Big Star + Rock Hall = An Inductee That Would Really Matter… or… Big Star – Complete Columbia: Live at University of Missouri

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A friend asked me “Why, of all the albums being released on Record Store Day 2016, are you waiting in line for a 90’s live album from a 70’s band?” The tone and nature of the question was meant to be mocking, as he loves to have lively music debates, particularly ones that push my buttons. However, instead of just reacting, I took a deep breath and thought about it. Then, just to be annoying I told him I would ‘write the answer.’ (hehehe…)

The reasons are three-fold.

Like many people, the album I first attach to a band tends to have the greatest impact. While I heard songs by Big Star from time to time, it wasn’t until the release of Columbia that I had a complete work in front of me which represented the band as a whole. A world opened up. Here was a collection of songs that didn’t need to be ‘epic’ stories of human struggle (ie. Bruce Springsteen) or carry images of Mordor (ie. Led Zeppelin) to have powerful depth. They also didn’t include anthem-like clichés to get people fist pumping in the air (pick your own example, as there are so many). “In The Street”, “Back Of A Car” and “September Gurls” leapt out of my speakers and made my own angst seem to matter. These songs were simple coming-of-age tales detailing everyday experiences without the ‘syrup’ provided by many of the ‘so-called’ classic rock bands of the day. Instead, Big Star gave us the kind of tunes that made you want to pick up a guitar and learn to play. Furthermore, you found yourself singing, not in some vain attempt to impress or attract anyone, but as an outlet to express yourself. Which is perhaps why I had been hearing covers of their songs by other artists as time went on; The Lemonheads, Matthew Sweet, The Bangles, The Posies, Teenage Fanclub and later Beck were all doing renditions of the songs of Alex Chilton or Chris Bell. The Replacements even wrote a song entitled “Alex Chilton”, dropping the line “never go far, without a little Big Star.” All of it was packed into this one album.

Next, this wasn’t an example of a band cashing in on fame. Big Star never had the kind of fame you could cash in on. Columbia was quite literally a concert put together by fans for fans and later released in a similar fashion. Two campus radio staffers at the University of Missouri quite literally asked Big Star alumni Jody Stephens if he would be willing to do a reunion show, and got a yes if Alex Chilton was up for it. Surprisingly, Chilton agreed and, with the addition of the Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow to cover for Chris Bell (deceased) and Andy Hummel (left the music business), the band played an amazing set to (merely) an estimated 200 people. Yet even with a small venue, they managed to attract much of the music world. That show got glowing write-ups in all the major music magazines of the day. It was pretty unanimous amongst the press that those not lucky enough to be in attendance had missed something special. Fortunately, this record gives us a glimpse of a show that has attained somewhat legendary status.

Finally, Columbia solidifies my absolute belief that Big Star should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. All three of their initial studio releases (#1 Record, Radio City, Sister Lovers/Third) land consistently on various magazines’ Top Albums of all-time lists; all three are referenced by multiple generations of artists as being influential in their music; and all three are revered by fans lucky enough to have heard them as being close to their hearts. More importantly, their music has endured through the most insanely bad luck of any band in rock history. Their 1971 debut #1 Record was hailed as triumphant by music critics, but due to poor distribution and marketing by Stax, no one could find a copy to purchase, even when songs were played on the radio. Follow up Radio City suffered a similar fate, with Columbia records refusing to distribute the record because of a disagreement with their newly acquired Stax label. By the time Big Star released the gorgeous yet challenging Sister Lovers/Third, the band had completely disintegrated with only Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens remaining. They went their separate ways and that should have ended the story… but it didn’t.

Fans exchanged cassettes with Big Star tunes. Those in the know kept talking and searching until a market was created for re-releases. More than two decades removed from their first record and people were seeking them out based on little more than conversations and scratchy recordings emanating from a tape deck. By the early 90’s, Ryko had reissued Sister Lovers/Third and a put out a compilation of Chris Bell’s solo material, I Am The Cosmos. Then Columbia was released in 1993.  A tribute album was recorded by a virtual who’s who of 90’s alt-rock artists (ironically, it also suffered from bad luck and wasn’t released until years afterward). When Columbia was released, it may still have been hard to find the first two Big Star records in stores, but here were the songs; live, rough and glorious in their presentations. All members were taking on vocal duties, with Jon Auer doing an incredible job on the solo Chris Bell single “I Am The Cosmos.” As the 90’s continued, That 70’s Show used “In The Street” as their theme song and a new generation started to discover the band. Finally, their albums could be found in record stores.

Somehow, without radio backing or touring, people were seeking out this music.

Which brings me to the Rock Hall…

If, as I believe, rock ‘n’ roll is about more than money or popularity, then Big Star should be inducted and Columbia is a perfect example of why. Here is a band whose art transcended obscurity by nothing more than word of mouth and shared recordings. Without the help of corporate money and radio exposure, their music found a way to not only be heard, but in fact influence generations of future musicians. Hell, the entire sub-genre of “power-pop” can’t even be considered without Big Star being mentioned as its greatest practitioners. It is hard to picture the sounds of the 90’s alternative music scene without the influence of songs that Alex Chilton and Chris Bell provided. Then, you add the Big Star reunion to the mix.

Complete Columbia: Live at the University of Missouri 4/25/93 exemplifies the very idea that great music will find fans and that record sales are not as important as the art itself. On-stage that day in ’93 were two musicians who had created some music playing with two other musicians that had been directly inspired by it. Twenty years separating their careers, yet you could hear just how much Big Star had meant to the future of rock music. They weren’t just another band that you hummed along to distractedly on a transistor radio; they were the band you sought out and told anyone and everyone willing to listen that Big Star were “FUCKING AWESOME!!!”

So my friend… you ask me why I’m arriving early on RSD 2016 to line up for a copy of Columbia… or even, why they should be in the Rock Hall… well, it’s because Big Star created music that really matters… what other reason is there?

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Overshadowed or Overlooked? Screaming Trees – Sweet Oblivion

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It had been years since I last played a Screaming Trees record. Once a staple that sat by the CD player and saw pretty regular rotations in the carousel, it had moved to a secondary location for music seldom played. New music, new bands, new sounds had found their way into my imagination and I moved on. Then the other day I saw a post for an advance order of Sweet Oblivion on vinyl and my mind flashed back – “damn, it’s been too long” as I started to type my order.

A few weeks later the gold coloured vinyl is spinning on my turntable and it feels like an old friend has returned from a long trip away. The conversation flows easy as if no time has passed at all, and I’m at ease just listening when I hear the old familiar stories. Not epic like Soundgarden or angry like Nirvana, Screaming Trees were a pretty straight forward gritty rock band with a penchant for great song writing and one of the best vocalists of the era in Mark Lanegan. Unfortunately, like many of the great 90’s rock bands, they didn’t stay together past the turn of the century, and faded from view.

Anyway, for vinyl junkies you have three choices to spin Sweet Oblivion. The original ’92 release had a limited vinyl printing that came with the CD booklet and a sticker on the shrink wrap declaring it the “One Foot In The Grave” version. If you can find it, it will set you back a minimum of $50.00 plus shipping.

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In 2010, Music On Vinyl released a 180 gram version that had fans giving compliments for quality. You can still find it most anywhere.

Finally, Newbury Comics released a limited 1000 copies on 180 gram translucent gold vinyl. In addition to the foil stamped numbering on the cover it included new liner notes written by Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin. They still have copies, so don’t go crazy ordering from resale sights asking for a $100.

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Overshadowed or overlooked, I’m not sure which, but Screaming Trees should have been bigger than they got. Regardless, Sweet Oblivion is sure appreciated and is once again sitting in a spot close to the stereo.

 

Test Pressing Heaven! or Big Star – Third / Sister Lovers

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If you have the idea of starting your listening day by discovering Big Star for the first time, don’t start with Sister Lovers / Third. Both #1 Record and Radio City are power-pop masterpieces that also serve as great introductions to the “Greatest Band You’ve Never Heard.”

On the other hand, Third is the opposite side of the coin. While definitely a masterpiece in its own right, it is bi-polar in its dramatic swings between happiness and absolute despair. It drops all pretensions and attempts of being a great rock ‘n’ roll album and instead mines the depths of failed relationships in their darkest moments, and then snaps back to honest sentiment and joy. In its own way Third is like Big Star’s version of the White Album requiring a bit of context to appreciate the artistry. It isn’t just the album themes either, Alex Chilton was literally in a mood for self-sabotage.

Ardent Studio creator John Fry who had been very influential in Big Star saw his relationship with Alex Chilton breaking down and things between them had become increasingly antagonistic. It has been reported as so bad that when Fry complimented “Downs” as having “pop potential,” Chilton all but ruined it; using a basketball as a snare drum, some ill timed steel drums and turning it into a “Revolution #9” moment. Whatever Fry heard is completely submerged beneath a sonic ramble and talking as replacement for singing.

Don’t let that idea confuse you, Third may not be a collection of songs filled with anger turned into sonic hooks, like say Fleetwood Mac; instead it becomes either unwavering in its depictions of loneliness and despair or a drunken arm around your shoulder full of sloppy proclamations. It has brutal honesty as its companion which means that things can get a little dicey. One moment can be heartbreakingly beautiful and poppy (“Thank You Friends”) and another can be devastatingly cruel (“Holocaust”). Even the Christmas track “Jesus Christ” has an echoing feel that keeps Chilton separated from his sentiment.

Third isn’t an easy listen. Watching things fall apart never is. Yet, it makes for amazing artistic expression; songs that relate to you on a more personal level, and take you to places of personal tragedy. Hope and comfort are found in the idea that others have also hurt as badly as you have.

Now, as for vinyl, you have some great choices. The first is obviously hitting the resale market where you can find original pressings in great shape. For whatever reason, Big Star fans seem to have taken great pains to care for their records. However, I wish you luck finding them at a decent cost. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any of the original 1975 test pressings on the market. There were only around 200 printed and given out as promotional material to record executives and radio stations. The 1978 official release by PVC Records sells well over a hundred dollars, with some resellers fetching over $200.

In 1985 PVC reissued Third with a new cover and title dubbing the album Big Star’s Third: Sister Lovers.

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This edition is much more reasonably priced in the $40 range at Discogs.

1988 saw yet another cover change and a new record company releasing Third on white vinyl. This German edition from Line Records shows up being priced around $30 dollars but add at least that same price in additional shipping, as it is primarily European resellers offering it.

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Ryko got into the Big Star game in 1992, releasing Third on CD with another cover and a few added bonus tracks. It can still be found used or new at regular prices.

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In 2007 Four Men With Beards released a 180 gram vinyl edition that restored the original cover. It can still be found at around $30 at the usual places.

Then there is the last Omnivore edition released first on Record Store Day in 2011 and then later direct order. This “Test Pressing Edition” was a perfect example of how a treasured record should be treated by a record company for fans. Rather than simply putting out a new printing, they used 180 gram audiophile vinyl, had it remastered by the same people who did the original, in the same studio (Ardent) and packaged it with all kinds of memorabilia. All classic records should be treated this way when possible. Quite simply, the vinyl kills my CD copy. The people at Ardent Studios treated Third like an ancient holy scripture and restored it to something worthy of the heavens. The RSD release was limited to 2000 copies but five lucky people out there got an unexpected gift – an actual 1975 test pressing enclosed in their package signed by Big Star’s Jody Stephens and Ardent Studios head John Fry. I didn’t see any of these for sale. However the RSD edition does sell for over a $100 on the resale market.

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That edition never made it to all fans, so Omnivore offered another 500 copies in 180 gram clear vinyl to those fortunate enough to see the news and order it direct. Prices for this edition are over a hundred dollars with some resellers asking well over $200.

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OK, all cliché and hyperbole aside, it sounds fantastic and is a prize possession within my record collection. The only thing that I would hold in higher esteem is an actual 1975 test pressing, and I’m not expecting to run into any of those.

With Honour and Reverence or Chris Bell – I Am The Cosmos

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Posthumous releases hold a strange place in the collective consciousness of the music masses. In most cases we see established artists whose lives have been cut short having albums put out by record companies mining demos for a last nugget of gold. Other times, records were near completion when tragedy struck and band members finish recording as a memorial. Chris Bell didn’t fit either of these bills.

The failure of Big Star’s #1 Record to get recognition beyond critics and music insiders meant that Bell never received or understood the extent of his talent and eventual influence. Disillusioned he left Big Star and from time to time he recorded out of differing studios hoping to release something that might connect and ultimately gain a modest amount of respect and adulation. Of course, it never happened. Other than the limited 1978 7” for “I Am The Cosmos” and “You and Your Sister” nothing was released before a car accident took his life on December 27th 1978.

So it was that others were left with the task of compiling a record together to at once honour, shine a light and in many respects introduce the brilliance of a young and gifted solo artist. In 1992, the first Ryko edition of I Am The Cosmos arrived on record store shelves in only the CD format. Cassettes were sent out as promos to various media outlets and for quite a while, that was it. Mean while, the first wave of the Big Star revival was taking place and interest in the late artist was increasing with a bunch (Posies, Jayhawks, This Mortal Coil…) of recording artists doing cover versions of the title track.

With more knowledge of both Big Star and Bell, many people have wanted to get their hands on a definitive copy of I Am The Cosmos. The problem with that is there isn’t much more to expand upon beyond the quality of the initial release.

So here are the options:

The initial 1992 CD copy by Ryko

A 2006 180 gram vinyl version released by Four Men With Beards

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In 2014 Rhino released a two CD remaster with companion disc containing alternate versions of some songs as well as three songs from Bell’s pre-Big Star days. (Some copies went out with a bonus 7” reproduction of the original “Cosmos” single)

Going through the various forums sound quality on all versions has come into question amongst the audiophile community. It isn’t that the criticisms aren’t valid, but certain facts need to be pointed out. Bell didn’t record a completed album, and had bounced between several studios in producing all the material that went into it. While I’m certainly no authority on recording studios in 1970’s Memphis, I can hypothesize that not all are equal. Different equipment and atmosphere from place to place means that things can be disjointed in terms of overall sonics.

That said, the songs are incredible and they rise above such criticism by the sheer beauty of the captured moment. Having both the Ryko and Rhino editions I can hear slight variance, but the music captures me in such a way that I quickly forget about any such thoughts. Honestly, I fully intend on purchasing the vinyl as well; trusting that the recording process was done with the same reverence as I carry for this record.

It’s a gorgeous record with some great songs and one I even hold amongst the greatest all-time. Give it a listen.

Whre To Buy S!#t vol 3 (Blog rendition) – Newbury Comics

What do Wolverine, autographed CD covers and exclusive vinyl have in common?

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Newbury Comics

If you’re hunting for the perfect gift for the geek in your life and you don’t want to leave your comfy chair, this is the place to start. The home page of Newbury’s website opens to three major products: comics with limited edition (variant) covers, autographed CD booklets and limited edition coloured vinyl from an eclectic variety of artists.

For the comic lover, Newbury sells exclusive variant editions of the latest comics, with new products available every week. Arriving from every major comic company, some of the most recent material has covers created specifically for Newbury customers. For instance, the new Marvel comic X-Men ’92 with exclusive Newbury cover, is now available. On the left is the Newbury edition and on the right is the one you see at your local comic retailer.

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If you have an autograph seeking fan of say… Metric or Karen O, then Newbury can set you up with that. A quick click on their Autographed CD cover link reveals a large assortment of artists that have signed their work, ranging from Paul Anka to Spoon with many choices in-between.

However, the real treasure for me is the gift I keep playing on my turntable. A while back, in my quest to find cool vinyl, I found an offer for Nirvana’s Bleach in limited edition 180 gram maroon/black vinyl; I leapt at the chance to own it. Since then, I’ve found myself getting awesome variant wax releases on a fairly regular basis. This recent addiction has gone from Christmas gifts (Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas), to alt-rock (The Strokes – Room On Fire, Black Keys – Rubber Factory), classic-rock (The Velvet Underground – Velvet Underground & Nico, Lou Reed – Transformer ) musicals (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), jazz (Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue) and my personal holy-grail album: Big Star – #1 Record.

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For a couple of years now, Newbury has been offering music fans a chance to get “limited edition” vinyl. The prices are competitive with regular vinyl editions that sit on the shelves of most record stores and the shipping costs are quite reasonable. To date, I’ve never had problems with any of the vinyl shipped to me. As for sound quality, I’ve played Big Star’s #1 Record gold coloured variant against the recent 180 gram edition and I’ve found both items sounding great… in fact, I’d lean more towards the gold variant as it “seemed” to have more presence in the guitar and vocals.

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At Newbury, new items seem to hit the market every week (the Violent Femmes eponymous debut this week) and the choices, as mentioned earlier, are pretty eclectic; ranging from the Coltrane to The Clash and points in-between. Check them out, you might find yourself signing up to the old mailing list and buying something from time to time. Just don’t be too disappointed if it gets sold out before you get your shot. It’s happened, a couple of times, to me and caused a slight bit of teeth grinding and cursing. But then again, that’s all part of the fun of getting something unique.

 

Self Sabotage Genius or The Replacements – Pleased To Meet Me

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Pleased To Meet Me should never have worked, yet it stands tall as a masterpiece. Lead guitarist Bob Stinson was out because of substance problems and the remaining band members were stumbling at best. Paul Westerberg’s songs were all over the map, and still the album is full of such gems that you can hardly tell that they had begun to disintegrate.

Recording at Ardent Studios in Memphis with producer Jim Dickinson, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that the band sound was less their typical brilliant boozy swagger and more an awesome well practised piece of power-pop. Of course, like his hero Alex Chilton, Paul Westerberg attempts to self sabotage his own career aspirations with tunes designed to be hated. The reaction therefore is that fans and critics alike see it as a ‘sign of genius’ – ‘a change of direction’ and rightfully heap praise.

Jazz and soul undertones (“Nightclub Jitters” & “Skyway”) mixed with punk pathos (“I Don’t Know” & “Red Red Wine”) and the aforementioned power-pop gems (“Alex Chilton” & “Can’t Hardly Wait”) help to create an album that demands devotion.

So it seems strange that since its initial release in 1987, Pleased To Meet Me didn’t see a re-master and reissue until 2008. For vinyl there are only two choices, finding an original used copy, which will cost you $50 and up

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the 2008 Rhino reissue on 180 gram vinyl. New and unopened copies of Pleased To Meet Me start around the $40 mark and even get some resellers asking as much as $100. While there is a new Replacements 2015 box out right now, there has been no vinyl release date set as of yet.

Your best bet is to hit your local retailers and see if you can track down the 2008 vinyl reissue while you still can.

One of the Most Awesome Records Ever or Big Star – Radio City

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They should have been shattered upon the rocks of apathy and cast into the dark pit of ambiguity, but instead they released a record every bit the equal of their debut. Big Star’s #1 Record was critically a success but poorly distributed resulting in sales that didn’t even come close to the high expectations the band had of themselves. The result saw a heart broken singer /songwriter Chris Bell quit the band altogether. Yet Alex Chilton took Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel into the world of yet another perfect power-pop record.

Ranked #403 on Rolling Stones “Top 500 Albums of All Time” Radio City was filled with great bursts of electric guitar reminiscent of the Kinks, vocal harmonies inspired by the Beach Boys, and lyrical stories that captured the artistic simplicity of Lennon / McCartney through a Memphis filter.

Songs like “September Gurls” “Back Of A Car” and I’m In Love With A Girl” didn’t just capture a moment in time; they spoke the universal truth of teen longing and confusion in dream crushing detail. “Sittin’ in the back of a car / music so loud can’t tell a thing / thinkin’ ‘bout what to say / can’t find the lines” from “Back Of A Car” has Chilton’s vocals expressing multiple emotions with such knowing intimacy you would swear you were witness to an event.

It is near insanity to think that this amazing and powerful record is still not given the recognition it deserves as it easily stands beside the all time great albums. Actually, you may accuse me of hyperbole, but #1 Record and Radio City combined is one of the best one-two punches to be released in all rock music.

In terms of vinyl, Radio City has several options available to you. The obvious choice is to go back to the original 1974 release. Used copies of the stereo edition will set you back at least $150 while the mono version sells for over $370.

A 1986 reissue of the album sells for a much more reasonable $20.00 with a German reissue on white vinyl going around $30.00. They also came with an alternate cover.

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There is a twelve year gap to 1998 when Stax first re-mastered Radio City. You can pick used copies in the twenty dollar range.

However, your best bets come from the five vinyl editions released since 2009. Stax released a regular vinyl edition, while Classic Records Proprietary issued a re-mastered 200 gram vinyl.  These are highly coveted and sell for anywhere between $50 and $150 on the reseller market.

In 2010, a red vinyl edition was released in the UK and Europe, and has an asking price of over $30.00.

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The last re-master is still the easiest to get, and sounds great. In 2014, 4 Men With Beards released Radio City on 180 gram vinyl and you can still find copies under $30.

So many choices, and yet I would advise you to just stroll over to your local independent record store and see what they have. The 2014 reissue is still widely available.