Album Review - Big Star - #1 Record (1972)

By Sergio Ariza

Not stars, but legends 

Never was the name of a band and its first album more contradictory than in the case of Big Star and #1 Record. The group led by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were never big stars and their album was never number one – in fact it didn't even reach the Top 200, and was almost impossible to find in a record store at the time of its release. However, many years later both band and album became one of the biggest cult bands in history, especially since in the 80's bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements started to vindicate them and proved that few better bands have existed when it comes to making great songs and albums with that wonderful combination of guitars, bass and drums.

Chilton and Bell had known each other since they were teenagers in Memphis, both sharing a huge fascination for the bands of the British Invasion, particularly the Beatles, but their paths had followed totally opposite paths: Chilton had left the city and had tasted the sweetness of success through lending his prodigious throat to the Box Tops, with whom he had made some noise with The Letter, while Bell stayed in Memphis, where he got a job at Ardent Studios and created a band called Rock City, together with Jody Stephens, where he played songs that appeared on this album such as Feel, My Life Is Right and Try Again.


Their paths met again when Chilton returned to Memphis in the early '70s and listened to Bell's demos. He was delighted with his work and wanted to take him with him to New York to play the folk club circuit in an acoustic format, but Bell was convinced of the possibilities of his songs and it was he who convinced Chilton to stay. Bell was at the time playing with Stephens on drums and Andy Hummel on bass, when Chilton dropped in on a rehearsal, pulled out his Martin D-35 12-string and played Watch The Sunrise. There wasn't even a vote to be taken, Alex Chilton was in. A few days later, while looking for a band name, they looked across the street from the studio where they were playing and saw a store called Big Star, and amidst laughter and ambition, they decided that would be theirs.

With Chilton in the band it was easy to get a contract with Arden, and in November 1971 they began recording their first album. Chilton and Bell co-wrote the songs, like their beloved Lennon and McCartney, although it is easy to trace the main author of the songs. Although it is often assumed that Chilton was the rockier member and Bell the more introspective one, this album tells us that the two acquitted themselves perfectly in both fields.


The album opens in style with Feel, one of Bell's most rocking songs, with those horns so typical of his hometown, Memphis. His is also the unstoppable Don't Lie To Me, in which this British Invasion enthusiast shows that he also had room in his heart for Led Zeppelin. His love for melody is seen in the catchy My Life Is Right, while his acoustic side shines with Try Again. Of course, his contribution is not confined to his songs, as he is the architect of the group's sound and the album's second ‘shadow producer’, alongside John Fry.

For his part, Chilton delivers an absolutely incredible collection of songs and demonstrates that his privileged throat has been joined by a more than remarkable expertise on the six strings, as he is also the lead guitarist of the band with his early 60's Stratocaster and Les Paul Gold Top. That said, where he really excels is as a songwriter, with Thirteen - as again with his Martin, he delivers one of the most beautiful and devastating songs in history, advancing Elliott Smith's career; while with The Ballad of El Goodo he does the same with Teenage Fanclub. His other contribution to the outstanding first side is In The Street, sung by Bell, a glorious power pop song that later had a second life as the theme song of the series That '70s Show, in a cover version by some of his disciples, Cheap Trick.


The second side included the irresistible When My Baby's Beside Me, which he later said was the song he was most proud of, and the acoustic Watch The Sunrise, which gives us an idea of what Chilton and Bell would have sounded like if they had gone to Greenwich Village with their acoustics.

The result was a marvel that was praised by all the critics and media of the time, but when a potential fan read the enthusiastic reviews and went to the store to try to get their hands on a copy of the record, they couldn't find it. Ardent had signed a distribution deal with Stax - but someone had forgotten to get the record into the stores.  

In the end only a few thousand copies were sold and the commercial failure led to Bell leaving the band. Big Star recorded a couple more wonders that met the same fate as this record, but fate likes irony, and Big Star were never big stars nor was #1 Record a hit; that said, in December 2021 any music lover knows that this album and this band are absolute legends of 70's music.