I think it was NME interviews with bands singed to Creation. Post those second summers of love, 88, 89, post-Screamadelica, 1990. When Creation stopped being about Balearic Beats and European “scream-ups” (anyone remember Nena De Ibiza?) and started talking about rock again. All be it cult rock. Showing off.
It could have been Primal Scream`s Bobby G making a mixtape. Putting Big Star in alongside The Faces` Debris, Patti Smith`s Piss Factory, Dion`s Make The Woman Love Me, and Crazy Horse. Big Star`s Thank You Friends certainly sounds as much like a Scream template as MC5`s Sister Anne.
But it was probably Teenage Fanclub – whose Everything Flows I`d fallen in love with – since their music is the most obviously in debt to that of Big Star – the band formed in Memphis by Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell, and Alex Chilton.
Big Star were born in 1971, with Bell and Chilton sharing songwriting and lead vocal duties. Chilton had experienced a brief 15 minutes of fame as singer with The Box Tops. When Big Star`s debut LP, #1 Record, failed to sell, Bell left the band. Struggling with depression, and drugs, he worked as a sometime producer, and in his father’s restaurant, until his untimely death in a car accident in 1978. He was 27. While he was breathing he only released one single, the A-side of which was the anguished and epic I Am The Cosmos. Bell soaring and aching like a Cold Turkey John Lennon.
“Just when I was starting to feel OK, you’re on the phone.”
I found a copy of Big Star`s sophomore record, the minus-Bell Radio City, in Croydon, in HMV. A cut-out. Deleted stock with one corner of the sleeve lopped off to confirm its unwanted status / failure to set the world alight. HMV itself was deserted by this time. A huge remainder bin down towards the generally rougher – yes some parts of Croydon are rougher than others – west end. Near the bus garage, around the block from the Space Ice arcade. But here there be treasure. Tons of old LPs – referenced by know-it-all NME journos and interviewed pop stars – that pre-internet it would otherwise have taken forever to find. Nick Drake, Gram Parsons, The Velvet Underground,….Radio City sounded so much like Teenage Fanclub (that really should be the other way around) that I assumed Big Star were also from Scotland. I was freaked out to find they were American. But I mean, September Gurls. How did I ever live without its jangle of unrequited love? Like Orange Juice`s Blue Boy reprised. A little bit older, and a little bit bruised. A little less naive, its idealism dented. It of course became an anthem.
It soundtracked a moment when for the first time in years I was single. When I wasn’t quite sober. When I`d stopped buying, and penny ante dealing, but did sometimes still say “Yes”. When it was “great to be straight”, but I was still far from “cured”. The weeklong weekends had stopped, and under the influence of Charles Bukowski I turned my experiences into poetry and prose – and got used to rejection letters.
Radio City was great, but Third / Sister Lovers was the one. The one mentioned in hushed hallowed tones. An indie grail. The one that This Mortal Coil covered. I didn’t get a copy of Third until 4 Men With Beards reissued it in 2007. Recorded in 74, but due to lack of label interest, it had been shelved. The band splitting up before they’d even given the record a name. The album was eventually released in 78, months before Bell died.
The music on Third is wasted, strung out. Loose to the point of falling apart, yet graced with orchestral strings. For some reason I lumped it in with Syd Barrett. Probably because the lyrics are stream of consciousness-like lonely late night pretty couplets. Brilliant, beautiful, but desperate and broken. Nursery rhymes punctuated by stuff like,
“I hate it here, get me out of here.”
I was never sure if the Bowie / Young Americans rock of Thank You Friends was tongue-in-cheek (like the intro to Gram Parsons` Hickory Wind). Big Star covered VU`s ode to Edie Sedgewick, complimenting my own obsession with Clara Bow-bob sporting Edie substitutes. Take Care really sounded like a goodbye. But nothing prepared you for Kangaroo. A love song as high as kite, falsetto falling, and coupled to clanking random percussion, vaguely strummed guitars, and arcs of noise and feedback. Despair in the absurdity of
“And I want you like a kangaroo.”
Alex shone on solo. Producing acts like The Cramps and Tav Falco`s Panther Burns. Releasing records such as Like Flies On Sherbet. A selection of smashed covers. The country of The Carter Family and Ernest Tubb, Jimmy “Cajun” Newman`s Aligator Man. and “Adapting” Roy Orbison on raw recordings where Chilton`s demons and substance abuse issues often disrupted proceedings and took centre stage. But a record that yet contained self-penned diamonds like Hey! Little Child. A glam stomp of jailbait-baiting spikey punk power pop (and an Andrew Weatherall favourite).
The cover of this new Be With Records 7” is, tellingly, a photograph of Alex on the floor of Ardent Studios. Perhaps inebriated, incapacitated. Isn’t That Easy is stripped as bare as anything on Third. Close mic`d down-home picking accompanying a lyric about crawling within the state you’re in. If You Would Marry Me Babe is upbeat and piano pumped. Like Elliot Smith paying tribute to The Beatles. A love song, however, that still feels like someone painting on a smile.
You can find out more about Isn’t That Easy and If You Would Marry Me Babe over at Be With Records, where you can also order a copy of the 45.
Hickory Wind – can’t currently find the right version with the spoken intro…