Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Here's a just-unearthed photo that just came my way that would have been in the book for sure if I'd known about it.  This was shot in my friend Brett Frey's (second from left) apartment the afternoon Alex flew into Buffalo to play at McVan's in June of 1979.  I'm on the far left and Bill Poczik, the majordomo of the Buffalo indie scene, is on the far right.  This scene is described in the book – Alex was explaining to us why he preferred not to rehearse before the show.  The prospect of playing to a packed club with a drummer we had just met and our musical hero seemed pretty daunting but, just as Alex had predicted, the spontaneous high-points were much better than anything we could have planned out in a proper rehearsal.  The evening was a smashing success. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

LATEST UPDATE.   For all those clamoring for a release date, the folks at Continuum estimate that the book will be available April 27th.  Keep in mind that publishing is a bit different from the record business.  There's usually not a hard release date.  But fear not, the book will be in your hands soon.  

PHOTOS...the book has 14 (count 'em) pages of rare or never before seen photos and images (the photo to the right is me playing with Alex at McVan's in Buffalo in June 1979).  Ardent Records was very generous and gracious in giving me access to their files.  Among the sights to be seen will a rare photo of Alex and Chris Bell working together in the studio, a full-page shot of Andy Hummel onstage at Max's Kansas City (with his Hofner bass and a satin shirt) just before he left the band and two small never-before-seen photos of the band onstage at the infamous Rock Writer's Convention in held in Memphis in May 1973 (the gig that lead to the band deciding to record Radio City).  The photos were taken by Roni Hoffman (then girlfriend of Richard Meltzer) and were taken from a contact sheet (the negatives and any larger prints are long missing).   There's also a nice photo of John Fry and Al Bell of Stax in the Ardent offices with the neon artwork for #1 Record sitting unceremoniously on the floor in the corner.  

QUESTIONS??  Send them along!  

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hi Everyone.  Now that the word is getting out about the book, I'll start posting frequently.  

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...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

One, Two, Three...Four!

Welcome everyone to the inaugural post for my forthcoming book on Big Star's epic Radio City album for the 33 1/3 series.  To everyone waiting for the book, the latest news is that it should ship in mid-April.  Thanks for your patience.  In the meantime, feel free to send me your questions.  [The background to the heading above is the hand drawn artwork on the master tape box for the album.  On the back it reads "Those Dee-lightful Big Stars are at it again!"]

Over the months ahead I'm going to be posting a lot of additional material that didn't make the book for reasons of space.  I was fortunate to have the complete cooperation of everyone who was "in the room" for the making of Radio City, including Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, Richard Rosebrough, and Ardent founder and genius engineer John Fry.  My objective was to let them tell the story of the record itself – what's actually in the grooves and how it got there – and not all the surrounding myths, conjectures, skewed half-truths, and outright slander that have been repeated over and over until accepted as fact.  With the exception of David Bell speaking for Chris Bell, the interviews were confined to actual hands-on participants.  A lot of stories and anecdotes from my personal experiences that would otherwise gone into the book were left on the cutting room floor to make way for the words of the architects of Radio City.  

I'll start you off with this amusing tidbit.  In 1981 I moved from Buffalo to NYC and worked with the late Ruth Polsky to set up Alex's notorious tour that October (after which he left the public spotlight for a few years).  Word started to get out among the NYC power pop aficionados and one night I got a phone call from Will Rigby, drummer of the dBs, who seemed quite intent on figuring out just who this guy from Buffalo with the Chilton connection was.  It was more of an interrogation than a conversation.  A little bit later my doorbell rang and Will was standing there with fellow dB Peter Holsapple in tow.  They came up to my apartment and immediately started sifting through my record collection (a more direct way of judging my musical character perhaps).  Out came a copy of Skip Spence's Oar, which neither of them had ever heard.  The turntable was fired up and side one hit the platter.  We chatted away until the last song started playing and then they started to freak out a bit.  The song 'War In Peace' was believed to be the heretofore unheard and unacknowledged inspiration for all of Radio City: the sound, the skewed arrangements, the loose but tight groove.  They must have played it a half dozen times and somewhere in there it occurred to me that I had so many levels of the rock cult artist thing going on – half of the dBs listening to Skip Spence and connecting him to Big Star - in that little living room that all that was needed was a telemarketing call from Roky Erickson and some spontaneous combustion might have occured.  Even at the time I thought it was pretty amusing.  Over the years some listeners have connected Moby Grape / Skip Spence to Big Star and I think you can hear some similarities.  But that doesn't mean that there was an actual connection.  Andy Hummel told me that he's also heard those references over the years but that Grape / Spence were not on the band's radar at any point...