Friday, October 16, 2020

Big Star - Sister Lovers (1975)

Big Star released their second album, Radio City, in February 1974, through Ardent Records. It was the band's first album after the departure of founding member and songwriter Chris Bell, who by then was already struggling with depression and excessive drug use, and saw vocalist and guitarist Alex Chilton take control of the group for good. As with their debut LP, the album sold very little, due to distribution issues within Ardent and a lack of promotion, which when combined with the glowing reviews the album received, meant there was considerable demand for the record, but no one could find it in stores. To make matters worse, shortly before the release of the album in early 1974, bassist Andy Hummel left the group to focus on his academic career and lead a more normal life. He was then replaced by John Lightman for the album's tour, but the band ended up breaking up shortly thereafter. Drummer Jody Stephens and Chilton stuck together, being the only two remaining members of Big Star, and together they entered Ardent Studios in September 1974, with producer Jim Dickinson and an assortment of Memphis session musicians, their girlfriends, and friends, to work on a new Big Star album.

These new sessions marked a departure for the band, with their brand of very melodic power pop being replaced by more stark and experimental material, with only brief flashes of the Big Star of old. With that in mind, it makes sense that there's some debate as to if this was supposed to be a Big Star album at all, with the name "Sister Lovers" being thrown around at that time, and with the masters being credited simply to Alex Chilton. In February 1975, producer Jim Dickinson and engineer John Fry put together an acetate, which they hoped would bring attention from labels to the band, and get them signed to a deal. However, that was not the case, with no record labels taking an interest in this "weirder" version of the band, and the project ended up being shelved. With that, no track sequence was ever assembled, an album title wasn't decided, and even the band name was in dispute. When, in 1978, PVC Records bought the original tapes and assembled the Third album, they came up with their own tracklisting, and the closest we've ever come to a proper release of this material was in 1992 when Jim Dickinson sequenced Rykodisc's Third/Sister Lovers album, which still isn't quite what the group intended.

With all that in mind, we can ask ourselves: what if the Sister Lovers album had been released as it had been intended, in 1975? And since a final tracklisting for it was never created, we will have to speculate considerably on how the album would work. We will only include songs that come from these Fall '74 sessions, obviously, and try to include all songs that are included in two or more sequences, or songs that were considered important conceptually for the album by Chilton or Dickinson. I will also try not to include any covers, seen as the band had plenty of great original material already, and none of the covers really add much to the record in its current incarnation. So, all covers will be replaced by originals with the same style or feel to them. Being the earliest version of the album available, and in my opinion, the one that flows best, we will use the February 1975 acetate as our starting point, and move things around as needed. That means we'll have a fourteen track album, which we will call Sister Lovers, seen as Stephens and Chilton were dating twins at the time of the recording of the album. Not to stretch this out any further than we have, here's what our reconstruction of Sister Lovers looks like:

Thank You Friends (Complete Third)
Downs (Complete Third)
Big Black Car (Complete Third)
Stroke it Noel (Complete Third)
Holocaust (Complete Third)
Jesus Christ (Complete Third)
Blue Moon (Complete Third)
Kizza Me (Complete Third)
Sometimes (Complete Third)
O Dana (Complete Third)
Nightime (Complete Third)
You Can't Have Me (Complete Third)
Like St. Joan (Complete Third)
Take Care (Complete Third)

Bonus track:
Dream Lover (Complete Third)

Alex Chilton in a Memphis restaurant, early 1975.

Our sequence already starts with a major change: we have "Thank You Friends" and "Stroke it Noel" switch places, with the former as the opener and the latter as the fourth track. The reason for that is that one of the few things Dickinson and Chilton had agreed on, was that "Thank You Friends" would open the album, and "Take Care" would be the album closer. Seen as there's hardly any information about the album other than that, we must obey said order. Both songs had a similar uplifting vibe, with string arrangements and poppy feel, so the switch doesn't harm the album's flow too much. Another change is made when "Big Black Car", which is in virtually every other sequence of the album except this one, replaces their cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale". Their cover of VU's classic is great, with Alex's girlfriend Lesa singing backup, as she had on many other album tracks, before being mixed out after the two had some kind of lover's quarrel. Seen as though they had broken up by 1975, I doubt he'd include a song on the album that featured her so prominently as this, which is why I replaced it with the similarly downbeat and soothing "Big Black Car", then again keeping this sequence's flow.

Side two mostly obeys the Argent Test Pressing, with "For You" being retitled "Sometimes", the song's original working title, and the name it was listed as on the test pressing. Similarly, "Kanga Roo" is retitled "Like St. Joan", which is how the song was called during the sessions, and the title I like best out of the two. The only major change to be made here is the exclusion of their cover of Dave Williams' "Whole Lotta Shaking Going On", which in addition to being a cover, is one of the weakest tracks on the whole sessions. In order to replace it and still keep the album's flow intact, we need to add in another slightly chaotic, fast-paced rocker. And luckily for us, "You Can't Have Me" is exactly that, being used in virtually every tracklist other than this one, being one of the highlights of the recording sessions, in my opinion. As a bonus track, we have the final Chilton-penned song from the sessions, "Dream Lover". Despite being a favorite of both Lesa Aldridge and Jim Dickinson, Alex didn't think very highly of the song, meaning it won't be used on the album itself. It would make for a good b-side, though, and other than "Femme Fatale", is better than any of the cover versions they did back then.

Clocking in at 40 minutes with evenly timed sides, Sister Lovers is much less melodic and fast-paced than either #1 Record and Radio City, but with its more emotional nature and beautiful songs, makes for a great contrast to those two. The dark as compared to the light, if you will. For the album cover, I used a photo taken by William Eggleston, who both took the cover picture of Radio City and played piano on Sister Lovers, of Lesa and Holliday Aldridge, the very sister lovers the album title refers to! All of that considered, there's no way this picture wasn't at the very least considered as the LP's cover. The lead single off the album would obviously be "Thank You Friends", one of the few tracks with any hit single potential on the album. Had it been released back then, I don't doubt it would've at least cracked the Top 40. And had the band found a proper label, I have no doubt this album could've sold very well, considering the critical praise it would no doubt receive. All in all, we're very lucky that these tracks were released at all, not to mention becoming cult classics and the inspiration to great bands, such as REM and The Posies, who became some of the friends they thanked, for making this all so probable.

Big Star - Complete Third
Big Star - Argent Test Pressing, 1975