The Harbinger Online

Deegan’s Encyclopedia of Music: B


Hello, I’m back. It’s been awhile since I wrote my last entry, since then, I have continued listening to lots of music and varied my tastes more. Today, I’m going to continue talking about the music I like. This time we’ll be going with the letter B.

For B, the band I’m going to talk about is Big Star. They’re a formative early 70s power pop band from Memphis. Their style of music wasn’t very popular until the late 70s and early 80s and they troubles with record label Ardent, so they had limited popularity in areas outside of Memphis for decades. However, the right people heard them, and they became big influences to bands who became popular a decade later, like The Replacements (my all-time favorite band, who named one of their songs after Big Star’s lead singer) and R.E.M.

Big Star started off with 4 members. Alex Chilton was the lead singer, main songwriter, and the main force behind the band. In the 60s, he was in a band called The Box Tops, who had a number one hit with “The Letter” while he was 16. After his experiences in this band, he became dissatisfied with the music industry and returned to his home in Memphis. Around this time, he met Chris Bell, who shared lead singing and songwriting with Chilton. Basically, they shared equal power in the band, but many people gave more credit to Chilton, so Bell left after their first album. He recorded a single, amazing solo album, which was left unreleased until the 90s, and died at the age of 27 in 1978. Big Star’s rhythm section was made up of Andy Hummel, who played bass, and Jody Stephens who played drums.

In the four years they were together, Big Star recorded and released three classic, but very different, albums. Their first album, #1 Record, was a masterpiece of power pop. It was a mixing pot of the pop of The Beatles, the power of The Who and the muscle of the strong soul scene of Memphis. The songwriting and production came about as a balancing act between the strong pop sense of Bell and the more alternative leanings of Chilton. It features “Thirteen,” which has found some fame through covers by Elliott Smith and Wilco and used in shows like How I Met Your Mother, Gilmore Girls, and That 70’s Show. Speaking of That 70’s Show, the show’s theme song is “In the Street,” a song from the album, although re-recorded by Cheap Trick.

Their second album was Radio City, another classic. Since Bell left after their debut, Chilton was the sole captain of the ship at this point. This caused the album to have a rougher sound compared to the pristine pop of their first album, but there are still many bright pop moments sprinkled throughout the tracks. “September Gurls” (Fun fact: the spelling of gurls was referenced in Katy Perry’s song “California Gurls,”) is probably Big Stars most well-known song, with good reason. It is simply a perfect song. “I’m in Love With a Girl,” my other favorite song on the album, is an acoustic track that combines a beautiful melody with some straight-forward but relatable lyrics.

After this, Alex Chilton gave into the madness of his own genius, and Big Star’s final album Third/Sister Lovers reflects this. The band was hardly a band at this point, with Chilton and Stephens being the only original members left and everything else being handled by session musicians. The sound of this album is the most drastically different of their three albums, being a mostly acoustic affair with ramshackle performances and lots of nearly unlistenable noise. The only precedent to this sound was The Velvet Underground’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (with “Femme Fatale,” which is covered on this album). However, this sound (or noise, as some people may call it) still connects with Chilton’s great melodic sense. For example, listen to “Kangaroo.” It has a beautiful, haunting melody, which is backed by an acoustic guitar, strains of guitar feedback, some orchestral flourishes and all-over-the-place drumming. These all combine to make something that is both antagonistic and inviting. There are still some power pop songs on this album though, like the great “Thank You Friends.” The only problem with this album is a pretty major one: there is not a solid tracklisting. It was released in 1978, four years after the band broke up, due to being shelved for it’s uncommercial sound. Because of this, Chilton had lost all interest with the album, so he left tracklisting up to the label. In the 3 times it has been released and reissued, it has had 3 different track listings, leaving it up to the listener to choose their favorite or make their own. The CD version has been taken off of Spotify, for reasons I’m not aware of, but the album is in its entirety on the Keep an Eye on the Sky compilation, which features all of Big Star’s albums.

Since Big Star formed and broke up decades before I was born, I was not able to ever see them live. However, my dad personally knows Jody Stephens because he tried to get my dad’s band, Outhouse, to sign to the Ardent label. He said he may try and call Stephens and have us go down to Memphis and see the studio Big Star recorded in, which would be tight. I largely discovered Big Star through their placement in Rolling Stone magazine’s greatest albums and greatest songs lists, and their praises from The Replacements and other alternative bands. And I’m glad I did. If you are a fan of British Invasion pop like The Beatles, a fan of poppy classic rock bands like Cheap Trick, a fan of early alternative bands like R.E.M., a fan of acoustic pop like Belle & Sebastian, you should definitely check out Big Star. There is a documentary about them on Netflix called Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, so if you are interested in the band, their story, or their music, you should watch that as well.

Now I’m going to talk about a couple of rad albums I really like that start with the letter B:


Closing things up, I’m gonna talk about a couple of “B” tracks.

There you have it, another entry in my music encyclopedia. Like my first one, there is a playlist with the songs listed above, as well as selections from the albums and Big Star. Click here for that. I hope you enjoyed reading! Hopefully I’ll have my next entry up sooner than this one. But hey, better late than never, am I right?

And R.I.P. David Bowie

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