"September Gurls" b/w "Mod Lang" 45 RPM single
Memphis musician Chris Bell was involved in two separate projects in the late 1960s: Icewater and Rock City. These groups involved a revolving set of musicians; among those involved in them were drummer Jody Stephens and bass guitarist Andy Hummel. By the early 1970s, Bell, Stephens and Hummel formed the lineup for Icewater. Around this time, Bell invited Alex Chilton, who had been the lead vocalist in the Box Tops before their break-up in 1970, to join Icewater. He accepted, and the quartet was re-christened Big Star (after the grocery store chain). The band was signed to Ardent Records, and soon began work on their debut album. Their first album, “#1 Record”, was released in April 1972. Although the album received favorable reviews from several publications, Stax Records, Ardent’s distributor, couldn’t get the album into many record stores; the situation did not change when Columbia became distributors for Stax’s entire back catalog, and Columbia even had existing copies of “#1 Record” pulled from record store shelves. Without adequate distribution, “#1 Record” became a commercial flop. Disappointed with the failure of the album and at odds with his band mates, Bell quit the band towards the end of 1972. For a brief time, Big Star was defunct, but a few months later, the band reformed as a trio with Chilton, Stephens and Hummel. This lineup recorded “Radio City” (1974), which spawned two singles, the second of which was “September Gurls” b/w “Mod Lang”. This is today’s featured single.
“September Gurls” initially evokes comparisons to jangle pop, and it could be classified as such. At the same time, it’s comparable to the melodic guitar pop of The Beatles, and the angst-ridden energy of the early Who. It’s an interesting amalgam of these influences, and a great pop song. The lyrics don’t rival the obliqueness of a Dylan or a Leonard Cohen, but not every great song does: “September gurls do so much/I was your butch and you were touched/I loved you well never mind/I’ve been crying all the time”. The result is an insouciant tone and an angst that was not lost on 1980s bands like The Replacements as well as other bands who cited Big Star as an influence. Although the song clocks in at a mere 2 minutes and 49 seconds, we get a catchy instrumental break about halfway through the song, concluded by a nice, staccato drum beat. Although many consider this song a classic, the fact remains that few people are aware of it, a result of Stax’s chronic distribution problems which resulted in the failure of Big Star’s commercial aspirations. This is not to say, however, that they did not influence other artists; their influence can be discerned, if from nothing else, from the number of bands that have covered “September Gurls” (The Bangles, covered it on their breakthrough album “Different Light”, as well as The Searchers and Cheap Trick). “September Gurls” is definitely on of the band’s most enduring songs.
The B-side, “Mod Lang” may not be the classic that “September Gurls” is, but still has a lot working in it’s favor. We have the similar, barely coherent, almost random lyrics: “I can’t be satisfied/What you want me to do/And so I moan/Had to leave my home”. We have a similar jangle pop feel, even the same cowbell which punctuates the A-side. Although the song doesn’t reach the stature of “September Gurls”, when the song abruptly ends after about 2 and a half minutes, it left me hungry for more, a feeling I did not have after listening to the A-side. One of the side effects of good albums is that virtually any two songs from the album would make a good single. “September Gurls” was especially good and thus was ideal material for a single, but for a B-side, “Mod Lang” is pretty good and up to Big Star’s high standards.
The single (catalog #: ADA-2912) was released on Stax subsidiary Ardent Records in May 1974. The label (shown here), with what appears to be an azimuthal projection map of the world, may or may not have reflected the global aspirations of the record company. Whether or not this was the case, Stax’s poor distribution seemed to ensure that any record released by the label was not likely to become a hit. This was the case with Big Star: sales of “Radio City” were minimal (though much greater than the first album, with sales of 20,000 copies, the improvement suggesting what might have been achieved with good distribution). Andy Hummel left the band after the release of “Radio City”, and the two remaining members, Chilton and Stephens, entered the studios to record another album, this time accompanied by what Big Star biographer Bruce Eaton described as “a large and revolving cast of Memphis musicians”. The group broke up in late 1974, and the resulting album, “Third/Sister Lovers” was not even released until 1978, but it became a cult classic, although, as with the previous Big Star releases, did little commercially. Original guitarist Chris Bell died in a car accident in 1978. Big Star reformed in 1993 when guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow joined Chilton and Stephens. Although initially the band did not release a studio album of new material (instead, two live albums were released in the early 1990s, one being a recording of the first performance of the reunited band at the University of Missouri spring music festival in April 1993), Big Star released “In Space” in 2005 on the Rykodisc label. Alex Chilton died on March 17, 2010 after being admitted to a hospital three days earlier with heart problems. Andy Hummel died of cancer on July 19, 2010, leaving Jody Stephens as the only surviving original member.