If you listen to just one song today, make it “Kangaroo” by Big Star (1978, from the Album Third/Sister Lovers)
Big Star could have and should have been a hugely successful band. The way things panned out, the full band of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens only made one album. Their debut album, cheekily called #1 Record (1972) didn’t go over well with the public. Personal differences, accusations of theft, and drug use drove the band apart. That was it. Chris Bell left the band.
They released Radio City a couple of years later. It was well-received by the media, but once again, poor management did them in. There was some sort of row between their small label and its parent label, Columbia Records. In the end, Columbia wouldn’t release the record to distributors. People could read all about how brilliant the record was, but they couldn’t pick it up at their local shop. By this time, Hummel had left the band.
The third record, which was untitled for some time, was recorded in 1975 but not released until 1978. Test pressings had been floating around the whole time, and people had come to know it as “Third”. Since Chilton and Stephens were dating a pair of sisters, people had started to call the band “Sister Lovers”.
By now, this wasn’t Big Star anymore. This was, essentially, an Alex Chilton solo record. None of the songs were collaboratively written. Everything went through him. I think the label made them release it as a Big Star record. Clearly, though, it is not.
Just a couple of weeks after the final release of Third/Sister Lovers, former member Chris Bell was killed in a single-car accident while leaving his father’s restaurant late on the night of December 27, 1978.
There’s a lot of great songs on this album and a lot of really clever textures. Right out of the gate in this song, there’s some of that fantastic prickly texture. There’s the crisp strumming of an acoustic guitar, and just a tease of some really fuzzy electric guitar. There’s a subtle hint of a string section and a quiet bass drum. Around 1:12, the drums start in. Just barely. Just a couple of tumbles before it finally settles in. Sort of.
There’s nothing conventional about this song. The drumming pattern is pretty bizarre. The way the strings are brought in and out and the fuzzy guitar is brought in and out gives it a really unsettling texture. I’m sure it was a mess trying to put all this together on the mixing desk, but it was really well done. Although it’s a bit jarring, it’s a beautiful piece of work.
I really wish they had left the cowbell out, which goes from about 3:00 to about 3:15. It drives me crazy. Of all the things that seem a bit disconnected in this song, that’s the only thing I would change.
Plus, there’s the brilliantly confusing “I want you. Like a Kangaroo.”
The first I ever knew of this song was the cover that appeared on the This Mortal Coil album It’ll End in Tears (1987). TMC wasn’t a band, really. Just a collection of artists from the 4AD label, mixing and matching one another. On that cover, it’s Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk, Simon Raymonde of Cocteau Twins and Martin McGarrick, who played the cello for anyone and everyone. While I really liked that version, once I heard the original, there was no going back.
Apparently, some record company called Omnivore Recordings has been selling reproductions of the test pressing of Third. Looks like they’re all out of everything except the clear vinyl, which sells for $60. I like the record a lot, but not that much. A quick glace at ebay shows that some of the original test pressings sell for about $3000.
Rykodisc handled the 1992 re-issue, but they’ve apparently dropped that album from their inventory. It’s not out of print, and you should be able to scoop up a copy just about anywhere.