Perhaps no artist or band in the annals of Memphis music has had as long and significant a shelf life based on such a small catalog and as little success in its own time as Big Star, the '70s Memphis rock band that united former Box Tops lead singer Alex Chilton with a pre-existing trio of Chris Bell (vocals/guitar), Andy Hummel (bass), and Jody Stephens (drums). (Though initially his band, Bell left Big Star after the band's first album and died in a car crash in 1979.)
In its initial run, the band recorded three haphazardly distributed albums over the course of just a few years (only Chilton and Stephens on board for each record), toured sporadically, got good press, and had no hits. This obscurity grew over time into a considerable cult that famously yielded a generation's worth of alternative and college-radio bands such as R.E.M., the Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, Wilco, and countless others inspired by Big Star's skewed Memphis take on what became known as power pop.
Recently, the band's afterlife — a reunited version of the band, led by Chilton and Stephens, now performs and records occasionally — got a couple of new chapters: The single-disc edition of the band's first two albums, #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974), has been remastered and reissued by Ardent/Stax via the Concord Music Group, with the addition of singles mixes of the songs "In the Street" and "Oh My Soul." There are also separate re-released vinyl editions of each album with faithful re-creations of the original artwork.
Simultaneous with the CD and album reissues is an installment in Continuum's 33 1/3 book series — a popular collection of pamphlet-style treatments on individual albums — on Radio City by Bruce Eaton, a Buffalo, New York-based jazz concert producer who is an acquaintance of Chilton. In the preface, Eaton recounts first buying Radio City at a used bin of a Buffalo record store in 1976 and three years later finding himself on stage with Chilton playing the Big Star classic "September Gurls."
The Radio City book can be rough going at first: Eaton's repeated faux-self-deprecating descriptions of himself as a "vinyl junkie" and recovering "rock snob" become annoying. (Typical example: "For rock snobs, the more obscure your favorite band, the better.") And his fandom sometimes results in overwritten overstatement, as when Eaton connects his post-college love of Radio City to the '60s pop he listened to on the radio as a teenager:
"It's as if all the music coming out of all the little transistor radio speakers ... had somehow been beamed into outer space to some distant planet and then transformed by a band of musical alchemists into something both fresh and yet familiar and sent back to Earth in a stream of glowing super-charged electrical particles by a wizard of sound."
Um, yeah, dude. (The book is also hampered by frequent copy-editing oversights.)
What Eaton's book has going for it is a personal connection to Chilton that provides him with rare access to the somewhat reclusive icon and an insistence on focusing more on the music itself and the circumstances of its recording than the more familiar personality-based story of the band's brief initial life.
Eaton tells the story in something close to oral-history form with lengthy interview segments primarily from Chilton, Stephens, Hummel, and Ardent founder John Fry, including song-by-song commentary that is particularly illuminating if you're reading along with the album.
The musical discussion includes lots of techie talk and recording jargon that non-musicians may struggle to fully grasp. (Example: "We used an oscillator to vary the speed of the two-track tape recorder, and thus vary the pitch of the instrument being overdubbed.") But you'll also learn a lot about the record and hear things in it you may not have before.
In the discussion of "Life Is White," for instance, you see that, in Big Star's hands, slide guitar, honky-tonk piano, folkie harmonica, and maracas somehow joined forces to create "power pop." Eaton's book helps you hear the influence of baroque classical music on the middle guitar-only verse of "Way Out West" and the Paul McCartney influence on Hummel's bass playing on the same song.
Partly it seems due to Eaton's own musicianly biases and partly because of Chilton's at times dismissive and at times regretful attitude on the subject that the Radio City book doesn't spend much time on lyrics or even meaning.
"I had no clue about what songwriting stuff I wanted to do," Chilton says to Eaton. "I knew what musical structures I wanted to play, but putting lyrics with it was not my strong suit in those days. I tried, but I don't think I ever succeeded on the Radio City album. I don't think there's one good song of mine on the record. To me the only good song on the album is Andy's ['Way Out West']. I definitely prefer #1 Record. There are four or five tunes on that record I think are really good."
Chilton is too hard on himself here, but there's a kernel of truth to it, which is probably why I agree with him in preferring #1 Record, with its classic, hushed teen anti-anthem "Thirteen" and the rock-and-roll haiku of "In the Street" sitting beside Bell's devotional testaments "My Life Is Right" and "Try Again."
With the new two-albums-on-one-disc reissue, it's easy to judge for yourself — in the event you haven't already spent years doing so.