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

Background

#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.

The Songs

Feel
(Bell/Chilton)
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
(Bell/Chilton)
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
(Bell/Chilton)
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.

Thirteen
(Bell/Chilton)
"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
(Bell/Chilton)
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
(Hummel)
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
(Bell/Chilton)
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
(Bell/Eubanks)
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
(Bell/Chilton)
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 record.

Try Again
(Bell/Chilton)
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
(Bell/Chilton)
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.

ST 100/6
(Bell/Chilton)
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

Musicians:

Chris Bell: guitar, vocal
Alex Chilton: guitar, vocal
Andy Hummel: bass, vocal
Jody Stephens: drums

Facts:

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

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