Big Star used to be rock `n’ roll’s little secret — a fantastic power-pop band that influenced arguably as many people as the Velvet Underground, without becoming as big as their successors. They could have been huge, had they been marketed right, but of course, weren’t. Regardless, the Memphis band’s “In the Street” is now heard in millions of households today, thanks to Cheap Trick’s version ending of the song being used for the opening theme for That ’70s Show. And at this point, it’s probably the one piece of music everybody knows of theirs, and they didn’t even perform it.
Such is the curse of being hugely influential, I suppose. And listening to their debut, #1 Record, it’s easy to understand why. In a time when singer-songwriters and proto-metalheads were all the rage, Big Star were an anomaly — a remarkably talented and listenable power-pop band. Their closest contemporaries at the time were The Raspberries and Badfinger, two other bands whose music never quite had the commercial success of later pop groups like the aforementioned Cheap Trick.
“In the Street” may currently be the best-known song of Big Star’s, though in its album format, is far less overblown and stadium-ready. Here, the band plays it fun and lighthearted, a perfect little piece of guitar pop. Before arriving at this gem, however, the listener must first hear opener “Feel,” a fun and peppy tune with frontman Alex Chilton singing the odd lyrics “Feels just like I’m dying/And I never want to live again.” Maybe the morbidity kept it from ever being a hit, though its follow-up tune, “The Ballad of El Goodo,” is an optimistic and powerful ballad with the memorable chorus “There ain’t no one that can turn me around.”
Aside from “In the Street,” the most famous song from #1 Record is “Thirteen,” a short acoustic song that’s been covered by everyone from Elliott Smith to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Though it is brief and subtle, “Thirteen” is a gorgeous tune written from the perspective of, you guessed it, a thirteen-year-old. Chilton’s lyrics are directed at a girl, and as the song progresses, build tension and become all the more nervous.
Come inside girl, it’s OK
And I’ll shake you
If it’s so well let me know
And if it’s no well I can go
I won’t make you
In the fifth song, “Don’t Lie to Me,” Big Star cranks it up, adding distortion to their otherwise glossy pop sound. “India Song” is another short, but pretty ballad with some quirky organ riffs. Another immediate standout is “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” a fairly straightforward love song with a whole lotta handclaps. Chilton’s simple, yet touching lyric of “When my baby’s beside me, I don’t worry” is a concise but beautiful statement.
As the album comes to a close, the band focuses more on acoustic ballads than their trademark electric guitar pop, turning out lovely tunes like “Give Me Another Chance,” “Try Again” and “Watch the Sunrise.” The first of the three, like “Thirteen,” is very Beatlesque in sound, while “Try Again” is slightly more country influenced, with a weeping slide guitar lead over the acoustic strummed chords. The last song on the record, the one-minute long “ST 100/6,” wraps things up beautifully, if a little too quickly. But the band proves on the second half that they can just as easily pull off a graceful ballad as a rocker.
#1 Record never made it to the top of the charts, despite its name. But many bands later found their muse in this classic LP. The band, themselves, would evolve over the next six years, turning up the volume and eventually recording the sound of falling apart on Third. Thing eventually went downhill quickly for the band, but here, they were at the top of their game, playing music that really mattered, regardless of commercial success.
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
Teenage Fanclub – Thirteen
Posies – Frosting on the Beater
Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.