can go anywhere, and can have any structure, so long as each part improves upon the last. Every deviation, every aesthetic tangent, every unexpected turn in the song communicates our own spiritual disloyalty, our own fickle hearts.

You can hear supplication in the stutter-step guitar segue of "Way Out West" (0:40), a moment so simple and gorgeous that the Gin Blossoms dedicated their first four hits to it (seriously, they recorded at the same studio and didn't even change the key). You can hear wonder in the excruciating guitar-sigh of "What's Going Ahn" (0:50). You can hear joy in the outtro of "Daisy Glaze," a fleeting moment of triumph, perhaps the most rewarding moment on a record full of suspense-and-payoff promises. You can hear all of it, and then none of it, because everything is made available but nothing is permanent.

"September Gurls," arguably Big Star's most famous song, is an exception to the album's rule: it is a traditional pop song in the style of #1 Record. By the time it comes around--after several tracks of groundbreaking pop songwriting--it sounds like a taunt: "yeah, we can still do this, too." In classic Big Star fashion, it celebrates a losing battle. Our antiheroes occupy a world of September girls--euphoric and sun-soaked--but it's not their own. "December boys got it bad" comes the heartbreaking refrain, and it only sounds sadder for its sunny melody.

At their best, #1 Record and Radio City transformed pop music by redefining what one song can mean. For their soaring choruses, their bouncy melodies, their sunny harmonies, their inclusive and accessible hooks, their dynamic performances, Big Star's first two records are as generous of spirit, as selfless, as devoted to hope and beauty as any you'll find; only Pet Sounds gives more to the listener without asking for anything in return. They are as effortlessly listenable and inclusive as the early Beatles' records, populist in their determination to be liked by any audience, and winning in that likability.

You can hear Big Star in REM's generosity, in Weezer's irony, in the Counting Crows' scope and vulnerability, in the Gin Blossoms' production, in Teenage Fanclub's harmonies, in Wilco's metalyricism, in Death Cab's adolescent wonder, Elliot Smith, The Jayhawks, Posies, the entire SubPop roster...this is the short list of artists who have explicitly cited them on record. That list doesn't even scratch the surface of their influence. You can hear Big Star in practically anyone, because truly great bands have an inescapable influence. They are to pop what the NSA is to American intelligence agencies: they're invisible if you're not looking for them, and they're everywhere if you are.

At a time when America was wholly uncertain of herself, Big Star struck a previously unknown chord, blending optimism and fatalism, hope and despair, humor and gravity, irony and earnestness, in a way that American pop music hadn't yet seen, and still continues to explore. Everything about them--from their self-mocking name to the songs themselves--screamed, "we know we're losing, but we're fighting anyway."

Sometimes the battle's more beautiful when you're losing. Especially if you're losing. Especially right now.


Part II on Friday!


ross k. said...

I'm glad you're spreading the good word about these guys. They remind me of Led Zep crossed with the James Gang, plus horns. Which is great. Their songs are REALLY good.

What's bizarre is, you can walk into nearly any record store and see both Zeppelin and the James Gang, and never see Big Star. You've got to figure they couldn't get distribution, and indeed Wikipedia says this was a problem--Stax quit distributing for Ardent Records in 1975.

But more than that, you can hear shades of Big Star in so many artists, and yet in all the interviews I've read, I don't remember ANY artist mentioning them once. And even though I've spent half my life around people who know music, you are the ONLY person who has ever told me about Big Star. I mean, as obscure as the James Gang are compared to Zeppelin or the Stones or the Eagles, etc., I've heard several different people talk about them and seen their recordings in many places. But no one else has ever mentioned them to me, and the recording I have I burned from you--I've never seen it ANYWHERE.

That's weird, and it's just not right.

ross k. said...

The last "them" being Big Star, I mean.

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