Big Star - Radio City
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
In the early 70’s, a bunch of rock critics got together for a free dinner in Tennessee or somewhere further south and half-coincidentally caught a show by Big Star, a combo led by ex-Box Top Alex Chilton that had already broken up due to commercial indifference once before. Some of the assembled aesthetes decided that this was a crime and hawked the band to their friends and anybody else who would listen. Twenty years later this critically-adored band would be adored by a new generation of critics as well as people who would probably be critics if they could write and didn’t have anything better to do. In honor of his accomplishment, Chilton got to make a live album on Zoo Records with The Posies. This unsurprising-in-hindsight tale is as legendary as one involving a rock critic could be, as it allows writers of today to hope that some day the Bangles of 2014 will cover the New Pornographers and helps explain why the hell anybody cares about Radio City.
I don’t know anybody who thought Radio City was amazing the first time they heard it. It’s probably because most of the five-star reviews lead one to believe they’ll hear something more than a drunk-ass version of “Day Tripper” repeated for a little under 40 minutes. Anyone who thinks that subculture represents a breeding ground for ideas that are too extreme for the masses would assume more from the 7th best “alternative” album of all time according to 1995’s SPIN Alternative Record Guide.
There are two reasonable ways to look at this seminal slop. One is to acknowledge that Radio City makes for pretty poor car-stereo rockin’ for anybody willing to taint their ears with the Knack, Cheap Trick, the Beatles, “Summer Of ‘69” or any other verse-chorus wonder heard by people more than two degrees of separation from a Jim DeRogatis book. Someone who thinks the only thing that separates “Back Of A Car” from “Ticket To Ride” is a promotional budget probably hates pop-as-in-popular music, as it represents a crass, literal, threatening world that they’ll never be confident or disciplined enough to belong to.
The only way to appreciate this album without being the rock equivalent of a creationist is to fess up to the fact that the album is far too weird to be pop. By revering this album, you are, without question, a pervert. Alex Chilton mumbles all over his hookcraft, Jody Stephens throws rolls around like Ringo Starr doing a Neil Peart imitation and Andy Hummel idly waits for the chance to sing his bland-o spotlight number. There were plenty of half-assed garage bands beforehand, but they were danceable or demented or LOUD or horny or something that would explain their existence. It’s no surprise that critics were beguiled and charmed by a cute white rock band that could write a decent tune but didn’t bother to employ the numerous commodifiable qualities that they’d grown to loathe. We’ve been blowing willful obscurantists ever since.
(Btw, was anybody whose middle name wasn’t “Paisley” arguing that these guys were influential before the 'Mats gave ex-manager Peter Jesperson’s record collection an ironically energetic send-off in 1987? I have no idea.)
As a proud owner of Crooked Rain, Crazy Rhythms, Bee Thousand, Third/Sister Lovers (where Chilton finally dropped the radio shtick and wrote the gorgeous downers he was capable of), and at least 3/4s of the Spin Top 100 Alternative Albums Of All Time, I’d be a liar if I pretended that pleasures weren’t abundant in the slackadaisical cottage industry that followed the revelation that there were literate outcasts who no longer had the attention span for jazz. But what makes me want to stab kitchen knives into the glasses of my fellow record schleps is the presumption that we’re appreciating a higher brand of pop rather than forgiving and fetishizing inadequacies. Paul Westerberg idolized Chilton because Paul was the kind of guy who made his bandmates cheer “to the middle! The very middle!” when he asked them where they were headed. According to an article I read in No Depression a few years ago, Westerberg doesn’t give a shit about Elliott Smith and wishes he knew how to get his songs hummed to the bank and back like Sheryl Crow’s. If Radio City came out today he wouldn’t get past “Mod Lang.”
Semi-popular music, an evocative Christgau-originated term that requires more humility than most are capable of, is a field rich with niches, cults and the occasional hitmaker in gestation. It is not, however, filled with many cases of genuine underappreciation. J Mascis, Tom Waits, and Alex Chilton could never have satisfied large audiences the way Kurt Cobain, Elton John and Peter Frampton did, whether or not we find them infinitely more tolerable (and "tolerable" is the right word, folks). The Bangles covered “September Gurls,” a classic melody that could get on the radio. While “I’m In Love With A Girl” might get on the OC someday, the other songs wind up covered by bands who wish they could have been the Posies. It’s best to love things for what they are rather than what we’d like to think they could’ve been
By: Anthony Miccio
Published on: 2005-02-15