By request, per Christopher D. Moore, one of our most loyal listeners, Dan and Randy review, track-by-track the sophomore album by the Cult Band of Cult Bands. We’re talking about the legends-years-after-the-fact Big Star from Memphis, TN and the album ‘Radio City’ from 1974.
There are many reasons why Big Star never made an impact in their own time. First of all, they weren’t even a big deal in their own hometown. They were the Black Sheep of Stax Records subsidiary label, Ardent Records, the lone rock band on a soul label. As tough as that was, they also barely played live prior to releasing their debut, “#1 Record”. Compounding the issue was the fact the album had piss-poor distribution despite a bunch of rock press support and it all but doomed the project.
By the time the second record came out, the band had already had a star-crossed, checkered history and lost a founding member. Truthfully, it was a minor miracle the band even came out with a second LP after Chris Bell left the band. Bell, who had started the project in 1971, was the main songwriter and left, disillusioned, in a huff after the first album stiffed and he couldn’t handle the failure. This left the band as a trio.
After regrouping the band was the entertainment for the inaugural ‘Rock Writers of the World’ convention held in 1973 in Memphis. Kickstarting the bands sojourning on post-Bell, it served noticed to all the scribes in attendance that Big Star were a group to be reckoned with.
The guy who took the creative reigns was none other than the Box Tops child-prodigy Alex Chilton. He went from teen-heartthrob with the soulful deep voice to the keening falsetto singing guitarist who was a whirling dervish of creativity, mysterious melancholia and a raging need to let off steam with the assistance of lots of drugs and alcohol. Also returning from the first album is perhaps one of the all-time underrated rhythm sections in the annals of rock in drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummell.
All but abandoning the accessibility of the first record, the band doubled down on their love of Brit Pop (at a time when it was not fashionable), rock chops and southern-fried soul to create a tremendous suite of songs that was part beautiful mess, Beatles-and-Byrd’s tinged 60’s rock and their own unique brand of mojo. Opening with the adventurous and rousing ‘O My Soul’ the band lets you know out of the gate they’re playing by their own rules and partying down. With Stephens awesome drumming and Chilton’s ace guitar playing it sets the scene of their creative expansion as the song powers on showing off what the band can do when they open a song up.
Followed by the Neil Youngish “Life Is White” the band hints at the sprawling dysfunction of Chilton, but is salvaged by the tight rhythm section. Elsewhere on the record we get the future of alternative rock in the brilliant slow build and climatic release of “Daisy Glaze” and its harkening back to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”. Also, the power pop blueprint of “September Gurls” and it’s astrologically themed lyrics is brilliantly featured near the back of the record along with the shoulda-been-a-hit “Back of a Car”. The last song I’ll mention by name is the lost classic “You Get What You Deserve” as it’s a shame it’s not in rotation anywhere on Planet Earth for no apparent reason.
So listen in as Randy shares how and when he got into the Big Star material and Dan shows off how much knowledge he can drop after a crash-course in the band’s now-rich back catalogue and it’s loving treatment over the years, including the fantastic documentary “Big Star: You Can’t Hurt Me Now”. Here’s hoping it lives up to the band’s great legacy and sometimes tragic history.