Feb 3 2022

Album Review: Big Star – #1 Record (#MWE)

Context is everything. When you’re listening to a landmark album, you have to know the background.

Sure, Big Star’s #1 Record emulates the Byrds and the Beatles. They are kindred spirits with their peers Badfinger. And you can hear faint traces of what they influenced: The Replacements, REM, Tom Petty. The key thing, at least for most people, myself included, is that you’ve already heard all those things before #1 Record. Your brain hears what you heard first. And sometimes it’s hard to parse just exactly how an album influenced others when you heard the later stuff before the classic stuff. It might make you think, “What’s so special? What’s the big deal? This sounds pretty ordinary.”

But the context (which, remember, context is everything) is that nothing else in 1972 sounded like Big Star. They were simultaneously retro and forward-thinking. Power-pop was still in its infancy when #1 Record landed in precious few record stores. While rock was either taking a trip to Laurel Canyon or going full bombastic proto-prog, a group of guys from Memphis were making simple pop with bright melodies and singalong choruses. And the result? Every song shines through as a singular statement, and the album is diverse enough to never lose your attention.

I was surprised, even though I’d never heard the album in full, how I basically knew every song individually at some point in my life. Everything was instantly familiar, either from Big Star themselves or a cover I had heard (example: Cheap Trick’s version of “In the Street” for That 70s Show). The best popular music can evoke that feeling of familiarity, even when it may not be true. Great music can trick your brain.

So many songs on #1 Record do this. “Feel” is a polished, upbeat rocker, while “The Ballad of El Goodo” has an oft-repeated refrain that is sticky enough to rival “Hey Jude.” Speaking of Paul McCartney, his presence is felt on the flawless “Thirteen.”

“Don’t Lie To Me” would fit immaculately in the arena-rock industrial complex that was to come later in the decade, a feel-good, nostalgia-driven, beer-swiggin, shout-along number that reminds me of Free’s “All Right Now,” which, unlike anything Big Star recorded, actually received radio play. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” has a similar feel; it’s like the band conjured up the blueprint for the next decade of rock’n’roll when no one was looking. In one short album, the duo of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton proved they had the goods to rival the songwriting chops of Lennon and McCartney. Chilton brought the best songs, and Bell had the natural knack for sharp production and pristine harmonies.

Even though we’ve heard the influences first, I can’t imagine how a modern listener would be bored with #1 Record. It is a perfect piece of power-pop. Every bit fits, every guitar strum seems obviously placed to maximize the potential for perfection. They make it all sound so simple. But as we know from Big Star’s story, that certainly wasn’t the case, before or after #1 Record.

Actually, maybe context isn’t everything. Because you know a good record when you hear it. It doesn’t matter when it was made. It really doesn’t matter who it influenced. In the moment, when you drop the needle and put on your headphones, all that matters is what you’re hearing. Big Star created 37 minutes of rock’n’roll bliss in 1972. That’s all the background needed to enjoy it, even in the 21st century. #1 Record is ageless.

Score: 10/10