The summer night sky sparkles with stars overhead, clouds across the field pulsate occasionally with purple flashes. You and the other teenagers in your small group of friends are laughing and rushing to light the fuse of a bottle rocket in a coke bottle before the summer rain starts. You smell something skunky and minty… Some older teen on a nearby porch is smoking a joint.
Once upon a time in the early ’70s, a Memphis Tennessee rock and roll band called Big Star captured a moment like this on their first album, #1 Record. The backstory is legend and the aftermath is haunting and tragic. But this moment when four young men in Memphis tracked their perfectly produced, harmony and melody-laden debut… It’s magical.
Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the chief songwriters in the band at that time, had an energized partnership, not unlike that of their heroes, Lennon and McCartney. Unlike scores of would-be mop tops, Chilton and Bell had their own sound, their own voices, and the goods as lyricists and musicians.
Stratocasters chug and sparkle, lyrics meander from genuine innocence to heartbreak, empowered anger and despair to triumph. The vocals at times have the grit of The Kinks’ Dave Davies and at times sound like a lightly stoned choir of Beach Boys. Jody Stephens’ drumming is always energetic– like you can hear him smiling through takes. The lads had chops galore but always used them to serve the songs. Side one is as invigorating as side two is recharging with its more thoughtful acoustic numbers.
In 1972, ecstatic critics heaped praise upon the album but the record company (Ardent, distributed by the great Stax Records from ’72-’75) lacked the infrastructure, connections, and organization to get the pop rock Big Star LPs to record store shelves. Boxes of #1 Record sat unopened, unshipped, or were shipped late and eventually returned. Few LPs made it into the wild but one by one those albums fell into the right hands, and seemingly all of those hands then picked up instruments and started bands. Eventually, several years afterward there was enough public interest to warrant a reissue. Slowly, and driven mostly by younger musicians, Big Star’s #1 Record began to shine. Not all of them lived to see it.
#1 Record still sounds fresh– but maybe familiar like from a dream. Most of the songs on its pristine grooves could have been singles, so it sounds almost confusingly like a greatest hits compilation. Honestly, it’s like finding a mint condition classic car from 1972 with 150 miles on it, smelling new and just big enough for you and your closest friends. The story of how it came to be and why it was left after 150 miles is mostly a tale for another time. The important thing is how it makes you feel when you start it and take it for a spin.
I dare you to sit down and give it your full attention for one spin. If you like, there’s a beautiful documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me. Of course, there are more Big Star albums but not many more– and they don’t sound like #1 Record. You can focus on what a shame that is or you can count your blessings that such a thing exists… And that it sat since 1972 waiting for you to drive it home.