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.

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.

Holding history in my hand – The Posies: “I Am The Cosmos”

Back in ’93 I was handed a copy of Big Star’s – Columbia: Live at the University of Missouri. It was my entrance into the world of Big Star. Previous to this I had heard the odd track on my campus radio station as well as seeing numerous references as influences by many of my favorite artists, but I had yet to hear a whole album. One song caught me right away.

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Perhaps the greatest song the rock masses never heard is Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos.” Even for those lucky enough to have heard Big Star back in the 70’s, “Cosmos” was a single that saw only limited release in Memphis in 1978 and certainly never attained (like Big Star itself) national attention. Bell himself would be killed in a car accident later the same year.

Still, like a few other legendary acts (The Velvet Underground, Flying Burrito Brothers) it seems that those that did listen became musicians themselves. By the early 90’s, power-pop was becoming ‘a thing’ and Big Star started showing up as influences for a plethora of alt-rock acts. So as “alternative-mania” was in full 1992 swing Fantasy Records released Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City as a single CD, and Rycodisc released Third/Sister Lovers. In was at this point that the Posies covered “I Am The Cosmos” and “Feel.” Around the same time Rycodisc also released a compilation of Chris Bell solo material entitled I Am The Cosmos.

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Now, what makes this single of the Posies an important part of music history is what happened the following year. Two students at the University of Missouri asked Alex Chilton if he would be interested in performing some Big Star songs for a concert. With Chilton in Jody Stephens (drums, vocals) also agreed but Andy Hummell refused(bass), which left a hole to be filled on bass, and second guitar for this to be pulled off. Names got tossed out like Mike Mills (REM), Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and Paul Westerberg, but nothing really stuck until Ardent Records (where Big Star had recorded) founder John Fry pulled a translucent blue single he had tacked to the wall down and gave it another listen.

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That single led to the Posies being asked to fill in for Andy Hummell and the late Chris Bell. Not only was the concert a huge success, but it was also released as the live album already mentioned. Suddenly there was “new” music to be talked about with the old material, and word was getting out. A new generation were looking for Big Star records and finding them… something that didn’t happen when the band was originally together.

Of course this is total conjecture, but that single in combination with the re-release of Big Star’s three studio records, led us to todays Big Star revival. All three records have been re-released on audiophile vinyl with a great special edition of Third/Sisters Lovers being put out by Omnivore Records. Had Chilton not passed away in 2010 it is likely Big Star would have done an extensive tour.

“Cosmos” itself has been covered live by Big Star, the Posies, Beck, Wilco, This Mortal Coil and The Jayhawks to name but a very few. If only I could get my hands on that original single.

Of course that is one Chris Bell song. As for Alex Chilton and Big Star… well, it’ll take a few more posts to cover that.