Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Monday, March 19, 2012

But I Don't Really Need It If I'm a Big Star

Most of the bands I write about, they have not only got followings, they have presence, be it hits or a reputation. Once in a great while, I stumble into an artist purely by chance, whether the name just sounds interesting, I like the cover art, or the extremely rare instances of compilation and split appearances. Most of the time, though, I hear the opinion of someone I find interesting, hear a band name over and over in awed tones, via label or artist association, or any number of entangled methods that are thoroughly indirect and require existing experience.

To be honest, most of the ones I find on my own, for all that I love them, are not bands I will zealously advocate to others. I had a subscription to eMusic once upon a time--back when they were a "fee per month, unlimited downloads" service, and I started going through their artists alphabetically as they seemed interesting. This is actually how I know the band !!!, and have done since their self-titled first album¹ but some of the others are a lot more obscure and remain as such, like Atomic Bitchwax, Aspera Ad Astra (who later changed their name to Aspera, and were obscure enough that I added their bassist to my AIM buddy list and spoke to him on there, and he was appreciative, not creeped out), and 2 Lone Swordsmen--though they have appeared in a few independent electronic discussions and such.

To find some great band, some secret, hidden one that people just don't talk about, at least around me, would be something of an achievement. It's not impossible, but having had my father's collection of 8,000 records growing up, as well as his love of music and tendency to pull a "Now, who's this?" on the whole family when a song came on the radio, I had a lot of things covered. Still do--he was just visiting for a Lyle Lovett/John Hiatt concert, and pointed me repeatedly toward mostly classic country artists, as well as attempting to expand my existing awareness of people like John Mayall (from whom I'd only heard the Bluesbreakers/With Eric Clapton album).

If that weren't enough, my best friend in high school and college was into punk when I met him, taught me a lot about it and grunge to an extent, plowed on into post punk later, and then got exposed to some classic stuff he'd never heard via being around me, but far more indirectly. And he tended to absorb and expand at a ridiculous rate. I still remember being around when he was first hearing early Kinks ("All Day and All of the Night" and "You Really Got Me" in particular), who I'd started to find boring and repetitive as compared to their later work.

Stumbling into my friend and ex-manager Gerald and various other people I've known has only made it that much more impossible to stumble on the truly hidden gems. Sometimes, too, I ignore a thrown off reference. Or the name sits and simmers, and then clicks much later.

So, it was pure chance that, one day, I was rooting through a box of newly-arrived CDs at my store--back when I worked for Borders--and saw this:

Now, "2 Complete Original Albums on 1 CD" was intriguing enough. The sticker on the copy I saw that said both were in Rolling Stone's 500 Best Albums only made it more interesting. How could this name have never been mentioned to me? What was this band like? The album art sure doesn't tell me anything more than "Probably from the 1970s." I resolved to find out, and the next time I visited my parents, I did the logical thing for an album of that age and I went to my dad's records. There were both albums, and a third one. I wasn't sure what to make of it all, but I knew the first two were the ones to check, though I only dimly remembered the titles and covers.

At the time, I was staying in the room where my parents kept all of my dad's records, at my own request or suggestion. A simple metal frame for a single bed, but surrounded by music of all kinds, absolutely overwhelming amounts and types.² Of course, it was also the same room as his turntable, receiver and speakers. A pair of rather nice ones which he'd be better able to identify than me, but were a proud deal some decades ago.

So it was going to bed, in the dark, a chilly room for the time of year, and those two records. It's not often that an album makes an incredible impression on me, but the guitars, the words, the voices, the drums, the bass--I just played them over and over. On #1 Record I suddenly half-realized that I was hearing "In the Street," the song used--in covered form--as the theme for That 70s Show, which is the closest to fame this band has ever gotten past the underground. But what was sticking with me more was the openers: "Feel" and "O My Soul."

It was like everything familiar and everything new at once. How on earth did this band escape my notice? Why did no one ever recommend them to me? Sure, my dad told me they were good, but he says that like I do, and it covers a lot of ground. Lots of things are good, lots more than people often stop and give a listen to, but this was something else. This band was--and remains--amazing. I just listened over and over, and it fit so well, it sounded like the revolutions of a record to me, which only a few albums have, it sounded like the chilly night in an inviting and clear, ringing sort of way. It just made complete sense at first listen. Let me throw in my probable favourite song of all here, the opener for Radio City:

There are not often chances for discovery like this. I might have taken this one away from a few people, but I know a lot of people already know this band, because they have had nothing but insanely positive word of mouth over the decades, despite the failed distribution by Stax that nearly crippled the release, and largely thanks to the endorsement of people like Peter Buck (guitarist for R.E.M.) and a lot of alternative heroes--hell, Paul Westerberg wrote "Alex Chilton" for The Replacements, and if you can immortalize the frontman of a band in song a decade after they stopped existing, they must have done something right.

I don't know how to explain it exactly--I had to go and get the albums for myself, immediately, and I did exactly that. I didn't wait for a deal or hunt around, I went somewhere, saw them, bought them. End of story. That's how good they were. I don't do that often--though sometimes I do more these days, with my easy occupational access, my predilection for supporting independent stores, and the tendency to be exploring bands and releases that don't show up in cheaper avenues very often. Plus, the thrill of instant gratification.

But it was only a week or two later I even picked up one more step toward excess:

While Fantasy holds the rights to their original two albums, the omni-present Rhino managed to issue this box set back in 2009. It contains all of the songs from both of those albums, but a limited set of their original mixes and masters. It contains endless alternate versions, demos, unfinished songs and even a live show from 1973, and tracks from the wild and out there third album, Third or Sister Lovers, depending on who you ask. It wasn't really even released except by enthusiastic encouragement of Big Star fans, in 1978 after the band was long since gone.

Now, having 2/3 of their albums, one would think I might be satisfied and this release would indeed be excessive. It isn't. There's something new to the alternate mixes, of songs I rapidly learned by heart. Little tweaks and changes, different emphases in vocals, turns, changes to lyrics, all little details, but made incredibly fascinating by the extreme quality of the band. Now, it did include the third album as well, but I ended up acquiring that, too, in its most expanded "Third/Sister Lovers" form. I even got it on vinyl when it was reissued for Record Store Day.

Honestly, that still wasn't enough. I stumbled into Big Star Live, which is a studio "live" recording from 1974 and I got that as well. No, I haven't picked up the re-formed album (In Space, which was recorded and released 30 years after the first two albums in 2005). Sadly, at 9 years of age I was unaware of their reunion show in my hometown, though it's always a bit mind-blowing to think that it occurred so close to me, and to see the name of that city every time I wander into their history.

I'm a bit at a loss on how to recommend this band, except to say: listen to them. Don't go in and think it will be the be-all, end-all of anything, don't go in expecting it to top this or that band you love or respect, just put it on like it's an album, and let it ride. It is such fantastically good stuff, I can't possibly emphasize this enough. Let me let the music speak for itself for a moment. Again. This time, let's go with "Back of a Car," one of the fantastic tunes from Radio City, often suspected of being co-written or at least dabbled in by founder Chris Bell, who left after #1 Record failed due primarily to distribution issues.

I don't know what else to say. Someone who wanted to understand me and my love of music once spent an interstate road trip intently listening to these albums over and over. At my next birthday, said person dug up a copy of #1 Record on vinyl and decided that was the best present possible for me. Indeed, it was exactly that. It's often considered difficult (mostly due to my own tendencies) to find gifts for me, but that was the first one that was chosen and given without any real input from me, and it was brilliant.

There are bands I listen to more, and I suppose I could even say that I "like" more, but the emotive nature of this one, the visceral response, the sheer nature of it--nevermind all the strange history of Bell and Chilton and Stax's distribution failures, and the way that alternative bands discovered them and all of that--is possibly the most deeply set now. It is simply the most pure, complete, real and affecting pair of albums I know.

To top things off, to hint at future writings, and to emphasize how this band can influence people, here's the Replacements with "Alex Chilton" in a slightly alternate form from how it appeared on Pleased to Meet Me--complete with false start:

¹If you've ever found something difficult to search on the web, the early days of !!! were absolute hell. Google, for one, had not quite achieved dominance. I still used my first favourite engine, HotBot, because it allowed for numerous exceptions, loose terms and other things that later fed my alleged Google-Fu. The fact that !!!'s first album was also named !!! helped aboslutely nothing. I could occasionally manage via song titles, but AllMusic (who I use regularly as a really generalized barometer, though an occasionally wildly inaccurate one) was nigh on to impossible, as were some other places. Amazon's search was less refined for song title searches, too.

²Well, except metal, rap or punk. A few odd exceptions for debatable inclusion in metal or punk, usually bands liked well outside those genres, like The Clash or Zeppelin and Deep Purple. But nothing anyone would take to mean, "Ah, this person likes metal/punk!" He tends to maintain these distastes, which I pretty clearly defy.


  1. Don't forget about the BoxTops! A group that also included Alex Chilton, prior to Big Star. Not just another top 40 hits band. Still amazed that their song, Sweet Cream Ladies, ever got played on the radio. And even more amazed that it can be found on at least a couple of odd anthology albums.

    Now, forward march!

  2. I did not know they did much more than "The Letter," to be honest...


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