Friday, October 29, 2004

(Relatively) Recent History

A number of bands were influential in articulating the aesthetic of power pop. One of the most important was Big Star. Earlier this year, Pop Culture Press ran a long and interesting article about the band's career. From the article:

Alex Chilton had left the Box Tops, spending time in 1969 in Los Angeles, where he lived with Dennis Wilson, moving back home when Manson and the girls moved into Dennis' house. After that, he spent time in New York City, meeting Bud Scoppa, and learning guitar from Roger McGuinn (this meeting may also have happened in LA, depending on whose story you believe). While in New York, he practiced guitar constantly, developing his famous and distinctive guitar style, and began to write a very serious set of songs, inspired by the Greenwich Village folk scene, and artists like Loudon Wainwright. When Icewater made an aborted trip to NYC trying to score a record deal, Bell visited his childhood friend Chilton, and made him promise to come see his new band when he got home. After seeing the band once at a VFW gig in Memphis, Chilton decided to drop folk music and become a member of Chris Bell's band, Icewater. From this point on, there was a real, cohesive group, and everyone involved and around them recognized it as such.

I came to Big Star late, after The Replacements assured me that they "never go far/without a little Big Star."


Phila said...

I had no idea you were in Binghamton! Both my parents and my wife's mother went there.

I'm one of those sticks-in-the-mud who thinks that Chris Bell was kind of a hindrance to Big Star...he had a fine grasp of pop cliches, but wasn't an inventive songwriter. That opinion kind of mars "#1 Record" for me. "Radio City" sounds a lot better to me, and that tracks that don't grab me tend to be ones on which Bell is supposed to have helped out a lot, like "Back of a Car."

I hate to speak ill of the guy at all, considering what his life was like. But I'm certainly in the minority, and Lord knows it's nothing personal! I think the third LP is the best; it's not so much in the power-pop vein at that point, but I don't think it's quite as messy and downbeat as people say. It's still one of my favorite albums..."O, Dana" is just mindboggling to me, for some reason. I'm also one of those weirdos who thinks that "Like Flies on Sherbert" is pretty good. Part of it, I think, is just a massive identification with what seemed to be Chilton's frame of mind around that time, regarding the music industry and so forth. I have some inkling of how exquisite it can feel to squeeze off a few rounds into one's own feet....

I wonder if you're familiar with NZ pop bands like the Chills or the Clean? They're probably up your alley.

NYMary said...

Yeah, we're Binghamtonians. Well, Thers is actually from Queens, but he lives in the sticks for love of me. Poor dope. Binghamton is also my alma mater.

I think a lot of the charm of pop, for me, is often a result of an almost alchemical process, and it seems to be especially rich when people who've known each other for a long, long time are doing it together. I don't know why that is (and no, I'm not going to make it an area of scholarly inquiry, though I'm sure someone has); it's probably Lennon & McCartney's fault. But in that sense, I think the magic of that early work is not one or the other, but Bell & Chilton together.

And I know little about music from down under. What can you tell me?

Phila said...

Re: the Antipodean pop, there was a lot of it in NZ the late 70s/early 80s. Judging from the stuff you like, I think the Chills would appeal to you a's not entirely off the mark to put 'em somewhere between XTC and Big Star, I guess. "Kaleidoscope World" is a collection of their singles, and is really worth hearing. They've got that half-cheerful/half-melancholy sound that I think gives pop music a lot more punch. Nice keyboard sound, too. The Clean are a little more rough around the edges, with lower production values and a slightly more experimental aesthetic in spots, but they wrote lots of insanely catchy and tuneful songs. They later mutated into "The Great Unwashed," which released an absolutely stellar EP that I recommend highly, and a more stripped-down/folkish LP.

Assuming my CD burner's working, I'd be more than happy to mail you a compilation...

Phila said...

Oh, and about this:

"But in that sense, I think the magic of that early work is not one or the other, but Bell & Chilton together."

For people who love the album, I completely agree. In my case, I only like three songs (El Goodo, Sixteen, Give Me Another Chance), and I just assumed that it was the higher Bell-quotient that I was reacting to. Of course, there are lots of other people who go the opposite direction...they worship the 1st LP, love the second, don't have much use for the 3rd...and they usually blame the increasing input of AC. Go figure!

If you're interested in the Clean stuff, and are a Yahoo member, I have one of these crappy-sounding customized Yahoo radio stations (can't vouch for everything they play, though, 'cause they're always trying to sell me new stuff). It's under the name "Philaelaethes." I can set it to play the Clean near-continually.

NYMary said...

I'd love that, thanks. I'll drop you an email with my real info.

The Bell/Chilton thing reminds me a bit of The Move, the tension there between the Roy Wood people and the Jeff Lynne people. Obviously they were very different performers and songwriters, but I still think there's a productive tension when such folks work together.