"#1 Record/Radio City"
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A listen to this compilation combining Big Star's "#1 Record" and "Radio City" says almost as much about The Beatles as it does the artist responsible. Big Star has long been held as a vanguard of power pop, but realistically, The Beatles pioneered the genre, intended or not. An aspect of the Liverpoolian's music that provided variety and intrigue was the famous/infamous difference in songwriting approaches of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The primary vocalists of Big Star, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, operated in much the same way.
This was less than coincidence. The Beatles had just folded, and there was still a huge hole to fill three years later. Identifying which Star member represented which Beatle isn't tough; On "#1 Record," Bell tends to lend his vocals during the rockers, such as "In The Street," whereas Chilton keeps things on the quieter side, as during the band's hit "Thirteen." Chilton turns the volume up a hair on "When My Baby's Beside Me," but still doesn't reach Bell's amplitude. The songs on "#1" don't necessarily define Chilton (he changes direction on "Radio City"), but there's an obvious dichotomy in place, even more noticeable than with The Beatles. Unlike with Paul and John, whose dueling styles evolved over numerous albums, Bell only remained with Big Star for one album, and his absence is instantly noticeable on the follow-up record.
With Bell out of the picture, Chilton assumed nearly all songwriting responsibilities. He adapted to write a creative range of tracks for "Radio City," and in the process, I'd argue he left the "power pop" brand that "#1 Record" virtually defined. The opening track, "O My Soul," runs 5:38, an epic by Big Star's former standards. Chilton's southern personality peeks out through his guitar playing on "Daisy Glaze" and "She's A Mover." He even breaks his streak of clean vocals and gives a small howl during "You Get What You Deserve." Potential pop singles still exist, particularly in "Back of A Car" and "September Gurls," but there's much less vocal harmonizing than on "#1."
I've compared Big Star to The Beatles an awful lot, so I should point out the former's independent influence on the current state of music. A huge trend in alternative rock (which houses many of the best bands that could be considered "power pop") is songwriting from the teenage perspective, of which Big Star did so the best. It wouldn't have been too tough for Chilton, who was just 22 when "#1" debuted. His tracks "Thirteen" and "Back of A Car" perfectly sum up the confused joys of adolescence. The innocent and equally rebellious tone made me instantly think of the White Stripes, particularly "We're Going to Be Friends." Heck, the last track on "Radio City" is titled "I'm In Love With A Girl" (don't make me explain the White Stripes connection).
Chilton's handling of the group for "Radio City" is excellent, but "#1 Record" demonstrates Big Star at the peak of power pop. Bell's contributions, combined with Chilton, led to work critics couldn't help but adore (perhaps themselves looking to replace the Beatles). Bell's departure from the group demonstrates how much of a difference that extra voice makes, for better or for worse depending on who you are.
INTERESTING FACT: I owe Katy Perry an apology. I have long raged against her song "California Gurls" for many reasons, including what I interpreted to be a stupid, intentional misspelling of "girl." It turns out Ms. Perry was familiar with Big Star and named her single in honor of the Star hit "September Gurls." So I'm sorry about ragging on your title, Katy. The song still sucks however.