No. 1 Record
In the late Sixties, a Memphis teenager named Alex Chilton won moderate fame and fortune as the lead singer for a sometimes inspired, sometimes insipid recording unit known as the Box Tops. The group was a vehicle for the ideas of producer-writer Dan Penn, and Chilton's raspy, young punk voice was the focal point. After several erratic albums and a couple of downright classic singles, "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby," Alex tired of being just a mouthpiece. The final Box Tops LP, Dimensions, was a fairly successful attempt at being more than just a singles-making band (although, ironically, two well-made and moderately successful singers, "Soul Deep" and "Sweet Cream Ladies," were drawn from it). But that was merely a last fling; the Box Tops were finished, and Alex Chilton, now writing songs and feeling rather embarrassed about his Top 40 credentials, was on the move. He cleared his throat, packed his guitar, and headed for New York City. When he came to realize that picking and starving in New York wasn't necessarily on a higher karmic level than cutting slick singles in Memphis, Alex headed back home to reconcile his two musical stages and to see what he could get together.
What he got together was Big Star, and Big Star is really something. The group was built around Chilton and fellow writer-singer Christopher Bell. Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens got on bass and drums, respectively, and Big Star found a gracious and competent local producer named John Fry, who, conveniently, had both a studio and a label of his own.
No. 1 Record isn't revolutionary -- the group works within the well-defined forms -- it's just exceptionally good. There's not a trace of Memphis soul in Big Star: The group seems to have used the California bands of the mid-Sixties -- primarily the Byrds and Moby Grape -- as models, but there's a brightness on the uptempo tunes that seems Beatles-inspired. Parallels are Badfinger and Raspberries, I guess, but Big Star shows more depth and consistency than either of those. A closer parallel is Todd Rundgren, who's equally adept at evoking the Beatles, California rock, and 1965, but even Rundgren hasn't made a whole album as impressive as this one.
The first side is dominated by rock & roll while the second becomes increasingly reflective and acoustic as it winds down. In both styles, the guitar sound is sharp-edged and full; even the prettiest tunes have tension and subtle energy to them, and the rockers reverberate with power. The rock & roll tracks can be seen as a succession of imaginative guitar and vocal ideas, but "When My Baby's Beside Me," "Feel," "Don't Lie to Me" and the rest move so smoothly that you have to be technique-oriented to give pieces conscious attention. It's on the slower songs that the influences are more noticeable. The oddly titled "Ballad of El Goodo," with modal harmonies and a great McGuinn-style vocal by Chilton, may be the best song here. The even more oddly titled "ST100/6" and "Try Again" sound like the tranquil Grape of "8:05" and Sitting by the Window," dominated as they are by weary harmonies. And Chilton's unaffected vocal style comes across to best advantage on the quietest tunes, "Sunrise," "Give Me Another Chance" (this one really reinforces the Rundgren parallel), and "Thirteen," a wistful, funny remembrance of junior high.
- Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 2/1/73.
Big Star is a very good white quartet from the Memphis area -- skillful musicians, excellent singers. They have cut a nice album (sometimes very nice, as in "The India Song"), and they are all very talented youngsters. What keeps the album from being any more than the work of a very good young band is that they lack strong material. All of it is composed by a member of the band, and though at times it is extremely pleasant, the capabilities of the songs never match the capability of the band. They have also produced the album, and the production job is fine. But without superior material, I fear Big Star will stay where it is musically.
I looked forward to this album because I knew Alex Chilton was in the group. Chilton was the amazing prodigy with the gently raspy voice who sang lead for the Box Tops ("The Letter," "Cry Like a Baby") back in the mid-Sixties. He was, as I recall, barely sixteen when he began recording. His recording career with the Box Tops was greatly aided by Dan Penn, a producer and songwriter who is an ignored genius. Chilton had his troubles and disappointments with the Box Tops and their surrounding angels and devils; doubtless he rejoiced when joining (or forming) Big Star, and he surely had a hand in the fine production of this album. But I regret to report that he has either lost or abandoned his astonishing vocal style. The range of interpretation he had with ballads, Southern white soul-blues, country, and rock tunes on the Box Tops albums is nowhere heard on the Big Star album. But that's my problem, not his.
Oh, buy the Big Star album. It can't hurt. Chilton, my boy, I wish you all happiness, and never mind my sniveling here in the archives.
- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 2/73.
Alex Chilton's voice is changing. When he was a teenage Box Top, his deep, soulful bullfrog whopper was the biggest freak of nature since Stevie Winwood sang "I'm a Man," but now that he's formed his own group he gets to be an adolescent, complete with adenoidal power. Appropriately, the music tends toward the teen as well, but with a tense energy in the harmonies that provides brand new thrills. Special attraction: a fantasy about India with gin-and-tonic in it. B+
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
The problem with coming in late on an artwork lauded as "influential" is that you've probably encountered the work it influenced first, and so its truly innovative qualities are lost. Thus, if you are hearing Big Star's debut album for the first time decades after its release (as, inevitably, most people must), you may be reminded that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or R.E.M., who came after, that is, if you don't think of the Byrds and the Beatles, circa 1965. What was remarkable about #1 Record in 1972 was that nobody except Big Star (and maybe Badfinger and the Raspberries) wanted to sound like this -- simple, light pop with sweet harmonies and jangly guitars. Since then, dozens of bands have rediscovered those pleasures. But in a way, that's an advantage because, whatever freshness is lost across the years, Big Star's craft is only confirmed. These are sturdy songs, feelingly performed, and once you get beyond the style to the content, you'll still be impressed. * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Long-awaited domestic reissue of the Memphis pop-rock band's first two classic albums (now available on one CD) is an object worthy of worship. #1 Record features the original lineup fronted by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. One-hundred percent brilliant set includes such classics as "The Ballad Of El Goodo," "Thirteen," "Don't Lie To Me," and "When My Baby's Beside Me."
- Billboard, 1995.
Pop fans will find the bargain of a lifetime with the two-for-one CD #1 Record/Radio City. The first two albums sport such Big Star perennials as "Back of a Car," "September Girls," "Thirteen," "The Ballad of El Goodo" and "Mod Lang." * * * *
- Simon Glickman, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were the Memphis whiz kids at the heart of Big Star. They mixed British pop finesse with all-American hard rock, from the surging "Feel" to the acoustic "Thirteen." Big Star didn't sell many records at the time, but over the years they inspired artists such as R.E.M. and Jeff Buckley.
#1 Record was chosen as the 438th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
This long-available twofer -- the debut and follow-up by one of rock's seminal also-rans -- ain't news, two (non-essential) bonus tracks and remastering notwithstanding. But classics are classics. #1 Record is a glammy swirl of Beatlesque hooks, Topanga Canyon harmonies and Southern-boogie outbursts mostly written by Memphis studio and former teen AM-radio rocker Alex Chilton. The band stayed great after losing Bell; Radio City shows Chilton's songs getting odder and more emo, but no less tuneful. For a fuller story, stay tuned for a forthcoming four-CD box. * * * * 1/2
- Rolling Stone, 7/9/09.
Classicist, romantic, anglophile pop was what doomed Memphis quartet Big Star offered, coining both the power-pop genre and the associated curse of cult obscurity. Big Star were dominated by the songwriting duo of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell; Chilton had topped the charts aged 16, fronting The Box Tops for blue-eyed soul classic "The Letter." Bell fronted Ice Water, who also featured drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummell, re-christening themselves Big Star upon Chilton's arrival, after a nearby supermarket.
Big Star's eerie and idiosyncratic recreation of a more innocent age of pop was out of time and out of place; Ardent, a subsidiary of Stax, had no idea of how to market these harmonious white boys, and the album stalled. This jolt of failure critically wounded the band, Bell leaving before their second album, Radio City, and only haunting their bleak swansong Sister Lovers in spirit.
So despite its generous soul, its delight in the details, its effortless melodies, No. 1 Record was, in stark terms, anything but. But its influence is deep and wide, felt in bands like R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, The Posies -- in fact, anyone with a sweet, sad song left to sing.
- Stevie Chick, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
In its September 9, 1972, report on #1 Record, the debut release of the Memphis rock four-piece Big Star, the music industry trade magazine Billboard enthused: "Each and every cut on this album has the inherent potential to become a blockbuster single. The ramifications are positively awesome."
Needless to say, the predictions of imminent stardom were greatly exaggerated. Despite across-the-board raves from critics, no blockbuster single was forthcoming. In fact, Big Star fell victim to utterly typical business problems: Its label, Ardent Records, had trouble with distribution from Stax and later Columbia Records. As a result, there were no records in stores for people to buy. The positive notices were squandered.
Disillusioned, principal writers Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, who in Lennon/McCartney fashion wrote strikingly different types of songs but shared writing credit, had a falling out. Bell left the band in December, during work on the follow-up Radio City. As a result, the second album (and a third, the more psychedelic Sister Lovers), is mostly a showcase for Chilton, though the liner notes indicate that Bell did contribute ideas to a few of the revved-up rockers.
The first two Big Star records, now reissued on a single CD, are great treasures, if for somewhat different reasons. #1 Record, offers Bell's fierce, unapolegetically grabby pop ("Feel") as well as Chilton's more philosophical songs ("The Ballad of El Goodo"). The Billboard scribe might have been a tad too generous -- several tracks, like the rollicking Stones-influenced shout "Don't Lie to Me," are sparkling album tracks, not singles. Still, the basic Big Star equation -- an appreciation for Memphis R&B backbeats, elaborate vocal harmonies, and other British Invasion finery -- is hard to deny.
Bell's departure took away that vocal-group dimension, but it unleashed a torrent of staggeringly creative songs from Chilton. Radio City spans quite a range -- there are contemplative ballads that make the most of Chilton's bewildered voice; shadowy, sinister rockers; and even a slowly unfolding space trance in the style of Pink Floyd, "Daisy Glaze." The album didn't fare any better than its predecessor in the marketplace, but to those who love power-pop, its exultant melodies are essential texts.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were the Memphis whiz kids at the heart of Big Star. Their debut mixed British Invasion finesse with all-American hard rock, from the surging "Feel" to the acoustic heartbreaker "Thirteen." American indie rock wouldn't have happened without it.
#1 Record was chosen as the 474th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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