What better way could there be to start a playlist, in September, of songs from the last 40 years of my life? “September Gurls” is a seminal track by a seminal band that has influenced, directly and indirectly, my music collection. Cited as an influence by the likes of Teenage Fanclub and R.E.M., Big Star are a classic example of a cult artist: a band’s band perhaps, a group of talented song-writers destined for commercial failure when they were together, followed by critical acclaim after they had split up in 1974, having lasted just three years together.
Formed in 1971 by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell – who saw themselves as a bit of a Lennon/McCartney team – with Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel, Big Star called their first album #1 Record. If the production and distribution at their label Stax had even come close to matching the critical acclaim showered upon the album, it might not have been such a ludicrously inaccurate title. As it was, fewer than ten thousand copies were sold, a number not helped by a deal signed with the major Columbia label that somehow resulted in fewer copies of the album on record store shelves.
Its follow-up, Radio City, was more of the same. In other words, more of the power pop, crisp melodies and harmonies, and overall brilliance. Even in-fighting and the loss of the increasingly unstable Chris Bell from the line-up couldn’t do much to derail the Big Star songwriting machine. Naturally, the same Columbia deal that had failed to help with sales of #1 Record also stiffed sales of Radio City, resulting again in pitiful sales, which is how an album containing gems like the slowed and stretched “What’s Going Ahn”, “Way Out West”, “Life is White” with its harmonica and crazy barrel-organ solo, and the barely bettered bag-of-hooks that is “Back of a Car” failed to turn Big Star into big stars.
Also on Radio City was a track that would later become a template for sunny power-pop harmonies. September Gurls can be heard in the harmonies of Teenage Fanclub, the simple and pure approach to songwriting of the likes of Ian Broudie (Lightning Seeds) or Evan Dando (Lemonheads). If I listen to “September Gurls” then jump into Real Estate‘s 2014 album Atlas, I don’t feel I’ve travelled far.
After Radio City, it was pretty much all over for Big Star. A final album, Third / Sister Lovers was recorded in 1974, but not released until 1978, Columbia’s lack of interest in distributing the band had finally been matched by the band’s own lack of interest in recording and releasing a new record. Not that there was much of a band to speak of by this time – of the original line-up, only Chilton and Stephens were left to work on the album, and neither were particularly committed to it.
If #1 Record is the sound of optimistic youth, and Radio City its cynical reality-check, then Third / Sister Lovers is an anguished howl of despair at broken lives and smashed dreams. It is, somehow, rarely less than brilliant and captivating, even when it’s harrowing (as on “Holocaust”) or ramshackle (as on “Kangaroo”). It is some way removed from the band’s early days, but there’s room for glimpses of the past in “For You” and “Stroke it Noel”, with a cavalcade of session string players in place of Chris Bell’s guitar, and the presumably not entirely sincere appreciation that is “Thank You Friends”:
Thank you friends
Wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you