The fact that they don’t hand you a copy of #1 Record at your bar/bat mitzvah and say, “You wanna be a grown-up? You’re going to need this to get you through the next 20-plus years of your life,” is a damn shame. I still have my copy of The Jewish Book of Why? and while I appreciate it, #1 Record gets way more play. Sorry, Rabbi, I hope you understand.
At 13, I was old enough to have already obsessed over the Beatles for years. (They were actually the theme for my bar mitzvah, in case you were wondering, and my first concert was Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band.) Objectively, the Beatles are the best band of all time, but as a kid, it’s hard to know if “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” had some deeper meaning to it or if it was just fun. Did they just come up with a silly story so they had an excuse to hit an anvil with a hammer in a song? Hammers are phallic, and violent, maybe there was some metaphor to it? I sure as hell didn’t know, but I loved it, and still do—now with an added appreciation for their pristine songwriting processes. I think my love for their bright, uptempo tunes set me up for a Big Star obsession.
Big Star aren’t exactly the kind of band that gets handed to you as a kid, and if they were, well, good for you, must be nicE.
I was in my early 20s when I first, consciously, listened to Big Star—later than most of their fans, but ready to finally dive in after hearing individual songs of theirs on mixtapes and soundtracks. I bought their first two albums with the understanding that Big Star are a band you always hear about without actually hearing them. They’ve always been there, for years, sometimes just in passing—like in the Replacements’ song “Alex Chilton.” Big Star aren’t exactly the kind of band that gets handed to you as a kid, and if they were, well, good for you, must be nice. For me, they were something I took a journey to get to. They were always on my mental “music to-do list,” I guess. When I did finally dive in, I could not have been prepared for the impact, and I’m sure most fans of the band could say the same. They might be the most unassuming, underestimated, underrated band of all time, and that’s a hill I’ll die on.
Let me start off by saying, I ain’t no music historian, as if that wasn’t clear already. My brain is good at absorbing a ton of information about the things I care about, but better at losing half of it, so my love for this album is purely based on feeling and connection. But here goes: Big Star, on their 1972 debut album #1 Record, were made up of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, both on guitar and vocals, Andy Hummel on bass and vocals, and the mighty Jody Stephens on drums. It was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis and produced by the label’s founder, John Fry, and released through Stax. Fifty years later, it still sounds classic, probably because every musician pulls their weight and beyond. In fact, if you’re reading this, you probably feel the way everyone feels about Big Star after hearing them for the first or 50th time: “How the hell did they do this?” Dude, I wish I knew.
And the #1 Record album cover? It’s a literal piece of art. They didn’t even put the actual band name on the cover, and it is their first album! How many people saw it without hearing of the band and assumed they were called BIG? Doesn’t matter a lick—because it stands out; it’s strong, simple, powerful, and executed with perfection. Not unlike its contents, right?
I could write a whole book on “Thirteen” alone, as if it needs any explanation as to why it’s one of the best love songs ever written. It’s all nostalgia, love, innocence, the pain of youth—all the things I wish I could’ve understood at my bar mitzvah. Sherman and Peabody wish they had a time machine that worked half as well as this song does in taking you back to a moment in time you never even lived in.
But don’t take my word for it. Just listen to the hundreds of mediocre “Thirteen” covers people have attempted over the years. Sure, there are fine covers that exist (a few done by friends of mine, and I appreciate those). It’s just that none comes close to being able to evoke the raw feeling of the original. I completely understand the impulse to try, wanting to play those chords and sing those words, wanting to feel what it must have felt like to be Alex Chilton or Chris Bell to play it, knowing how powerful it is. Free idea for shrinks: Use “Thirteen” as an exercise in therapy; force your patient to confront when their life changed directions by walking through it, lyric by lyric.
One of my favorite things about this record—besides everything, who are we kidding?—is that on side A, starting with the horn-y opener “Feel,” and even briefly into side B, every other song on this record is a “turn up the car stereo as loud as it goes, it’s Friday night, work sucked all week, I wanna smoke weed, eat pizza, and play pool” song. I don’t really know what people do with their Friday nights, but that’s what I would be doing if I enjoyed the company of people more. At least we’ve got this record.
Big Star never needed a narrative about wizards and shit. They wrote songs for the highway and cruising on the back streets, for crying over a life you can only ever truly revisit in your mind.
The opposite tracks are calmer—ballads, mostly—the sweetest songs you’ve ever heard. No one is safe from tears being shed when “My Life Is Right” hits. Zeppelin gave us “Black Dog” but not without “Stairway to Heaven,” right? Hearing this album for the first time reminded me of that, but there’s more substance here. Big Star never needed a narrative about wizards and shit. They wrote songs for the highway and cruising on the back streets, for crying over a life you can only ever truly revisit in your mind.
And that’s the thing: Big Star were never ashamed of being sentimental, whether playing a sad, quiet song or a loud, raw one. It’s hard to be both genuine and good, and they strike the balance: nothing too flashy or too deep, no formula, no boundaries, precious sincerity without sounding like fucking Coldplay—just Big Star. They created something you can sing or play along to as if you meant it as much as Alex, Chris, Jody, or Andy did. How can so much chaos come from such beauty? And vice versa?
When the record was released in 1972, it was adored by critics and everyone else. Rolling Stone’s Bud Scoppa wrote, “it’s just exceptionally good.... Parallels are Badfinger and Raspberries, I guess, but Big Star shows more depth and consistency than either of those.” Robert Christgau celebrated the release in his Consumers Guide. “Alex Chilton’s voice is changing. When he was a [teenager in the band the Box Tops], his deep, soulful, bullfrog whopper was the biggest freak of nature since Stevie Winwood sang ‘I'm a Man,’ but now that he’s formed his own group he gets to be an adolescent, complete with adenoidal quaver,” he wrote. “Appropriately, the music tends toward the teen as well, but that provides brand new thrills.” The acclaim was widespread—of course it was, the album should’ve been huge!—but their label, Stax, had a distribution deal that fell through, making it next to impossible to buy. People wanted #1 Record and they couldn’t get it. We’re so lucky to be able to have it now.
When people talk about albums that changed their lives, they’re usually referring to their own youth—as if the high of emotional awareness and feeling hits when you’re a teen, exploring your own self, you own world, and where you fit in (or, for us music nerds, where you don’t fit in)—and then it drops off. But with Big Star’s #1 Record, I can access those feelings now, every time I put it on. The lyrics aren’t super cryptic, the verses are as infectious as the choruses, the guitars sound perfect, and the hurt and pain and attitude in their voices are the real deal. That’s something we should all be so lucky to get at any age, from diapers to, well, adult diapers.
The tragedy, if there is one, is that Big Star just wanted their music to be loved, and they never quite got the moment they really deserved. I mean, that’s easy to say now, right? Maybe they got the exact amount of attention they needed—maybe their music connected to just the right people and served the most appropriate purpose. It certainly changed my life.
There’s really no album more appropriately titled than #1 Record; it gives you what a rock record should, but rarely does, and then some. And that’s something to think about, to feel, to experience, to ponder, to question, to love. It might sound simple or abstract, but most records can’t do a single one of those things, let alone sound just as fresh as it did 50 years ago.
So if I get stuck on a desert island one day, please don’t forget to send me my copy of #1 Record. Rest in peace, Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, and Andy Hummel, you beautiful motherfuckers.