Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Big Star Light, Big Star Bright

Still the #1 Record in Radio City

On Saturday night, Amy and I went to see "Bopp Does Big Star," at WTMD's Olympic Studio in Towson.

"Bopp Does Big Star"

Andy Bopp and his band - which included guitarist Warren Boes (Almighty Senators), Nick Bertling (Bertling Noise Laboratories), and a bassist (Eric?) who read "Big Star for Dummies" in between songs - played all the songs from Big Star's 1972 debut album #1 Record as part of a fundraiser for the radio station that used to be called WCVT back in my college days. (WCVT lasted until the advent of the '90s, which is around the last time I saw Andy Bopp play - back when he fronted a band called Love Nut, who were briefly on Joe Goldsborough's Merkin Records label)

"Bopp Does Big Star" at WTMD's Olympic Studio

Primary Source for Big Star fans

The in-studio album-length performance was broadcast live over WTMD (89.7 FM, as if you didn't know), with an intro and outro courtesy of local music show announcer Sam Sessa. It was a great idea for a great record - and here's hoping the tradition continues next year with Bopp's boys perhaps performing the second Big Star album, the post-Chris Bell follow-up Radio City (1973). On this night, they actually did play a few nuggets from Radio City ("September Gurls" and maybe "Back of a Car"?), as well as "Thank You, Friends" from Big Star's Third: Sister Lovers, Chris Bell's post-Big Star single "I Am the Cosmos" and Alex Chilton's pre-Big Star Box Tops hit "The Letter."

All the in-the-know, cool kids were there: Jim Maher, Gayle and Mike Maxwell, Cindy France and Greg Dohler, Chris Hartlove (with his son Wynn), Janet Little Jeffers, Joe Goldsborough, Susan Selway, and so on and so forth. Many more would have posted if not for the Stanstock Festival going on at the same time across town in Parkville.

I was really looking forward to this show because, well, Big Star is one of those bands - like the Beatles, like Buzzcocks, like the Who - that comes around once in a lifetime and is a game-changer.

Straight Outta Memphis: Big Star

"I never travel far without a little Big Star" as Paul Westerberg sang in The Replacements' homage, "Alex Chilton."

Big Star was clearly influenced by the Beatles and other British Invasion bands, and would go onto influence countless others. Indeed, they came Straight Outta Memphis to critical acclaim but commercial failure and relative obscurity - until rediscovered in the '80s and '90s by fellow troubadors (R.E.M., Replacements, Bangles, Game Theory, Wilco, Matthew Sweet, Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Gin Blossoms, Andy Bopp, et. al) and rock cognoscenti alike. Hopefully, Big Star will continue to influence future generations of musicians.

And on this night, Bopp's popsters did a most admirable job of showing the audience what all the fuss was about.

"They nailed it!" enthused Jack Nicholson clone Mike Maxwell.

"Well played sirs, well played!" Andy Bopp applauds his band

Indeed, there were only a few glitches along the way, which is understandable given that the record was a true studio production and not at all easy to play live.

"Oh, no, no; definitely a studio record," laughed Andy Bopp when Sam Sessa asked if it was meant to be played live. "All those crazy chords!" Warren Boes exclaimed with added emphasis.

"The Ballad of El Goodo" was slightly out of tune and during a later number a speaker started to act up, but other than that it was a masterful display, especially during a post-broadcast rendition of "September Gurls" from the Radio City songbook. On the record, Alex Chilton got his layered guitar sound on the song by playing a Fender "mando-guitar" on the breathtaking solo. (This hybrid between a mandolin and a guitar replicates the top four string pairs of a 12-string guitar capoed at the 12th fret, raising an entire octave above a standard tuned guitar. Chilton got his from his former Box Tops bandmate John Evans, and rumor has it George Harrison had one that he used on "Words of Love.")

The twin guitar interplay between Boes (lead) and Bopp on the solo was extraordinary, given that they had no mando-guitar (few do) to try and replicate this classic solo.

Boes & Bopp do Big Star

Listening to Bopp and co. playing those beautifully melodic, alternately poignant and rocking songs, made me think back to college days...back when I first heard, and fell in love, with the cult of Big Star. The Digital Age has evened the playing field and made virtually everything available, but back in the '70s, well, even then #1 Record was hard to come by. And Radio City. And all Big Star, for that matter.

But during my undergrad daze at Towson State University (circa 1975-1980), my friend Bernie Ozol had the vinyl platters of both #1 Record and Radio City and made me a cassette tape of them. Like Dylan turning the Beatles on to marijuana, Bernie Ozol was the Gateway Drug to my Power Pop Enlightenment.

Bernie Ozol: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mentor (painting by Stuart Stein)

Bernie also made me a tape of the also-hard-to-to-find Tommy Keene LP, Strange Alliance (I think it helped that Bernie was Tommy's roommate at the University of Maryland, College Park, during Keene's brief tenure as a Terrapin!). Oh, and Bernie also turned me on to NRBQ, specifically a mixtape of the great NRBQ at Yankee Stadium album, plus some bonus NRBQ hits.

For these three random acts of rock 'n' roll kindness, I will always be in The Bern's debt. Bernie's tape got me through the digital dearth of Big Star until the late '80s, when Big Star's 3rd: Sister Lovers finally surfaced on CD thanks to PVC Records circa 1985. I have the second PVC edition from 1987, which added "Downs" and "Dream Lover" to the original version. Rykodisc later released its remastered, corrected-running-order version of 3rd, called Sister Lovers, in 1992, but I never upgraded - even though they added bonus tracks like "Nature Boy," "Till the End of the Day," and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."

Big Star - "#1 Record" LP (Ardent Records, 1972)

Big Star - "Radio City" LP with cover by William Eggleston (Ardent Records, 1974)

"Big Star's 3rd: Sister Lovers" CD (PVC Records, 1985, 1987)

And it wasn't until 1990 that the #1 Record/Radio City double-CD came out, first on Ace and then on Stax (Ardent)/Fantasy in 1992. (I think my copy is that '92 Stax/Fantasy release.) What a bargain! What a release, every bit as significant to me as Apple releasing the Mac in 1984! (Of course, now you can buy a used copy for under $3 on Amazon...times change!)

Big Star - "#1/Radio City" CD (Stax/Fantasy, 1992)

To lovers of melodic pop (or "Power Pop," if you insist - though most bands labeled by this descriptor, like Tommy Keene, don't care for it), these two albums were like the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Scriptures all rolled together. They saw us through times both high and low, and flavored many a customized mixtape over the years.

Listen to Big Star's #1 Record in its entirety:

Listen to Big Star's Radio City in its entirety:

Then came the delightful downer mess that is Third/Sister Lovers. But that's another story for another day, a melancholy masterpiece on par with Lou Reed's Berlin that I and countless rock critics adore. Some other time. For now I am basking in the afterglow of Pure Bopp for Big Star People.

Related Links:
Album Covers Referencing Big Star's "Radio City"

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