Monday, January 2, 2017

Thirty Days of Fifty # 1 Big Star

I liked the film so much it gives me an opportunity to re-post a couple of things from this blogs history. Starting with this, from last September.

'How can I deny. What's inside...'

 I turn fifty on the last day of this month. A milestone to myself at least though possibly less so to the rest of the universe. This though is a blog and I have every right to be self-indulgent. If you don't like it, don't read. So, I'll post a song that means something special to me every day of this month. Given where we are in the calendar year, this is as good a way as any of starting.. 

Back in the dark and distant days of the eighties, Big Star, much like Nick Drake among others were almost hidden from sight. Their records were long deleted and barely known in the UK except by aficionados, critics and musicians. With respect to Big Star, R.E.M. changed that, along with The Replacements, at least for me over the course of those years. R.E.M. particularly, name-dropped them relentlessly, and as that particular band were responsible for so much of my musical development in the early part of that decade, my interest was piqued. 

September Gurls was the only one of their songs I was familiar with for most of the decade as I'd fortuitously taped it off a radio show, along with the couple of other Big Star songs that This Mortal Coil covered from their third album Sisters Lovers, Holocaust and Kanga Roo. That third record was a very different beast from their two earlier albums, much more sombre, withdrawn and frankly depressed and it was those two records that I bonded with most when I discovered them in the early nineties.

I first heard #1 Record when my sister played it to me sometime around 1991 when the records were re-released. Its impact on me was immediate and I soon hunted down all three albums for myself and bonded deeply with them along with countless others in the UK, most notably Teenage Fanclub, who were clearly in thrall to the band's sound and based their breakthrough album Bandwagonesque, quite shamelessly upon its influence although it should be said, to great effect as that is a very good record indeed. Not a patch on the original though. The Big Star records have remained with me ever since. As important as any in my collection. If anything their impact only grows with the passing years.

I could choose any number of tracks to slot in here but September Gurls seems a natural selection as it distills so much of what appeals most of the band into less than three minutes. The chiming most of all. The guitars chime. But the rhythm section too. The instruments lock together to quite incredible emotional effect.

And then there are the harmonies. Such a template for those early, remarkable R.E.M. albums most of all, because unlike Teenage Fanclub they took the sound as a template only and took it in a direction that remained totally their own.

The central emotion of the song is still one of sadness, of the hormonal turmoil of early adulthood, of relationships and emotions doomed not to last because the phase that we're going through at that point is by definition transitional and something is inevitably bound to give. Something, or someone, will get left behind. But it's joyous too. There's a sense that all the beauty that's being lost is captured for the course of the song. What the band have managed to do is almost noble in its ambition. These feelings ultimately are the ones that matter most in life. Its honesty is quite extraordinary.

'I'd never had an easy relationship with a  woman that didn't degenerate into some kind of depression or bad feeling. I always wrote about what was happening to me.'
Alex Chilton

For some unaccountable reason, the track was buried towards the end of the second side of Radio City when really it should have been featured far more prominently. When it was finally released as a single months later, which it was surely born to be, it was barely noticed. It has been over the intervening decades. In some ways now it could be put forward as an example of good pop taste. This in some ways is irrelevant. It still sounds the same as it did when it came out when it was utterly ignored. It hasn't become a better record. People have only realised what was missed, save for a few, first time round. Ultimately perhaps it's best viewed as a starting point for a journey of discovery into the rest of Big Star's wonderful catalogue of songs and  their unique, compressed achievement of heartbreak and joy. Take it from here!

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