Big Star – Third/Sister Lovers: Round 21 – Tom’s Selection

This used to be my favourite record. Now, twenty(ish) years on, having re-aquainted ourselves properly after a while apart, I am as astonished by this monumental piece of work as I was when I first tentatively placed my stylus in the opening groove of (the frankly gobsmacking) Stroke It Noel all those years ago. It was love at first listen. It so easily might not have been. I got lucky!

Big Star’s 3rd album has a complicated history. Due to all sorts of messy record label wranglings, the album failed to see the light of day at the time of its recording and hence the tracklisting when PVC (the cover above) finally released the album in 1978 was different to the one that Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson had initially decided on. When Rykodisc re-released the record in 1992 they stuck more closely to the original playlist…but it makes little sense and completely alters the feel of the record. PVC got it right! So my first impressions of Big Star’s 3rd (and Big Star for that matter) were so overwhelming that the record could never fail to win me over. Had I bought the Rykodisc version, I would have initially been faced with the fine enough, but awkward, rocker of Kizza Me which makes an excellent, contrasting track three (after the lush strings of the aforementioned Noel and the equally beautiful, Jodie Stephens penned For You) but just doesn’t really cut it as a first track. Nick, who owns the Rykodisc version, actually took a photo of the track order from my record sleeve as it dawned on him how the record is completely transformed with a few alterations to sequencing.

The PVC copy tells the story of one man’s descent into the deepest, darkest recesses of the human soul imaginable. By the time he wrote the songs for 3rd Alex Chilton had sniffed big time success with The Box Tops and watched it disappear over the horizon as he picked up the pieces of a disastrous record label relationship with Stax that led to the first two Big Star albums selling diddly squat when they should have been competing with Led Zepp IV, Harvest and Ziggy. And it’s these circumstances that makes 3rd so special…here is a man with nothing to lose, in the depths of despair and at the height of his musical game. So we are offered a poignant and rare insight into the human condition, the dark night of the soul, perhaps second only to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and maybe even more impressive as 3rd doesn’t have the weight of what happened next colouring our judgment. Chilton’s voice is so vulnerable, so weak and so affecting. It’s not the record that is broken, it’s the man. The PVC track order makes total sense because the darkness becomes more and more pervasive as the record progresses until we reach the pitch black triptych of Big Black Car, Holocaust and, to top it all, possibly the greatest song ever written to have no discernible rhythm (hell, let’s face it, possibly the greatest song ever written full stop) the immense car wreck of a song that is Kangaroo. Yet Chilton saves the absolute killer punch for last (on this version at least)…the sweet enough sounding but scarily bitter and sarcastic Thank You Friends, in which he thanks, ‘all the ladies and gentlemen who made this all so PROBABLE’. God, is he pissed off!

When I purchased Big Star’s 3rd I had no idea music like this existed. This was prior to Teenage Fanclub’s weak assimilation of the Stax records’ power pop, when barely a week went by without a music publication having some retrospective or other on the band. I remember a feeling of huge excitement upon first playing 3rd, imagining all the other lost classics I had yet to hear of, waiting for me to discover them. I thought there would be 3rd’s all over the place, and whilst I have made innumerable wonderful purchases over the years, few (if any) have affected me in the way this amazing record has.

Nick listened: I bought the Ryko CD version of this well over a decade ago, whilst I was at university, alongside Big Star’s debut album, #1 Record. The Ryko version claims to be closer to Chilton’s intention, but having heard the songs in this order, it seems like even more of an insane jumble now than it did back then; the Ryko version runs the exquisite Stroke It Noel straight out of the back of the Holocaust / Kangaroo double-bill of desolation. This PVC version arranges the songs into a narrative of disintegration, which sounds wanky and rockist but which honestly makes each moment more affecting. I’ve loved many of the individual songs from this record since I first heard them, and could sing along with them all, but it’s not a record I dig out often at all, and that’s not merely because of how much of an emotional slog some of the songs can be.

Of course, Chilton abandoned the record and left it for dead before it was finished, and then ignored it for 40 years before his untimely death two years ago, so there is no ‘proper’ running order (or cover artwork). In fact, it wasn’t even meant to be a Big Star record; apparently it was supposed to be released under the artist name ‘Sister Lovers’

Anyway, a great record, and a harrowing document of the frustrations and heartbreaks of someone who tasted success as a teenager and then spent the rest of his life trying to catch it again, and failing.

Rob listened: I never liked Teenage Fanclub. I thought ‘A Catholic Education’ was dull and the stuff that came after drippy and pointless. I suspect I might like the former now if I went back. However, I dislike them even more after this evening. I avoided Big Star for 20 years because of the number of times I was told that Teenage Fanclub’s schtick was channeled untampered with from Alex Chilton’s band. Why bother seeking out records that would sound like the boring Fannies? Brilliant. Thanks a bunch.

I thought ‘Third’ was mesmerizing, chilling, sweet and cruel in equal measures. All the way through I found myself thinking ‘this is a record I could love’. Through all our meetings thus far I’ve never felt the need to shut up and listen as much as I did during these 40 minutes – stronger even than the need to tell Nick to shut up and let us listen during the preceding ‘In A Silent Way’. It’s ‘In a SILENT Way’ Nick, not ‘Shrouded by Chatter’. I think this is the most affecting and captivating thing i’ve heard yet at Record Club.

Graham Listened: This has to be the most remarkable record I have heard yet at DRC. A thing of beauty. The only 2 tracks I had ever heard were Kangaroo and Holocaust, courtesy of covers on 4AD’s It’ll End in Tears compilation (featuring the Cocteau’s) in early 80’s. It was a joy to hear their original versions. Somehow this gave rise to a debate about whether you could recognise something as being an awful cover version, without having heard the original. Even though I had never heard Lou Reed’s original version, in 1984 when I heard Simple Mind’s version of Street Hassle, I knew it was just, wrong.

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One thought on “Big Star – Third/Sister Lovers: Round 21 – Tom’s Selection”

  1. Like you, Tom, I quickly became obsessed with this when I bought it as a teenager back in 1985. Nowadays – I only listen to Big Star and Television these days – I enjoy it more than ever, and rather than being a soundtrack to teenage angst that it once was, I now find the whole thing strangely uplifting. You are absolutely right – the PVC running order is perfect and the later versions make a mess of it. The song ‘What’s Going Ahn’ from ‘Radio City’, Big Star’s previous LP provides a foretaste of the Sister Lovers sound.

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