Band drama is always bound to turn into legend, even if the resulting material sucks. Look at The Pixes or The Police, for instance. No, I’m not saying they sucked. But part of their greatness was that they burned out brightly and quickly, separating due to personal disagreements, allowing themselves to cut it off before things got shitty. Sting was able to do that all on his own. The same goes for Big Star. Now, as far as I know, Alex Chilton didn’t churn out adult contemporary after the band broke up, but the disputes between he and Chris Bell resulted in the chaos and mythology that surrounds the band. Bell left the group after only one record, though he did contribute somewhat to the writing and recording of the second album, Radio City. However, Bell quit shortly thereafter, before the album was even released. Unhappy with the band, he left, asking not to be credited upon the album’s release.
What Radio City is, then, is a record by a band that should really be called Alex Chilton and Big Star. Chilton’s songwriting and singing are what make this record what it is. And what it is is much more rockin’, less folk-inspired and far more electric than their previous effort, #1 Record. Radio City was a little harder and less polished. It wasn’t so much a pop record for the Top 40 as it was an odd little gem that revealed itself over repeated listens and provided a darker alternative to the first record.
It’s easy to hear the difference, just based on the first song alone. “O My Soul” is all rockin’ guitar riffs, heavy Hammond organ, syncopated drum beats and an ironic, almost mocking vocal from Chilton, singing lines like “I can’t get a license/to drive in my car/but I don’t really need it/if I’m a big star.” “Life Is White,” by comparison is a funky, swaggering rock song with more sparse chords and squealing harmonica. “Way Out West” is a fairly conventional ballad, though still much louder than “Thirteen.” And “What’s Going Ahn” is a slow, beautiful number with echoing bass drum. And they’re all absolutely fantastic.
Yet, despite all of these great tracks, the best ones are probably the ones that are the loudest and most sinister. I personally have a preference for “You Get What You Deserve,” a subtle groover at first, but an infectious and psychedelic rocker during its irresistibly catchy chorus. “Mod Lang” is the band’s own take on Southern rock, sounding something like Free’s “All Right Now,” as opposed to the shimmering pop they previously pioneered. And how could anyone forget “Back of A Car”? It has an intense heaviness in its shape-shifting, riff-happy verse. Yet during the chorus, it returns to a gossamer power pop sound, ultimately splitting its time as a bi-polar pop song.
Not all of these songs had hit potential, though Big Star did have a knack for writing perfect little pop tunes. In fact, one of them did become a hit…for someone else. The Bangles covered “September Gurls” to great success, though it’s pretty unlikely you’ll ever hear Chilton’s version on the radio.
Despite the turmoil that eventually tore the band apart, having one of its main songwriters leave didn’t hurt Radio City in the slightest. In fact, some prefer it to its predecessor, though Third/Sister Lovers, a chaotic, distressing mess of a record is the one that most feel is their greatest. Anyway you look at it, they’re all fantastic, just in different ways. Radio City just happens to be the transitional record that showed the band giving it one more go with passion and intensity before things really went south. Not that that didn’t also help the creative process. But that’s a story for another time.
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man
Guided by Voices – Bee Thousand
Elliott Smith – Figure 8
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.