Released during 1972, in the midst of
that period's blundering excesses,
"No. 1 Record" was an
essential breath of fresh air.
— Brian Hogg's liner notes to #1 Record, 1986
#1 Record (accurate in that it was in fact their first record, but wildly inaccurate
in terms of reflecting actual album sales) was Big Star's opening gambit in what would be
a career of musical greatness but personal disaster. Fronted by Alex Chilton and
Chris Bell, with Jody Stephens on drums and Andy Hummel on bass,
Big Star had been known, in its pre-Chilton days, as Ice Water. When Chilton, disillusioned
after the Box Tops' demise, returned to Memphis, Tennessee, began
hanging around Ardent Studios, and teamed
up with Bell and company and they renamed the band Big Star, after the "Big Star Foodmarkets"
across the street.
Rehearsals were spread over several months, marked by the founding of the Ardent record label,
which was to have distribution through Stax Records. #1 Record was recorded in 1972 and
released that same year; produced by the band themselves and engineered by Ardent's John Fry,
it fell on deaf ears upon its release. Stax's distribution proved woefully inadequate, and
even a later deal with CBS Records to help distribution did little to alleviate the problems.
Following the album's release, intraband tensions led Bell to leave the band, leaving Chilton
and the other two surviving members to continue on and record Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers,
with only the former seeing official release during the band's lifetime. Probably Big Star's most
accessible album, and one which has greatness only matched (and in a way, surpassed)
by the following two albums.
#1 Record was coupled with Radio City and released in CD format in 1992 by Stax; a 24-bit remastered
version is available, and both versions include well-written liner notes by Brian Hogg and Rick Clark.
I feel like I'm dying, I'm never gonna live again
Beginning with a lightly overdriving and saturated guitar, Feel kicks off the album in style,
though Bell's belted vocals take a little getting used to in comparison to Chilton's relatively
softer tones. Features a memorable brass-section solo done in unison with the band's regular
instruments. Not the best indication of what is to come, but a fine way to kick off the record.
The Ballad of El Goodo
I'll fall if I don't fight, and at my side is God
Capoed guitars ringing out and Chilton's vocals prompting the listener to "Just a-hold on", this
is Big Star at one of its best moments. At turns defiant
(And there ain't no one goin' to turn me 'round) and vulnerable
(I've been built up and trusted, broke down and busted), this song would come to illustrate Chilton's
future in the music industry.
In The Street
Not a thing to do, but talk to you
Most of my non-Big Star friends still know this song - it was covered by Cheap Trick and serves
as theme song to That 70's Show. This version is far better, the intertwining guitars of the
intro and the euphoric vocals providing one of the better "heavy" Big Star songs.
"Would you be an outlaw for my love?"
Any description of this song can't fully do it justice; panamaus' description in the Thirteen
node is as good as they come. Rather than try to re-hash what he has put so well, I advise the
reader to instead take a look there.
Don't Lie to Me
Don't cross me babe
Big Star old-fashioned rock-and-roll at its best. Beginning with the sound of the band getting
ready to play and then kicking off with a great riff, this was one of the album's singles; it flopped,
but remains nonetheless a good showing that Big Star could rock out when needed.
The India Song
Drink gin and tonic and play a grand piano
Written by bass player Hummel and arguably the least "traditional"-Big Star sounding song on the
album, this is a simple tune about going to India, meeting a girl, and finding contentment. The
instrumentation is very 60's sounding, and recalls that of late-period Beatles.
When My Baby's Beside Me
Coz when my baby's beside me, I don't worry
The other single released off the record, it follows in a similar style to Don't Lie to Me, but
with a much more optimistic tone. Featuring a very 70's-typical "ringing chord" to bring in
each verse, another muscle-with-brains song to kick off the second side with style.
My Life is Right
When you're around, my life's worthwhile
Bell's finest composition and vocal, My Life is Right can be seen as a reply to Chilton's
assertion that he's found the right girl - "when my baby's beside me, I don't worry", claims the
latter; "Lonely days of uncertainty, they disappear when you're near me" replies the latter.
Normally such lyrically similar tracks would cancel each other out when placed in sequence on
an album, but in this case they compliment each other - Chilton's song a more defiant, proud
assertion while Bell's is calmer and more reflective.
Give Me Another Chance
You know I just don't think before I speak
One of Chilton's most gorgeous compositions, it finds its narrator vulnerable and humble - not
very common in Chilton's #1 Record-era output, and all the more convincing for it. "Don't give up
on me so fast", he pleads, and the song's closing harmonies are some of the strongest on the
Lord, I've been trying to be what I should
Stately and hymn-like, Try Again finds its roots in Memphis soul and finds Bell both confused
("I feel the pain") and determined ("But I'll try again"). Terrific.
Watch the Sunrise
It's okay to look outside - the day it will abide
With an opening 12-string guitar riff worthy of The Byrds, Watch the Sunrise is probably
the most musically-acomplished song on the record; the pre-chorus' vocal harmonies ("Okay",
"outside") complement Chilton's vocals perfectly, and the ringing guitar resonates far after
the song is finished.
I'll show you somehow
With only four lines of lyrics and an arpeggiated guitar forming the main instrumentation,
this is best seen as a coda - it would be Bell's goodbye to the group, and he goes out in style,
the close-harmony vocals ocassionaly spine-tingling. As it draws to a close, you just want to
press play and start all over again.
The Technical Side
Chris Bell: guitar, vocal
Alex Chilton: guitar, vocal
Andy Hummel: bass, vocal
Jody Stephens: drums
Recorded in 1972 at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee
Produced by Big Star
Engineered by John Fry
Originally released by Ardent in 1972
Re-released on CD in 1992 by Stax