“#1 Record” by Big Star (1972)
The concept of Fox’s “That ’70s Show” didn’t appeal to me at first.
I’d given ABC’s “The Wonder Years” a try and found that Fred Savage’s portrayal of early-teen Kevin Arnold brought back too many not-so-fond memories. So I anticipated more of the same.
As soon as I heard the theme song, I knew I was going to enjoy “That ’70s Show.” The creators chose Big Star’s “In the Street,” one of my favorites songs by the legendary group fronted by the late Alex Chilton.
I’ll nitpick a bit. Fox didn’t pony up for the Big Star original, opting instead for a version performed by Todd Griffin during the first season and – I guess the budget grew – Cheap Trick for the final seven. Chilton, who co-wrote “In the Street” with the late Chris Bell, told Rolling Stone’s John D. Luerssen about the royalties per episode:
“It’s actually ironic that the amount is $70,” Chilton said. “To me it’s ‘That $70 Show.'”
Anyway, “That ’70s Show” is set in small-town Wisconsin, and I kind of doubt that the characters actually would have heard of Big Star, let alone sing along to one of its songs on the car radio. The band’s three albums at the time experienced notoriously poor sales, suffering from lack of distribution and promotion.
Then again, some copies of Big Star’s albums probably made their way to the Land of Cheese. They did get around enough way back when to influence such fledgling musicians as R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Matthew Sweet and the members of Minneapolis’ the Replacements.
Personally, I was barely aware of Big Star until Fantasy Records and Rykodisc started releasing the band’s material on compact disc in the early ’90s. I promptly purchased everything available, starting with the debut, “#1 Record.”
Actually, the CD pairs that album is paired with its successor, “Radio City,” so I tend to consider the two as a single package. When it comes to separating them, I give the first a slight nod over the second, because of its song selection and the presence of Bell on his only Big Star album.
Ten of the 12 compositions on “#1 Record” are attributed to the songwriting team of Bell and Chilton. The two often cited the influence of the Beatles, and they decided to follow the Lennon-McCartney model of crediting.
The debut’s first five tracks fall under that category, and they introduce Big Star as a band with an apparent formula for success: tightly constructed songs featuring memorable guitar hooks coupled with appealing harmony vocals. The songs alternate between heavier rock, starting with the descending-chord lamentation of “Feel,” and softer ballads.
Speaking of which, “The Ballad of El Goodo” contains one of Big Star’s most enduring melodic lines with its chorus of “There ain’t no one gonna turn me ’round,” and sets a template for the band’s followers with a defiant attitude: “Years ago, my heart was set to live, oh/But i’ve been trying hard against unbelievable odds.”
“In the Street” is familiar to anyone who’s watched the aforementioned Fox series. But do yourself a favor and listen to the original, which takes a subtle approach when compared with the bludgeoning the song takes at the hands of Cheap Trick. (And don’t listen for anyone chanting “We’re all all right!”)
Chilton used to introduce “Thirteen” as a song he wrote when he was about that age. Whatever the case, it stands as perhaps the ultimate statement on early-teen relationships, with its lyrics nailing the tentativeness and confusion of boy-girl encounters: “Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of/Would you be an outlaw for my love?/If it’s so, well, let me know/If it’s “no”, well, I can go/I won’t make you.”
Then it’s back to a harder approach with the rocker “Don’t Lie to Me,” which serves as a counterpoint to “Thirteen” with its braggadocio: “Don’t cross me, babe/Think you won’t, don’t do it, for sure, for sure/Don’t cross me, babe.”
The band’s bassist, the late Andy Hummel, contributed “India,” a fanciful tune that conjures exotic images lyrically and by employing a recorder as one of the instruments.
“When My Baby’s Beside Me,” which opens Side Two of the LP, was selected as the single from “#1 Record.” I’ve always considered that to be somewhat curious, given the strength of some of the other material, but the songs does stack up well against some stiff competition.
Big Star’s harmonies shine through in Bell’s optimistic “My Life Is Right,” which dovetails into the plaintive “Give Me Another Chance” and “Try Again.” Following is the acoustic “Watch the Sunrise” and the brief “ST 100/6,” which wraps up the album with some Beatlesque singing.
As great a pairing as history has made Bell and Chilton, by the time of “Radio City” was recorded, Bell no longer was with Big Star. He was working on a body of solo material before he died in a car crash at age 27; Rykodisc released it about 15 years later as “I Am the Cosmos.”
Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens and Hummel (replaced by John Lightman) continued as Big Star for a few more years, adding the enigmatic album “Third/Sister Lovers” to the discography. Reunions in the ’90s and ’00s resulted in a live album, “Columbia,” and studio effort, “In Space.” In 2009 came “Keep an Eye on the Sky,” a four-disc, 98-song retrospective featuring plenty of previously unreleased material, including a 1973 concert.
On March 17, 2010, Chilton died of a heart attack at age 59. Hummel died three months later, leaving Stephens as the sole survivor as one of rock’s shining documents in “#1 Record.”