Nov 232009

I was listening to Big Star‘s “Watch the Sunrise” the other day, a song that I know is not considered “cool” in the Big Star catalog, but I like it anyhow. I like the hyperkinetic acoustic guitar strumming and the song’s fresh-faced, Hostess brand hippie idealism. It seemed to me that this particular type of song was common in the mid-’70s. I think these acoustic-based songs are a little different than the related country-rock songs by the likes of America and others working in that post-Neil Young/Eagles vein.

What led to these sunny, strumming number? I hear early Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, like “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” and “Marrakesh Express” mixed with George Harrison‘s “Here Comes the Sun.” Is there some earlier template that I’m missing? Is it an English folk thing?

This style of music never eclipsed that of its country-rock cousin, but I think it led to two musical dead ends: Boston (the band) and the 128-String Guitar songs we’re frequently tempted to skip on Matthew Sweet‘s Girlfriend. Boston may not be so obvious, but there’s something about them, in songs like “Long Time,” that seem indebted to that style of early ’70s song, despite the big electric guitars and other pompous trimmings.

Does this make any sense, and has this style of music ever progressed beyond these perceived dead ends?


  28 Responses to “Musical Dead End: Sunny, Strumming Numbers”

  1. The James Iha solo record is drenched in this type of song.

    I don’t have anything to really say at the moment, but I would like to go to bat for “Watch The Sunrise.” I adore that track. The great revelation on the Big Star box set is the Chris Bell track that became “Watch The Sunrise.” It was called “Country Morn.” Exact same backing track, but different melody and lyrics. My theory is that Chilton dug the guitars, but hated the song. So, he reworked it. That may be over simplifying things, but the Bell track is just not very good. Very cheesy lyrics and a less-than-perfect vocal. It’s awkward sounding. Chilton turns it into this glorious anthem. I tried to do my research on this when I first heard the cut “Country Morn,” but there’s not much out there (like alot dealing with Big Star). So, until proven otherwise, I’m left to assume that Chilton just reworked Bell’s tune.

    On the acoustic 12-string front, the Big Star box also has several revelations in Chilton’s demos for what became the Third album. These are the tunes before Alex sabatoged them. One of my favorites is “Lovely Day” which became “Stroke It Noel.” My band has been threatening to do a “straight” version of “O Dana.” something along the lines of imagining that Chris Bell stayed in Big Star what that song might have sounded like.


  2. BigSteve

    I think it helps to put something about the sun in the title of a song in this sunny, strummy style. Jonathan Edwards’ Sunshine (Go Away Today) is another good example, right?

  3. BigSteve

    Btw look at Crosby’s eyes in the video. I think he might possibly be high.

  4. Count me in on Team Uncool. I’ve always loved Watch the Sunrise and to further drive a nail in the coffin of my rock nerd cred, I’ll take Watch the Sunrise over any song from Third except for Stroke It Noel.

  5. How can you tell if Crosby’s high? I can’t see his pupils because his eyes aren’t open enough.

  6. Mr. Moderator

    Yes, BigSteve, another great example! I need to play my 12-string in the sun someday and see if it has this effect on me. Maybe Crosby’s eyes were irritated by the sun.

    TB, I like the idea of doing “O Dana” in a “straight” stye, as if Bell was still in the band. Are you in the minority with me of Big Star fans who prefer the first record to the second one? (I do like the third one better than the second one, thought, so go figure.)

  7. Mr. Moderator

    Speaking of Crosby’s eyes, this video is helpful to me because I’ve been trying to figure out Crosby’s guitar part for ages! I think I may now be able to figure out what chord he plays.

    The other good thing about this video is that I was finally able to determine whether Nash has a mustache or not to go with that excellent beard. I’d always thought he didn’t, but if you look closely you’ll see that his mustache hairs are lighter than his beard hairs. Too bad: I was about to suggest that he had the best mustacheless beard in rock history.

  8. Getting high and playing 12-string in the sun sounds like a pretty good way to spend the day if you ask me. Not sure it always leads to a magnificent song, but damn if it feels good at the time.

    12-string makes you sound better than you actually are, more “classical” maybe and that may be an equal crutch to the weed in convincing yourself that you just wrote a song as good as Here Comes The Sun (you in fact did not)

  9. dbuskirk

    Boston’s “Hitch a Ride” works that soft rockin’ sound pretty well…

  10. i don’t know if i’d call it a dead end, but strum-rock serves only to give people who aren’t very good at guitar something famous to play. i.e. dorm rooms, hippie hoe-downs, half-girlfriends. its progeny includes the current ukelele trend.

  11. I confess, I love the strum. Check out Bill Fox’s re-released albums Transit Byzantium and especially Shelter from the Smoke with the amazing ‘Andnowagain”

  12. Interesting theory, eh. I play stuff on the uke (like jazz standards) that I would never play on the guitar for fear of it being too complicated.

    By the way, I’m in an 11 piece ukulele orchestra. We’re playing at the North Star on 12/5 with Nixon’s Head if you’re in Philly and craving some brightly strummed grandpa music.

  13. Mr. Moderator

    I was watching that clip just a few nights ago, cher. It could be, but it may be a little too strident. The sunny, strumming number connotes more floppy wrist action and less forearm, don’t you think?

  14. mockcarr

    CDM, do they make you wear varsity sweaters? Maybe I should get a bass ukelele.

  15. I’m actually going with my grandfather’s smoking jacket, you know, class it up a bit. But at least one member is considering the cardigan.

  16. I know what you mean about that Everly Bros clip. It is strumming through the filter of two guys who pack heat, rather than two guys who smoke weed and talk about peace and love.

  17. Mr. Moderator

    That Thin Lizzy song is the perfect link to sunny, strumming’s application to later ’70s rock music, which Boston perfected.

    Thin Lizzy’s a fairly big band from my high school days that I can’t really hum a tune by other than “The Boys Are Back in Town.” I remember hearing other songs and have since seen/heard other tracks by them, but they go in one ear and out the other. The image of Phil Lynott in his sleazy Elvisfro and pencil mustache, on the other hand, never leaves my mind soon enough.

  18. Mod, how can you not hum the immortal Lizzy lyric, “I’m a rocker/I’m a roller too, baby”? That’s a song I can never get out of my head.

  19. Mr. Moderator

    I had an aversion to ’70s heavy rock in high school, Mwall. I know that’s hard to believe when you consider how manly I am.

  20. By the way, I didn’t vote in the Big Star poll since none of the answers came close to what I actually think. I wonder how many others felt the same way.

  21. Mr. Moderator

    OK, mwall, how did you feel? As always, I’m sorry that the option to write in a poll answer has been disabled.

  22. jeangray

    Here’s one that should be in the poll: “Third/Sister Lovers” is Big Star’s best album.

  23. I voted for Jim because he was one of the good ones. I don’t think I could honestly call him a “genuis”, though. None of the answers really fit my feelings either.

    I honestly adore all three Big Star reccos. I really can’t pick a fave anymore. So, my answer is the box set since it has it all and then some. At least the first three discs. The verdict is still out on that fourth live set. Despite what the liner notes say, Big Star just aren’t that great live compared to the studio work.


  24. mockcarr

    That’s one of the few polls since the smartass write-ins have been disabled that had a good choice for me – the Chris Bell option.

  25. Mr. Moderator

    For anyone troubled by this Big Star poll, please keep in mind the significance of my use of the term “rock snob” in the possible replies. Of course you all have your sincere tastes for one album or another. The aim is to gauge which rock snob comment you would make if forced to choose.

  26. 2000 Man

    Rocker gets stuck in my head all the time. I thought Thin Lizzy was pretty supremely cool when I was a kid, and I still like them. She Knows is a nice little song, and it’s way less dorky than most of the harder rocking bands of the 70’s were when they tried ballads.

    Who decided bands need ballads, anyway? All songs should be fast.

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