Frank Gutch Jr: Thoughts on Big Star, The Little Band That Wasn’t Until One Day, Forty Years Later, It Was; Plus Updates and Voluminous Notes of a Lugubrious Nature

It was a epiphanal moment, one where an aura engulfs something or someone with angelic choir background.  In this case, it engulfed the first two albums released by new and tiny Ardent Records: Cargoe‘s self-titled classic and Big Star‘s #1 Record.  I held them up and asked Gary Haller, co-owner of Eugene’s now famed House of Records if they were any good.  They looked good, the slick glossy covers showing artsy pictures of the bands, the neon Big Star sign classy in an Andy Warhol sort of way.  “Dunno,” Gary replied.  “Nice artwork, though.”  I brooded over them for the next hour or so, pulling other records from the racks to read liner notes I had already read numerous times, hoping that this time I would find inspiration.  To buy.  To listen.  To covet.

When I left that day, I carried with me the Cargoe album, leaving Big Star behind.  I don’t know why.  They both tugged at my psyche.  They both talked to me.  Gary had offered to play them but I balked at the chance.  Maybe I didn’t want to share.  Maybe this was a Simon Legree moment wherein I wanted to grab the treasure, run back to my vault of vinyl and hoard the music.  I don’t know, but I headed straight home to put the needle to the test.

And what a test it was!  For the next couple of days, I immersed myself in Cargoe, flipping the cover over time and again, hoping to gain meaning from the shot of the band lighted only by the daylight showing through an abandoned manhole and, on the back, that manhole as seen from below.  It was like nothing I had heard, from the powerful pounding of Come Down (listed erroneously as Come Home on one of the pressings) to the immaculately structured Leave Today ending the flipside.  I am sure I listened a good four times that night and once the next morning before heading back to  the HoR for the Big Star.  By then, I was convinced that in this case, the artwork did indeed reflect the music.  When I put #1 Record to the test, I became even more convinced.

I wrote a review of that Cargoe album for Fusion Magazine and editor Barry Glovsky, who was also sold at first listen to both Ardent bands.  Barry and I were kindred souls.  He, too, took artist’s struggles to heart.  In fact, when Radio City, Big Star’s followup to #1 Record was released, he gave Big Star prime billing, plugging the record with an excellent rundown by one of my favorite rock writers of the time, Jon Tiven.  Of course, my Cargoe review was a bit before that, but not too much before.  Perhaps it was my channeling the album to those “who don’t bite bubbles in the bathtub,” a phrase I picked up somewhere and wish I had known where so I could have given credit where credit is due, but Barry printed it (and a few other oddball reviews of bands more than worthy but sinking in quicksand).

But I digress.  This is supposedly about Big Star and thoughts which rushed through my veins whilst watching the impressive Nothing Can Hurt Me documentary on the Indie Film Channel.  Those thoughts were happiness for the belated success of the band’s music and frustration at its failures to accurately paint the music scene for what it was at the time.  Granted, I missed the first ten minutes so I might not have seen scenes which laid the groundwork for what I did see, but I somehow doubt it.  Still and all, I thought it worth seeing and, for true Big Star fans, worth having.

I remember when interviewing two of the members of Cargoe references to Big Star.  You must understand that Cargoe was a working band and a hard-working band.  When not practicing or playing themselves, they were working with Dan Penn at Beautiful Sounds Studios, supporting such acts as Ronnie Milsap in taverns and lounges, delivering newspapers and doing whatever they could to put food on the table.  To them, Big Star must have looked like prima donnas.  While Cargoe was busting their butts, Big Star seldom played out in those early days, if at all, and kept pretty much to themselves.  John Fry, the owner at Ardent, handed the keys to Christopher Bell so he could use the studio when it was not scheduled for use (and would do the same for Alex Chilton after Bell left the band).  Indeed, Big Star was city mouse to Cargoe’s country mouse.  Still, the bands got along even if working in different worlds.

Here is what Cargoe’s Max Wisley said, when forced:

We really didn’t talk a lot with Big Star.  At least, I didn’t. They kind of came off like snotty rich kids, like they were better than everybody. They’d just come in and do their studio thing. I only saw Alex once in awhile. I’d hear weird stories about how somebody would be recording in one of the studios and get everything set just right and then Alex would come in at night and change all the mixing settings. They’d come in the next morning and find he’d changed everything on the board.

Perhaps if Big Star had actually tried to fit in somewhere…

Did the first segment of Nothing Can Hurt Me mention the pre-Big Star happenings?  Rock City, for instance?  You cannot talk about Big Star without talking about Rock City.  Terry Manning, Ardent producer/engineer who played in that early band, mentioned them and the Memphis scene in general in an interview with WFMU-FM‘s Pseu Braun: By the sixties and seventies, Memphis was a player’s place. Unlike Nashville and Austin, which were known as havens for great lead guitarists, Memphis had every kind of players: great keyboard players, tremendous bass players, all different kinds of guitar players (not the lead guitar as much as a very cool chunky rhythm style). If you were in a band in Memphis at that time, you needed to be able to play. Maybe you weren’t the greatest musician in the world, but you knew music.

We had a group of people hanging around Ardent in those days who were not only players, but who were rebelling against the previous Memphis sound in deciding that the English invasion — The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Animals, things like that — were just so cool that we really wanted to be like that. We didn’t want to be playing In the Midnight Hour at a club down the street, because everybody was doing that. We wanted to play things like The Yardbirds’ I’m a Man. So we all, without knowing it or thinking it, banded together into this power pop thing. We didn’t think of it like that at the time. We were just doing what we wanted to do. We were playing the kind of music we wanted to play and we were all trying to be The Beatles.

That’s where Rock City happened, a band in which I played with Christopher Bell, Jody Stephens, and Thomas Dean Eubanks. We went in and recorded this album. John Fry and I tried to get it to the major labels. We would make trips to L.A. and New York and go see the heads of the labels and the A&R people and take them the tapes we had done. And we weren’t getting anywhere. A&M did give a call back. They were interested, but not enough to sign us. We finally said, you know what, we’re going to have to do this ourselves. John had had a few things out, some early rockabilly things, a few years before. So we decided to have a rock/pop label called Ardent and we would just put our own groups on our own label. Then we knew we could get it released.

Of course, by that time, Chris (Bell) had gotten together with Alex Chilton and some more recordings were going on which later became the Big Star recordings, so I shelved the Rock City project. Chris took two or three of the Rock City songs and they recorded a couple of guitar and vocal tracks which they overlaid onto them and actually put them on the Big Star album as Big Star tracks. They became part of Big Star and part of the Big Star lore. And I basically went on to producing other things.

Was that part in the first ten minutes or so? If not, it should have been.

I was surprised to see so much attention given to writers.  True, they had a showcase which did a lot to add to the legend behind the band— the party thrown for writers who would go on to claim Big Star the gods of power pop.  But writers are nothing more than adult fans with overgrown egos.  And it was just a party.  And while it spurred some writers to become lifelong fans, on the whole it did nothing to help the band beyond the printing of a few live reviews which were ignored outside the music business.  It was good to see faces I could put to the names whose work I had been reading for years.

I have always wondered about people’s reactions to the third album.  While I found some good moments on it, it fell so short of the first two albums that I could totally understand why it was not released upon completion.  For one thing, it is not really a Big Star album.  It is an Alex Chilton album, and not a very good one in my opinion.  John Fry was good enough to send me a test pressing when I interviewed him in 1975.  His comments to questions back then were :

Was either Big Star’s third album or Alex Chilton’s solo album recorded for Ardent?

FRY: When the group had gotten down to Jody Stephens, the drummer, and Alex Chilton… after the termination of the Stax agreement (I just went over and said, look, it’s pointless to go on with this, let’s have a release, and they said all right)— we recorded 18 sides and attempted to place it but could not get a label interested in picking it up. The material was a lot different than what the whole band had done. I could understand where there’d be resistance to picking it up. It’s a little unusual.

But I’ve seen companies release unusual stuff before.

FRY: Yeah, I have too. But our ability at making records and handling the technical end of the business has always been a lot better than our ability to deal with record moguls. And you have to understand that the Big Star band was originally four people and after the first album, Chris Bell dropped out of the picture. Then, after the second album, Andy Hummel dropped out.

To read the complete interview, click here.

To the film’s credit, this is mentioned but I think it worthy to note that if Rolling Stone had looked at the records seriously, Third would not have made the Top 500 list.  (Ed. Note: I am of the opinion that RS should refrain from publishing any and all “Top” and “Best of” lists— like any group of people could put together a group of the “100 Greatest Guitar Players” which could have any credibility anyway)  This constant chant of “Alex! Alex! Alex!” has always left me scratching my head.  For me, it was the band as a whole and, let’s face it, like Lennon & McCartney, Chilton and Bell were always better together than apart.  If I want to go solo, I go with Bell.

One comment made during the film was that when CBS was picked up as distributor of Stax product, the product was not really available.  Maybe it wasn’t everywhere, but the Los Angeles warehouse had stock.  I called them when I worked at Licorice Pizza to see if I could get display material.  True that I had to go through four or five people to find someone who even knew of Big Star but I finally tracked down someone who did.  He was kind enough to go out onto the floor to find it but said he would have to get permission to take albums out of the jackets to send for displays, a common practice back then (My friend and colleague Larry the K would do this later with Capricorn Records and was sent a box of the 3-D Captain Beyond cover), so the product was there.  Was it listed in the catalog?  I have no idea.

The thing I find most amazing about Big Star is that they survived the guillotine.  Dead on arrival, the album refused to die and picked up momentum as time passed until, today, they are considered the cream of the power pop crop.  And rightfully so.  Give me #1 Record at any time and I am in Pig Heaven.  Give me September Gurls and I am over the top.  I just hate to see the reality destroyed by idol worship.  In fact, I began a piece about rewriting music history with a reference to Big Star, to-wit:

“I never really felt like Big Star was part of the Memphis music scene at all. I just finished reading Robert Gordon’s book It Came From Memphis and, quite frankly, that was the first I’ve ever known of most of the ‘Memphis Music Scene’.” – ANDY HUMMEL, Big Star, from a 2001 interview with Jason Gross for the Perfect Sound Forever website

It’s taken 30 years, but we’ve finally reached a point where you can hardly throw a pop bottle at a major rock concert without hitting a Big Star fan. And if the bottle’s full, when they come to they will inevitably swear that hardly anyone knows about them (Big Star, that is).

It’s interesting. The growing fan base is enough to keep the band going even today, though the band has not really existed for years. True, there is a Big Star living off of the name and a convoluted lineup consisting of the Biggest Star, Alex Chilton, and the core of the Posies. And their jangly, hook-filled guitar sound does strike a note with the fan, but for those less enamored it’s more akin to expecting Creedence Clearwater Revival and getting John Fogerty with a few studio musicians. I mean, if that’s what you want, fine, but it isn’t Big Star.

What we really have is a case of the legend overtaking reality.  It’s Martin Strothers all over again. You know. “What we have here is a failure to communicate?” Cool Hand Luke? Hello? Is this mike on?

The truth is that whereas Big Star is a minor supernova in today’s rock world, during their actual existence they were barely a lit fuse. Yet somehow, the legend has given credence to no less than two books about 70s Memphis rock and a history of anything and everything Big Star by Brit Rob Jovanovic. Not only that, but numerous Big Star CDs and 60s and 70s Memphis compilations line the shelves of music stores everywhere (that is, if you’re lucky enough to know where one is anymore). Hell, it practically takes a supercomputer to handle the Google responses to a Big Star/Chilton query on the Net.

So allow me to mouth the Big Question— What the hell is going on? And allow me to mouth the answer— we are, once again, rewriting history.

The first time I noticed it was in the 70s. Being a native Pacific Northwesterner, I cut my teeth on the armory and teen fair circuit of the 60s and music was as important to me as it was for most young kids of the day. I say this only to explain that I knew the bands and the music and the scene and the fact is, it wasn’t really close to what has been written.

Let me guess. I say Pacific Northwest and the first group that pops into your mind is The Sonics, right? Maybe Paul Revere and the Raiders if you leaned away from the harder edge. But they were only two cogs in the Northwest wheel. We were inundated in bands of varying success and popularity, from The Daily Flash (pictured, right) to Don & the Goodtimes to The Frantics to Mr. Lucky & the Gamblers to…. well, you get my drift. So why is it that the vast majority of interest in the scene circles around The Sonics? How is it that The Sonics can elbow reality out of the way? The mere fact that it does is an example of rewritten history.

It is a simple matter of logic. You start with A, move to B, then to C, then to D. Now, A to B is a given, but the chances are progressively greater that the further along you move, say from A to D or A to G, the chance of solid logic (and reality) fades.

Big Star may be a good place to start when you think Memphis, but there was a lot more to it at the time. Cargoe made the trek from Tulsa and beat Big Star from the Ardent gate, being the only Ardent act to chart on a national level. Moloch rocked the houses and eventually morphed into Jim Dandy and Black Oak Arkansas. The Hot Dogs‘ tadpole studio sessions evolved into a live frog act.

There were many others. But they did not constitute a “scene.” They were all musicians not unlike those who permeated the Pacific Northwest, trying to play music and survive.  The cohesiveness was in the music and the survival, not in the banding together for a musical purpose. The same for Seattle and grunge, and the Athens, Georgia movement of the late 70s and early 80s. The same for all of rock music. I mean, would there have been a British Invasion without The Beatles? Would rock and roll have died without Elvis? Think about it.

The truth is that truth lies somewhere between the poles and always has. In music history, it is a matter of perception. The problem arises when we apply today’s perception as reality. So be aware, all of you young musicologists out there. When you step beyond the music, you take a chance of warping any future conception of the reality you know. If you don’t believe me, just ask Andy Hummel. Of course, what does he know? He was only there.

Note: This was written before Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton slipped off this mortal coil. Any references to them in the present were truth at that time. And no disrespect is intended toward any members of Big Star. I love those guys and listen to them still. But you have to admit, they are a great case in point.

Updates From My Universe

Gold Heart, also known as The Gold Heart Sisters, are going back into the studio.   They have spent the past couple of years hitting the road hard and writing songs for the new release and I, for one, cannot wait!  If I inherited anything musical from my father, it is my undying affection for vocal bluegrass harmonies, and these ladies have them down pat.  And they have written some of my favorite songs over the past few years.  Vocals like this almost make me cry.

Gileah Taylor has finally released a new track, titled Till We’re Through, available from iTunes and CDBaby, along with two tracks previously recorded.  No video for the brand new one, but this will give you an idea why she is a real favorite (I’ve been listening to her since 2005).  The “single,” as she graciously put it, includes Till We’re Through, Going Home, and John of the Four Track Heart, a song I can’t seem to get out of my head since I first heard it about a year ago (?)

The Rob Martinez album finally made it to me and am I impressed!  I always thought I liked the sound, but this album really puts it together.  When you get a chance, check it out!

What with all of the obstacles put in my way, I have neglected to write about Rich McCulley‘s new album, Out Along the Edges.  It’s another beauty from Rich, who seems to love to dance around the pop/power pop maypole.  Crunchy when needed, always melodic and worth hearing.  Here is the first track from the album which is available through CDBaby. 

On the heels of Mysticeti, a release put together by Amy van Keeken and cohort Dara Humniski (I am really digging it— hear it here), van Keeken is already back in the studio to record a new full-length album.  I have been playing her album in anticipation (it is actually a compilation of her two EPs) and will now give you a taste.  Just in case you might be interested.  If you aren’t, stop reading here and never read my stuff again!  Just kidding…

 

Ain’t no way she is disappointing me with the new one.  She’s got the touch.

Man, my mind is mush.  I know there are others I need to mention.  Look, if you have contacted me about a recording or a new album release, please let me know.  I don’t know where my mind is these days.  Good thing is, the back is better, so you can depend upon me browbeating you with music suggestions.  Right now, though, let’s take a look at some videos.  Time for…

Notes…

We all have our own moments but few of us have the wherewithal to write a song about them.  This musician does and has just released a video to mark The MomentPi Jacobs is only one of many Left Coast musicians who have banded together to create and support a real music scene, though loosely hung together.  Let us call this the square root of Pi.  Interesting note:  An other musician of note, Julie Cain, also known as Little Lonely, did  the makeup and hair.

I was knocked out by this track a few years ago.  How was this not a hit?  The mixture of voice and tremelo guitar floored me.  Still does.

Which reminds me.  I haven’t mentioned Julie in a long, long time.  How about a video or two to show you who she is.  Love her sense of humor (and her music).  No wonder she’s a Little Lonely.

Green Pajamas fans are going to love this!  A trailer for the new GP album which will be released on VINYL!

Canada’s Monowhales should have been top o’ the charts by now.   They keep putting songs like this out and it won’t be long.  Don’t stop here, though.  Finish watching this and head to YouTube to watch an series of excellent tracks.  Good, good stuff.

I have the best friends in the world.  Just a couple of days ago William Michael Smith pointed me to an album seven years old that I surely would have missed: Randy Weeks & Stonehoney‘s Transistor Radio.  Take a listen to this live video from Music Fog.

I just happened to click on Link TV’s “Voices” this week and caught this.  I would have liked to have known this man and been involved in the scene.  Excellent insider look at the record business as it sometimes was way back in the fifties and early sixties.  Thing is, it wasn’t the sixties.

I will listen to anything by The LeRoi Brothers, Don Leady, Churchwood or Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers just because I am afraid of what I might miss.  Here is a lo-fi and way-too-short track by The Shack Shakers.  I have a couple of albums to pick up to complete my collection.  Wotta band!

Elouise is one of the damndest bands I have come across the past few years.  They call their music blackgrass or darkgrass or something but I think it’s just plain demented… in varying degrees, of course.  Closest band I can think of to them would be one of my all-time favorites— Sinking Creek.  Here is the latest vid from Elouise.

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about Tania Stavreva lately and after watching this live video, I understand why.  A name to note.

Lot of bluegrass star power on this one… Alison Brown, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Becky Buller, and Missy RainesJohn Hartford would be proud.

When I first heard Joni Nichols (it was quite awhile ago) I could not put a finger on why I liked her music, but I found myself returning to certain songs on a regular basis.  I think it might be the immediacy of the sound, if that makes sense.  It calms me.

The Burning Hell.  The more I hear these guys, the more I like them and I have no idea why…

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile?  I can get behind this.

The only reason people are not jumping on the Wallis Bird bandwagon is because they haven’t found her yet. I think this video says a lot about her approach to music.  I dig it.

I’m glad they included lyrics in this video.  Damn nice stuff from I’m With Her.

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Tuesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at Frank bottle capone time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

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