Record companies are very good at selling you stuff you've already got, and I've got several versions of 'Radio City', the second album by Big Star. It's funny that, when you buy a reissue of an album that you've known and loved for (in the case of this 'un) thirty odd years, you somehow expect each version to sound better. Well, it doesn't, but it sounded nigh-on perfect then, and successive decades have not dimmed its shimmer or lustre. Much more Alex Chilton's creation, than its predecessor, 'Radio City' is rich in spangly, jangly guitars, superb song craft and wonderful tunes. From the dense, in-your-face sub rockabilly twang of 'O My Soul', throught to the Stonesy swagger of 'Mod Lang' and the clanging arpeggios of 'You Get What You Deserve', 'Radio City' never stints on pressing the pleasure centres.
Memphis-based Big Star are a band that sold a relatively small number of records when together but who have subsequently become recognised as a seminal act and major influence on bands such as R.E.M., The Replacements and Teenage Fanclub.
Recently the subject of a lavish 4CD Rhino box set (Keep an Eye on the Sky the best entry points to their work will always be the first two albums - reissued by Concord as separate CDs for the first time with a bonus track apiece.
The albums originally made it onto CD in 1990 as a "2 on 1" by the pioneering Big Beat label. Recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios, with a vibrant and sparkling production by John Fry, they always sounded terrific, but the new remastering certainly seems to have added an extra clarity - as a result the sound is crisp and fresh and makes these the definitive versions to pick up.
Although they fitted onto a single CD, the albums actually work best as individual titles. On 1972's "#1 Record (Remastered)" they were a four-piece, with the song writing dominated by the Alex Chilton / Chris Bell partnership. Bell would leave the band before the release of 1974's "Radio City" (where most tracks were written solely by Chilton) and sadly didn't live to see the band he'd started get its due recognition as he was killed in a car crash in 1978.
As Kris Needs rightly states in the sleeve notes, Big Star are usually summed up as "power pop pioneers" but this really doesn't do them justice. Their sound is quite hard to pin down, but they were clearly inspired by The Beatles and had a very different style to most bands in an era that was dominated by Led Zeppelin and progressive rock. It's hard to argue with Needs' "great pop songs, bolstered by Memphis soul spirit" description.
Arguably an even stronger album than their debut, "Radio City" included Big Star's best known track - `September Gurls', which was later covered by The Bangles. The opening track `O My Soul' was released as single and the single mix also appears here as a bonus track. Other standouts include `Way Out West', the powerful `You Get What You Deserve', the tender closer `I'm In Love With A Girl' and the epic Anglo-generated pop of `Back Of A Car'. This edition restores the original cover image courtesy of legendary lensman William Egglestone.
As with its predecessor, "Radio City" was strangled at birth by distribution problems. Hummel departed, but that wasn't the end of the Big Star story. Chilton and Stephens carried on with different musicians, and the much darker recordings they made next were eventually released in 1978. Chilton embarked on a solo career but would reunite with Stephens (along with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies) for live performances under the Big Star name. A new album "In Space" would also surface in 2005.
Essentially all that most people need though is their first two albums - and there's no better way to buy them than in these keenly priced new packages from Concord.
Not as immediate as their debut, "#1 Record", but closer in spirit to that record than to the dark, sparse "Third/Sister Lovers". Perhaps not the album I'd start with if I was new to Big Star, but nonetheless chock full of top-notch tunes from the original power-poppers. All the Big Star hallmarks are here, from the Stones-y strut of "Mod Lang" to the delicate beauty of "I'm In Love With A Girl", all with Alex Chilton's slightly unhinged style of songwriting. This band are still too well-kept a secret. If you like the bands Big Star inspired, whether it's Teenage Fanclub or R E M, check them out...
Not as immediate as "#1 Record", but far closer to the spirit of Big Star's debut than the odd, sparse, bleak "Third/Sister Lovers", this is old-school power pop reminiscent of the Stones, the Kinks and Alex Chilton's other classy sixties influences. If you're new to Big Star this might not be the one to start with, but it's well worth the price of admission for the usual high standard of Big Star songs, ranging from the brassy blast of "Mod Lang" to the beautiful "I'm In Love With A Girl". Still a pretty well-kept secret, anyone who likes proper pop-rock owes it to themselves to check out Big Star.