Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#800 in the Series) Big Star, Third/Sister Lovers
This one goes down as one of the great enigma’s of rock music, an album by a band which had pretty much split up by the time it was recorded, which had no title and which didn’t even have a finalized track listing. For years it was, just like The Beach Boys “SMiLE”, more of a rumour, a myth, than an actual record. Thankfully it was eventually released, in an albeit limited capacity, and fans were finally able to hear what all the fuss was about. Was it worth it? Hell yeah. Big time.
Big Star were founded in Memphis by three friends who were deeply in love with The Beatles and most other British music of the time, and former teen idol Alex Chilton (teen idol by virtue of his being the singer in The Box Tops, remember “The Letter” ? That was him, at 16 years old!)
Chris Bell was friendly with a guy called John Fry who owned and operated Ardent Studios and the band were able to rehearse and record there as freely as they liked apparently. They honed their sound pretty quickly and soon signed a deal with the world famous Stax Records despite sounding absolutely nothing like any other of that labels roster. Big Star had their own vibe, a distinct power-pop one, with superb acoustic numbers thrown in. Stax must have thought they were on to a good thing and that the area was ready for a whole new sound!
Which proved to be most definitely not the case, sadly.
Their first effort, #1 Record, was a classic, a work of utter pop genius combining joyous upbeat tunes with slower ballads and gentle numbers. The writing team of Bell/Chilton delivered the goods big time but fate decreed that the album was a bit of a flop (sales wise), it didn’t take off in any meaningful way and Bell quit shortly after its release. Chilton and the other two carried on, delivering a second album, “Radio City” in January 1974. Again it was brilliant, featuring at least 4 classic tunes including the sublime “September Gurls” and classic lament “I’m In Love With A Girl”. Again, nothing came of it.
Frustrated, Hummell also quit leaving Alex and Jody Stephens in a bit of limbo. They had no record deal by this time and were barely a band at all. Chilton was still writing songs, albeit in very different style to what had come before, and wanted to do a solo album. They went into the studio and recorded what was to eventually become, after much confusion and disappointment, the third Big Star album.
It sounded absolutely nothing like the first two; indeed it could almost be the work of a completely different band.
The best way to describe this one would be: bleak, but beautiful. It’s a haunting record but one full of heartfelt emotion and passion. A flawed, broken, masterpiece. It’s also the sound of a man seemingly near the end of his tether, Chilton tired of all the bullshit and the fulsome praise which was accompanied by very little in the way of actual sales or success, he seems to be doing precisely what he wants with little care for anyone else’s opinion. And that’s part of what makes it such a great album.
Normally this is where I’d say: “we start off with …………..” but I can’t do that this time, there’s no definitive running order for the album, for reasons I’ll explain later.
Here’s some highlights though, whatever order you like to play them in:
“Big Black Car” – A man has never sounded so weary as Alex does on this cut: “driving in my big black car, nothing can go wrong………………nothing can hurt me…nothing can touch me”
I can’t really figure out what it’s actually about mind you, just a guy out driving, numbed to the world.
“Jesus Christ” – Told you he was doing what he wanted didn’t I, right in the middle of some serious songs of heartache and devastation, a Christmas song! But one of the strangest (and best) you’ll ever hear.
“Holocaust” sounds exactly like what you’d expect, devastated, wasted, a suicide ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on Lou Reed’s “Berlin”.
“Kangaroo,” God I don’t know what to make of these songs or how to describe them really, this is another plunge into darkness. Those last two achieved some sort of infamy when covered by This Mortal Coil in 1984.
It’s not all black; flashes of light, glimpses of hope appear, For You being a good example, a lovely little tune written by Jody Stephens. It’s a sweet interjection with lovely strings and a nice lyric;
“sometimes I can’t help but worship you / I love you and all the things you do”
“Nightime,” “Blue Moon,” “Take Care” …………all kind of similar, late night ballad type songs but unique in their own disconcerting ways. You could spend a lifetime with this album and never get to the bottom of it. It’s special and almost without precedent, I can’t think of much to compare it with to be honest.
Which probably explains why it didn’t get released at the time. Any record exec who heard this would have been completely baffled and clueless as to just how such a set of recordings could possibly be marketed.
When sessions were finished, a test pressing was made, but Chilton apparently never got around to arranging the songs into any kind of order. They were just sending it out to try and gauge the interest from record companies I imagine.
There was none!
The band, what was left of it, quickly fell apart and everyone moved on.
A few years later, due to Big Star’s growing influence on a cult audience, the album eventually crept out (on a tiny independent label) but how the running order or cover were chosen no-one seems to know. Certainly Chilton doesn’t seem to have been involved. It’s not even certain what the album’s title was meant to be.
Over the years it has re-appeared a few times, most notably the 1992 release by Rykodisc which is pretty much seen as the definitive version since it added 5 tracks from the same sessions. And of course, these days, you can sequence your own running order!
It’s reputation has grown over the years and rightly so, this is a masterpiece, albeit disjointed one, a strange album but one which will reward your time and patience without a doubt.
All songs were written by Alex Chilton, except where noted.
- “Kizza Me” – 2:44
- “Thank You Friends” – 3:05
- “Big Black Car” – 3:35
- “Jesus Christ” – 2:37
- “Femme Fatale” – 3:28 (Lou Reed)
- “O, Dana” – 2:34
- “Holocaust” – 3:47
- “Kangaroo” – 3:46
- “Stroke It Noel” – 2:04
- “For You” – 2:41 (Jody Stephens)
- “You Can’t Have Me” – 3:11
- “Nightime” – 2:53
- “Blue Moon” – 2:06
- “Take Care” – 2:46
- “Nature Boy” [bonus track] – 2:30 (eden ahbez)
- “Till the End of the Day” [bonus track] – 2:13 (Ray Davies)
- “Dream Lover” [bonus track] – 3:31
- “Downs” [bonus track]” – 1:43 (Chilton/Lesa Alderidge)
- “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” [bonus track] – 3:20 (Dave Williams)
- Lesa Aldridge – vocals
- Lee Baker – guitar
- Jim Dickinson – bass guitar, drums, mellotron
- Steve Cropper – guitar
- Richard Rosebrough – drums
- William Murphey – bass guitar
- Tarp Tarrant – drums
- Jimmy Stephens – bass guitar
- Tommy Cathey – bass guitar
- Tommy McClure – bass guitar
- Carl Marsh – reeds, woodwinds, synthesizer