One of my (mild) fears about writing a book about a single record is that by the end of the project I'd never want to hear the album again. But I never got tired of hearing Radio City – and I'm pretty sure by now I never will. I could play September Gurls right now and it'd still be as exciting as hearing it for the first time.
If you're a Big Star fan you've listened to September Gurls countless times. In your mind it probably sounds like a symphony of (overdubbed) guitars – a tapestry of jangling meticulously overlaid six-strings and twelve-strings. But the fairly mind-blowing truth is that there are only TWO GUITARS on the track.
When John Fry (much more on him in future posts) recorded Big Star he used a simple set-up. The trio played live in the studio. No sound booths, baffles etc. One track for guitar (for Gurls Alex used a Stratocaster through either a Fender or HiWatt), one track for bass (which usually was recorded direct) and four mics on the drums. That's it. Very few takes were needed for the basic tracks (Gurls is a second take - the most needed for any song on the album was three). Listen to Gurls on a good stereo with the volume up while concentrating on the rhythm guitar and you'll get a good idea of how the band sounded live in the studio. You'll also get even more appreciation for Alex as a guitar player. He's playing a single part throughout much of the track that covers an amazing amount of rhythmic and melodic territory.
Now for the jangling guitar (including the solo). That's an overdubbed Fender mando guitar - a hybrid between a 12-string and a mandolin. Essentially, it's the top four string pairs from a 12-string capoed at the 12th fret. Alex had borrowed it from Bill Cunningham of the Box Tops for a week or two and used it on Gurls (and Daisy Glaze). Play the track again and focus on the mando guitar part. Alex wasn't ripping off any hot licks – just the perfect notes to create the illusion that there's much more going on in the song than there really is.
What really elevates Gurls to the very top is the recording and mixing talent of John Fry. Richard Rosebrough describes Gurls as being Fry's "zenith". Alex describes Fry's work as "power pop for audiophiles" and if you're able to hear Gurls through a top-notch system from original vinyl or the Super Audio cd released a few years ago (grab it while you can), it will sound like the band is in the room. The effect is both warm and immediate and gloriously cinematic. Sounds like heaven to me...