Posts Tagged ‘Alex Chilton’

Craft Records is about to reissue Big Star’s acclaimed, first two albums on 180-gram vinyl.  Set for a January 24th, 202 release date, and available for pre-order now, #1 Record and Radio City feature all-analog mastering by Jeff Powell at Memphis’ Take Out Vinyl, and also manufactured locally—in Big Star’s hometown—at Memphis Record Pressing.

Though they both failed to strike commercial success at the time of their releases, 1972’s #1 Record and 1974’s Radio City are now considered to be milestones in the history of rock by critics and musicians alike. Heavily influenced by the British Invasion, yet markedly original—with their jangly pop, driving guitars, sweet harmonies, and wistful melancholia—Big Star offered a distinctly new sound when they first emerged in the early ‘70s, and are counted among the founders of power pop—a genre which wouldn’t truly take off until later in the decade. Nevertheless, Big Star would become an underground favorite, influencing some the biggest alt-rock artists of the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, including R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Wilco, and The Replacements (who famously penned the song “Alex Chilton” as an ode to the band’s frontman).

The Memphis band was formed in 1971 by singer/songwriters Alex Chilton (1950-2010) and Chris Bell (1951-1978), drummer Jody Stephens (b. 1952) and bassist Andy Hummel (1951-2010). Chilton and Bell drew on the Lennon/McCartney style of collaborative songwriting for their aptly titled debut, #1 Record. Working with Ardent Records’ founder and engineer John Fry, Chilton laid down guitar and vocal tracks—often in one take, while Bell added polish with overdubs and harmonies to songs like “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Thirteen,” and “In The Street.” #1 Record was released to wide critical acclaim, yet distribution issues severely limited the album’s availability in stores. It would sell fewer than 10,000 copies.

Although Chris Bell departed the band shortly after the release of #1 Record, Big Star’s remaining members began work on a second album in the fall of 1973. Losing the creative input of Bell could have wreaked havoc on the band’s progress, but Chilton confidently took the helm, and his undeniable talents shone through—especially on tracks like “I’m in Love with a Girl,” “Back of a Car,” and cult favorite, “September Gurls.” Released in February of 1974, Radio City garnered praise from the press, but, unfortunately, critical acclaim did not translate to sales.

Disbanding in late 1974, Big Star could have easily fallen into the abyss of could-have-beens and one-hit-wonders, yet they have instead achieved near-mythic status in pop music history. The legacies of #1 Record and Radio City—as well as the band’s third LP, Third—have far exceeded their original commercial performances. All three of Big Star’s albums are included on Rolling Stone’s 2012 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” lists, and tracks from the first two (“Thirteen” and “September Gurls”) are also among the magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Numerous artists (Elliott Smith, The Bangles, This Mortal Coil, Beck, and Jeff Buckley, to name a few) have recorded covers of the band’s songs.

Big Star has been honored with a tribute record (Big Star Small World, 2006), a documentary (2012’s Nothing Can Hurt Me) and a touring live show, “Big Star’s Third,” in which an all-star roster of guest vocalists and musicians join a core group (including R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Chris Stamey of The dB’s, The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and sole surviving Big Star member, Jody Stephens) to perform Third, plus selections from #1 Record and Radio City. Most recently, the 2016 concert film and live album, Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s “Third” Live…And More, captures one such performance in Glendale, CA. Through their heartfelt renditions of the band’s songs, a cross-generational lineup of talent—Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), Robyn Hitchcock, Dan Wilson, Jessica Pratt, and San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet among them—prove the enduring appeal of Big Star’s music.

#1 Record and Radio City (180-gram vinyl editions) will be available on Friday, January 24th, 2020

Big Star’s Third performing live from the Bumbershoot Music Lounge. Recorded August 31st, 2014.

Songs:
For You
Take Care
Nightime
Give Me Another Chance
Thirteen
Blue Moon
I Am The Cosmos
In The Street

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October 25th marks the release of the latest in Omnivore’s ongoing Big Star series: an expanded reissue of the band’s 2005 album “In Space”. In four short years, Big Star created three cult classic albums. Their legend grew over the years, and in 1993 – nearly two decades after disbanding – Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens collaborated with The Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow for a one-off performance.

This led to a well-received tour, which led to years of concert performances. A decade later, they surprised everybody with a new studio album, 2005’s In Space. The well-received 12-song set included ten new originals and two covers and was recorded in the fabled Ardent Studios, where Big Star began. The album was originally released on Ryko and received a limited vinyl run on DBK Works. Now, the album will return to vinyl on translucent blue wax and will be expanded on CD to the tune of six bonus tracks. Among them are five unissued demos and alternate mixes, plus the 2003 reunion track “Hot Thing,” previously available on the out-of-print Ryko comp, Big Star Story. The packaging will include notes from Supermegabot’s Jeff Rougvie, formerly of Ryko A&R, plus recollections from Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, Jody Stephens, engineer Adam Hill, and co-producer Jeff Powell (who also cut the new vinyl edition).

Released in 2005, Big Star’s reunion album In Space has been ignored by some fans, and derided by others. Now some 14 years on, Omnivore Recordings has decided to bring this album back into the spotlight for a much needed reappraisal.

In order to really get a handle on this album, I think it’s important to understand the context. After the group’s implosion in 1974 following the chaotic sessions that would eventually be released as the group’s third and final album, the group’s only two remaining members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens would part ways. While each would remain involved in music, there seemed little hope that in spite of the cult that had begun to sprung up around the music of Big Star that a reunion would ever happen. That all changed in 1993.

Sporadic reunion gigs followed over the ensuing years. But, other than a one-off track, “Hot Thing,” that the lineup cut for a somewhat ill-fated tribute album, Big Star, Small World, in 1997 (eventually the track ended up making it’s debut on the out-of-print Ryko compilation Big Star Story when the company behind the tribute went belly up), at any rate no one expected a new album. So when the notoriously contrarian Chilton suggested the group record some new songs, I can imagine everyone including his bandmates were somewhat shocked.

Convening in Memphis at the legendary Ardent Studios where Big Star recorded their 1970’s recordings; the plan was to write and record a song a day. At the end of the day, In Space featured 12 tracks (10 originals and 2 covers) with songwriting contributions from all members. I remember there was an almost immediate feeling of disappointment upon the albums’ release. Stringfellow later recalled: “The album was released in 2005 and a year later we found ourselves on the main stage of Primavera Sound, a prestigious music festival in Barcelona. Some 10,000 people in the crowd. Before we played ‘Hung Up on Summer’ Alex addressed the crowd: ‘Here’s a song from our latest album . . . you know, it totally bombed— just like the other ones! But don’t worry . . . 30 years from now you’ll be saying it’s the greatest thing ever!’”

In retrospect, I think perhaps we, as fans of the group might have been a bit harsh. Is it a record that scales to the heights that any of the first three Big Star albums do? The short answer is unfortunately, no. But that doesn’t mean the album doesn’t have some nice moments that do a great job of honoring the group’s prior work while pushing the group into some new sonic territory. In Space is a seriously frontloaded album with its first four tracks representing the best the album has to offer. Kicking off with “Dony,” a tune that boasts a crisp autumnal twin guitar groove with Chilton’s vocal delivery a sort of professor hulk amalgamation of all of his various personas from blue-eyed soul crooner, to lounge lizard to reluctant power pop icon.  “Lady Sweet,” drizzles a little bit of daisy glaze on the proceedings that recall some of Radio City‘s hazier moments, “Best Chance,” is classic Jody Stephens power pop optimism in the same mode as Big Star’s 3rd standout “For You.”  While “Turn My Back on the Sun,” is a pitch perfect Beach Boys pastiche. Which makes perfect sense given Chilton’s affection for America’s band, and Big Star 2.0’s penchant for covering “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” live.

After those first four tracks (which would have made a killer EP on their own, mind you), let’s just say your results will vary based on your level of fandom and affection for some of Chilton’s more subversive impulses such as the disco romp, “Love Revolution,” or quirky covers of The Olympics’ “Mine Exclusively” and French baroque composer Georg Muffat’s “Aria, Largo.” While the jam oriented album closer “Makeover,” is a bit of a half-baked commentary on consumerism.

In some ways, it was impossible for Big Star to ever make an album equal to that untouchable trio of 1970’s releases. Those were different times, after all. The guys who recorded In Space were different people in some cases literally, and other cases metaphorically. That doesn’t diminish some of the great music you might discover on here if you open your mind, and adjust your expectations a bit.  It’s still Big Star, and although no one knew it at the time, this was their last time to shine.

Buy the album via Omnivore Recordings.

After FIVE solid years of painstaking research and hard work, Rich Tupica’s epic tome on the deep end of the BIG STAR story is ready.

THERE WAS A LIGHT is an oral history containing new and archival interviews with those closest to Chris Bell and the Big Star circle: their friends, family, former bandmates—even some fans, exes, classmates and co-workers.

The varied cast of voices, many from the band’s hometown of Memphis, comprises all the members of Big Star, including: Chris Bell, the iconic Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens. In the following decades after its 1975 breakup, the obscure group somehow reached and inspired some of rock’s most important bands, including R.E.M., the Replacements, Yo La Tengo, Teenage Fanclub, Beck, and Wilco.

With Chris Bell at the center of the Big Star universe, this book carefully reveals the production of Big Star’s masterful 1972 debut LP, #1 Record, for Ardent/Stax Records. Despite stellar reviews in music magazines, the record saw abysmal sales. Soon after, toxic personality conflicts and turmoil tore Big Star apart while Bell battled drug abuse and clinical depression.

There Was A Light then delves into Big Star’s second and third albums, while recounting Bell’s second act as a struggling solo musician and devout born-again Christian. During several trips to Europe, he ambitiously recorded songs and pitched to record labels—even crossing paths with Paul McCartney. From this productive era arose Bell’s lone solo album, the posthumously released I Am the Cosmos LP—his swan song and masterpiece.

There Was A Light details the pop culture phenomenon that made Big Star legends and divulges how its staunch fanbase saved the band from obscurity.

Big Star, the Great Forgotten American Band, Is Bigger Than Ever

Big Star—one of the great and greatly underappreciated American bands of the 20th century, once merely a cult loved band, but now their fame has grown into something closer to a full-blown religion . Interest in the work of the Memphis group has rippled steadily outward since the relatively quiet days when their two studio albums—1972’s No#1 Record and 1974’s Radio City both hailed by critics

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The albums led to a combined release in 1978 by a U.K. imprint to the desires of hungry music fans overseas. In the decades since, word of the band’s genius has filtered its way through bands like R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and The Replacements, who loudly trumpeted the group.

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A growing reissue market also embraced the band and its unique blend of British psych, Southern rock and radio pop, leading founding members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens to reunite under the Big Star name in 1993. Two decades later, the Big Star reissue market is something of a cottage industry, and it’s never had a better year than 2017. Fueled by the vinyl revival, the complexities of licensing deals and some buzz stirred up by the 2010 deaths of Alex Chilton and founding member Andy Hummel, record store shelves are now groaning under the weight of fresh reissues.

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We’ve seen the release of the second and third volumes of the Omnivore Recordings’ comprehensive Complete Third series, which gathers all existing work surrounding the group’s aborted 1975 album, Third; a cassette boxed set of the group’s first three albums, issued by Burger Records; “Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Third…Live”, a three-CD set featuring a live recording of Big Star’s Third, Chris Stamey’s all-star tribute to the band, and a documentary about the project; Big Star’s Third Live at the Alex Theatre, Glendale, CA, a limited-edition vinyl release of the live material from that aforementioned set; The Best of Big Star, a single-disc compilation culled from their studio work; an expanded reissue of Chilton’s 1995 album A Man Called Destruction; Take Me Home and Make Me Like It, a vinyl release from Spanish label Munster Records pulling together solo sessions Chilton recorded in 1975; Looking Forward, a CD compilation of Chris Bell’s pre-Big Star work; a deluxe reissue of Bell’s abandoned solo album I Am the Cosmos; The Complete Chris Bell, a vinyl boxed set featuring Looking Forward and the expanded Cosmos material as well as a rare interview with the artist from 1975.

For a long time, there wasn’t any Big Star at all, and now there is, Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings. “I believe strongly that the way you preserve music is to get it back out into the culture. Isn’ that good? Do you want it to be over?”

Incredibly, there’s more. On the docket for 2018 is a vinyl release of the 1973 live recording previously only available as part of the 2009 boxed set Keep Your Eye on the Sky, and there are rumors of a reissue of Alex Chilton’s 1979 album, Like Flies on Sherbert.

It’s a head-spinning amount of music to keep up with, especially for fans who were only recently introduced to the band. It can feel like sticking your mouth underneath the never-ending flow of a chocolate fountain, where the delights can give way to bloat. Naturally, the folks behind many of the above releases beg to disagree, to the point that Cheryl Pawelski, co-founder of Omnivore Recordings, the label behind Complete Third, Destruction and all the Bell releases out in 2017, sounds downright incredulous at the suggestion that it’s too much of a good thing.

As a fan, I most certainly don’t. All of the above releases are the kind of deep dives that I adore amid the current reissue craze. It’s opening doors into Big Star’s working relationship and creativity that I could never get when I was a budding music obsessive poring over my copy of “Third/Sister Lovers” that Rykodisc first issued on CD in 1992.

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Take, for example, “I Am the Cosmos”. While the material on this album was recorded in the ‘70s, it wasn’t pulled together for commercial release until Rykodisc got the rights to do so in 1992. The album was brought out by Rhino Records again in 2009 with a bonus disc of material, but issued in limited numbers through their mail-order only imprint,

Five years later, the label put out a mass-market version of the same two-CD set. Three years later, after leaving Rhino, Pawelski brought the album to Omnivore to once again re-release it on CD and now in the boxed set.

So how did the release dates for all of this music happen to land in one 12-month stretch? The process actually began about a decade ago, when Rhino started looking for the material that would make up Keep Your Eye on the Sky, much of it stored in the archives of the Memphis recording studio Ardent.

Big Star literally had the keys to the studio,” says Bob Mehr, music critic for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. “For them, the studio was a laboratory and a playground and a place to experiment. Relative to their output, there’s actually a lot more material than meets the eye. So all the stuff that ended up on [Keep Your Eye on the Sky], all the unreleased material and alternate takes of Third and live recordings, that was what kicked things off. Now you’re seeing the results of that, but it’s been in the making for a long time.”

Another factor is that Pawelski, who helped shepherd Keep Your Eye on the Sky and the 2009 Bell reissue into existence, did all that work before leaving her post as Senior VP at Rhino. So when she started up Omnivore, she was able to strike new licensing deals with Ardent and its owners Jody Stephens and producer John Fry. The wrinkle here is that those agreements didn’t include the material found on #1 Record and Radio City. The rights to those songs originally belonged to Stax Records, which helped release the first two Big Star albums, and were purchased—along with the catalog of famed R&B stars like King Curtis and Shirley Thomas—by Concord Music Group. That’s the label behind this year’s Best of Big Star compilation and the Big Star’s Third live set.

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There will always be a supply of new listeners ready to swoon over the band’s dark poetry, gritty guitar work and the winsome vocals of Chilton, Bell, Hummel and Stephens.

Every year, there’s more record buyers who get into Big Star because it has a certain level of hipness. This band isn’t a nostalgia act. While there’s a big romantic myth attached to it, the music doesn’t age. It stays hip and it stays valid for new audiences.”

The hooky yet hard-edged, guitar-driven musical style known as power pop didn’t generate spontaneously. There were threads and uprisings—disconnected sounds that later combined into something like a movement—as early as the late ’60s, when some young rock-‘n’-roll fans were already starting to rebel against rock’s increasing pretensions and ponderousness. The impulse that led to power pop was already alive in the network of collectors of obscure ’60s garage-rock singles, and in the creators of the disreputable pop hits classified as “bubblegum.” Some key songs by Badfinger and The Move were power pop before the genre really existed, and once the sound became more viable and widely imitated, it was easier to trace the roots of the genre back to rockabilly, doo-wop, girl groups, and the early records of The Beatles, The Byrds, The Beach Boys and The Kinks, key influences came from British Invasion bands, particularly the Merseybeat sound first popularised by the Beatles and its “jangly guitars, pleasant melodies, immaculate vocal harmonies, and a general air of teenage innocence”.  Bomp! magazine, traced the origins of power pop to the Who and other mod bands such as the Small Facesthe Creation and the Easybeats. 

Pete Townshend, of the English rock band the Who, that coined the term “power pop” in a 1967 interview in which he said: “Power pop is what we play—what the Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop the Beach Boys played in the days of ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ which I preferred. The Who’s role in the creation of power pop has been cited by singer-songwriter Eric Carmen of the Raspberries, who has said:

Pete Townshend coined the phrase to define what the Who did. For some reason, it didn’t stick to the Who, but it did stick to these groups that came out in the ’70s that played kind of melodic songs with crunchy guitars and some wild drumming. It just kind of stuck to us like glue, and that was okay with us because the Who were among our highest role models.

“Power Pop” evolved throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, running parallel and sometimes absorbing other trends like glam rock, pub rock, punk, new wave, college rock, and neo-psychedelia. But for the core power-pop sound—the one that came closest to breaking through to the mainstream and challenging ’70s rock radio’s preference for grandiosity the best place to start is with The Raspberries. The Cleveland band’s 1972 single “Go All The Way” (written by lead singer Eric Carmen) is practically a template for everything the genre could be, from the heavy arena-rock hook to the cooing, teenybopper-friendly verses and chorus. The body of the song was The Who; the soul was The Beach Boys. The Raspberries only lasted five years, before breaking up in 1975; and they only recorded four albums, of which only the twin 1972 releases Raspberries and Fresh really fulfill the promise of “Go All The Way.” (The other two albums are good, but skew more to the “power” side of the equation.) Still, The Raspberries’ initial fusion of fist-pumping guitars and sugary melodicism—and the chart success they had at the start inspired young rockers across the Midwest.

While The Raspberries didn’t last long enough or stay true enough to popularize power-pop, the genre’s next big band have had a stronger impact. Cheap Trick, formed in Rockford, Illinois in 1973, were pegged by critics early as one of the great hopes for the survival of American rock ’n’ roll. Less cutesy and more muscular than The Raspberries, Cheap Trick really picked up the post-Beatles mantle of Badfinger, and gave it some middle-American blue-collar beef. The band’s earliest albums were packed with classic, catchy rock anthems like “Southern Girls,” “Come On, Come On,” and “I Want You To Want Me,” but Cheap Trick really started to catch on with 1978’s Heaven Tonight (and its polished almost-a-hit single “Surrender”) and the 1979 live album At Budokan. Cheap Trick spent the next decade as solid sellers, while scoring the occasional chart breakout, but the band warred with its own sound throughout the ’80s, sometimes embracing pop, and sometimes rebranding as a mainstream hard-rock group, complete with power ballads and glammy videos.

The reasons for Cheap Trick’s  crisis may have had something to do with the trouble power pop had catching on—not just with the public, but with the top rock critics of the era, who were frequently distrustful of the genre’s elements of sweetness and simplicity. Even the acts that the critics did embrace often languished in obscurity, as Cheap Trick did in the early going. One of those beloved bands that never could get a break: the Los Angeles trio The Nerves, who were the talk of the West Coast club circuit during their brief lifespan (1974-78), but only recorded one four-song EP in that time, and were eclipsed by the burgeoning L.A. punk scene. That 1976 EP did produce one enduring classic, though: the surging, sweaty pop song “Hanging On The Telephone,” later covered by Blondie.

The writer of “Hanging On The Telephone” was Jack Lee, who turned out to be the one member of The Nerves that didn’t stick long with power pop, or the music business in general. As a solo artist, Lee dabbled in punk and art pop, and wrote one more big song: “Come Back And Stay,” which became a hit for Paul Young. But it was the other band members of the Nerves Paul Collins and Peter Case—who’d leave a more lasting mark on the genre. After The Nerves ended, Collins and Case stuck together as The Breakaways, then split up, with Collins fronting The Beat and Case steering The Plimsouls. Initially, The Beat seemed more likely to break through, given Collins’ clean riffs and snappy rhythms, but instead The Beat became one of a legion of tersely named power-pop bands that landed major label deals in the late ’70s but could never do better than a few regional hits and a smattering of respectful but unenthusiastic three-star reviews. Today, away from the swarm of similar-sounding records.

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The Beat’s first two albums sound a lot fresher and brighter two of the best of their era and genre. As for The Plimsouls, they picked up where The Nerves left off and became one of the hottest bands in L.A., though they couldn’t convert that into record sales until they appeared in the movie Valley Girl in 1983, and subsequently had a small but significant hit with the song “A Million Miles Away.” Peter Case then went solo, abandoning power pop for an early form of alt-country, on a string of critically acclaimed albums.

The Zion, Illinois brother act Shoes followed a different path to commercial oblivion. John and Jeff Murphy—with their friend Gary Klebe and a rotating cast of drummers—barely roused the big-time rock press with their self-recorded, self-pressed 1977 album Black Vinyl Shoes, but they wowed the likes of music press mags Trouser Press and Bomp!, two publications that spoke for the growing number of music fans who weren’t interested in what was on mainstream radio. Black Vinyl Shoes is a special record, at once shabby and stunningly confident, and in 1977 it must’ve seemed to those few who heard it like they’d found a love letter by Wordsworth buried in the county dump. Soon, The Shoes were at the crest of a diffuse wave of Midwestern DIYers, all trading their tinny, lo-fi EPs and 45s through the mail, anyone who already likes Shoes should immediately pursue The Toms, the home-recording project of commercial songwriter/producer Tommy Marolda; his 1979 LP The Toms rivals Black Vinyl Shoes as the most accomplished basement power-pop album of the ’70s.)

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Unlike their contemporaries, Shoes actually signed with a major label, Elektra, and released three albums and an EP that, while slicker than Black Vinyl Shoes, retained that record’s shimmering riffs and dreamy harmonies. But the band lacked the punchy sound and big anthems that could’ve made them the next Cheap Trick, and it didn’t have the performing experience that carried the various members of The Nerves. Beyond their legacy of great music, Shoes’ greatest contribution to power pop was the studio they built, Short Order Recorder, where they’d record some of the next great wave of power poppers, including Material Issue.

Ironically, power pop’s greatest success may have also been the genre’s downfall, commercially and critically. As Cheap Trick was starting to break through, and labels were signing seemingly every clean-cut quartet with a “The” in front of its name, one of the most talked-about bands in Los Angeles was The Knack, led by industry veteran Doug Fieger. The Knack’s energetic live shows were the West Coast equivalent to Studio 54 in New York—everybody who was anybody stopped by to see The Knack if they were in L.A.—and the band’s 1979 debut album Get The Knack was hyped to the skies, and became an instant bestseller on the strength of its insidiously catchy hit single “My Sharona.” But it all started to go sour for The Knack fairly quickly. Critics were annoyed by Capitol Records’ hard sell—exacerbated by the decision to forbid the band from doing interviews—and suddenly some of what had been seen as the virtues of power pop (simple songs, adolescent lyrics about girls) were blasted as moronic and misogynistic. Plus, The Knack’s success on the charts seemed to come at the expense of more worthy punk and new wave acts like The Clash and Elvis Costello. Truth be told, Get The Knack isn’t that great of an album, but it’s likable enough on its own terms, Nevertheless, the damage was done. The Knack waned in popularity quickly, taking the hopes of a power pop ascendancy with it. (The 2004 documentary Getting The Knack is highly recommended for further insights into the band’s rapid rise and fall.)

During that Cheap Trick/Knack heyday, though, a bunch of new bands popped up from the underground, nosing at the charts with some of the era’s best rock singles. Examples include: Detroit’s The Romantics, whose “What I Like About You” remains a clap-along crowd-pleaser, and should’ve been the hit that “My Sharona” was; Berkeley’s The Rubinoos, who followed up their 1977 cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” with the giddy 1979 song “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” (later famous for being ripped off by Avril Lavigne for her hit “Girlfriend”).

A band from Charlotte’s The Spongetones, whose 1981 single “She Goes Out With Everybody” is the best Merseybeat song ever written and recorded by an American band; and Los Angeles’ Great Buildings, which sprung from the ashes of the artier L.A. band The Quick and should’ve had a monster smash with 1981’s power-pop classic “Hold On To Something.” (This band found some chart justice later when its main members re-formed as The Rembrandts and recorded the theme song to Friends).

Any one of the aforementioned songs could stake a claim as the quintessential power-pop single (as could “Go All The Way,” “A Million Miles Away,” “Southern Girls,”) , but they’d all have to make their case against The Records’ 1978 masterpiece “Starry Eyes,” which has just about everything a power-pop song needs: a brisk beat, a rising lead-guitar lick, punchy chords, tight harmonies, an evocative chorus, and the feeling of being young, in love, and in a speeding convertible. More than most power-pop bands though, the UK-born Records suffered from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the late ’70s, Great Britain was teeming with musicians making daring, original music, and in that context, The Records seemed practically reactionary, with their old-fashioned hooks and booming sound. Most of The Records’ UK contemporaries found ways to tweak their sound to fit more comfortably with punk and new wave.

The same was true in Australia and New Zealand, which each had thriving scenes built around poppy, guitar-driven music that couldn’t precisely be classified as power pop. That region did produce some bands that recorded some awfully power pop-like songs though, including Melbourne’s The Sports, who sounded like a mix of The Raspberries and Joe Jackson, and Brisbane’s The Riptides, who brought a bright and beachy take on punk. And Sydney’s twang-happy Hoodoo Gurus were responsible for some of the best power-pop songs from a non-power pop band, including the mighty “I Want You Back.”

The reason most rock scholars date the beginning of power-pop to 1972 is because of three album’s  released that year: The Raspberries’ Raspberries; Big Star’s #1 Record, and Todd Rundgren’s, Something/Anything? Emerging from the ’60s Philadelphia band Nazz  either the last of the first wave of American garage-rock acts or the first of the revivalists, depending on where the line gets drawn—Rundgren’s first two solo albums eschewed the Who-like muscle of his old group in favor of the quirkily soulful singer-songwriter music of Laura Nyro. But with Something/Anything?, Rundgren started bringing elements of his rockier sound back, both in uptempo pop songs like “I Saw The Light” and proto-power poppers like “Couldn’t I Just Tell You.” Neither this album nor Rundgren’s discography as a whole is easily pigeonholed as belonging to any one genre. Todd Rundgren experimented with prog, art rock and new wave in the ’70s both on his own and with his band Utopia—and he may be better known for his ballads than his rockers, generally speaking. But Rundgren has remained a fellow traveler to power pop throughout his career, both as a producer for bands like Cheap Trick and XTC, and as a writer/performer of punchy, catchy songs. With Utopia in particular during the first half of the ’80s, Rundgren embraced the genre with a fervor he’d never shown before, and recorded some of his most accessible records. If nothing else, Rundgren set a precedent for the smart singer-songwriter as a viable power-pop offshoot. The acts in the “101” section represent power pop (for the most part) as aggressive and obvious in the best possible way; but there were also artists who were attracted to the jangle and sparkling choruses of power pop, but didn’t necessarily need the bluster.

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The prime example: Dwight Twilley, a Tulsa-born rockabilly fan who moved to Los Angeles, scored a surprise Top 20 hit with The Dwight Twilley Band’s first single, 1975’s “I’m On Fire,” and then spent the rest of the decade trying (and failing) to capitalize. Twilley was hampered by problems with his label, and by his reverb-heavy style, which was a little more pillowy and halting than the rock getting radio play in the late ’70s. But that was radio’s loss. Dwight Twilley is mostly remembered these days, especially in the US, for his hits, Girls and I’m On Fire, They’re fine, but what you really need to hear are his gorgeous first three albums – Sincerely (1976), Twilley Don’t Mind (1977) and Twilley (1978) are all sterling work, with a spacious sound and Beatles-esque hum, anchored by a deep, rootsy beat, and one memorable song after another – because they are jam-packed with wayward pop goodness, with askew productions and hard-to-categorise (but “ethereal rockabilly” comes close) compositions such as Sincerely, TV, Looking for the Magic, Out of My Hands and the dazed, dazzling Baby Let’s Cruise, on which he does an impression of a deranged teen heartthrob. On Spotify you can check out his re-creation of most of the Beatles’ White Album and another collection of Beatles covers in a Magical Mystery Tour-aping sleeve.

But as with Eric Carmen, there is more to him than an ability to faithfully re-create the music of his heroes. He was almost a 50s/60s über-hybrid for the 70s and beyond: he had an uncanny melodic sense, his voice was a Presleyish quaver, and the sonics were often heavy on the Sun Records reverb. Plus, he looked like Jim Morrison (he was rumoured to have been on the shortlist for the main role in Oliver Stone’s the Doors). Twilley could have been a contender, all right.

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Also coming out from Oklahoma Phil Seymour, who was a major contributor to the first two Dwight Twilley Band albums as a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and cheerleader. When Seymour went solo, he recorded two self-titled albums that sounded a lot like Twilley’s records, only livelier and more boyish. Phil Seymour also worked with another Tulsa band, 20/20, that arrived in L.A. to try its hand at big-time rock ’n’ roll, and recorded two albums—1979’s 20/20 and 1981’s Look Out! that are favorites of power-pop fans, nicely splitting the difference between Cheap Trick’s chugging blue-collar sound and The Beat’s cleaner-burning version. Twilley and Seymour were also friends and occasional collaborators with Tom Petty, who wasn’t a power-pop guy per se, but who recorded some songs early in his career, like “American Girl,” “Listen To Her Heart,” and “I Need To Know,” that would fit comfortably on any power-pop compilation. (Seymour, recorded the Petty rarity “Surrender” on his second album, and seamlessly so.)

The Paley Brothers are one of the lesser-known acts from this softer, jangly side of power-pop. They recorded one self-titled album, and collaborated with the Ramones on a track for the Rock ’N’ Roll High School soundtrack; then Andy Paley went on to a successful career as a producer and TV- and movie-soundtrack composer.

The singer-songwriter who best melded The Beatles and Buddy Holly was Marshall Crenshaw, whose eponymous 1982 debut is a revelation even 30 years after its original release: a flawless pop album with rich, tuneful songs that could’ve been written by mid-’60s Brill Building veterans, and with a sound that’s shiny, springy, and modern. Marshall Crenshaw wasn’t a big hit, but it did fine, made a slew of critics’ best-of lists, and even landed one song in the Top 40: the peppy rockabilly-informed number “Someday, Someway.” Crenshaw and his label Warner Bros. tried to build on the momentum of the debut with 1983’s Field Day, produced by British wunderkind Steve Lillywhite, who’d previously found sonic depths in guitar-driven acts like U2 and XTC. But Lillywhite’s big sound overwhelmed Crenshaw’s lighter touch, and though Field Day has worn well over time—thanks largely to a set of songs as good as Crenshaw’s first batch—Crenshaw lost a lot of the support he’d gotten just one year earlier. By the time of his third album, 1985’s still-wonderful Downtown, Crenshaw was playing up the twang more, shifting more towards straightforward roots-rock, which is where he’s primarily continued to dwell (though he’s never completely lost his pop sensibility).

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Tommy Keene’s career followed a similar arc to Crenshaw’s. Critics were fairly giddy over Keene’s self-released 1982 LP, Strange Alliance, and his 1984 EP Places That Are Gone, both of which sport yearning lyrics, kicky backbeats, and big jangle. Keene then signed with Geffen Records, which in 1986 released the EP Run Now and the LP Songs From The Film, two records that tightened and boosted Keene’s sound, to remarkable effect. Keene’s songs have a lot in common with the pounding heartland rock that became popular in the age of Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, but Keene brought more of a ’60s Sunset Strip glimmer to his version. What he couldn’t bring were record sales. Songs From The Film was beloved by those who heard it, but it stalled on the charts, and Keene retreated back to cult-act status

At least Keene got a chance to go national. Nashville’s Bill Lloyd spent the first half of the ’80s trying to make a go of it as a rocker, with his band The December Boys (a nod to Big Star’s power-pop classic “September Gurls”). When he couldn’t break out beyond the regional college-rock scene, Lloyd teamed up with Radney Foster—whom he’d met in the Music City songwriter mills—and as a country duo, Foster And Lloyd had a string of hits on the country charts in the second half of the ’80s. Lloyd then returned to guitar-pop as a solo act, recording several bright, likable records. But it’s too bad that the songs compiled on Lloyd’s solo debut LP, 1987’s Feeling The Elephant, didn’t garner more attention at the time. Lloyd’s “This Very Second,” “It’ll Never Get Better Than This,” “Lisa Anne,” and “Nothing Comes Close” are all the equal of anything by Twilley, Crenshaw, and Keene, and while these songs probably had no better shot at becoming hits than the records of his contemporaries.

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New Jersey’s The Smithereens, whose 1983 EP, Beauty And Sadness, and 1986 LP, Especially For You, took a lot of the ’60s fetishism of power-pop, added a post-punk moodiness, then set the whole shebang to a beat even more walloping than what Lillywhite did to Crenshaw’s Field Day. The difference is that Pat DiNizio’s ’60s-to-’80s pastiches were built for big rooms, and sounded even better when producer Don Dixon who upped the oomph. For that matter, Don Dixon’s own 1985 delightfully poppy solo LP Most Of The Girls Like To Dance But Only Some Of The Boys Like To deserves to be included it’s an eclectic collection of demos that only occasionally draws on the traditional power-pop sound.

In retrospect, the 1972 release of Big Star’s first album—the cheekily titled #1 Record—is one of the major events in rock ’n’ roll history. Former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton joined with Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel in Memphis to record an album that was like a ragged shadow to The Raspberries’ polished power-pop debut: a mix of The Kinks and The Velvet Underground instead of The Who and The Beach Boys. While #1 Record drew strong reviews, label woes kept it from reaching a wide audience, and by the end of the ’70s, Big Star had been so marginalized by rock history it’s become emblematic of the cultish, regional side of the genre: bands, scenes, and records that suffered bad luck, even by the standards of a musical style that was rarely widely popular. In the Big Star albums that followed (and in Bell’s posthumously released solo album I Am The Cosmos), Chilton and company delivered some of the most beautiful and transcendent songs in power-pop history, including “September Gurls” and “Thank You Friends.” But they also experimented with dissonance and decay, setting a standard for the artsy, non-commercial side of their chosen sound.

Any survey of the small-time but often-amazing bands that followed Big Star’s example should start in Memphis, the home of two acts that ran in Big Star’s circle. Van Duren was a friend of Chris Bell’s, and recorded the little-heard 1977 album Are You Serious?, which is a remarkable fusion of Big Star, The Raspberries, and Todd Rundgren, relying on piano, synthesizer, and snaky guitar to create a power-pop sound that doesn’t sound quite like anyone else’s. And The Scruffs bridged the gap between Big Star/Raspberries-esque pop boogie and the nascent punk sound that was coming out of New York around the time of their snotty 1977 debut Wanna Meet The Scruffs?.

In the ’70s, just about every American city of any significant size had a power-pop band that seemed poised to be the next Raspberries or Cheap Trick. In Fairfax, Virginia, that band was Artful Dodger, who recorded three albums for Columbia between 1975 and 1977, combining toe-tapping tunes with the earthy grit of The Rolling Stones.

In Youngstown, Ohio, it was Blue Ash, a band that deserves a spot in the pantheon just for the 1973 single “Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her?),” which is just the kind of down-to-the-last-nerve, riff-heavy stomper that makes power-pop such a joy.  And in Oak Park, IllinoisOff Broadway tried to draft off of the rocket trail of fellow Illinoisans Cheap Trick, though Off Broadway’s excellent debut album On was less forceful and more slyly new wave-ish than anything by Rockford’s favorite sons.

Other regional favorites: Milwaukee’s The Shivvers were one of the few female-fronted power-pop acts, with singer-songwriter Jill Kossoris bringing the girl-group elements of the genre to the surface in songs like the glorious 1980 single “Teen Line.” And Atlanta’s The Producers landed several videos on MTV in the channel’s new-wave heavy early days (when Shoes also got a lot of airtime), and nearly made it to the singles chart with the breezy “What She Does To Me.”

Over the past decade, the archival label Numero Group has done a fine job of collecting obscurities from regional scenes on compilations like the recent Buttons: From Champaign To Chicago, which pulls from the fertile Illinois territory, and Yellow Pills: Prefill, which has great tracks from bands like ColorsLuxuryThe Treble Boys, and The Tweeds. (The lattermost band’s “I Need That Record” doubles as a statement of purpose for crate-diggers everywhere.) But the most essential of the Numero Group power-pop anthologies is Titan: It’s All Pop!, which spotlights the output of the Kansas City indie Titan Records, home of such solid-to-superior acts as Gary Charlson (who played up his similarities to Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour by covering The Dwight Twilley Band’s unreleased single “Shark (In The Dark)”) and The Boys (who suffered from sharing a name with a British punk band, but whose singles and demos for the cash-scrapped Titan were as good as any that the major labels were pushing at the time).

Meanwhile, in the not-so-small regional scene of Los Angeles—home of the American pop-music industry—the half-hearted efforts to break acts like The Beat, The Plimsouls, and The Dwight Twilley Band were matched by the push for bands that came together a little less organically. The Pop recorded two albums for Arista in the late ’70s, but could never shake the impression that they were little more than an attempt to build the ideal power-pop band from scratch; and Candy emerged from the Sunset Strip in the mid-’80s as a calculated, poppier alternative to metal, with future Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke providing the livewire riffs to never-quite-hits like the contrived but catchy “Whatever Happened To Fun?”

But the regional power-pop band that, for a time, seemed closest to becoming the next Big Star (for better or worse, given that band’s sputtering career trajectory) was Sneakers, a group of North Carolinians who moved to New York and became critics’ darlings for their blend of garage-rock and southern twang. They just arrived a little too early, in a mid-’70s NYC that had too many innovative and unusual punk and art rock bands for Sneakers to stand out. The members of Sneakers had better luck in the ’80s when they formed new bands. Chris Stamey and Will Rigby became The dB’s (with Peter Holsapple), and transitioned from power-pop in the early ’80s to the more eclectic kind of jangly southern pop that dominated college radio; while Mitch Easter formed Let’s Active, whose production brought more psych pop and new wave elements to their sound. Related image

Miscellany: punk, pub, paisley, mod, new wave, glam, garage, and other fellow travelers
One of power pop’s biggest impediments to mainstream success was that there were so many other genres in the ’70s and ’80s that relied on brisk tempos and big guitar hooks, often delivered by bands that had more of a sonic edge or a distinctive look. In the U.S., for example, the first wave of neo-garage bands, led by New York’s The Fleshtones, were as active in reviving ’60s rock simplicity as any of the feather-haired Midwesterners were; ditto the Ramones, who could get fists pumping with the best of them. This overlap was even trickier in the UK, where pub-rockers like Bram Tchaikovsky skirted the edges of power pop occasionally, and where a revival of the short-lived ’60s mod movement produced even more music than the original wave, with bands like The Chords and The Lambrettas aping The Who better than The Raspberries ever did. The UK punk scene also produced several bands with strong pop sensibilities, most notably Rich Kids and Buzzcocks, who could easily have been more like 20/20 if they’d grown up in Oklahoma instead of on the other side of the Atlantic.

In fact, there were plenty of bands and singer-songwriters in the ’70s and ’80s who recorded power-pop songs without exactly fitting into the genre. The most notable is The Flamin’ Groovies, a bluesy San Francisco bar band that was active in the late ’60s, then spent some time in England in the ’70s and recorded one of the Top 10 power-pop singles of all time, “Shake Some Action,” with producer Dave Edmunds. And Edmunds himself approached power pop at times from the rockabilly side, both solo and with his band Rockpile, a collaboration with former Brinsley Schwartz pub-rock icon Nick Lowe. For Lowe’s part, as the flagship artist for Stiff Records, he tried out just about any style he thought would sell, and that included writing songs like “So It Goes” and “Cruel To Be Kind,” which could’ve been the anchor of any regional American power-popper’s repertoire. One of Stiff’s lesser-known bands, Any Trouble, also had a lot in common with power-pop, especially on its tuneful 1980 debut Where Are All The Nice Girls. And new wave’s angry young men—Graham ParkerElvis Costello, and Joe Jackson—all dabbled in the backbeats and big riffs of power-pop from time to time during the late ’70s.

In fact, a lot of British new-wave bands played a version of power pop, skewed by their own eccentricities. XTC’s music was too anxious and arty on the whole to belong in the genre, but songs like “Life Begins At The Hop” and “Generals And Majors” have a power-pop kick (and the band did work with Todd Rundgren on 1986’s Skylarking, which contains the pure power pop wonder that is “Earn Enough For Us”). The similarly psych-pop-influenced The Soft Boys were too straight-up weird to be called power pop, though the band’s two main creative forces—Robyn Hitchcock and Kimberley Rew—played with the genre more openly in the ’80s. Rew in particular is a hero to many power pop fans for playing guitar and writing the best songs for Katrina And The Waves, who initially had a rockier guitar-pop sound before their American label cleaned them up and made them one-hit wonders.

One of those Rew-written Waves classics is “Going Down To Liverpool,” which was later recorded by The Bangles, a band that was associated with the West Coast’s “paisley underground” of the early ’80s. The paisley groups were generally more interested in the trippy, rootsy, cosmic Americana qualities of ’60s rock, though some bands—like The Three O’Clock and Game Theory—also sported the unmistakable influence of The Raspberries and Big Star in their more straightforward pop-rock songs.

The ’70s and ’80s also saw the emergence of a few FM album-rock staples with power pop roots and/or leanings. The Cars have always been somewhat unclassifiable, with their clean major-label production and arty new-wave touches, but with just a few sonic tweaks, songs like “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Let’s Go” could’ve easily been by The Beat. And before he became a Led Zeppelin-aping arena-rocker, Billy Squier fronted the hard-rock band Piper, whose 1976 single “Who’s Your Boyfriend?” (later reprised on Squier’s 1980 solo debut) belongs in the power-pop canon alongside “Shake Some Action” and “September Gurls.”

While power-pop fans who prefer forgotten 45s from Nebraska bar bands may bristle at this comparison, two of the biggest hits of the mid-’80s —The Outfield’s “Your Love” and The Hooters“And We Danced”—are both essentially power pop, just given more contemporary, radio-friendly production. Those bands’ other songs are less on-point, but they still merit a mention for being part of an ’80s return to middle-of-the-road rock bands who got by on songs more than personality, which is what the big power-pop wave of the late ’70s seemed to promise.

The Essentials
Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw
Steeped in reverb and cooing background harmonies, Marshall Crenshaw is a throwback to doo-wop and mid-’60s West Coast pop, though songs like “Cynical Girl” and “I’ll Do Anything” have enough new-wave edge to make Crenshaw sound vital and modern—not just a throwback.

Big Star, Radio City

Though #1 Record is the purer power-pop record, 1974’s Radio City is one of the all-time best rock albums—full stop. No longer just trying to recreate and reinterpret their ’60s rock fantasies, Big Star broke those sounds apart, re-contextualizing adolescent heartbreak songs as something heavier and more genuinely tragic.

Shoes, Black Vinyl Shoes
The Murphy brothers’ major-label albums are more polished and easier to like, but the living-room recording Black Vinyl Shoes has a lo-fi charm that makes it stand out from the power-pop pack even now. Through the tinny murk—sounding like it was “produced by elves,” according to critic Robert Christgau—the songs’ chiming guitars and fluid melodies remain unshakable, yet that homemade sound also makes Black Vinyl Shoes feel more personal.

Cheap Trick, At Budokan
Recorded when Cheap Trick was still a weak-selling critics’ darling—albeit huge in Japan—At Budokan is like every power-pop fan’s fantasy version of the genre, where their favorite bands play magnificent rock songs in front of 12,000 screaming fans. Perhaps the audacity of that was all that was needed to break Cheap Trick wide, since the album went Top 10 and triple-platinum.

Bill Lloyd, Feeling The Elephant

Technically, Lloyd’s debut album was released in 1987, which puts it outside the 1972 to 1986 range of the original power-pop wave, but the songs on Feeling The Elephant were all recorded in the first half of the decade and were intended to launch Lloyd’s career as the next Marshall Crenshaw. It’s too bad that plan didn’t come to fruition. For the most part, power-pop was a singles medium, but track-for-track, Feeling The Elephant is as impressive as any LP the genre ever produced.

Todd Rundgren –  Couldn’t I Just Tell You, 

Todd Rundgren could easily feature in a top 10 of the best list on glitter rock, just as he could be on a list of piano ballads, blue-eyed soul, proto-electronica, even prog. But he staked his claim to powerpop immortality with this track, which set the whole ball rolling (look out for 1972-73 and 1977-78, because they’re key periods within the overall powerpop time frame). If Something/Anything?, its parent double album, featured multiple styles, then Couldn’t I Just Tell You was a masterclass in compression, from the deceptively sweet acoustic intro and opening salvo – “Keep your head and everything will be cool/ You didn’t have to make me feel like a fool” – to the incandescent 15-second guitar solo, the breathtaking “drop” at 2min 36sec and the climactic eruption of guitars, bass and drums, of which Rundgren played and produced every last note.

The Raspberries – Go All the Way

Most lists of the greatest-ever powerpop tunes feature this at or near the top, usually duking it out with Couldn’t I Just Tell You or Big Star’s September Gurls. It’s got it all: Beach Boys harmonies, Beatles melody, Who power with a dash of Stones raunch . A US top five hit in July 1972, Go All the Way was also one of the few powerpop success stories. The Raspberries are why many think of powerpop as a simple, sustained act of homage to a bygone era, probably because, unlike their peers, they wore matching suits, at least when they started.

But their music offered more than Fabs fetishism. It helped that they had at the helm the bouffant boy wonder, Eric Carmen, one of several powerpop dreamboats who looked like David Cassidy’s fucked-up older brothers

Stories –  Darling

Powerpop is full of characters you will see described as geniuses: Rundgren, Carmen, Alex Chilton, Dwight Twilley. Michael Brown should be another. He made his name as the songwriter with the Left Banke, the late-60s group who had hits with Walk Away Renee and Pretty Ballerina, both prime examples of baroque pop (a genre that shared many elements with powerpop). After a brief dalliance with a band called Montage he formed Stories, featuring the vocals of Ian Lloyd, whose lightly rasping voice posited him as an American Rod Stewart. Their two albums – Stories (1972) and About Us (1973) – were showcases for Brown’s idiosyncratic songcraft, which was florid and dramatic, as well as Eddie Kramer’s complex, quasi-prog production.

 The Records – Starry Eyes

Powerpop was essentially an American response to the British Invasion, made by Anglophiles a couple of years too young to have been in bands the first time round. Which makes the Records an oddity – English kids in love with the US Brit fetishists. They were more likely to name drop Big Star and the Raspberries in interviews than the names of their 60s forebears. They were formed out of the ashes of the Kursaal Flyers, a pub rock group featuring drummer Will Birch, and emerged in 1978, around the same time as the Pleasers, the Knack et al. Their 1979 debut album Shades in Bed was produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Tim Friese-Greene, but it didn’t quite do the business back home for Virgin. The single Starry Eyes, ironically, fared better in the US, where it reached No 56. No wonder: it had the charm, and the chime, of Petty’s American Girl, with an ascending guitar line, tight harmonies, a swooning chorus, and lyrics that seemed to evoke an infatuation with the love song itself.

check out the book “Shake Some Action”The Ultimate Guide to Power Pop by John M. Borack

Big Star- Radio City, cherry red & white split vinyl, Ltd to 500 Pieces, Out 2/16

Big Star have the tagline of “cult band” following them wherever they go. It’s tragic considering their world conquering ambitions – embedded in their album titles like #1 Record-and how they wanted to be the first and final word on Beatlesque pop. The challenge with Radio City was to see if guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Alex Chilton could prove he could carry on without songwriting foil Chris Bell, who left after the commercial failure of #1 Record. The relief with hearing Radio City is how Chilton not only rose to the occasion but arguably superseded #1 Record in the process. It’s a looser, sparser affair in parts yet his (and the rest of his bandmates’) grasp on melody and songwriting hadn’t regressed: the track sequence “You Get What You Deserve” to “Morpha Too” has some of Big Star’s best pop writing on record.

Chilton had his best ballad yet in the chiming “September Gurls,” with its guitar arpeggios straight from the Byrds’ songbook while the drums push it along with a peppy stride. It’s an approach that’s been tried many a time by imitator bands looking for some of Big Star’s magic but none seem to have nailed that idyllic yet angsty feeling that Chilton does here.

An exclusive version of Big Star’s classic second album ‘Radio City’! After Chris Bell’s departure, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel dug in to produce this urtext of power pop, with alternate universe hits like “September Gurls” and “Back of a Car”.

‘Radio City’ is pressed on Cherry Red and White Split Vinyl in a limited edition of 500 pieces.

The Replacements

The legendary Replacements embarked on a highly anticipated national tour, fulfilling the wishes of a legion of fans who were either too young or too naive to see them the first go-around. The shows, luckily, were still beautiful fuck-ups. What with Paul Westerberg smoking cigarettes between songs, during songs, even inside a camping tent that was erected on the stage for some reason, and Tommy Stinson leaping around like a kid during “Bastards of Young,” there was little left to be desired. As a message to fans, Westerberg donned a new white shirt each night of the tour, with a spray-painted letter on the front and back. By the end of the tour, the message read, “I have always loved you. Now I must whore my past.” Perhaps that’s enough said.
Record Store Day 2015 Release on 10″ black regular weight vinyl 4 song EP. Originally released in the UK as a 7″. Unlike many of their underground contemporaries, The Replacements played ‘heart-on-the-sleeve’ rock songs that combined Westerberg’s raw-throated adolescent howl with self-deprecating lyrics. They were a notoriously wayward live act, often performing under the influence of alcohol and playing fragments of covers instead of their own material.

This is one of the most beloved songs by the Replacements is “Alex Chilton”. This hook-filled number from their 1987 LP, Pleased To Meet Me,  is a tribute to Memphis musician and fabled cult hero, Alex Chilton (Box Tops, Big Star). It’s been performed during virtually every ‘Mats concert since its release. This includes their 2013-2015 reunion, in which it carried a new weight, as Chilton had passed away in 2010. In 2014, the Replacements appeared on The Tonight Show, and “Alex Chilton” is what they played.

Replacements leader Paul Westerberg first met Alex Chilton at a 1984 gig in New York City. Westerberg, not knowing exactly what to say, blurted out, “I’m in love with that one song of yours—what’s that song?” Chilton would produce the demos for the next Replacements album, Tim   (1985), and sang back-up on their ode to college radio, “Left of the Dial”.

The Replacements recorded Pleased To Meet Me in Memphis at Ardent Studios, the same studio as Big Star. The man behind the board was Jim Dickinson, who produced the storied third   Big Star album. Alex came into the studio a few times while the Replacements were working on the record (and laid down a guitar fill for “Can’t Hardly Wait”), but the band avoided the awkwardness of playing “Alex Chilton” whenever AC was around. Chilton eventually heard the track while on tour with the ‘Mats in April of ’87. He conceded that it was “a pretty good song,” and seemed to appreciate the gesture, which was to both honor him and increase his exposure.

Live at Lafayette's Music Room-Memphis, TN

Originally released as disc four of Rhino’s 2009 box set “Keep an Eye on the Sky”, “Live at Lafayette’s Music Room” captures performances Big Star gave in January 1973 at Lafayette’s Music Room in their hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. This is the same site that hosted the band’s legendary show during the May 1973 Memphis Rock Writer’s Convention — a gig that was instrumental in building buzz for Big Star — so this comes tantalizingly close to replicating how Big Star may have sounded on that storied date.

During this first half of 1973, Big Star were a band in transition, getting their sea legs after the departure of Chris Bell. His presence hangs heavy, with Alex Chilton singing songs Bell sang on No#1 Record and his DNA evident on such newer songs as “Back of a Car” and “O My Soul,” but it’s also evident how Big Star are turning into a rangier, rougher outfit under the undisputed leadership of Alex Chilton. The band feels tougher and funkier, particularly on the clutch of covers that conclude the album: Gram Parsons’ bruised country-rock classic “Hot Burrito #2” becomes a swaggering Stonesy rocker; a version of T. Rex’s “Baby Strange” seems like the blueprint for the Replacements, and the band drills down to the essential sleaze of Todd Rundgren’s “Sleaze.” This rawness, so absent on Big Star’s two finished studio albums, is the reason why Live at Lafayette’s Music Room is worth hearing even for non-fanatics: It proves that this power pop group was also a rock & roll band.

Live At Lafayette’s Music Room-Memphis, out on  (Omnivore Recordings) . It cemented them into legendary status due to the writers who witnessed it and carried the message of Big Star out in their writing, even though the band had only released one album, No#1 Record, and were unsure of recording a second after the departure of co-founder Chris Bell. What may not be so widely known is that the trio played the same venue four months earlier with the same power and passion opening shows for the Houston R&B band, Archie Bell & The Drells.

Praised as “one of the unsung heroes of American pop music” Despite a life marked by tragedy and a career crippled by commercial indifference, the singer/songwriter’s slim body of recorded work proved massively influential on the generations of indie rockers who emerged in his wake.”

He was one of the pioneers of power pop – and his catalog of proto-alternative rock has inspired the likes of Beck, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream, Afghan Whigs, Pete Yorn, Wilco, The Posies, and The Replacements, all of which have covered his music or name-dropped his band, Big Star, in the press. His name was Chris Bell.

Christopher Branford “Chris” Bell (January 12th, 1951 – December 27th, 1978) was born in Memphis, Tennessee to a well-off family. He was a sharp, funny, deeply introverted and sexually confused young man, who dreamed of rock stardom.

Omnivore Record’s Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star Featuring Chris Bell was the first of several planned releases from the Grammy Award-winning label showcasing the talents of Big Star co-founder Bell, who passed away in 1978. The label recently announced their next two Bell projects: a new expanded edition of the quintessential Bell collection I Am The Cosmos, and a definitive archive of his work as a 6LP box set.

Prior to Rykodisc’s I Am The Cosmos in 1992, only two of the tracks (the title cut and “You and Your Sister”) were released during Bell’s lifetime; both tracks were pressed on a single released shortly before a car crash took the Memphis hero’s life. (Much of it was recorded long before that, after Bell had departed Big Star and decamped to Paris in 1974 and 1975.) In 2009, Rhino Records also issued a double-disc Cosmos set that featured not only alternate versions and mixes of the album’s original tracks but also cuts by Bell’s pre-Big Star bands Icewater and Rock City for context. As those tracks (and more) are now a part of Looking Forward, this new double-disc edition sweetens the deal with another 10 tracks, most previously unreleased. Compilation producer Alec Palao and writer Bob Mehr provide liner notes, and a clear vinyl version of the original album (the first release of this material on the format in years) will ship day and date alongside the 2CD set.

The material of Looking Forward and I Am The Cosmos will also be featured on a comprehensive vinyl box set, The Complete Chris Bell, to be released later this fall. That set includes the vinyl premiere of Looking Forward (reconfigured to include only the Icewater and Wallabys tracks, plus Bell’s solo “Psychedelic Stuff”); a separate vinyl debut of the material from Rock City, the I Am The Cosmos vinyl (as well as the material from the bonus disc on two LPs); and, exclusive to this set, a newly-discovered career-spanning interview with Bell, conducted by journalist Barry Ballard in 1975 and sourced from his own personal copy of the conversation.

Palao and Mehr again offer notes for the box (alongside an excerpt from Rich Tupica’s forthcoming biography of Bell), all tracks are remastered by Michael Graves, vinyl was cut at Ardent Studios by Chris Jackson and Adam Hill, and Palao, Hill and Omnivore head Cheryl Pawelski serve as the box set’s producers, with the full cooperation of Bell’s estate (as run by his brother David). I Am The Cosmos is back in print , while The Complete Chris Bell is available November 24th!

In 1964 and 1965, Bell played lead guitar in a British Invasion-influenced group called the Jynx (the name is a takeoff on The Kinks) with local musicians, including lead vocalist Mike Harris, rhythm guitarist David Hoback, drummer DeWitt Shy, and bassist Bill Cunningham, and later, bassist Leo Goff. Other lead vocalists at some of the group’s shows and rehearsals (though not present on their recordings) included local teens Ames Yates, Vance Alexander, and Alex Chilton. Chilton, who attended many Jynx shows and sang lead vocals at a couple of gigs, soon joined the Box Tops with Cunningham, as the Jynx split up in 1966. Here are the Jynx, with Bell on lead guitar, performing Little Girl:

Bell continued to perform and record in Memphis throughout the rest of the decade, including a stint in the heavier psych-rock band Christmas Future. By the late 1960s, after attending UT in Knoxville, he had turned his focus toward writing original songs. The group later known as Big Star stemmed from two Bell band projects that began in the late 1960s, while he recorded and performed live in groups, named Icewater and Rock City. These groups featured a revolving set of musicians including Jody Stephens, Terry Manning, Tom Eubanks, Andy Hummel, Richard Rosebrough, Vance Alexander, and Steve Rhea. Here are Icewater and All I See Is You:

Bell asked Alex Chilton to join several months after the group had started performing. Eventually, during a period of recording demos and tracks for their first album, the group settled on the name “Big Star.” The lineup for Big Star’s first album was composed of Bell (guitars/vocals), Chilton (guitars, vocals), Hummel (bass, vocals), and Stephens (drums, vocals). Bell and Chilton wrote most of the group’s songs, with occasional writing contributions from Hummel and Stephens.

Big Star were, in the words of Robyn Hitchcock, “a letter posted in 1971 that didn’t arrive till 1985.” Crowned the inventors of power pop, they were, over the course of three critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums, much more than that. Nobody could turn pain into beauty like Big Star.

In 1971, the 20-year old Alex Chilton has already been a star. He was the front man of The Box Tops, a manufactured rock combo who had one the biggest hits of 1967 with The Letter. His teenage stardom meant that he’d already met Charles Manson, toured with the Beach Boys, and watched Hendrix from the side of the stage before he could legally drink. He was an “art brat” who’d been given peyote as a kid and was already living a remarkable life. But witnessing the guitar shredding, five-part harmonizing experimenters of rock had left him feeling uncomfortable. He was essentially in a boy band. He needed to step up and make his own music. So he quit The Box Tops and after a brief spell in New York, returned to his hometown of Memphis to make music he wanted to listen to.

Just to remind you what a great pop group The Box Tops were, here are a few of ther hits. Their first hit was their biggest, surely one of the classic singles of the 60s (and of all-time). Here’s The Letter, with 16-year-old lead singer Alex Chilton:

Here’s their third single, which was their second-biggest hit, “Cry Like A Baby”:

Chris Bell obsessed with creating perfect, multi-layered pop music. To do this, he had the studios of Ardent Records, run by whizz kid engineer John Fry, who let the local musical kids use it at night for their own sessions. Fry taught Bell how to multi-track. Ardent had become a subsidiary of the legendary Stax Records, taking on some of its recording sessions and, in return, agreeing to be its pop/rock imprint. The studios and – bizarrely -TGI Fridays, were the twin pillars of a raucous Memphis counter-culture scene that was big on drinking, sexual experimentation and drugs, particularly ludes, Mandrax and related pills.

“That pill culture is unique to Memphis”, says director and screenwriter Drew DeNicola. “It’s what killed Elvis and it’s what those Big Star boys were doing too. Everyone knew a crooked doctor. Polite society would go to bed and then, in the margins, the alternative kids could do what they wanted, as long as they made it to Sunday lunch with Momma.”

It was out of this southern stew that Big Star’s first album, #1 Record, came. The band’s name had come out of desperation, taken from a chain of supermarkets, one of which sat across the street from Ardent. Chilton and Bell put their heart and soul into the album, with Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel on drums and bass respectively. It’s an album of perfect pop songs, suffused with pain and melancholy, up-tempo and down-tempo, beautifully layered, subtle and all over the place genre-wise.

On its release in June 1972, #1 Record immediately received widespread acclaim, and continued to do so for six months, although an inability by Stax Records to make the album available in stores meant it sold fewer than 10,000 copies. Record World called it “one of the best albums of the year”, and Billboard commented, “Every cut could be a single”. It was described it as one where “everything falls together as a total sound” and one that “should go to the top”. In 2003 it was ranked on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Eight years earlier in 1964, when their home town of Memphis, Tennessee became a tour stop for The Beatles, primary songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were thirteen years old. They went to the show together – and it made them see the light. Thirteen, a song Chilton wrote nearly six years after he first witnessed that Beatles performance, referred to the event with the line “Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay”.

Heavily influenced by the UK band, the pair – Bell in particular -wanted to model their songwriting on the Lennon–McCartney partnership, with the result that they credited as many songs as possible on Big Star’s debut album to “Bell/Chilton”. In practice, they developed material incrementally in the studio, each making changes to the other’s recordings. Drummer Jody Stephens recalled, “Alex would come in and put down something rough and edgy and Chris would come in and add some sweet-sounding background vocals to it.” The pair also each contributed songs individually composed before Big Star was formed, Bell bringing Feel, My Life Is Right, and Try Again, and Chilton, The Ballad of El Goodo, In The Street, and Thirteen.

Here’s Feel, the album’s opening track:

… and here’s the song with which Alex “auditioned” for the band: Watch the Sunrise.

The album’s short closing track, ST 100/6, is the only song where Alex Chilton and Chris Bell share lead vocals (lead vocals are divided among them on the rest of the album).

The critics loved the album but the public couldn’t get their hands on it. Press attention focused on former teen star Chilton. Chris Bell, the driving force behind the album, was relegated to the sidelines.  The failure of #1 Record devastated him. He was tormented by his sexuality: he was probably gay but was unable, in Tennessee, to deal with it, and there were rumours in Memphis that he was in love with Chilton and that the latter’s lack of reciprocation hastened his departure from the band, which came not long after #1 Record.

The frustration at #1 Record’s obstructed sales contributed to tension within the band. There was physical fighting between members: Bell, after being punched in the face by Hummel, retaliated by smashing Hummel’s new bass guitar to pieces against the wall. Hummel took revenge at a later date: finding Bell’s acoustic guitar in the latter’s unattended car, he repeatedly punched it with a screwdriver. In November 1972, Bell quit the band. When work continued on songs for a second album, Bell rejoined, but further conflict soon erupted. A master tape of the new songs inexplicably went missing, and Bell, whose heavy drug intake was affecting his judgment, attacked Fry’s parked car. In late 1972, struggling with severe depression, Bell quit the band once more, and by the end of the year Big Star disbanded.

After a few months Chilton, Stephens, and Hummel decided to reform Big Star, and the three resumed work on the second album. The title chosen, Radio City, continued the play on the theme of a big star’s popularity and success, expressing what biographer Robert Gordon calls the band’s “romantic expectation”

Although uncredited, Bell contributed to the writing of some of the album’s songs, including O My Soul and Back of a Car. Shortly before the album’s release, Hummel left the band: judging that it would not last, and in his final year at college, he elected to concentrate on his studies and live a more normal life.

For all the trouble surrounding it, Radio City met with general acclaim. Critics judged the musicianship “superb” It was called “a collection of excellent material”; giving it an “A” rating, Robert Christgau calls the album “Brilliant, addictive”, observing meanwhile that “The harmonies sound like the lead sheets are upside down and backwards, the guitar solos sound like screwball ready made pastiches, and the lyrics sound like love is strange,” concluding his review with, “Can an album be catchy and twisted at the same time?”

However, sales were thwarted (again!) by an inability to make the album available in stores. As a result, the album achieved only minimal sales of around 20,000 copies at the time.

September Gurls is the best track on the album, almost as good as their best track overall, Thirteen.

Before returning to Bell’s solo career, I would be amiss not to present Big Star’s legendary third album known as Third or Sister Lovers. It was recorded in 1974. Though Ardent Studios created test pressings for the record in 1975, a combination of financial issues, the uncommercial sound of the record, and lack of interest from singer Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens in continuing the project prevented the album from ever being properly finished or released at the time of its recording. It was eventually released in 1978 by PVC Records.

After two commercially unsuccessful albums, Third documents the band’s deterioration as well as the declining mental state of singer Alex Chilton. It has since gone on to become one of the most critically acclaimed albums in history and is considered a cult album.

You have to take into account that most of the songs in Third/Sister Lovers are practically demos. I wonder what would be the final form of these songs, had Alex decided to properly complete the album…

Chilton went on to have an interesting solo career, but commercial success always eluded him. In truth, he wasn’t really aiming for it. He also briefly reformed Big Star, as well as regrouped with the original Box Tops for a number of tours. He was taken to the hospital in New Orleans on Wednesday, March 17th, 2010, complaining of health problems, and died the same day of a heart attack. Four months later, Hummel died of cancer.

Back to our man, Chris Bell. After leaving Big Star, Chris would attempt suicide, abuse strong sedatives and use religion to suppress doubts around his sexuality amid an inherently homophobic Deep South.

Vocally, to some, Bell was an icon trapped in the wrong era. “At times Chris could be so punk rock and he’d just make this painful noise from the back of his throat like a Cobain,” beams Adam Hill, an engineer at Ardent, who remastered Bell’s recordings for posthumous collection I Am The Cosmos. “On grungy solo track Better Save Yourself, Bell contorts his voice, sometimes shouting, to bellow: “You should’ve gave your love to Jesus, it couldn’t do you no harm. You better save yourself, if you wanna see his face.” This was songwriting that had little time for affectation. Whereas on a song like Though I Know She Lies you could be listening to Dylan on Lay Lady Lay. He always pushed his vocal cords to their very limit.” On the delicate You And Your Sister, Bell pours his heart out about an unrequited love. When he reflects “Plans fail every day,” to backing vocals by Chilton, who remained an acquaintance, you sense heartbreak of both a romantic and professional nature. And Speed of Sound – with its existential dread of “The plane goes down, it will not land. The pilot’s dead, nowhere to be found”—hits you right in the gut, writing the angsty blueprint Elliott Smith would later follow to a tee.

Seen by friends as an intervention, Bell’s brother David took him across Europe in the mid-70s, armed with these solo demos. Bell, an anglophile who imported copies of NME, would get the chance to work with hero Geoff Emerick—a pivotal engineer on all the best Beatles albums—at the legendary Air Studios. “It was good for him to go to Europe but I sense he was still in a really dark place. He was an impatient artist after Big Star,” says Van Duren, a fellow Memphis musician. With a record deal not forthcoming, Bell accepted he needed a regular 9-to-5 upon his return to Memphis. For a while, he worked for his father’s hamburger chain Danvers—a heartbreaking scene for friends who understood his talent.

While Bell was back home flipping burgers, Big Star were blowing up in the UK, with NME unable to keep up with reader letters requesting copies of their first two albums. In fact, demand for both albums was so high they were eventually reissued in a gatefold release. “I called Chris and it was one of the only times I remember him being really happy, as all those Beatles Parlophone pressings he loved had the same address on the back,” remembers Stephens, noting that the reissue said “Pressed by EMI at Hayes, Middlesex” on the back. However, Bell’s adulation would be short lived.

“When I came back to Memphis we made plans to meet at the studio. However, when I arrived he had already left,” recalls Stephens. Friends and family still don’t know for sure what happened in the early hours of December 27th, 1978, the dark mystique of Bell’s music holding even in death. “What’s weird is I decided to drive back and when I got to the Sears department store, I could see police cars with their lights flashing and there was this car in the middle of the road. A pole had fallen and completely crushed the left side of the roof. I immediately thought ‘I shouldn’t look.’ The next day John [Fry] phoned to say Chris had died in a car accident. I had passed by Chris.” He was 27, that fateful age.

Unreleased for over 15 years, I Am the Cosmos, Bell’s only solo album, is nevertheless an enduring testament to the brilliance of Chris Bell; lyrically poignant and melodically stunning, this lone solo album is proof positive of his underappreciated pop mastery. The title track is a harrowingly schizophrenic tale of romantic despair:

We end this story with the album’s highlight, You and Your Sister – which features backing vocals from none other than Bell’s Big Star mate Alex Chilton – which is simply one of the great unknown love songs in the pop canon, a luminous and fragile ballad almost otherworldly in its beauty.

Thanks to Yianna/John

Big Star Movie Comes To DVD and Blu-Ray

 

The hugely influential 1970s melodic rock band Big Star will have the feature length documentary about their life and times, ‘Nothing Can Hurt Me,’ released by USM on DVD and Blu-Ray next month. The group’s many admirers will also be excited to learn that a deluxe package will be available that adds the first two of the three albums they released in their initial incarnation.

Their debut LP was ‘No#1 Record,’ first released on the Ardent label via Stax in 1972, and this will be in the package along with the 1974 follow-up ‘Radio City.’ The band released ‘Third’ in 1978 before their split, and were then “discovered” by the next generation of rock fans after being cited as an influence by the likes of R.E.M., the Replacements and later favourites such as Flaming Lips. ‘Third’ was reissued as ‘Sister Lovers’ in 1992 and the band reformed for a fourth and final new studio record, ‘In Space,’ in 2005.

‘Nothing Can Hurt Me,’ a feature length documentary about Big Star, was first shown in cinemas last summer, and its new DVD and Blu-Ray release will be on March 2nd. Alex Chilton, who had been the original band’s frontman and co-songwriter with Chris Bell, died in 2010.