August 31, 2010

I Never Travel Far Without A Little Big Star

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Over this summer I was accused of something that came as a surprise to me. Sitting on a five-hour bus ride in the heart of the Ukraine during the country’s hottest summer on record, in the middle of a trip with some very intrepid Jews, I was told I have “very normal music taste.” While it may (and does, I know) sound pretentious to say I was caught off guard by this, I really was. I like my music like I like my women: loud, adorably cute and kind of weird.

Since that fateful day my beloved Pixies first entered my life, I have preferred that guitars have distortion, vocals have reverb and I really don’t mind when drums come from a machine. Weird instruments? Bring them on! I love a good french horn solo almost as much a breakout glockenspiel riff. And don’t even get me started on obscure band references. When Titus Andronicus covered The Misfit’s “Where Eagles Dare” at Castaways last week, I was front and center singing along with every word. I listen to every band name dropped in Los Campesinos!’s “International Tweexcore Underground.” I know what “New Weird America” is. Let’s put it this way: I’ve listened to The Shaggs (a group so bad Frank Zappa famously called them better than The Beatles), and I liked it. Almost.

All masturbatory bullshit aside, I’ve always leaned towards music that is at an extreme. But truth be told, Jewish Girl Council Member #5 was right. Over the past few years my music taste has shifted towards the middle. I’ve started to look for music that was more listenable, but still had an edge to it. Something with power, but also pop. So basically … power pop. Yes, that’s right, I think I’m the first person on Earth to discover power pop. But over the past few years my music preferences have become less 1980s underground zine, and more 1970s AM radio. The band that got me there? The founders of the genre and its best representative: Big Star.

Formed in 1971 in Memphis, Tenn., by the core lineup of dual frontmen and songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel, Big Star had hopes as grand  as their name. However, by 1974 they were broken up, but left a legacy that would influence musicians for decades. Over the course of their career they released three albums, 1971’s #1 Record, 1974’s Radio City and their posthumous 1978 release, Third/Sister Lovers, all of which ended up on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” They have been called “rock’s greatest cult band,” “the quintessential American power pop band” and “a seminal body of work that never stopped inspiring succeeding generations.” But that doesn’t mean they’ve sold any more records.

So what is it about this short-lived band that has caused such a stir? I wish I could tell you. They’re a straight-ahead rock band with catchy choruses and guitar riffs that make me happy. Or maybe they’re beautiful balladeers who can only really sing about love. Or, better yet, they’re experimentalists, playing with the traditional form of a pop song while referencing influences as varied as the Velvet Underground, steel drums and Christmas music.

Oh, right, that’s it. I love Big Star because they’re indefinable. “September Gurls,” (like the recent Katy Perry smash “California Gurls” that references it) is pure pop genius. At a recent tribute show for Chilton, who passed away earlier this year, the opening line of “Back of a Car“ still sent shivers down my spine. The slow moving rocker “Daisy Glaze” has one of my favorite moments in music, when at the 1:54 mark, following three distinct drum pounds, the lead guitar tears through the track into one of the most striking and emotional guitar riffs in recorded anything. On the complete other side of the spectrum, “I’m in Love With a Girl,” recently featured in the great movie Adventureland, is still my go to heartbreak song. Perhaps the band’s most storied song, “Thirteen,” brilliantly talks about the trials and tribulations of growing up in the context of rock music. It’s relatable on every level.

I could go on, but I’ll spare any remaining readers. This column has played around in my head for a while, taking on different forms as a obit for Chilton, a concert review of his tribute show and now this, my own little musings on my “return to normalcy.” While I still say that the Pixies are my favorite band, and I think they always will be, it’s telling of popular music that Spin Magazine ranked the album that ripped them off (Nirvana’s Nevermind) behind the one that ripped off Big Star (Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque) in their “Best Albums of 1991” list. Although one went off to change the world, the other honestly changed my ear, as did the tragically underknown 1970s band that inspired them. All I know is that due to Big Star, I’ve learned to stop being pretentious and love the normal.

Original Author: Peter Jacobs