The Over/Under: Big Star

bigstar535With Big Star best-of/rarities box Keep An Eye On The Sky slated for a September release, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and the late Chris Bell are about to enter the mainstream rock pantheon at last. Of course, Big Star has been a key reference point for three generations of indie and underground rockers. The band’s brief, highly romanticized narrative arc—Anglophile Memphis rockers set the bar for genius power pop, begin deconstructing the genre, then self-destruct before they can finish their third record—guaranteed Big Star’s canonization by alt-rock misfits, as well as that odd strain of culture vulture obsessed with watching talent implode. MAGNET wants to reexamine Chilton and Co.’s work in part because, though this is one of those cases where the music frequently does live up to the hype, for 30 years Big Star has unavoidably colored the way we hear the music. And despite a few post-mortem live releases and a handful of bootlegs both sublime and godawful, it’s in the limited studio recordings that Big Star’s glory lives or dies. So for this installment of the Over/Under, it’s to the studio albums we go, to give the mix one final stir before it hardens. (For more on Big Star, as well as Cheap Trick, Matthew Sweet, the Posies and many more, check out our special 2002 American power-pop issue.)

:: The Five Most Overrated Big Star Songs
1. “In The Street” (1972)

We open with a gimme: Sometimes an OK song gets included on the soundtrack to an idiotic hit movie, thereby ruining it for the world. (Here on the smelting floor of the MAGNET foundry, this is known as the “Reality Bites effect.”) That’s only the most overt problem with “In The Street,” from Big Star’s cheekily titled debut #1 Record, which even the very clueless will know as the opening theme to That ’70s Show. “In The Street” is usually touted as the high-water mark of the band’s power-pop aesthetic, but only if you consider a straightforward riff and uncomplicated lyrics about not doing much of anything interesting to be an apex. Sure, it’s delivered in loud, pretty harmonies. But consider that one of those loud, pretty harmonies laments the fact that we don’t even have a lousy joint between us, and you start hearing the doop-de-doo, thumb-twiddling banality at the center of Big Star’s unfairly best-known song. Everything that’s done here, the band did better elsewhere.

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2. “Kangaroo” (1978)
Oh, stop making that face. Yes, this is a difficult one to include. There’s a lot to admire about this fractured, surrealist love song from the legendary mess of Big Star’s terminal 1974/1975 sessions, finally collected (after a string of substandard releases, starting in 1978) on 1992’s Third/Sister Lovers compilation. But that’s primarily due to producer Jim Dickinson’s salvaging of it. According to Dickinson, Chilton brought in a single-track recording of himself singing “Kangaroo” while playing a sketchily tuned guitar (thereby welding voice to instrument) and gave it to Dickinson with a smirk. Dickinson took the tape and began adding atmospheric effects, different instruments and various tweaks and fiddles. Only after Dickinson turned the muddle into something better than its origin did Chilton get back on board. The end result is memorable, but in any profession other than being a tortured artist, that’s called tripping over your own joint and making the guy in the next cubicle cover for you. Dickinson never got the credit he deserved for this search-and-rescue operation.

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3. “September Gurls” (1974)
Big Star doesn’t date, insist the band’s diehard supporters. While that’s mostly true, this inoffensive horoscope-influenced ditty about love gone wrong, from sophomore release Radio City, somehow never comes up in the conversation. One of Chilton’s most uneven solo records, A Man Called Destruction, includes a cover of Danny Pearson’s unfortunate 1978 astrological pickup song “What’s Your Sign, Girl?” Why that one gets laughed out of the room while the similarly themed “September Gurls” gets on multiple best-of lists is a mystery. Same bell bottoms, different platform heels, we say.

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4. “Feel” (1972)
Co-founder Bell tempered Chilton’s jagged tendencies on Big Star’s first record with a precision ear for melodic sweetness. When the twain met, they often produced excellent music. But “Feel,” the album’s opener, is a misfire. Bell’s tendency to sing in his upper register makes what should be plaintive sound screechy and uncontrolled, the slick background vocals are a poor match with the strangled lead, and the repeated verse/chorus combination reveals nothing new on its second pass. Though it’s an explosive introduction to the canon, it doesn’t begin to approach the most rewarding blend of Big Star’s sweet and sour impulses.

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5. “Holocaust” (1978)
A certain breed of hipster asshole loves Third/Sister Lovers for the dumbest reason of all—because he fetishizes, and claps his clammy little hands over, the sound of great talent burning out. The relentlessly miserable “Holocaust” is the litmus test for this sort of mope. Driven by a sad piano line lifted directly from Yoko Ono’s “Mrs. Lennon” (from her excellent 1971 album Fly), “Holocaust” is an exercise in droopy navel-gazing from opening note to rideout. Dead mothers, haunted mirrors, wasted faces, sad-eyed lies—nearly four minutes of weepy ego wallowing in misery for the sheer masturbatory hell of it, beginning in the void and arriving nowhere at all. No wonder This Mortal Coil and Placebo were, er, “moved” to cover it. And as long as we’re on our soapbox, “Mrs. Lennon” has a better lyric. Look it up.

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:: The Five Most Underrated Big Star Songs
1. “O, Dana” (1978)

With numbers two and five above, “O, Dana” kicks off Third/Sister Lovers’ mondo-depresso hat trick, but “O, Dana” is a genuinely creepier affair, and a better song on the merits. “I rather shoot a woman than a man/I worry whether this is my last life … I’m sorry, I can’t help it,” Chilton sings in a spiritedly confessional manner, and it only gets weirder from there. Ringing D chords, spooky feedback and occasionally nonsensical but somehow menacing lyrics drive this deceptively light-sounding number, which, because it’s both crazed and tightly constructed, ranks with the very best work from the band’s final sessions.

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2. “Try Again” (1972)
This is Bell’s finest hour: a humbly performed, gloriously arranged meditation on human frailty and determination. The repeated “Lord” that opens each line (“I’ve been trying to be understood,” “I’ve been trying to do what I could”) might be a direct prayer, or it might be a weary expletive prefacing the singer’s endless frustration with himself and the world. It works, in other words, as a prayer or a curse. If you’re wondering why Big Star often gets called American pop at its smartest and best, “Try Again” is a great place to start.

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3. “Life Is White” (1974)
This kind of claim always reveals more about ourselves than the music, but for my money, this is the best song Big Star ever recorded, period, full stop. It boasts Chilton’s nastiest bad-love lyric, which incidentally is saying just a whole hell of a mouthful, and its arrangement is a tightly packed treasure, cramming dissonance, wonky chord changes, stomping percussion and a great final sustained-chord payoff into each verse. Also check the shrieking harmonica line—cleverly buried in the mix, and easy to ignore if you’re not listening for it—that reveals the Janovian primal-scream rage behind the singer’s deceptively cool, measured kiss-off. Brilliant.

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4. “Lady Sweet” (2005)
If the overrated choices didn’t honk you off, how about schlepping in an underrated track from roundly dismissed “reunion” album In Space, and one that’s not even sung by an original member? Chilton and Stephens teamed with the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer for this next-gen Big Star release, and it’s got its issues. But “Lady Sweet” plays to what were always Big Star’s melodic strengths; it’s soulfully performed, it’s romantic without sounding sappy, and where some listeners hear a ripoff of #1 Record, we rather like the feedback loop created by a younger band collaborating with Chilton and Stephens on the kind of song Big Star’s music inspired them to perform in the first place. Call it meta-postmodern power pop. Or better yet, give it another listen.

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5. “Morpha Too” (1974)
By any standards, “Morpha Too” is a slight number, running less than 90 seconds and shuffled into the next-to-last position on Radio City, between powerhouse tracks “September Gurls” and “I’m In Love With A Girl.” Its troubled lyrics (“I’m an old shoe/And I don’t know/What to do/I’m in love with you”) are simple, even sing-songy, and its icy piano and vocal arrangement is one of Big Star’s most minimal. And yet “Morpha Too” sounds like a band knowingly stretching its pop aesthetic past its boundaries, edging toward the dark terrain in which it would soon become mired during the Third/Sister Lovers sessions. This is the sound of Big Star tentatively experimenting before the endless frustrations, before the distribution fell through and before everything collapsed on tape. For that reason, it’s always made me imagine the Third album that might have been: a wistful, disquieting and (most of all) supremely confident balance of the light and dark urges in the human heart.

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—Eric Waggoner

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16 Comments

  1. Posted June 16, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    okay Magnet, now your erstwhile critic trashes September Gurls. Who are these tone deaf morons who make these lists? Given your batting average so far, I predict you’ll have some imbecile trash the Velvet Underground next

  2. mick
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Another wrongheaded attemp by Magnet staff to sound like you know what you are talking about.Too bad you couldn’t have been in Chris Bell’s place when his TR-7 went into that tree. It must be nice though,to be so cool that you can simulataneously insult “Third” and those who like it,while extolling it’s same characteristics as excellent a few paragraphs later…over?under? your hackneyed uninformed musical insight leaves me only sideways and down…

  3. Scott Strong
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Cooper is right. If catchiness is the criterion for a pop song, and it should be, then September Gurls is about as good as your gonna get. Morpha Too? C’mon…

  4. ce
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Life is White, it’s the best song
    but 3rd is the best LP

    BUT Chris Bell’s solo lp is right up there

  5. Senator Tankerbell
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Haha…yes, when people think of Big Star they immediately think “Morpha Too.” It’s a lesser known track for a reason…it’s lesser quality. It was obviously just an experimental toss-off. That entire overrated list is grounds for death by firing squad. “In the Street,” “September Gurls,” and “Feel” are all a bit more worshipped then they should be….oh geez! Those songs should not only be the grail for a small pocket of power pop fans, they should be the New Testament for anyone who ever worshipped at the altar of the Beatles. And c’mon…”Lady Sweey” in the underrated list…that’s like including Credence Clearwater Revisited material in a CCR list. Overall Grade: F-

  6. spaced
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    Ok, so In The Street is overrated because it was covered for a stupid TV show and was built on “a straightforward riff and uncomplicated lyrics” including a line about (the most mundane of 70s pop lyric subjects) sharing a joint; Kangaroo because of the arrangement/recording process combined with lack of recognition for the producer; September Gurls because of an astrology tie-in; and Holocaust because it gives you an excuse to out-hipster those annoying hipsters by referencing a more obscure song by Yoko Ono.

    Thanks for clearing that up.

  7. Geno Tortellino
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Man, what’s with everybody getting their balls in a bunch over a little Big Star? I’m just stoked to see someone bringing this band back into focus again (soon-to-be-released box set or not) and reminding me that I don’t listen to my Big Star albums often enough – kinda like when I first tracked down everything I could by these guys after Rykodisc reissued the “Third/Sister Lovers” and “Live” discs back in the early ’90s. Even if there’s only a handful of kids out there who read this and discover this band who otherwise never would have, then I say job well done on this column – and an important one at that. And why such vitriol for Mr. Waggoner? If you ran into some anonymous joker down the pub and you found out that he loved Big Star, but then you realized after a while that you and he had some different ideas about what their best and worst songs were, would you tell him to fuck off or go drive his car into a tree? Nah. You’d be thrilled you could talk about Big Star with some asshole in a bar and slap him on the back and buy him a pint or two.
    And since when does being knowledgeable about music and music references make you some kind of wannabe hipster? Because a hipster often doesn’t really know that much about the rock history but wants you to think they do. By and large, the Magnet writers, based on a dozen or so years of this subscriber’s observation, have always come across as quite “un-hipstery” – probably just like a lot of their readers who are all about the rock and roll and couldn’t give fuck-all about what will make you seem cool or some ridiculous hipster cred.
    Oh yeah: To the guy who believes that catchiness should be a criterion for a good pop song: We’ll just wait here while you defend the virtues of the respective song catalogs of Paul Anka, Frankie Valli, and Neil Sedaka. And…….go.

  8. Eric Waggoner
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Geno: Endless thanks for your cogent riposte (with words all spelled out completely and punctuation right where it’s supposed to be and everything). If we ever run into each other down the pub, _I_ owe _you_ the pint, and we can back-slap and happily agree and disagree into the wee hours, just like reasonable folks.

    Tim: You mean “ersatz,” not “erstwhile.” You called it, however: I _am_ utterly tone deaf. It makes my boisterous yowling along with the radio a harrowing ordeal for my passenger-side, let me tell you.

    Firing squad, indeed. Hrmph.

  9. Cheap Star
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    There are some dumb things written here….but putting Jon Auer “lady sweet” on the top 5 underrated songs makes my day…

    My band, Cheap Star (well, done with 2 Big Star member, a thing I’m proud of!)will try to carry the torch as long as we can!

    Remi

  10. Doug Van Gundy
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Lord have mercy! Such venom over that rarest breed of rock writing: actual criticism involving actual critical thought. Agree or disagree, Mr. Wagonner’s comments are reasoned, supported, and presented in an entertaining and informative fashion. However, the fact that 25% of the respondents before me have wished DEATH upon Mr. Wagonner for his opinions suggests that critical thinking might not be valued in this day and age, which likely accounts for the popularity of Sarah Palin. It’s just music, people–music that was released 30-some years ago, if you love it, who cares what anyone else thinks? If you don’t like the opinions expressed in Magnet, read another magazine/website/blog. Or better still, start your own.

    For the record, I love Big Star, but even I cringe when I hear “The India Song”. Dated and cheesy. Where’s that fall on your list, Mr. Waggoner?

  11. Scott Strong
    Posted June 18, 2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    O.K. so I exggerate. I mean(t) catchiness minus the schmaltz factor, as in, say Fountains Of Wayne or Big Star. I just don’t see how one can extol the virtues of Morpha Too and denigrate September Gurls. To me it would be like praising Polythene Pam while slamming Strawberry Fields Forever. I would never deny that people who post comments on sites like this tend to have a screw loose. it is, after all, only pop music…..

  12. Posted August 24, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the list! Will play “Lady Sweet” “O, Dana” and “Life Is White” over the so-called overrated tracks…but the bottom line is everything is great!

  13. GIANTPANDAPETER-HOLE
    Posted August 30, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    WTF!?!
    You’re telling me the fuckin’ sillyassed, dork-orch, “chump”-ber-pop of “India (duh!!) Song” and the *WAY* overly earnest “Way Out West” didn’t make the overrated squad, yet . . . “Holocaust” did?!!

    Fucking “Holocaust” ? ? ?

    Only after your stuck-up, live-in cunt evaporates and yer Magnet dreams have been all but flushed down a lowly shittier, to a spot where they’d no-doubt thrive in numbers, will you grasp something akin to the oxygen-purging, powerless, desperation that Chilton once expressed, that you so thoughtlessly deemed, for the sake of Rock-Crit posturing, as fucking “navel-gazing” for fucking hipsters. Go rub one out on yer Klausterman-archives, you Pitchfork-lite pussy.

    Fuck you, sincerely.

  14. Trey S.
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ll have to agree with the poster above me especially after hearing the Holocaust demo on the new box set. It is a revelation. Who hired this guy?

  15. Christain
    Posted March 23, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m all for a little rock crit every now and then, but Magnet, drop the snark and stop trying so hard to tweak your readers. Get on with it.

  16. Songwriter
    Posted August 9, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Most Big Star songs are probably kind of “UNrated” somehow, as most people haven´t even heard about that band (even though a lot of people have heard “That ´70s Song”, but they still don´t know whose song it is). So it´s nice that someone even RATES them at all…! I just can´t find much reasoning here behind the statements about songs being rated too high or low by anyone. It merely seems like a journalist´s reflections of which songs deserve praise, and which don´t. Which is interesting enough as a critique, but it still doesn´t say anything about the rating of the songs gone wrong anywhere, past or present.