Album Review: Big Star – #1 Record

Big Star were effing ace, and in the 1970s they released three effing ace albums. Of them, #1 Record is arguably the most bar-friendly. Radio City is more thrilling – featuring as it does the band’s defining tune, September Gurls – while Third/Sister Lovers, fuelled by bad drugs and bad attitudes, provokes the greatest (morbid) fascination.

My, that's a big star...

But the Memphis four-piece’s debut is the prettiest. It’s like scented oil on the surface of a sunny lake, shimmering with the summery Sixties sound beloved of front-men Chris Bell and Alex Chilton (who died recently at the age of 59).

Those boys loved The Beatles – and they adored The Kinks, The Beach Boys, The Byrds and oodles of US soul. (As a teenager, the gruff-throated Chilton had been the lead singer of blue-eyed soulsters The Box Tops, who enjoyed a smash with The Letter.) Their influences are apparent in the swoony vocal harmonies of the Ballad of El Goodo and Give Me Another Chance, and in the pealing guitars of the joyous My Life is Right and Feel, which opens the album explosively. There’s even a nod, in The India Song, to George Harrison and his subcontinental spirituality.

But never does the album threaten to be consumed by other artists’ craft, and the best-known track is a simple acoustic one. Thirteen is a heartbreaking (and much-covered) celebration of adolescence, spilling over with teenage desire: “Would you be an outlaw for my love?”. Rolling Stone magazine placed Thirteen at number 396 in its run-down of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

There’s a beautiful melancholy to the number – and there is to much of #1 Record, which also lays on chugging, bluesy riffs. Don’t Lie to Me and In the Street benefit from Bell and Chilton spanking their planks with verve, while When My Baby’s Beside Me has a fabulous call-and-response guitar break complete with a throwaway wah-wah effect.

The final great thing about this ironically titled album (it tanked on first release) is that it can usually be found in CD stores as a double album with Radio City for about a fiver, making it pretty much the finest bargain in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.