Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Big Time

Artists: Big Audio Dynamite; Big Brother and the Holding Company; Big Star
Albums: Tighten Up Vol. '88, Megatop Phoenix (BAD); Cheap Thrills (BB&THC); #1 Record/Radio City, A Little Big Star (BS)
Source: Bought new (both BAD; #1R/RC); bought used (BB&THC); promo (ALBS)

It's easy to like contemporary pop music. I don't mean that pop music from today, in mid-2007, is so delightfully easy on the ear that it goes down like hot buttered Elvis. No, I'm suggesting that in any given moment, the pop music of that moment just sounds right. For a better understanding of what I'm getting at, go listen to "I Ran (So Far Away)" by Flock of Seagulls right now, notice how silly the production and instrumentation sound, and then consider what a perfectly pleasant slice of pop-craft this was in 1982.

In taking a look at the small section of The Beast made up of bands that begin with "Big," it struck me that these three groups - Big Audio Dynamite, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Big Star - sort of perfectly triangulate the three destinies that pop music faces as it marches forward into the history of the future.

First, Big Audio Dynamite. When BAD hit the scene in 1985, it sounded like a pop revelation to my early-teen ears. Mick Jones, having been booted from The Clash (and consequently allowed to avoid the turgid embarrassment of Cut the Crap), had turned around and rethought what music could sound like. Here were poppy rock songs with hip-hop-ish rhythms, found-sound samples, and a worldly mash-up sensibility that was pretty much unlike anything kicking around the mainstream at the time. When I got the first two BAD records (which I own on vinyl and cassette, so they don't appear here), I was sure I was hearing the most futuristic rock music ever. BAD was review-proof for me: I would just buy the next one when it came out, and listen it into the ground.

Listen now. WTF? The pop sounds thin and, in places, a little trite. The beats sound like...well, they sound like they came from a British white guy with an old drum machine, which I guess they did. And the sounds effects are just kind of silly, and not always all that creative (tap-dance loops in "2000 Shoes"? Yeah, I get it). It's still enjoyable to listen to (though Megatop has a lot of filler in its faux-house soundscape), but hardly the revelation that it seemed like in the 80s. In other words, it was pop music of its time, and piling more time on top of it has not been kind.

On the other end is Big Star. I remember on a long trip in the early 90s playing #1 Record/Radio City for my friend Matt and asking him to guess what year it had been recorded. He was off by nearly 20 years: the sounds and songs on this disc felt both fresh and classic, and they still do more than a decade after that car ride. "September Gurls" was perfect pop in 1973, and it's perfect pop now. Very little in the production dates the sound too heavily, and the guitars/bass/drums instrumentation just places the music somewhere in the rock & roll era.

It also doesn't hurt that Big Star is an enduring influence on bands going forward into today. Nobody picked up the Big Audio torch in any noticeable way, which means there's no line of continuity leaning the sound forward. Big Star, on the other hand, can be heard in ways both big and small in the work of anyone from Paul Westerburg to Yo La Tengo to Cheap Trick to GBV to half the Elephant 6 stable. Big Star wasn't particularly of their time during their time, which makes their pop sound timely pretty much anytime.

I'd argue that Big Brother and the Holding Company essentially splits the difference between those two ends of pop-versus-time spectrum. Cheap Thrills was recorded in California in 1968, which is information that a blind, illiterate listener could provide about 10 seconds into the record. From the exten(sive/d)ed, lysergic guitar solos to Janis Joplin's psych-blues wailing to the R. Crumb cartoon cover art, this disc is a date-specific artifact of a moment in pop time, when this was simply one of the things that was going on. That it contains some stone-cold classics ("Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain") helps keep it listenable, if not always relevant (though many of today's backwards-glancing jam bands bear clear marks of BB&THC in their sound-worlds). Cheap Thrills doesn't exist out of time like Big Star, but neither is it crippled by its sonic benchmarking the way BAD so clearly is.

SISOSIG? While I would certainly point to the pair of BAD discs as (ahem) the most bad things here, really Cheap Thrills is the one I hardly ever listen to. It's part of Columbia Records' criminally awful first wave of CD masters (they more or less transferred vinyl to the new, sonically detailed format) and as such is a poor-sounding copy of a kind of music I'm not particularly drawn to. I can appreciate it, sure, and I dig Janis' place in the pantheon, but it's a little bit like something I think I'm supposed to have rather than actually like. I'd say it can go, and maybe one day a better-sounding copy of it will make its way to me. I'd never think of parting with my guilty-pleasure BAD discs, though, not even the weak-link Megatop Phoenix. It's mostly a nostalgia trip, but who am I to fight off some perfectly good nostalgia? And Big Star goes nowhere, never - every note sounds better each time I hear them, and I like to hear them pretty often.


  • Dude, I don't get it. Now that you have all that mega-room for your stuff, you are finally willing to let a sound or 2 go. Are you trying to carve out room for a band of your own? Or maybe a drum set?

    By Anonymous Gil Hodges, at 5:22 PM  

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