Welcome to the first edition of ‘Golden Vault’, Goldenplec’s new weekly feature. Join us every Wednesday as we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The first album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal is ‘#1 Record’ by Big Star.
In the realms of ’70s rock music Big Star have a reputation comparable to that of some of the great defensive midfielders to the world of football. Much like Claude Makelele or Esteban Cambiasso, the band was unheralded at the time and worked away to little acclaim. But with the benefit of hindsight we can see how talented and influential they really were.
The band never achieved commercial success in their day, but they experienced a revival when indie bands like R.E.M. started citing them as having an impact on their music in the ’80s. Although they released three near-perfect albums, 1972’s ‘#1 Record’ is the only one to include contributions from every founding member and is a lot more approachable than their downbeat follow-ups. It is a fantastic blend of British pop and Californian rock, with a hint of soul, that has aged remarkably well.
Big Star had a Lennon-McCartney dynamic in the dual singer-songwriter team of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, comparable to The Beatles in their songwriting abilities and in their eventual falling out and break up. Fortunately here they synchronize perfectly to the extent that it’s hard to tell which song is by which writer.
It is also hard to understand what ultimately makes this album so good. Listen to a song like Thirteen, one of the most simple pieces of acoustic music you are likely to hear, with lyrics that would sound dreadfully cheesy being delivered by anyone else. It somehow transcends that and becomes a genuinely beautiful ode to young love.
The simple answer to what makes the album so enjoyable is the band’s talent at writing memorable melodies. The Ballad of El Goodo is a slow-burning track about being an outcast that could have slotted nicely on to Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’. There is nothing particularly mind-blowing or innovative about the song but, a few listens in, you realise that it really is something special and could stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best songs of the decade.
Although the album is not as well-known as perhaps it should be, it has still worked its way into pop culture. You may recognise In The Street from the cover version by Cheap Trick, used as the theme song to That ’70s Show. The original works a lot better if you can banish memories of Ashton Kutcher from your mind. You can also hear traces of countless bands from the last few decades throughout the album, such is its standing in music circles. ’80s indie heroes The Replacements even have a song called Alex Chilton.
Big Star knew at the time that they would not be a roaring success. Sarcastically titling their first album ‘#1 Record’ is an indication of this. Luckily the album has somehow survived this long and has become a cult favourite. This didn’t happen by accident, so if you haven’t heard it yourself, press play, sit back and relax.