Monday, July 20, 2009

Big Stars in the Radio City

My friend Phil, a guy with an ear for extreme jazz and metal who just doesn't have much appreciation for guitar pop, was asking what makes Big Star so special to fans. I mentioned that I thought they were pretty sophisticated for power pop and quite different from, say, Tom Petty's three-chord, major-key songs. He asked me to clarify, and this is what I wrote:

Take "Feel," a Chris Bell song. That main descending riff that starts out "Feel" isn't anything too crazy, a variation on a traditional blues riff. The first guitar holds a G on the low string and then walks down a half-step at a time from the 5th, the D. They do this twice, with the lead guitar doing those high bends during the second run. Then the song changes keys to D for the verse. It's a Chris Bell song, so this is the big three-chord, major-key stuff: D G A. Back to the riff for the chorus. The second verse is a guitar solo (which is itself a variation away from how rock songs traditionally work), but at the end of the verse, they interrupt the progression of the song to throw in those Memphis horns doing R&B riffs for 8 repetitions (at least, I think it's 8 - I'm going by memory), back to the chorus although with minimal rhythm accompaniment here, then - do they repeat the first verse before going back to the chorus? I forget.

See, there's a radio interview on Big Star Live where the DJ says that what they're doing is a big throwback to the British Invasion, but he was very, very wrong. They've taken the melodies and high harmonies and chugging guitars from the British Invasion and made something very domestic, something that could have only come out of Memphis. The section where they add the R&B horns (with trilling blues-rock guitar) doesn't sound like anything that the Beatles or Kinks ever did. But when Chilton wrote music, it was something else.

His first track, "The Ballad of El Goodo," is next. He's a big fan of Gram Parsons, and his first album (which is now called 1970) has a lot of the trappings of Parsons' art-country songs. This one is in that vein, but has a few chords that show that Chilton was raised on jazz. The song starts in the key of C (with a cool Am7 for minor dissonance in the first line). The second line starts on a Bm, which suggests that the key is now G, which is similar enough to C that most people won't notice, but then the line ends with a D#, which is a half-step up (or down) from any chord that would appear in either G or C. The rest of the song jumps back and forth between G and C without really drawing attention to itself, and, in fact, when he goes to an F (which translates to C, but not really G), the guitars bend the rules by adding a G into the chords. It's subtle, like I say, but it keeps the song off-kilter while still allowing Bell and Chilton to work out the gorgeous melody.

Most of the rest on #1 Record is more traditionally bluesy or garage-y or folky, although they keep the Memphis swing on a few of the tracks. The riff in "In The Street" is pretty neat with its disregard for keeping in key. "The India Song" is the only part of the record that sounds dated to me. But, man, when Bell leaves, and Chilton has the band to himself on Radio City, all the rules get rewritten.

Start with "O My Soul," a gospel-influenced funk-influenced rock song in A7 (I think), but played like no guitarist had played a song before. That opening ba-ba-ba-ba-ba thing is all in A, but he plays the note on two different strings to maximize the odd intonation difference between a fretted A on the low string and an open A on the next string. Then he hits his chords, playing a rhythm that's far enough off the beat to be the primary rhythmic element of the song, which is very much in the Memphis R&B style, very influenced by Steve Cropper. He hops up five frets and does it again, then back down. Then he hits those next notes, the second part of the song, which isn't a chorus or pre-chorus or anything, but just part of how he winds his progression around, and sweet Jesus, they're all over the fretboard - and he plays them with such ease that the listener can't tell how deeply weird this all is. Then he wraps it all up to a place where he has to stop and start again. And that's how the song proceeds, winding through this progression but changing it every time to add a new part or skip a part or play a section twice. There's no logic to it - less, I'd argue, than the logic guiding Trout Mask Replica, and yet it's freaking brilliant and as naturalistic as if, y'know, that's how songs go.

Andy Hummel [note: a guy Phil was about to interview] wrote much of the rest of the album with Chilton, and I'll point out "Back of a Car" as a song that makes no sense to people raised on rock guitar. The whole song is mainly in D, so it starts in a D chord, drops the A to an Ab (which makes it the only song I know of that's ever done this), goes to an A for a couple of bluesy chugga-chuggas, then a C (not in the key of D), pause, G, F#/D, Em back to G, and full stop. The progression is wrong, wrong, wrong with that Ab and C in there, but it has a powerful logic behind it and demands the resolution that it gets. The second part of the song changes key discordantly at the end of the 2nd line every time.

"September Gurls," too: such a beautiful, sunny song, but every chord on there is fractured and wrong. It starts with a D major, but often what seems like another D major in the progression is actually a G major 7. Actually, there's a lot of chords in that song that are maj and min 7 chords (which add a note a half-step down from the root, which can be extraordinarily pleasant) in place of the expected major chord. Then the bridge ("When I get to bed...") use a bunch of chords I don't even know the name of to simultaneously mirror the descending line of the melody, follow the basic A to G in the bass, and provide a counterpoint on the high strings. That's just fucked, especially in a song that seems so transparent.

There's quite a few other examples like this on Radio City where Chilton messes with the standard I-IV-V progression. And Sister Lovers is full of these. Most of those songs are unplayable on a single guitar. Well, you can play them, but they won't sound the same. In Robert Gordon's It Came From Memphis, there's a story about how they invited Steve Cropper to come over and play on some of the Sister Lovers tracks, but he refused to enter into the studio. "Bad vibes in there," he explained. So they ran him out some headphones and a long cable and he played his parts in the parking lot.


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