It's a fact of life, here in 1974, that everybody misses the Beatles. I miss them, you miss them, Capitol Records misses them, and, more important, artists like Blue Ash, Stories, Badfinger, and the Raspberries miss them -- so much so, in fact, that they've taken to making records on which they pretend to be the Beatles. One's reaction to this sincerest form of flattery depends, as some critics have pointed out, on whether or not you think it displays a marked lack of originality or is merely a legitimate attempt to work within an established genre. But despite the fact that I really like some of this ersatz-Liverpool stuff (especially such recent Raspberries efforts as "Tonight"), there's an air of self-consciousness about even the best of it that largely spoils it for me. It's all, somehow, too clever for its own good, as are the earnest appeals to an imagined Teenage Consciousness that it all too often comes couched in.
Which is why Big Star's very unself-conscious second album on Ardent, Radio City, is such an unabashed delight. The songs are as unforced and natural sounding as the models they're based on, and when the band does get down to the kind of naïve, adolescent love songs that you really haven't heard in years, for a change you believe the sentiments expressed. There's a real feeling in them.
Alex Chilton, the band's lead singer and writer, is a remarkable character. In the late Sixties, still a teenager, he sang, in an extremely gruff, Southern, r-&-b style, with a group called the Boxtops. It seems, however, that all the while he was aping Ray Charles on records, he was at home trying to sing like Paul McCartney and play guitar like Jim McGuinn. That's roughly where he's at now, as a listen to the album's standout tracks, "September Gurls" and "Back of a Car," will demonstrate But all the songs on Radio City are cut from similar cloth -- in other words, from the kind of melodic, atmospheric pop music that groups like the Zombies, the Beach Boys, and the Who were making in 1966 -- and they're all first rate. And as if that weren't enough, the album is recorded in a deliberately anachronistic way (some of it is even in mono, Phil Spector would be happy to learn), and the effects reinforce the impression one assumes Chilton was trying to make -- that these are previously undiscovered masters by a superb, unknown group from that warmly remembered Golden Age.
I didn't care for the band's first record, which was much slicker and more contemporary in feeling, but with this new one I'm beginning to think that some of the incredibly exaggerated claims made for them have a basis in fact. Of course, whether or not Chilton and his co-workers can sustain this level of excellence is open to question, but Radio City is a knockout album, and you miss it at your peril.
- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 6/74.
Big Star proved themselves one of the leading new American bands working in the mid-Sixties pop and rock vein with the release of their debut LP in 1972. Despite the loss of key composer and guitarist Chris Bell, and a few other disturbing musical developments, their second album, Radio City, proves they were no mere flash in the pantheon of one-shot burned-out artists. Radio City features plenty of shimmering pop delights such as "Way Out West" and "Back of a Car." Sometimes they sound like the Byrds, sometimes like the early Who, but usually like their own indescribable selves. "September Gurls" is a virtually perfect pop number. They may not be as tight or as immediately mesmerizing this time out (the opening tune, "O My Soul," is a foreboding, sprawling funk affair), but Radio City is one of the most high-spirited, thoroughly enjoyable recent releases.
- Ken Barnes, Rolling Stone, 4/11/74.
Raspberries and Blue Ash better be ready to be brilliant quick or drop by the wayside, because Big Star are the greatest thing to happen to American rock since The Buffalo Springfield. Alex Chilton is the American rock 'n' roll singer incarnate, and not only that, he can write superbly, play guitar like Jimmy Page did in 1966, and has charming poise onstage. The rest of the band doesn't slouch for one minute, and on their second album they've surpassed their roots, kicking imitation out the door. Big Star are the innovative American band of the Seventies. So rejoice and don't worry about not liking The Dolls. Buy Big Star and keep ahead of your neighbors!
- Jon Tiven, Circus Raves, 4/74.
Brilliant, addictive, definitely semi-popular, and all Alex Chilton -- Chris Bell, his folkie counterpart, just couldn't take it any more. Boosters claim this is just what the AM has been waiting for, but the only pop coup I hear is a reminder of how spare, slew, and sprung the Beatles '65 were, which is a coup because they weren't. The harmonies sound like the lead sheets are upside down and backwards, the guitar solos sound like screwball readymade pastiches, and the lyrics sound like love is strange, though maybe that's just the context. Can an album be catchy and twisted at the same time? A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Big Star were Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens. It was assumed after the demise of the Box Tops that lead singer Chilton, owner of one of the great rock-and-roll voices, would go on to further glories. Alas, the vocalist on such classics as "The Letter," "Cry Like a Baby" and "Soul Deep" never had another hit. However, the Bangles resurrected "September Gurls" on their 1986 breakthrough Different Light.
This was the second of three Big Star albums. It was distributed by Stax but not issued at the time in Britain. The third effort was never released. Test copies that do exist are minor collectors' items.
True to the spirit of "The Letter," which clocked in at under two minutes, the last two tracks on side one are 1:28 and 1:45 respectively.
In 1987, Radio City was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #78 rock album of all time.
- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.
Largely lacking co-leader Chris Bell, Big Star's second album also lacked something of the pop sweetness (expecially the harmonies) of #1 Record. What it possessed was Alex Chilton's urgency (sometimes desperation) on songs that made his case as a genuine rock & roll eccentric. If #1 Record had a certain pop perfection that brought everything together, Radio City was the sound of everything falling apart, which proved at least as compelling. * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Harder-edged than #1 Record, Chilton-led unit roars on Radio City, which contains such luminous tracks as "O My Soul," "I'm In Love With A Girl," and the incomparable "September Gurls." Essential.
- Billboard, 1995.
Like the Velvet Underground, Big Star's influence far outstripped their sales. On this lean, guitar-driven album they come up with a new, upside-down pop sound, filtering their love of the Beatles through their Memphis-soul roots. Towering achievement: the blissful, sad "September Gurls."
Radio City was chosen as the 403rd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
On this lean, guitar-driven LP, Big Star came up with a new, upside-down pop sound, filtering their love of the Beatles through their Memphis-soul roots. Towering achievement: the blissful, sad "September Gurls." Its influence far outstripped its sales.
Radio City was chosen as the 359th 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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