by Michael Goldberg
Monday, March 18, 2002
What Makes Great Rock 'N' Roll Great, Part Two
Sometimes great rock 'n' roll is simply pure pleasure. Like sex, only without the complications.
The early-to-mid-'70s Memphis-by-way-of-Liverpool (in spirit, anyway) rock band Big Star have been in the news, on my mind and playing on my stereo of late. I hadn't listened to Big Star in quite a while, but the reformed band, which includes original members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, has been headlining shows at a couple of music festivals (Noise Pop; All Tomorrow's Parties), and, well....
It's funny the way it works. Something reminds you of a particular band or artist; next thing you know, you can't stop playing their old albums. In this case, it's the Big Star twofer CD that includes their two classic power-pop albums, #1 Record and Radio City, that's been in the stereo. After listening a lot to "Way Out West" and "Thirteen," "Oh My Soul" and "September Gurls" and all the rest, I've come to the conclusion that while everything I said in last week's column about what makes a great rock 'n' roll band great is still true, sometimes it isn't.
I ended that column by writing: "Great rock 'n' roll makes you feel something you haven't felt before, makes you think about the world and your life in a new way. Great rock 'n' roll asks the questions that aren't often asked. It challenges you, confronts you. It's not comfortable."
Except when it's real comfortable. Sometimes rock 'n' roll is like that favorite pair of faded jeans with the holes in the knees that you've been wearing for years. Sometimes it's like that café where you go to hang out and retreat from the craziness. Sometimes great rock 'n' roll is simply a safe haven. Sometimes it's pure pleasure, like sex, which, after all, is one of things the phrase "rock 'n' roll" initially referred to.
Big Star Chilton and the late Chris Bell's Southern soulful vocals and jangly Britpop guitars, Stephens' powerful drumming and Andy Hummel's melodic bass is mostly pure pleasure too. Big Star songs are mostly about girls. They're about being in love ("I'm in Love With a Girl") or being mistreated by a girl ("Don't You Lie to Me") or wanting to be in love and wanting to have sex with a girl ("September Gurls"). Much of the time they feel like fun, which is another thing that plenty of rock 'n' roll, great rock 'n' roll, is fun.
These songs are written from the perspective of a young guy. They're about important stuff (I mean, is there really much that's more important than love and sex?), but there's an innocent and juvenile quality to the lyrics, like there is in Beach Boys songs and a lot of early-to-mid-period Beatles songs. These Big Star songs capture some of the feelings you have when you'e young and want a girlfriend or boyfriend real bad. Listen to Chilton sing the line, "December boys got it bad." The words and the yearning in his voice so perfectly capture what it feels to be 17 and hopelessly in love.
Certainly these lyrics don't challenge my world (probably not yours either). And yet many of them are not only quite beautiful and heartbreaking but, when combined with the music and sung the way they're sung here, about as great as great can be.
The way Chilton, in "I'm in Love With a Girl," sings, "I'm in love with a girl/ Finest girl in the world/ I didn't know I could feel this way/ Think about her all the time/ Always on my mind," is, in itself, great. Pure and simple.
These songs don't make me feel uncomfortable (the way, say, Trout Mask Replica did the first dozen or so times I played it). In fact, they just make me feel good. The music makes me smile sometimes and makes me remember heartbreak at other times. Play "Way Out West" and you feel like dissolving into the melody, the perfect guitars, the dreamy harmonies.
Just the opening guitar bit of "Feel" is one of the great moments in rock 'n' roll and, in fact, there are a helluvalotta great moments across the history of rock. Those lists of 100 greatest albums probably should be the 1,000 greatest albums; the 30,000 greatest songs; the 6,000 greatest guitar riffs...
There's a lot of truly great rock 'n' roll. In the abstract, anyone can do it. I mean right now. You can still buy a guitar and amp for less than $400, and with that guitar and amp it's possible to make great rock 'n' roll. Just like Alex Chilton and his Big Star buddies did. Just like Sleater-Kinney do. Not that I'm saying everyone can do it. Of course they can't. Along the rock 'n' roll highway, the gutters are filled with bad songs, bad albums and bands that didn't quite come together (or missed by a mile). But, potentially, any three or four kids can get together in a garage and crack the code.
Start with the '50s and move forward. There are so many records that can rock your world, so many rockabilly combos and rock bands, blue-eyed soul duos and girl groups, British Invasion quartets and quintets, psychedelic jammers, punks of all hair styles, new-wavers and power-poppers and noise-rockers who got it right.
Which brings me back to the question: What makes great rock 'n' roll great? Know what? The more I ponder this, the more I think it really is impossible to explain. And even if you could, even if you had a list of 100 reasons why Big Star are one of the greatest, there's some guy or girl who doesn't hear it, who thinks you're crazy.
Maybe it's like love. I mean, why is it that two people fall in love? You love that guy or that girl and no one else does. Why? What is it about you and that other person that clicks, but doesn't click with anyone else? So is it great rock 'n' roll? Hey, no need to tell me.