Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Brief update.  Amazon will ship early next week (their email to me projected a 5/6 delivery).  I hope to see my first copy today.  

A few posts ago I offered up the Radio City brain puzzler of whether or not the running order of the album could be improved by moving one of the last two songs on the album (Morhpa Too and  I'm In Love With A Girl) to a different spot on the album.  (These are the things that cross your mind when you spend two years studying one record album.)   A few of you weighed in on the matter so now I'll offer my thoughts (all in fun of course).  I agree that you get used to hearing an album a certain way and it becomes hard to imagine it being any different.  One of my favorite albums of all-time is  Fleetwood Mac's Then Play On.  After I'd burned the American LP version into my brain over many years I bought an English version and found it had different songs and a different running order.  It never seemed right to me.  I bought the CD when it came out and found that it was a combination of both versions.   I had to make a copy that matched the original US version.  That's Then Play On to me.  And Radio City will always be just as it was released.  After a while your ears make connections and find a logic in the flow of songs that goes beyond even what the artists intended.  

As I write in the book, I think that I'm In Love With A Girl is the perfect song to end the album.  It has the same expression of teen innocence as Thirteen from #1 Record, a song Alex wrote in NYC and brought with him when he joined Big Star.  In a sense it closes the loop on Big Star as the band envisioned by Chris Bell.  Morpha Too?   I can hear it actually leading off the album – brief little intro and then, whap!, O My Soul.  Or before September Gurls.  But in the end...perfect where it is.  

Monday, April 27, 2009

Returning visitors will note the change in the photo behind the title above.  This is a rare shot of the original Big Star line-up in Alex's bedroom that appears in the book  (courtesy of the Ardent archives).  A significant amount of the material on both #1 Record and Radio City was composed in this room.  The general working procedure was for either Chris or Alex to compose most of a tune and then get ideas from other band members to finish it up.  The band also just liked to hang out in the room (and the Chilton house in general), listening to records on  Alex's KLH stereo.  

Friday, April 24, 2009

Just back from a short vacation and ready for the upcoming roll out...the books have arrived at the publisher so I expect to have some firm details and dates on distribution shortly.  Amazon is showing that they expect to ship the week of  May 2nd.  

Read a lot of reviews of the new Tinted Windows album while traveling.  Virtually every review mentioned Big Star as a reference point (along with some of the other usual suspects).  But it got me thinking about a point that's long been on my mind: most of today's power pop songs are really just chord progressions with somewhat indistinct or predictable melodies draped across them.  Play me a song and I can almost hum the melody as I'm hearing it for the first time.  Big Star (and Badfinger and the Raspberries and...) wrote songs that had distinct and fresh vocal lines that were supported by inventive arrangements (not crunchy jangling chords through a Vox AC30 or whatever).  The first few times I heard Radio City I was just knocked out by how unpredictable it all was...and how perfect it sounded.  It took a lot of listenings for me to get really familiar with what was going to happen next.  That's one element that makes for a truly great record.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Actor Miles Chapin was in the studio last night beginning the recording for the book for Audible.com where it will soon be available for mp3 download.  Miles is a fan of the record, will not be imitating my Buffalo accent, and is also friends with Pat Irwin (Raybeats – lately he's appeared with the B-52s).  Pat was a member of  the great 8-Eyed Spy with Jim Sclavunos – the drummer I recruited to back Alex in October 1981.  Another member of the band was the late George Scott and it was only because she thought I looked like George a bit that booking agent Ruth Polsky agreed to set up Alex's ill-fated tour.  Got that?  At any rate...it is a semi-small world.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

As requested from some local fans, here's the excerpt from the book that describes Alex's arrival in Buffalo for our gig at McVan's in June 1979 up to the moment we hit the stage. A just unearthed photo of us sitting around talking with Alex that afternoon can be seen in an earlier post below.

When Alex arrived from Memphis the afternoon of our
show, he was affable and we immediately felt at ease. We
had a few matters to deal with—a proper rehearsal being at
the top of our list. Alex immediately nixed the idea, spell-
ing out a musical philosophy that went something like this.
Whenever you play something for the very first time, there’s
a chance that it will sound better than anything that could be rehearsed—and those highpoints are worth all the mistakes. In other words, Let’s go out, make some music, and see what hap-
pens. Alex was confident and articulate—he won us over
even though we really had no choice but to go along for the

We wiled away the time up to the show, sitting around

a friend’s apartment while Bill and Alex got deep into a
freewheeling conversation that the rest of us drifted in and
out of. Alex in the present proved to be a very interesting
guy—it never crossed my mind to ask him about his past.
I wouldn’t ask him a question about Big Star until nearly
three decades later.

McVan’s was a once swank, now dank nightclub that

in its heyday had hosted Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins,
The Inkspots (with a young guitarist named Jimi), Frank
Sinatra, and Gypsy Rose Lee. In 1979 it was the place to go
in Buffalo if you wanted to hear punked-up garage rock in
rapidly decaying surroundings (beyond repair, the building
was torn down a few years later). We arrived in the middle
of the opening band’s set, noted that the place was packed
(I’d all but forgotten that I was also the promoter—having
put my own money up for the show) and headed straight
for the dimly lit, seemingly once luxurious dressing room.
You could almost see the ghosts. For about 20 minutes we
stood in a circle, guitars unplugged, Joe beating his sticks
on the arm of a musty velvet-covered club chair (had Jimi
once sat there?), running through the songs on the set list,
Alex quickly teaching us the chords to the few we hadn’t
been able to track down on record. As we got ready to go
on, Alex told Joe not to be afraid to “kick his ass” to keep
him from lagging behind the beat. With a sly smile, Joe
assured him that wouldn’t be a problem. Then, before
we had another moment to ponder the absurdity of play-
ing with Alex Chilton totally on the fly in front of friends
and spectators half-expecting us to crash (some even rel-
ishing the prospect), we heard Bill onstage revving up the
crowd—“Here he is, the mad man from Memphis . . . . Alex
Chilton!!”—and we headed out toward the lights.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Keeping up with the recent post on the track sequencing on Radio City, here's a little Big Star puzzle to ponder over the Easter weekend.  
Radio City concludes with two Alex Chilton solo tracks (I'm In Love With a Girl and Morpha Too – noted on the track sheet as "Al's piano song w/ noises").  Do you think the album could be improved even ever so slightly by moving one of the two songs to another spot on the album?  And if so, which of the two tracks would you move and to where?  

(These are the kind of things that go through your mind when you spend the better part of a year pondering a single album.)

Weigh in with your thoughts and I'll eventually share mine.  

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Every Big Star fan knows how the band got their name, but how did they come up with the title for #2 record? Until I sat down to write the book, I hadn't given the title much thought other than thinking it was a really good name that somehow brought together in my mind all my adolescent years listening to the mighty WKBW-AM in Buffalo and the times my grandmother took me to Radio City Music Hall in New York and how futuristic the architecture seemed – like something inspired by Flash Gordon. Somehow all that connected to the sound and name of Radio City.

But as for how the album actually got its name, Andy Hummel volunteers this theory in the book:

Andy Hummel: This was probably pretty lame, but in
those days putting any word in front of the noun “city” to
sort of emphasize the totality and pervasiveness of it was just
a way of talking people had. If someone suggested going to
a store but you had gotten a bad deal there you might say,
“Oh no, that place is ‘rip off city.’ ” Calling an LP Radio
City would be kind of wishful thinking. I mean we hoped it
would be played on the radio a lot, making it “radio city.” Of
course it didn’t pan out that way . . .

Monday, April 6, 2009

First a bit of a book update. Audible.com is recording an audio version book (with actor Miles Chapin doing the reading) that will be available as an mp3 download (along with 60,000 other titles) at their website. No word yet on when it will be available. I've spoken with Miles and he's a fan of the record.

When you think about the decline of the LP and the rise of the CD, a lot of things have been lost in the transition that I miss. The sound of vinyl. (heck, just the sound of the needle dropping onto the vinyl and the few seconds of anticipation before the first notes). The album cover as readable art, not something that made me buy my first magnifying glass (and I now have one in every room where I listen to music). The feel of flipping through bins of wax in a record store. The thought that went into how an album was sequenced over two (or in some cases, four) sides. Stretched over an uninterrupted 75 minutes or so, almost all CDs seem to drag on interminably to me. But Radio City – like most great records – is sequenced in a way that adds to the listening experience.

Here's an excerpt from the book about how the album was sequenced:

Once mixed, the album needed to be sequenced and titled.
One thing that struck me most that first evening in June
of ’76 that I spent playing Radio City over and over was the
sequencing. Most vinyl LPs in that era were front-loaded
with what the band (or the record label) felt was the stron-
gest material, often with an emphasis on more up-tempo
rockers. Potential hits were usually positioned early to catch
the attention of radio programmers or reviewers. Weaker
cuts (ballads or songs written by someone other than the
primary songwriter) were stashed in the middle of Side
Two and then followed by a strong track to finish out the
side. Radio City threw that playbook out the window. After
kicking off with ‘O My Soul’—the longest track and not
exactly a flag-waver for the band’s trademark power pop—
the album settles into a methodical, even languid, pace.
Only the placement of ‘You Get What You Deserve’ at the
end of Side One and ‘Mod Lang’—both strong up-tempo
tracks—to start Side Two follows the standard sequencing
strategy. The potential hit single—‘September Gurls’—is
buried on the second side (the same could be said for ‘Back
Of A Car’). The album ends with two songs that sound
almost like demos or outtakes. Because of this unorthodox
approach, the album builds over the course of the two sides,
climaxing with ‘September Gurls’ before unwinding with
the two Chilton solo songs. Although less friendly for pro-
motion purposes (now many critics or deejays never made
it to Side Two?), it makes for a compelling experience for
the listener, one that may have been more a happy accident
than intentional.

Andy Hummel: From my limited experience, an awful
lot about the way you order songs on an LP is influenced by
the order they’re on master tape. You get used to it in that
order—every time you go into the studio to work on them
you go through that song and then you go through this song
and every time you record yourself a little quarter track mix
to take home and listen to they’re in that same order and
you get used to listening to them in that order. But sequenc-
ing the album would have been a conscious decision during
and after mixing them. So that’s when those decisions made
would have been made but even then they were made some-
what haphazardly because those last two songs Alex recorded
wound up at the very end. Obviously the order of a lot of that
other stuff must have been pretty much accepted.

Alex Chilton: There might be a sort of chronological
thing to the sequencing. I imagine that ‘September Gurls’
was one of the later tunes I composed. I think probably at
the end several of us sat down and said, “This will be the
running order” and we saved some of the weird, offbeat stuff
for towards the end just so as not to put people off too early.

As for the actual title of the album...stay tuned for Andy Hummel revealing how Radio City got its name...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

First Review...

Here's the first review of the book. The capitals on THE GREATEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME are actually in the review. As far as the book being a bit short...it's actually one of the longest books in the series. But as I've noted before, there's a lot of material left out that will be posted here in weeks to come...

[Note: as you'll read in the book, John Fry was the engineer for Radio City.  The band actually produced the album.)

From UNDER THE RADAR magazine / Winter 2009

Bruce Eaton: 33 1/3 Presents Big Star's Radio City (Continuum)

The 33 1/3 series is always a fun read for record obsessives and Bruce Eaton's coverage of THE GREATEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME here is no exception.

Eaton speaks to Alex Chilton, surviving bandmates, producer John Fry, Chris Bell's brother and other regulars in the Ardent / Big Star crew, doing a good job of presenting different viewpoints on the who/what/why. You get background on those involved, their convergence at Ardent Studios, and a rundown of track particulars. There's also some content for the geeks: amplifier details, drum mic setup etc.

Much has been made of the drama and tragedy surrounding Big Star–and you can't escape some of it–but the focus here is music. It's clear everyone involved loved being in the studio, and would have been there, perfecting their craft, regardless of the other factors, Any fan of the album will find this a quick, worthwhile read, if a bit short.

By J. Pace