Thursday, December 29, 2011

Obscure Song Obsession: Big Star - "Stroke It Noel"

"Kramer could hear Leary and Haynes screaming at each other inside, and when he finally worked up the courage to open the door, he found the two of them smashing guitars, bottle and chairs in what Kramer calls “the most potent example of bad behavior I have ever seen. To this day, more than fifteen years later, I have no more vivid memory of the effect a life in music can have on a human being.” 

Moments later a man entered the dressing room and asked if he could borrow a guitar. “BORROW A GUITAR??!!! WELL, WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU???!!! Haynes screamed, eyes flashing in delirious anticipation of forthcoming violence. But the man was totally unfazed. “I’m Alex Chilton,” the man answered calmly. Haynes was flabbergasted. After a long pause, he methodically opened the remaining guitar cases one by one and gestured at them as if to say, “Take anything you want.” --
excerpt from Butthole Surfers chapter of Michael Azarrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life,  (via soupsoup)

The story of Big Star reads tragic: band pedigreed for success gets jobbed by shoddy promotion from label. debut sales flop. tension causes rift, band member leaves. sophomore album is hyped. 2nd album flops. another member leaves. frontman and drummer record crushingly bleak 3rd album. label says no thanks. bank breaks up. 3rd album released 4 years later, weeks later guitarist dies.

However sad their story may be, the music they left behind is a celebration of rock and roll innovation. When they wanted to rock, the Memphis-based group filtered Beatles melodies through a unique rootsy set of chops that ended up setting the template for power pop. At their most downtrodden, they just let frontman Alex Chilton do his thing and knock you breathless.

"Stroke It Noel" appears at the heart of their third album Third/Sister Lovers (Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens were dating a pair of sisters at the time), sequenced after pair of tracks that constitute seven minutes of the most haunting music Chilton ever wrote. One of the songs is called "Holocaust" and the other is a dark opiate haze of sparse acoustic strumming, belligerent percussion, and strings. The opening notes of "Stroke It Noel" are played backwards, as if rippling the album into a fleeting dream sequence free from misery.

The song immediately bounces into charm. The stuttery swing of each verse build to a towering orchestral chorus, with Chilton cathartically asking, "Do you wanna dance?" before cueing the Noel Gilbert, a violinist of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra who sat in on the Sister Lovers sessions. He spends the second verse drunk, wondering whether a bombing attack is coming. The strings rise again and he continues his search through the clouds for a dancing partner. "Stroke It Noel" may or may not be a drug song, but regardless it's a brief moment of euphoria on broodingly dark album and celebrates the simple joy that music can bring.

Also see: Big Star - Thirteen; Big Star - The Ballad of El Goodo

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