Sunday, June 12, 2011

June 12: Big Star, "September Gurls"

Artist: Big Star
Song: "September Gurls"
Album: Radio City
Year: 1974

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Within every genre, there are clear turning points that have helped to define that style of music as it stands today.  While some of them are quite obvious, there are a handful of such moments that have manged to somewhat slide into the periphery of music history, and yet as soon as one hears these songs, their influence is quite clear.  This is especially true within so-called "pop music," as its form as shifted so drastically with each decade that in many ways, one can argue it has no actual shape.  However, underneath every pop song, regardless of its face, are a handful of common threads, and it is these elements that make it possible to link nearly every modern pop song back to a few essential groups.  Among the bands that shaped what rock-based pop music would sound like, few were more important that Big Star, and yet they remain one of the most tragically overlooked groups in history.  Taking the drive and grind of the "arena rock" bands of the early 1970's and blending them together with some of the most beautiful melodies and harmonies in history, it is Big Star who largely innovated the idea of "power pop."  Though they had a few significant lineup changes during their comparatively short career, each of their three albums is brilliant in its own right, yet one can quickly understand just why they are such an important band by hearing their timeless 1974 single, "September Gurls."

From the first notes of "September Gurls," the pop perfection that the song boasts from end to end is instantly clear, and the tone from the guitar of Alex Chilton is able to touch both the music from previous generations, as well as future sounds in a single piece.  Though many artists of the era were certainly innovating, it was this element from "September Gurls" that was one of the most significant, as the exact sound can be heard in more modern singles, and it is this moment that serves as the bridge.  There is a slightly bluesy undertone to the guitar work, and there is also a bit of attitude, and it is the way in which Chilton is able to bridge these sounds with the light and captivating mood that makes the song so unique.  Bassist Andy Hummel adds a fantastic bounce to the song, and it also enables "September Gurls" to achieve a very smooth, light groove that has rarely been matched since.  Adding to this is drummer Jody Stephens, and one would be hard pressed to find a better example of the "classic" 1950's drum sound on any other track of the era.  It is the way that the song sways back and forth that makes it the quintessential pop song, and there are moments where the overall level of perfection becomes almost cliché.  Furthermore, the fact that the song sounds just as relevant and fresh today as it did more than thirty years ago proves the brilliant uniqueness and influence that lives within "September Gurls."

Along with his superb guitar work, Alex Chilton also handles the vocals on "September Gurls," and they are equally as good, if not better than his guitar tone.  Much like the rest of the song, there is a driving brightness to his performance, and Chilton clearly possesses one of the most beautiful voices in music history.  It is the way in which Chilton's voice is able to completely captivate the listener, drawing them into his upbeat, sunny world that further separates the song from others of the era, and it would be this element that would drive popular music for the next few decades.  Yet there is also a subtle sense of vulnerability to Chilton's vocals, and when one gets past the sheer beauty of his voice, the reality that the lyrics are on a slightly different path becomes clear.  At its core, "September Gurls" is a love song, and while Chilton's voice sounds as if it is all about the glory of such love, the lyrics offer a colder, more pained vision.  One cannot deny the underlying angst that runs throughout the song, and yet the end offers an odd sense of resolve when Chilton claims that though "she" always made things right, it seems the love was never meant to be.  It is all of these juxtapositions in both lyric and vocal approach that help "September Gurls" to become such a complex song, and it is the sheer sonic brilliance that would make it the blueprint for almost every pop song that has been recorded since.

Though over time, "September Gurls" was never much of a commercial success, its impact cannot be denied, as the elements it contains are still relevant in today's music scene.  While it may have gone largely unnoticed, the mega-hit 2010 single, "California Gurls" was in fact spelled that way as a tribute to Big Star, as part of the management behind the artist was a large fan of the group.  "September Gurls" has also been covered a handful of times since, most notably by The Bangles and Superdrag.  Yet even without these tributes, the fact of the matter is, "September Gurls" easily stands on its own, as it contains literally everything that one needs to create the perfect pop song.  Whether it is the perfectly toned guitars or the absolutely gorgeous vocal work from Alex Chilton, "September Gurls" can appeal to modern audiences just as easily as it would have when it was first released.  Perhaps the song never realized its full potential due to it being so far ahead of its time, as there were no elements of psychedelia, hard rock, or other popular sounds of the mid-1970's to be found within the arrangement.  However, one simply cannot deny just how perfectly crafted the song is, and it remains one of the few songs in history that "never gets old," even after hearing it countless times.  From the trio of musicians to the breathtaking, yet heartbreaking vocals, there may be no more perfect a pop song than one can experience on Big Star's 1974 single, "September Gurls."

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