I know this may sound pretentious—and I apologize for it—but the reason why #1 Record and Third / Sister Lovers hold a special place in my heart are for reasons beyond the music. Don’t get me wrong, the music in both records is superb, but when the strings of “Stroke It Noel” finally materialize or when Alex Chilton runs through what it’s like to be thirteen years old and in love, it means a lot more to me than just the sound or the words. Unfortunately, other than 2 minutes (5 minutes, had I been born in December and could sing-along to “December boys got it bad” to get the full effect from “September Gurls”), Radio City doesn’t have much in the way of emotion, and the music? Well, it’s spotty, to say the least. The good stuff:
1. ”September Gurls.” Obviously. Perfect song. “What’s Goin’ Ahn” wishes its deliberate spelling mistake was half as great.
2. He’s certainly not as inventive as Keith Moon, but every time there’s an empty space, Jody Stephens hands in a drumfill that secures his place as one of the best drummers in the 70’s.
3. I think it ever-so-slightly overstays its welcome (I’m guessing the single mix cuts it in half, since it essentially repeats itself twice), but opener “O My Soul” has more riffs and hooks that you could count if you used both hands and feet.
4. The vocal melody of “Life is White” bounces around in your head, which is important, because the song could’ve benefited from a chorus. Meanwhile, the actual song sort of plods along and it does get boring after a while, but the addition of a harmonica lets it stand out from the rest of the first side, which plods along, harmonica-less.
5. The 1:51 mark onwards to the end of “Daisy Glaze,” beginning with Jody Stephens slamming his drums a couple of times, signaling the song to explode into life with an actual riff and hook and it never fails to put a smile on my face every time. The song is sort of like a canoe ride with friends where no one knows how to canoe—the act of getting in and finding a paddling rhythm is the song’s first half—but once it gets going, it’s absolutely lovely.
6. How the first line of “Daisy Glaze” is “I’m driving alone,” a neat little bit of track sequencing following the events of “Back of a Car.”
7. Disappointed with the fact that #1 Record did not—ahem—become a #1 record (except in our hearts), Chris Bell decided to call it quits. But he did help write a couple of songs on Radio City: “O My Soul” and “Back of a Car.” Despite remaining uncredited for both, his contributions to “Back of a Car” are easy to pick out; the Byrds-ian jangle of the riff makes it an instant keeper and the song’s chorus, specifically the way Alex Chilton belts out “I LUV YOUUUU!”, is great.
8. The 90-second piano ditty of “Morpha Too” is by no means impressive. But it’s cute and it is 90 seconds so I think we’ll live.
9. Speaking of cute, there’s also closer “I’m in Love With a Girl.” It’s not going to impress people who think music ought to be about complexity (though, true to Big Star’s aesthetic, the chord progression is by no means a common one), or the people who think poetry ought to be about complexity, but those people are fools anyway. It’s about emotion, and for a two minute song, “I’m In Love With A Girl” covers more emotion than any other song from 1974 could dream of.
Confession: I think Alex Chilton is a God. Unfortunately, Radio Citymakes it clear that Chris Bell was hugely important to the band’s sound (one of the reasons Third / Sister Lovers works in comparison is because it wholly abandons that sound). The lyrics all revolve around the same subject, and I find myself missing something as wholesome as “The Ballad of El Goodo.” Moreover, while #1 Record took cues from almost every pop/rock band that mattered in the 60s, Radio Citydoesn’t. It’s wholly indebted to the pre-psychedelic years of the Beatles, save for a few exceptions (the already-covered “Back of a Car,” while the singing in “O My Soul” nods slightly to 60s soul, but not the gruff kind of the Box Tops).
And despite the one-dimensional subject matter, when I pull up a lyric sheet to read-along to, I realize that a lot of the lyrics here are keepers. It’s all twisted (thanks, Robert Christgau) views of love, “I could be with Ann / But I’d just get bored” (“Life Is White”), “I was your Butch and you were touched / I loved you, well, never mind / I’ve been crying all the time” (“September Gurls”), “Kitty asked me to read her stars / I had liked her from afar,” (“Morpha Too”), and my personal favorite, “Why don’t you take me home / It’s gone too far inside this car / I know I’ll feel a whole lot more / When I get alone” (“Back of a Car”). But it’s hard to notice these lyrics because Alex Chilton doesn’t deliver them in any significant way. “Morpha Too” especially, since that one is about three octaves too high to understand anything. Hilariously unintentional, the second lyric from “Back of a Car” essentially defines what’s wrong with Radio City as a whole: “Music so loud, can’t tell a thing.” In his quest for radio domination (seen in naming his band Big Star, naming his first album #1 Record, naming this one Radio City), Alex Chilton has forgotten that there’s more than just power required to make power pop; there’s the pop part too.