The Freelance Mentalists.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
  For Whom The Drells Toll

For Whom The Drells Toll
A Child's Introduction To A Garden of Wishes And Dishes Upon Big Star
By Don Allred
(The child of reading something in this book, then listening to these CDs
again, wandering to and on and from this computer: not a straight-up review
overall, but a lot of notes, observations, opinions)

Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection Of The
Kings Of Power Pop
by Ron Jovanovic (A Cappella Books/Chicago Review Press, 333 pages, $15.95)

In Space
Big Star (Ryko)

"The tune itself was an up-tempo rocker, which gave the album an
abrasive start, but the song soon twisted to show its melodic qualities and then took
off to somewhere else completely." That's Rob Jovanovic reporting (he's not a
critic), and however accurately he does or doesn't diagnose "Feel," he's
close to nailing "Feel" 's parents, the misfit Anglophiliac Memphians who named
themselves Big Star, after a chain-chain-chain of grocery stores. In Big Star:
The Short Life, Painful Death And Unexpected Resurrestion Of The Kings Of Pop,
R.J. indicates that they knew their name would rise again, possibly to hang
around their necks like their pointy trademark neon sculpture, which already
looks like a real quick chalk mark around a body.
So what the heck, they named their first album #1 Record. It was more
or less "released" in 1972. On Stax, like their second album, neither of
which was exactly the Stax-ish (Bell Records-labelled) soul-pop of Big Star
frontman Alex Chilton's former group, the Box Tops. (AKA the Funky Monkees, cos
live, in my hearing, they sounded like what they mostly were, a teenbleat cover
band, spazzilizing in hits of the session rat-only Box Tops. Even main
double-shifter Chilton was pro forma-ing his own gravelly,
bluejean-jacketed-soulpunk studio pipes; his preferred range was higher, for better and worse.) #1
Record mainly existed as promotional copies, but (thus?) got great reviews. As did
# 1's even better follow-ups, '74's Radio City and '75's Third/Sister Lovers,
the latter of which couldn't find a legit release until '78, and both of
which pushed Big Star's music and luck further and further. Yet even early on,
their also-funny-named "power pop" was melodic and rough, polished and sweaty,
melodic and twisted. They all continued to radiate in the ears of critsters,
fansters, and musos.
They set the bar too high for most of what gets called power pop.
(Unsurprisingly, considering that generic pee-pee usually boils down to the kind
of creeps who fixate on a [particularly drippy] transitional phase, which then
becomes arrested development at best. Accordingly, their own fansters luv to
whine about "Why isn't there more of their good stuff?" One-hit wonders are
all over the map, get over it. But that would be a contradiction in terms.)
In an afterglow that became an afterlife, they continued to fall, into
truer, bluer Big Stars, making more and more underground/grassroots sense: some
even called them "the Beatles upside down." (As Edd Hurt points out, this notion might have gotten folk-processed from Robert Christgau's 70s Consumer Guide notes on Big Star: "The harmonies sound like the lead sheets are upside down and backwards." But later in the 70s, I heard it from a couple of people, who didn't know each each other, or at least I hope not, considering other things they said. I've always pictured Big Star sprouting from an upside down Used bin in the sky, waiting for the next breeze to take their lusty dust for a cruise.)
Upside down in an operational sense as well, because they had found fresh
possibilities in their native Memphis, and themselves, via the perspective of the
Beatles, yes, but also (as Jovanovic points out) of the Kinks, the Zombies,
even the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin. (Way before Big Star's local studio
consultant Terry Manning engineered Led Zep III, which also has certain
beyond-folk-rock, modes 'n' nodes in common with Big Star, Zepreneurs launched
another para-Star: even though it was an important introductory single and/or
Featured Track, moving from groovy late night FM to nervy Top 40 Morning Drive,
compulsating "Whole Lotta Love" just couldn't be satisfied with any direction
homerun but that of a purposefully self-Led ((Zik Zak Wohnderah)), as equally
possessed Capt. Beefheart would put it. He and Zep had great live acts, and
he even had tour support like they had more of, but Big Star had little act,
tour, or support, in their original setup.)
Meanwhile, back in dream-(and otherwise-)infested Memphis, Big Star
tunneled through a meta-boilism of mutant-soul-stewpotheaded, Amerophile
records, the black vinyl hobo pyramids of kicks-starved, UK art school dropouts, and
found a space to see things from, not just fall into (although that could also
be cool.)
Jovanovic makes it pungently clear that Big Star were late-adolescents,
precariously balanced, but often (almost) equally determined to swing all
moods and rock all bottoms. Yet another Beatley aspect was that they had their own
mix of George Martin, in the person of Ardent Studios co-founder John Fry,
who had had his own mix of Big Star, in the persons of his own teen gang of
brainac techno-autodidacts (One of whom later founded Federal Express.) He passed
the fever along to Big Star, teaching them how to engineer sound, teaching
them from the waves up. So they in turn could become mad monks of the studio,
locked away in the anti-roots cellar, and all of 'em could take it as far as they
could go. (So Big Star's nuclear cluster wasn't just Alex Chilton Lennon and
Chris Bell McCartney lording it over the other two, it was more of a sweaty,
somewhat richochet-prone group head.)
The music can not only sway and jump like a gland funk railroad,
sometimes it flickers, even while chuffing in place, which is enough to keep it from
sounding very much, to me, like somewhat comparable (element-wise) joyrides
of, say, Buffalo Springfield, who they namecheck in R.J.'s book. (Maybe like
some solo stuff Neil Young would do, but not yet.) Even between croons and nice
beats, it can switch and twitch enough to cough up an anti-groove (groove), a
reaction against what's usually expected and required of Suthun boys, and what
we expect and require and show and peddle of ourselves, typically enough, in
and for some quarters.
Thinking here of Radio City, especially, where "Life is White" 's
post-blues blues claims the dumb post- part for toasties, offered as toothpicks of
white noise that (I guess this part is a harmonica) can seem white as bare
wood appearing in the bandsaw of the Home Improvement daddy, flashing back to his
pre-TV incarnation as bachelor cokefiend jailbird: he demonstrates how to
smoothly peel the bark, as chips, pine needles, blood and white powder fly in
every direction, their shadows crossing over his L.L. Bean plaid shirt, and
spots appear on his khaki Dockers, and his studio light life whites on out, into
the black, or at least the next track, which has its own life to do.) And
each album has its own set of curves. To "Break on thoo!" as the Doors would say,
but Freedom Rock can become more stylized than evah, which might be why Edd
Hurt refers to Radio City as "mannerist."
Not to get too (much more) owlish about it: fairly often, even on the
early tracks, they turn gawky self-consciousness into speedy self-awareness, so
the music seems to comment on itself, but dynamically. "Don't lie to me!" they
squawk, over a heavy beat, which, in this context, sounds (deliberately, I
think!) like a child-man stamping his big foot. Although they could also button
their collars, to face down the gorgeous perfidy of "September Gurls," which
became a hit only when covered by the Bangles, many years later. Many more
years later, their futility-anthem, "In The Street," covered by Cheap Trick, was
adopted as theme song for That 70s Show, and re-named "That 70s Song." (Big
Star's own original rendition of "September Gurls" ended up on That 70s'
semi-soundtrack, possibly because the producers were such fans, and also didn't want
to pay more for the Bangles' version.)
Pt. 2 is below:

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