Monday, May 31, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #65 Big Star - Radio City

Despite their long standing reputation as rock critical darlings, Big Star are still a sorely underrated band. How do I know this? Because, even though everyone I know is familiar with "In the Street," only a handful have any idea who Big Star are, or that the theme song for That 70's Show was an actual song from the actual seventies. I also know because, while playing Rock Band with friends, very few of them have any idea who Alex Chilton is whenever The Replacements song named after him works its way into the rotation. So, what I'm getting at is, even though Big Star's music currently enjoys the biggest audience it has ever known, I can count on my fingers how many of my friends actually knew what I was talking about when I spent a week listening to #1 Record for a week after Alex Chilton's death. As irritating as Big Star's long time anonymity is, however, I guess it's not surprising. The band's entire career, after all, only spanned a few years, and pretty much established that Big Star would always be one of the best bands that not enough people knew about. Bruce Eaton, in his entry into the 33 1/3 series chronicling the creation of Big Star's Radio City, effortlessly cobbles together a fractured narrative of how, exactly, Big Star managed to make such great music that not many people cared about.

From a historical stand point, then, Eaton's take on Radio City is one of the most fascinating and engaging entries in Continuum's 33 1/3 series. By piecing together bits of interviews with band members and other key players in the album's creation—including Alex Chilton, and the late Chris Bell's brother David—we get a compelling picture of how Radio City sprung from Big Star's workman-like desire to keep making music even through a tumultuous period in the band's brief history, and how the record, like its predecessor, failed to find an audience outside of rock critic circles.

The most surprising—and welcome—aspect of Eaton's work is how little the author does to sensationalize this period of the band's career. Despite Chris Bell's strange departure, inner turmoil and frustrations at poor distribution and marketing efforts, the book sticks to the facts of Radio City's creation so as to inform us, without ever coming off as scandalous or overly dramatic. While the book's format—Eaton largely relies on blocks of quotations from interviews from dispassionate parties who seem to have reached peace with the past—certainly lends itself to such a straight forward, but engaging presentation, Eaton's own commentary only serves to tie pieces together, or provide additional context.

The only truly frustrating element of Eaton's volume on Radio City is that it is the single most poorly proofread published book I have ever read. Most of the typos and editing glitches do little to hamper the books readability, but for a volume of around 129 pages (144 if you can't the great pictures at the end) I suspect there are no fewer than 200 editing errors in the book, ranging from missing words (mostly "A's" and "It's") to under-editing interview segments to leave in distracting, unnecessary "likes." While I don't think I've yet to read an entirely error free 33 1/3—hell, I doubt an error free book exists, anywhere—the overwhelming editing issues were certainly frustrating and distracting.

Still, despite the alarming number of glitches in the prose, Eaton's take on Radio City is fascinating and compelling. As a fan of Big Star's music who knew little about the band coming in to the book, I found the book to be quite informative, and, as is often the case, it allowed me to approach a much loved and listened to album with fresh ears.

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