A lot of scribes dwell on the ‘cult band’ angle of Big Star. “Nobody’s ever heard of them” they opine, before knowingly adding “…but they’re great” (with a stroke of the chin of course). I’ve never understood this.
I discovered Big Star in the late 90s aged 16. Those halcyon days when you realised that there was so much more music out there than the narrow vein you subscribed to and defended so vehemently. Big Star weren’t a buried treasure though, they were always there… as long as you had your eyes and ears open.
The name Big Star was sporadically littered across the music press, usually by comparing a melodic current release to this 70s band of jangling Anglophiles from Memphis. Having never heard a note (but at that time being cut from a Byrdsian jangly cloth), I thought “I’ve got to have some of this”.
I managed to get hold of an import two-fer CD of Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City, rushed back to the car and reverentially pressed play. “Feel” filled the car. Not what I’d expected. Where were the chiming guitars? Where was the melodic restraint and Anglophile cool? This was 70s. Very 70s.
I stuck with it though (and at this point I might add that I now love “Feel” and the whole Big Star ouvre). And was I rewarded by track 2: The Ballad Of El Goodo.
The highlight of #1 Record (poignantly titled if you know their history), The Ballad Of El Goodo is quite simply one of the best, most effervescent yet melancholic songs ever written. Co-written by Chris Bell and Alex Chilton (with Chilton taking lead vocal duties), the track is a masterpiece of studio perfectionism.
Multitracked jangling guitars pull you into Chilton’s lyrical world of draft-dodging defiance. Crystal acoustic guitars and Andy Hummel’s glue-like bass drop in hinting at what’s to come at the chorus. Jody Stephens beats the skins and Big Star bring us the “quiet bit-loud bit” dynamic long before The Pixies and then Nirvana claim it as their own.
And then the harmonies come in. Those harmonies. Bell joins Chilton for those immortal words “And there ain’t no one goin’ to turn me round”. But they don’t stop there. After the quietness of the verse returns it’s then like a jet plane taking off when the “aaaahs” and “ooohs” frame every line that Chilton spills onto tape.
The layers of the song are incredibly dense but there’s still space between every chiming guitar, every overdriven arpeggio and every Nashville tuning sparkle. It is a truly amazing piece of production, helmed by the 21 year old (!) Bell and Ardent Studios legend John Fry. THIS was the Big Star I expected. No, this was more than I had expected.
There are so many highs to be found in their songbook but The Ballad Of El Goodo is the first one that grabbed me by the collar and made me love Big Star. And there ain’t no one goin’ to turn me round either.