Irony surrounds the brief career of Big Star like a bad smell. Firstly, check that name: ‘Big Star’. Although the band formed by former Box Tops’ frontman Alex Chilton and fellow Memphis anglophile Chris Bell garnered much critical acclaim for their albums of bright, sparkling, melodic, harmony-driven, tough guitar-pop (this being during the gravely-voiced, positively beefy days of early 70s rock), and have also seen the reputation and influence of their band only grow in the years since, due to a combination of poor distribution, a lack of touring, bad drugs and bad women – they did next to nothing financially, remaining at best a local ‘cult’ act. Secondly, they called their first album #1 Record. It sank like a turd in a swimming pool. Thirdly, by the time they came to record this, their most acclaimed work, the band was in the process of disintegrating both personally and financially, which effectively makes it an Alex Chilton solo album in all but name. Finally, being unfinished, it is one of the only ‘classic’ albums that has no set title, cover or sequence. It was recorded in 1975, but remained unreleased until 1977. It has been reissued several times since, each time with a different packaging and track listing.
None of this matters much in the end: the album is a masterpiece, however you would like to package it. Arguably one of the very best of the 70s: an achingly beautiful, painfully honest, utterly chilling portrait of a man/artist/band in the process of auto-destruction. It is clearly unfinished in other respects: some of the arrangements sounding so bare they could be demos recorded in a graveyard in January. This only adds to the oddly comforting, womb-like aura of despair that envelops the listener like an opiate substitute.
It’s not all doom and gloom you understand. Almost half the album is filled with up-tempo rockers, but even here, instead of the shimmering, jangling, sinewy muscularity of an earlier song like Radio City’s ‘September Gurls’, we receive bruised, ramshackle, Quaalude-numbed chaos. “I want to white out,” Chilton sings on ‘Kissa Me,’ as the band (including bizarre plink-plonk avant-piano wig-out) thrash wildly around him. One of the best of these numbers, the groupie-baiting ‘You Can’t Have Me’, turns into a veritable riot of spasmodic drum pounding, squelching synth-bass, and squealing, honking sax madness. It even has a Christmas song (Memphis being a deeply Christian part of America): the ecstatic ‘Jesus Christ’ with its rapturous, kettledrum led chorus. Or lose yourself in the gorgeous, gossamer delicacy of the McCartney-esque, string-laden ‘For You’. And then realise that this is the Drummer’s song!
It’s on the album’s ballads, however, that we hear the emotional ‘meat’ of the record. Take, for instance, their cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’. Whereas Nico sang the song with an ice-cold, Teutonic, European detachment; a deliberate lack of emotion, Chilton sings the song as if the girl of the title had just ripped his heart out. In ‘Big Black Car’, a spooky, sparse nighttime trip down a moonlit highway, Chilton sings, “Nothing can hurt me,” before ooh oohing like an angel (albeit one that’s teetering on the verge of losing consciousness and being accompanied by icy slide guitar and tender piano instead of harp).
The two most talked about songs on the album are, unsurprisingly, also the most tormented. ‘Holocaust’ (the clue’s in the title now), is a nerved-frayed trip into a scared, hurting mind: “Your eyes are almost dead/Can’t get out of bed/And you can’t sleep/You’re sitting down to dress/And you’re a mess/Can’t look in the mirror”. All this over barely there-piano, a bass walking with heavy feet, and a sliding guitar that sounds like a wounded animal crying out in the dark. Then comes the killer: “Your Mother’s dead/She said/Don’t be afraid,” he sings before, “Your Mother’s dead/You’re on your own/She’s in her bed.” During the instrumental section the piano and drums drop away to leave cello and guitar to weave around each other in blind anguish. It canmake you weep. Chilton ends the song with: “Everybody goes/Leaving those/Who fall behind/You’re a wasted face/You’re a sad eyed lie/You’re a holocaust”. Chilling is a gross understatement.
‘Kangaroo’ (often covered by Jeff Buckley) could be the most haunted love song ever made. It starts with a burst of white noise and the sound of an erratically strummed acoustic guitar that’s just about managing to keep to one tempo. In the background guitars feedback. A bass drum and snare is hit every few bars. “I first saw you,” Chilton wails, “You had on blue jeans/Your eyes couldn’t hide/Anything”. As the song progresses the drums become more frantic, his strumming heavier and increasingly irregular, and the feedback rises to a crescendo that threatens to swallow song and singer. “I saw you,” he weeps in the midst of this chaos, “breathing out”. It’s almost unbearably moving; a naked, bare-boned cry of despair that will surely resonate deeply with anyone who has lived long enough to have had their heart broken, and subsequently spent hours lying face down on the carpet drunk and weeping uncontrollably.
If all this sounds like one big bummer, well, it is – but don’t let that put you off. Like many such ‘dark nights of the soul’ you come away from the experience feeling as if the process has been cathartic for both artist and listener alike, and therefore ultimately redemptive of the demons which plague us.
Finally it is an album of questions. We’ll never know for sure what the album would’ve sounded like had Chilton gotten his act together and finished it off. “No one ever bothered to even ask me what I wanted on that album,” he later railed. Perhaps these songs simply weren’t meant to sound so haunting; so damn skeletal. Perhaps the finished product was really not meant to be such a spine-tingling experience as this. But then again, maybe on some level, it was.
Any band from Memphis will inevitably begin to draw out reference to Memphis’ most famous prodigal son, and at times the production on this album – particularly on the ballads – explicitly recalls the spooky, woozy atmosphere of Elvis’ Sun recordings such as ‘Blue Moon’. There’s even a song on the album with that title. Whether this is intentional or not is anyone’s guess. I’d guess not (at least consciously). After all, Chilton belongs to the second generation of rock ‘n’ roll kids: those who bypassed the birth of rock and instead grew up on the wave of British bands who flooded in on the Beatles’ wake, but we’ll never know. And anyway, as I hinted earlier, any discussions of how the intended album should’ve sounded are ultimately academic. So what if it wasn’t supposed to be this fragmented tableaux of deep despair: it is. As such it deserves its place alongside such other classic 70s ‘bummers’ like Tonight’s The Night and There’s A Riot Goin’ On. The chequered history of Big Star’s 3rd prevents us from ever experiencing it as anything other than a ‘ghost’ of an album. But a ghost that (don’t say I didn’t warn you) may haunt you for the rest of your life.