Top 102 Albums⁺
MY GROUND ZERO
Sister Lovers / Third - Big Star
"Things fall apart / The centre cannot hold"
This album has probably been played more than any twenty other albums in my possession. There were a number of years when the day that I didn't play it was rare and the days where I played it on repeat for hours were common. Late nights were its preferred habitat but anytime was ok.
It's an album with a strange history and one that is probably more famous now than ever. It languished unreleased for four years after it was recorded and was released intermittently after that, usually on small labels, and with different tracks added or subtracted and in different order. They had different covers. The copy I got my hands on was the Castle Communications version released in 1987. This is the one pictured at the top of this post.
I owe my awareness of Big Star at the time to the cover of Kangaroo by This Mortal Coil and live covers of Chilton and Big Star by The Stars of Heaven, who lionised them.
It is arguable if Sister Lovers / Third is even a Big Star record as there were only two remaining members of the band who had recorded #1 Record and Radio City. The sessions were booked under Alex's name only and the record seems to straddle the gap between the power pop of Big Star's first two albums and the shambling anarchy of Chilton's early solo albums.
None of this matters, of course, what matters is the music. It is a strange album, at once beautiful and tender and devastating and hollow, both conservative and experimental, desiring to attract and confound listeners. I feel like I'm in the middle of this music when listening, a three dimensional space. It's on my emotional wavelenght like no other music. I resonate in time with the music and all barriers collapse. At times I can feel almost too raw to keep listening to but there are also moments of extreme tenderness and beauty.
It seems to be the response to this album to give backhanded compliments such as calling it a "shambling wreck of an album" yet giving it five stars. However it isn't easy to represent emotional pain on record, to make a sound that has captivated so many musicians - Stars of Heaven, Replacements, R.E.M, This Mortal Coil etc. How many albums will find people willing to make the efforts that have been made in recent years to recreate this album live? It seems to have involved a confluence of talents, Alex and Jody, maverick producer Jim Dickinson, brilliant engineer/ sound manipulator John Fry and the wonderful string arrangements by Carl Marsh. It was not just some happy accident, even if if was a difficult process.
Something about Chilton.
Alex Chiton was an enigmatic figure. He started as a member of The Box Tops, one of the most successful boy bands of the era. In 1967, at the age of 16 he sang the biggest U.S. hit of the year, The Letter. He hung out with the Beach Boys and even the Manson family, experiences which must have left an indelible mark.
The Box Tops continued to have success for a couple of years, racking up a number of hits including the Chilton penned Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March. However, their half life was short and in 1970 they disbanded and Chilton recorded some solo material in John Fry's Ardent Studios, where Third / Sister Lovers was to be recorded. Recordings from this era have been released on various albums since the eighties such as 1970. Here is one, I Can Dig It that wouldn't have sounded too far out of place in Madchester.
After spending a short while in New York Chilton returned to Memphis where he joined old friend and collaborator Chris Bell in what was to be Big Star and they set about recording #1 Record which included In the Street, the song which would eventually become their biggest 'hit' when a version was used on That 70's Show.
Bell left after the first album and although he wrote some of the material for their second album Radio City it is largely the work of a three piece. Edgier and rockier than its predecessor, Radio City also included Mod Lang which was a collaboration between Chilton and Richard Rosebrough, who would be one of the musicians on Third / Sister Lovers and is one of my very favourite Big Star songs.
Both the first two Big Star albums received critical praise on release but failed to turn it into sales. This has been blamed on the fact that they were not handled well by Stax who were out of their field and also in financial trouble and falling into bankruptcy as Third was being recorded.
So this was an album recorded by the remains of a band that had fallen apart, for a label that was collapsing. Disintegration and decay were all around.
This may have created the circumstances that allowed the record to be made. It's the last shot of a man who doesn't believe in it, but finds belief in himself, enough belief to sing with naked abandon of love and hope and disintegration and despair. Dickinson says that he was the last producer to get a full album of consistent performances from Chilton, that he won Chilton's trust. Well, Chilton clearly has faith in something or someone to put so much of himself into the music.
It's a record that takes us to the peeled nerves at the heart of depression but it is not stuck in the "lack of affect" of the depressive. It is an emotionally rich album which pulses with desire and echoes with despair. It swoons and stumbles. It seems to have a depth to the sound and the mix that I've never heard elsewhere. It's overwhelming. It is my desert island disc. I can't imagine life without it.
Here is my suggested version of the album, keeping to my much loved version but omitting the cover of Whole Lotta Shaking which doesn't seem of a piece with the rest of the album. This Spotify list is of my suggested version.
Well I 'm very chary of saying any of The Knocking Shop's songs were overly influenced by Sister Lovers / Third. I never had the faith in my voice to make any attempt to emulate them. However I did sometimes imagine them covering Half Orphan, a song touching on a painful subject for me which often brought me close to tears when singing it live. I can hear their version like a ghost in the background when listening to ours.
...and this is for Trevor and David, who inspired me to do these posts on my favourite albums.