While the #1 record position remained elusive for Big Star, time would end up being kind to this iconic 70s band as their #1 Record remains relevant over four decades later and has finally achieved the success that it should have at the time of release.
Big Star’s music sounds familiar, likely as a result of combined sound elements from numerous late 60s influences, but their sound signature is unique. While Big Star’s music can be seen as having influenced the alternative music scene, I also can’t help but see a correlation between their musicality and the often criticised, but secretly loved, ballad recordings by most of the 80s hair metal bands. I feel The Ballad Of El Goodo is a good example of this and while clearly inspired by those who came before, Big Star would take rock and pop and subsequently merge the two into the power pop subgenre.
While I have always adored power pop and the ballad-esk sound, the first time I recall noticing Big Star was when I was crate digging at a local record store a few years ago. The #1 Record cover is hard to miss and while rather nondescript, it is compelling. At the time I wasn’t confident enough to blind-buy the record, but I did sample the album on iTunes. This process was how I decided if I wanted to take a gamble on new music at the time. It was a poor man’s approach to music discovery, but it was essential at the time. Thankfully, TIDAL Hi-Fi has since assumed that role. The problem with the iTunes sample method was the best bits, such as the killer guitar solo in When My Baby’s Beside Me, began after the 90-second sample has elapsed. Hence, it was difficult to fully evaluate the song or an album. That said, it was significantly more helpful than the 30 seconds iTunes began with when the iTunes Store opened in 2003. Regardless, I had heard enough and knew that I had to have this #1 Record.
The vinyl reissue that I own was pressed in 2009, just as the vinyl revival was starting to gain significant momentum. Sonically, the vinyl is silent and presents a very pleasing tonality and soundstage. That said, there is a little sibilance on side two, during the final couple of tracks, most likely due to the slightly off-centre pressing. It isn’t detrimental, just noticeable.
Overall the sound signature of the vinyl reissue is pleasing and while I would love to be able to let you know which master was used, the information on the sleeve is sparse and doesn’t even include production credits. Although, the cover-art design team were thankfully acknowledged.
As with many classic albums, the reason mastering is important is that to reissue an album, many record labels believe that the audio must be remastered. As a result of this mentality, #1 Record was remastered in 2009 and that remastering session reduced the overall dynamic range of the recording. While it wasn’t brutalised as much as many other remastered releases, it is still different to the original and that personally drives me insane. The remaster is currently found on post-2009 CD releases and TIDAL Hi-Fi et al. Having listened to the CD-equivalent TIDAL Hi-Fi remastered edition, I can say with certainty that the musicality of the album is still present. It is actually quite similar to the vinyl reissue, although the organic vinyl sound signature does create a difference in tonality. The truth is, the vinyl reissue is probably from the same 2009 mastering session, but who really knows?
Seriously, is it so difficult for record labels to add this information to a release?
While this reissue is largely reminiscent of the way many albums were released in the 70s, the nondescript album sleeve and lack of liner notes is disappointing in the modern era. Perhaps we have been spoilt with the production qualities of reissues from The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Queen etc. Granted, Big Star never saw the success that these before mentioned bands did, but I don’t believe that should factor into the design of an album. After all, when you look at the amazing albums released by independent artists, the major record labels should be ashamed of the substandard products they release. Yes, I know they are in the business of making money, not music or art, but a little more effort can go a long way to ensuring that business expands through word of mouth and continued interest.
That said, I’m not sure if I can recommend the vinyl reissue of Big Star’s #1 Record, although the vinyl sound signature may be enough to sway my opinion.
Granted, the original pressings were never extraordinary from what I’ve seen, but the print quality of the record sleeve is disappointing. An enlarged Polaroid photograph wouldn’t look as blown out as the photograph used on the rear cover. Yes, I understand it was the 70s and it was likely seen as artistic, but the reissue is still substandard in comparison to the original pressings.
Unfortunately, it is just too barebones for my liking. The record is housed in a plain (cheap) rice paper inner sleeve with no liner notes and no download code. The value proposition is ultimately decreased exponentially as a result of these omissions. Purists will most likely not be bothered by these concerns, but it doesn’t compel me to go and purchase their follow-up album, Radio City, on vinyl.
Feel has a really unique offbeat entrance that I enjoy. The distortion in the recording is reminiscent of many Rolling Stone recordings, but I’d say Feel is a little less jarring than some of the Stones tracks. That said, this isn’t one of my favourite tracks on the album, despite being a solid song. It just doesn’t touch my soul and I feel something is missing, but I can’t put my finger on what it is.
The Ballad Of El Goodo is pure perfection! It sounds absolutely gorgeous on vinyl. As I have listened to both the vinyl and TIDAL Hi-Fi editions, this song alone is the reason to buy the vinyl release. When comparing the two, I found the clarity of TIDAL Hi-Fi to be too jarring across the entire soundstage.
In The Street is a solid track and who doesn’t love a cowbell in a song? The semi-guitar solo is thoroughly enjoyable and the rhythm will have you toe tapping and head bopping in no time at all.
Thirteen has a gorgeous guitar strum and vocal presentation. It doesn’t get much better than this and reminds me of Neil Young’s best works.
Don’t Lie To Me is Beatle-esk and you can really hear the influence in the guitar riff, vocal style, and drum beat. It is truly an epic song!
The India Song is an interesting, multilayered track, that has utilised what sounds like a flute. Unfortunately, I can’t confirm this as information is sparse, but I wonder if this lovely harmonic sound is actually derived from the electric piano of Terry Manning. If anyone has any more information, I’d love to hear from you. It is a multilayered track that merges all elements together extremely well.
When My Baby’s Beside Me is a fantastic song with an addictive rhythm. It is a solid rock/pop tune that will appeal to almost anyone. Interestingly, when I first saw the incredible documentary Sound City, I heard a tune that Rick Springfield and Dave Grohl were working on and I could have sworn that I had heard that song before. The song in question is The Man That Never Was and every time I hear the song, it reminds me of When My Baby’s Beside Me. While they are clearly different songs, Springfield’s vocal delivery is the highlighting point that connects the two songs. I’d be interested to find out if you too, dear reader, can hear the similarities. I love finding both intentional and unintentional connections in music.
My Life Is Right is another song that reminds me of the songwriting skills of Lennon and McCartney. It is a lovely mellow tune, that defines power pop, with the execution of rock elements throughout. It is a superb recording and I find that I am always captivated by the clarity and immediacy of the guitar strum and depth of the drum beat.
Give Me Another Chance has the most incredible vocal presentation on the album. So smooth, creamy, and well balanced. Alex Chilton nailed it!
I really like the multi-lead vocalist approach that Big Star went with. It reminds me of the Eagles, whereby the vocalist with voice best suited for the song, becomes the lead vocalist of that track. While that process is mostly a 70s thing, and many modern day leading men and women wouldn’t give their roles over so easily, I feel it is an aspect of harmony delivery that is missing from many modern recordings. It simply adds complexity and variance that can be enjoyed by all. No doubt some of you will likely point out the various boy bands that perform in a similar manner. While I can’t disagree completely, I have to be honest and say that while they can be good, they’re not 1970s good.
Try Again carries on beautifully from Give Me Another Chance. Chris Bell’s vocal delivery reminds me of Lennon’s solo work, especially on Imagine. When I hear music this good, I simply can’t fathom how Big Star was not one of the most popular bands in the world. I acknowledge their record label suffered problems with distribution etc, but it is almost criminal when you consider how talented the band was.
Watch The Sunrise has some incredible acoustic guitar work throughout the song, especially during the introduction. It is a lovely ballad-styled song.
ST100/6 has to be the weirdest song title I have ever encountered. If you have a better one, let me know in the comments. I also feel that this song should have been excluded from the album. Watch The Sunrise would have been a perfect ending for the album. Unfortunately, ST100/6 doesn’t do what all good final tracks should. It doesn’t encourage me to listen to the album again or stay within Big Star’s catalogue. The problem is, there is a song there, it just isn’t realised as the song ends prematurely at 0:57 seconds.
Despite my complaints regarding the quality of the vinyl production, it is an album that I enjoy having in my collection and I think you would too. While I don’t spin it as often as I’d like to, the songs are iconic to the era and stand the test of time. Is it smooth rock, pop-rock, or power pop? I honestly don’t think it matters what you call it when the music is this good.
Other Big Star reviews by Subjective Sounds: