Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Big Star's Radio City, in Book Form

Posted By on Wed, Jun 10, 2009 at 3:06 PM

Radio City, the second album from Memphis legends and "power pop" godfathers Big Star is among the latest subjects in Continuum's 33 1/3 book series — a popular collection of pamphlet-style treatments on individual albums.

The Radio City volume is written by Bruce Eaton, a Buffalo, New York-based jazz concert producer who is an acquaintance of Big Star singer Alex Chilton. In the preface, Eaton recounts first buying Radio City at a used bin of a Buffalo record store in 1976 and three years later finding himself on stage with Chilton playing the Big Star classic "September Gurls."

In all honesty, the Radio City book can be rough going at first: Eaton's repeated faux-self-deprecating descriptions of himself as a "vinyl junkie" and recovering "rock snob" become annoying. (Typical example: "For rock snobs, the more obscure your favorite band, the better.") And his fandom sometimes results in overwritten overstatement, as when Eaton connects his post-college love of Radio City to the Sixties pop he listened to on the radio as a teenager: "It's as if all the music coming out of all the little transistor radio speakers … had somehow been beamed into outer space to some distant planet and then transformed by a band of musical alchemists into something both fresh and yet familiar and sent back to Earth in a stream of glowing super-charged electrical particles by a wizard of sound." Um, yeah dude. And the book is hampered by frequent copy-editing oversights.

But what Eaton's book has going for it is a personal connection to Chilton that provides him with rare access to the somewhat reclusive icon and an insistence on focusing more on the music itself and the circumstances of its recording rather than the more familiar personality-based story of the band's brief initial life.

Eaton tells the story in something close to oral history form with lengthy interview segments primarily from Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens, bassist Andy Hummel, and Ardent founder John Fry, including lengthy song-by-song commentary that is illuminating while reading along with the album, making Eaton's book a nice companion piece to the new reissue. (David Bell the brother of late Big Star founder Chris Bell, appears to speak for his brother, though Chris Bell had left the band prior to the recording of Radio City.)

The musical discussion includes lots of techie talk and recording jargon that non-musicians could struggle to fully grasp (example: "We used an oscillator to vary the speed of the two-track tape recorder, and thus vary the pitch of the instrument being overdubbed."), but you'll also learn a lot about the record and hear things in it you may not have before. In the discussion of "Life is White," for instance, you see that, in Big Star's hands, slide guitar, honky-tonk piano, folkie harmonica, and maracas somehow joined forces to create "power pop." Eaton's book helps you hear the influence of baroque classical music on the middle guitar-only verse of "Way Out West" and the Paul McCartney influence on Hummel's bass playing on the same song.

Partly, it seems, due to Eaton's own musicianly biases and partly because of Chilton's at time dismissive and at times regretful attitude on the subject, the Radio City book doesn't spend much time on lyrics, or even meaning.

"I had no clue about what songwriting stuff I wanted to do," Chilton says to Eaton. "I knew what musical structures I wanted to play but putting lyrics with it was not my strong suit in those days. I tried but I don’t think I ever succeeded on the Radio City album. I don't think there's one good song of mine on the record. To me the only good song on the album is Andy's ['Way Out West']. I definitely prefer #1 Record. There are four or five tunes on that record I think are really good."

Chilton is too hard on himself here, but there's a kernel of truth to it, which is probably why, as much as I like Radio City, I agree with him in preferring #1 Record, with it's classic, hushed teen anti-anthem "Thirteen" and the rock-and-roll haiku of "In the Street" sitting beside Bell's devotional testaments "My Life is Right" and "Try Again."

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