Album Review: Big Star “#1 Record” (1972)


#1 Record was the debut album by American power pop group Big Star. Released in 1972, this album was quite a landmark record, why? Well, it brought power pop, a style of rock made popular in the UK by bands such as The Kinks and The Who during the 60s into the 70s, and into the US, while simultaneously taking the style down a completely new path musically to boot.

The line-up for the recording of this album was the classic Big Star line-up, Chris Bell on guitar and vocals, Alex Chilton on guitar and vocals, Andy Hummel on bass guitar and Jody Stephens on drums. So pretty much your standard rock four-piece. Musically, power pop was a style that nobody else was really doing in the States at the time and stylistically consists of a big guitar sound with lots of power chords and heavy rhythms, complemented by some big anthemic pop hooks in the melody and vocals. This was far removed from the hard rock, blues rock and psychedelic music that had dominated for five to six years stateside, and to achieve this very authentic sound for its day, the band in their recordings tended to always play for the song and not for individual virtuoso performances. The songs themselves were the main centerpieces, not the players, and it was all for the purpose of sounding distinct and different from everyone else, something they definitely achieve on this album.

As for the songs, well the album kicks off with “Feel”, a track which showcases the Big Star sound right from the get-go. There are big booming drums and powerful vocals, while a horn section and some blues guitar playing adds a nice touch to proceedings. “The Ballad of El Goodo” is a ballad of the power pop kind and quite simply oozes melody. This track also has a slight Graham Parsons feel to it, especially in the choruses with their country-like harmony vocals, a definite album stand out. “In the Street” is Big Star’s most well-known song and probably the a-typical power pop track to the point that if I was to introduce someone to power pop I would probably play them this track straight off the bat. This track simply makes you want to get in a Cadillac or Mustang convertible and road trip across the US, it’s got that kind of free feel to it. The band slow things down a little on “Thirteen”, an acoustic-folk track which is a step down from the in your face explosion of some of the other tracks, but things are quickly back up and running on “Don’t Lie to Me” which has a sort of CCR/rock and roll vibe to it, showing that the band could rock out when they wanted to quite easily. After the forgettable “The India Song”, the troubadour rock of “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and the retrospective “My Life Is Right” carries us on to side two of the album in style, however it is at this point that the album loses a bit of its gusto and intensity with tracks such as “Give Me Another Chance” and “Watch the Sunrise” lacking the quality of some of the earlier tracks. But thankfully the album does not end this way and ends instead with the reflective rock ballad “Try Again”, a song that could easily put many Californian singer-songwriter to shame, while emphasising the song-writing talents of Bell and Chilton as a pairing, a pairing that unfortunately would not be seen on Big Star’s future releases.

#1 Record and Big Star themselves would go on to influence many alternative rock and indie bands in the US and elsewhere, especially bands like REM and The Replacements in the US 80s college rock scene. This despite the fact that at the time of its release #1 Record suffered from very poor sales, even though it was universally praised by critics. This album certainly set the band in motion and despite Bell’s departure, would springboard them nicely into their carefully crafted and melodic follow-up Radio City. Big Star was one of the 70s most underrated bands, but they did release one of the more heavily acclaimed albums of the decade. #1 Record stood out from the rest of the US rock scene in its uniqueness and was probably ahead of its time with its power pop sound, a style that became more popular in the late-70s and 80s. Seemingly America in the early-70s was still hung over from flower power and just weren’t ready for this more melodic, poppy rock sound. Still, all these years later, I am glad we get to marvel at the songs on this album and enjoy it just as much as I am sure the 10,000-odd people who bought it in 1972 must have done.


– Sam



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