“You and Your Sister” is, in the strangest of ways, a disco song for me.
I mean, obviously, it’s not; it’s hardly danceable, and there’s nothing as insistent about it as the best (or even the worst) disco. You could hardly call it a dancefloor filler, although you could probably imagine it clearing a dancefloor if given the chance. But what I mean by comparing it to disco is it’s a song which sounds perfect, even if its lyrically banal at best.
The opening to the song is a perfect example of its clumsiness: “They say my love for you ain’t real/But they don’t know how real it feels.” That’s just… horrible. Similarly, “All I want to do/Is to spend some time with you/So I can hold you” may have an innocent honesty to it, but it’s bordering on twee if not fully in that area already. Chris Bell may have written some great stuff for Big Star’s first album, but the lyrics of “You and Your Sister” needed a second pass.
Despite that, though… Just listen to the song. The way that Alex Chilton’s vocals come in 0:48, grounding Bell’s voice in a strange way that strengthens it without swamping it (Chilton’s “Plans fail every day/I want to hear you say” at 1:23 is just lovely, too). Not that Bell’s vocal isn’t a thing of greatness on its own – The way his voice cracks on “time” at 0:34 gets me every single time I listen.
The arrangement, which goes from just the finger-picked acoustic guitar to the addition of a gorgeous string counter-melody by the end of the song (The strings falling as the guitar rises, which is such a simple but graceful move), is also worth paying attention to. By the end of the song, when you have the strings playing against the guitar and Chilton and Bell’s vocals crossing over each other, it just seems utterly perfect. As long as you don’t try to pay attention to the lyrics.
The second last song from Radio City, the second Big Star album and arguably Alex Chilton’s greatest – or, at least, most coherent – album of his entire career in terms of writing, “I’m In Love With A Girl” is one of those wonderfully universal songs that manages to sound so full of everything – emotion, meaning, the whole shebang – despite being relatively devoid of anything other than a sunny melody, and Chilton playing an acoustic guitar and singing lines that are so vague as to sound universal. “All that a man should do/Is true” he sings at one point, which is almost meaningless in the grand scheme of things but sounds right, dammit. After all, we’re already won over by the opening lines, and want to be on his side, even if he’s not making sense. “I’m in love with a girl/Finest girl in the world/I didn’t know I could feel this way,” he sings, and the romantics that we are swoon a little inside. It’s like pop distilled down into one under two-minute blast.
This may be my favorite Christmas song, and it’s almost entirely devoid of all the cliches that have built up around the genre (There are sleigh bells in the mix here, but that’s about it). Instead, it’s just a song about what Christmas originated as, performed in a sly but sincere way. There’s little as fun about Christmas music as when Alex Chilton drawls “And we’re gonna get born now.”
“Thank you, friends. Wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”
There was a point where I was convinced that Alex Chilton was singing this song sarcastically; after all, I reasoned, the rest of Third/Sister Lovers, the album it comes from, is a damaged and bitter and scared thing, and this is something else entirely; if it’s not sarcastic, then it felt out of step with everything and I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Years later – More than a decade after I first heard the album and was confused by this song as much as I loved it (It’s got a great melody, after all, and there’s something about the “Do Do“s of the backing vocals that makes you want to sing along; there’s also no denying that Chilton is rocking his preacher mode when he performs it here, with the “I said all!”s), I’ve come around to it. It’s not sarcasm, and it’s not out of place. It’s a survivor’s song, and one filled with surprised gratitude that he really has made it through all of the badness and the weirdness and everything in between. Sure, there’s some showmanship and insincerity in there, but that’s a result of everything else that’s gone on; the core of the song, though, is exactly what it says it is: Someone thanking those important to him for reasons he doesn’t necessarily understand, for all the things they did that matter in ways that he doesn’t necessarily understand. Years later, I can understand that feeling just a little bit more.
Happy Thanksgiving, world. And thank you, friends.
“The Ballad of El Goodo” is one of those songs that almost dares you to listen to it, with a title that bad (I’ve never quite worked out whether or not “El Goodo” is meant to be a pun on the British “Good-o!” saying), but within seconds of it beginning, the title – which has nothing to do with the song at all, thankfully – is forgotten. Have guitars ever chimed as beautifully as they do at the start of this song? Is there a more wistful opening lyric than “Years ago, my heart was set to live/I’ve been trying hard against unbelievable odds”?
Even with the strength of Alex Chilton’s back catalog, it’s tempting to announce “Ballad” as his best work, or at least his most complete pop song; there’s something so simultaneously personal about the lyrics and so universal about them, too (Really, they’re so generic as to be almost meaningless, but somehow they work here), and the melody of the music hits that ideal note of sing-a-longable and surprising, familiar even on a first listen, yet in such a way that you want to stop listening. Add to that, the arrangement – the bloom of harmonies at 1:01, or acoustic guitar overlaid on top of electric to make the notes particularly crisp to the ear (Jody Stephens’ pretty fucking great on the drums on this one, too). Plus, you know, any song that ends with the band exhorting listeners to “hold on” over and over again… I may swoon.
(It’s been covered many times, but surprisingly, the covers are hard to find on YouTube. I did discover this, however, which is rather lovely:
It’s Kate’s birthday today, and so she gets this love song from Big Star’s second album, Radio City, about women born during September.
I say “love song,” but it’s such a wonderfully… macho song, lyrically. “I was your butch/And you were touched,” Alex Chilton sings at one point, later going on to struggle with that whole feelings thing (“I don’t know why/How can I deny/What’s inside?”) and boast that, of course, it’s all about the sex really (“Ooh, when she makes love to me”). But the posturing of the lyrics is at odds with the performance, all jangly guitars and harmonies and something more… soft, perhaps? Something more inviting than bravado? There’s a tension there, and it’s that tension that brings me back to this song so often, just as much as the melody and ease in singing along.
Anyway. Happy birthday to my very own September girl. I love you, you know.
It took years – Genuinely, more than a decade – to realize that Alex Chilton sings “Air goes cool” in this song, one of the more fragile and beautiful from the mythical third album from Big Star. This song is one of those that changes as I get older, and what originally sounded haunted and upset when I heard the song for the first time in my early twenties now sounds peaceful and contented years later. There’s a feeling that this is a song unwinding, breathing slowly and softly and enjoying the lack of horror and anger that happens in each of the other songs that surround it on the album. There are worse songs to listen to as the sun sets and you find yourself wandering through the city on a summer evening.
There’s something about the final two songs on Radio City, the just-plain-amazing second album by Big Star, that feels both weirdly out of place and oddly prescient of what would end up happening on the never-officially-released, awkward Third/Sister Lovers; the rock and roll swagger of songs like “She’s A Mover” and “Daisy Glaze” (“You’re gonna die! Yes, you’re gonna die! Right now!”) gives way to the far more vulnerable, kind of wasted acoustic play of “I’m In Love With A Girl” and this one, “Morpha Too.” It’s such a charmingly simple song, arrangement-wise, with lyrics that are both sweet and somewhat disturbing (“I might call/Might call/I might need some help”). I’ve never quite known what to make of this song, beyond liking it… It makes me concerned, but in that sense, it’s the perfect bridge to the quiet horror of Third, I guess.
I thought it would encounter difficulties,” says John Fry, with delicious understatement, down the phone from Ardent Studios in Memphis, which he founded in 1959. “I thought people would find it so unconventional and so unfriendly that we would have difficulties.” He’s remembering 1975, when Ardent’s promotions man, John King, and Jim Dickinson were visiting the major labels trying to sell a new album that had been recorded at Ardent and produced by Dickinson. “Jim used all his contacts – and he had some high-level ones, as did John. One of his friends at a large label said: ‘Jim, I find this music very disturbing.’ Another guy said to him: ‘Jim, I hope I don’t have to listen to this again.'” No one wanted the third album by the Memphis group Big Star, until it crept out in two markedly different versions on tiny labels in the UK and the US in 1978.
The Guardian has a great piece about Third/Sister Lovers by Big Star, one of my favorite albums in the whole wide world. Go read.
I first heard Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers years before I could understand it, I think. I was still in high school and putting together my personal cosmology of music and sounds, and had pretty much just gotten to the idea that “Big Star = Power Pop with harmonies and chiming guitars” and wasn’t at all ready for the musical and nervous breakdown that Third had in store for me (Years later, not even that many, I revisited it afresh and found it to be one of the most beautiful, upsetting and vital things I’d heard. In those years, mind you, I’d had relationships gone wrong and had to deal with the real world a little more, so things felt more relatable than they had originally). But “Nature Boy,” Alex Chilton’s cover of the Nat King Cole song, was one of the maybe two songs that stood out for me, and I played it over and over, not really understanding why. There was something about the almost off-hand way Chilton sings it, the sparse arrangement and the final line, so naked and then underlined by the piano that follows; I had no idea what magic the song had, but I knew that it had some, so I just kept playing it all the time, convinced that there was a truth in there that I needed inside my head.
All these years later, now, I still get the same feeling when I hear it. This idea that there’s more to the song than meets the eye (or ear) and that “The greatest thing/You’ll ever learn/Is just to love/And be loved, in return” is the greatest lyric ever written or sung.