Sonic chronicle of the Memphis label that nurtured Big Star; plus Q&A with Jinm Ardent, the label's founder
Remember those days in 1991-2 when Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque was a ubiquitous hit and everyone paid homage to Alex Chilton and Big Star (pictured above)? I interviewed Chilton at Maxwell’s in Hoboken during that period. He probably wished he had a pound for every time the word “influential” came up in conversation. Battle-scarred, pale as chalk, he dismissed my Big Star eulogies as absurd. Chilton was a veteran of the British Invasion, a purist. In his world, music died in 1967. I looked into his eyes, his disappointed eyes, and he meant it.
A degree of hard-nosed Anglophilia, coupled with a bittersweet sense of what might have been, are the prevailing themes of Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story. A two-CD anthology of the small Memphis label that put out Big Star’s first two albums (#1 Record, 1972; Radio City, 1974), it’s a poignant tale to immerse oneself in, not least because a key protagonist, Big Star’s co-founder Chris Bell, was sent into a mortal depression by his band’s commercial failure and lost his life in a car-crash at the age of 27. It’s a story of valiant endeavour and broken hearts. As Ardent’s founder John Fry said to me recently: “So much optimism – and then, boy, downhill.”
Thank You Friends… celebrates three distinct eras of the Ardent label, which has released local Memphis product, on and off, for nearly 50 years. Our first glimpse of Ardent comes in 1961. It is run from Fry’s parents’ house, and is knocking out quirky, and completely obscure, tunes such as “Geraldine” by The Ole Miss Downbeats. A rugby club’s idea of a Bo Diddley rumble, with a heavily featured duck-call, “Geraldine” is like a cry from a lost civilisation.
By 1966, garage-rock was sweeping the States and Ardent was a proper professional studio. Maverick producer Jim Dickinson oversaw a series of blistering sessions at Ardent involving bands like The Bitter Ind, The 1st Century and The Wallabies. Although these productions, in hindsight, are the equal of anything on Nuggets, many went unissued at the time because America wasn’t looking to Memphis for new developments in garage or psychedelia. A real pity, but we can certainly appreciate Dickinson’s ingenuity now. The Wallabies’ “White Doors” is a delicious marriage of Lewis Carroll and twisted Merseybeat. And on The Bitter Ind’s “Hands Are Only To See”, the producer creates a hallucinogenic soundworld by juxtaposing fuzz bass, ghostly harmonies (“Walls are lost when you think you’ve found them”) and an erratically plucked viola.
With Dickinson gone by 1969, and the pop-minded Terry Manning installed as house producer, a change in approach is discernible in the latter half of the anthology’s first disc. Compiler Alec Palao’s informative sleevenotes paint a vivid account of young middle-class Memphis music-makers, still enchanted by The Beatles and The Yardbirds, aesthetically disengaging themselves from Memphis’s R&B and soul traditions in search of their own identity. Out of time, out of the cultural loop, this coterie of hip teenagers enjoyed free use of Ardent Studios, where John Fry encouraged Chris Bell and like-minded friends to experiment at their leisure on top-of-the-range recording equipment. Imagine Abbey Road throwing open its doors to unknown kids from north London.
Thus began the evolution of Big Star. Long-lost or rare tracks by Christmas Future, The Badgers and Rock City – all featuring Chris Bell – show us how the quintessential Big Star style was carefully assembled, even before Alex Chilton returned to Memphis from his whirlwind spell with The Box Tops. Rock City’s “Lovely Lady” is (itals)almost(itals) the finished article: palpably influenced by Badfinger, it has that marvellous chunk-and-jangle sound that would grace #1 Record.
The second disc of Thank You Friends… is dominated by Big Star. Illustrating how significant they were to Ardent’s push for national recognition in 1972–4, Big Star account for 15 of these 24 tracks, most of them demos or alternate mixes. “Mod Lang”, for example, was recorded at a late-night session directed by an audibly gin-soaked Chilton, during a time when Big Star had briefly split up. Later cleaned up for inclusion on Radio City, this version has Chilton adding “… Just like John Mitchell” after the line “I wanna witness, I want to testify”. The remark leaps out of the speakers. It’s bizarre to think of Big Star existing in the same time-frame as the former Attorney General’s Watergate grand jury testimony.
Having started on a high note with Big Star’s early promise and a fantastic power-pop single by Cargoe (“Feel Alright”), disc two descends into abject disillusion with the collapse of Ardent’s distribution deal with Stax in 1975. The notorious Chilton/Dickinson sessions for Big Star’s third album, full of desolate thought patterns and unhinged arrangements, wrench us out of a Rickenbacker pop dream and lower us into a grim, pinprick-eyeballed abyss. The most haunting line of all, perhaps, in this ultimately sad story of dashed hopes and missed opportunities is left to Chris Bell. “Plans fail every day,” he sings in a cracked voice on his solo tune “You And Your Sister”. The bright, clean acoustic guitars of Big Star’s “Thirteen” have been bent out of shape by terrible luck.
Meanwhile, as a recording facility, Ardent continues to have a worldwide reputation, and has attracted artists as diverse as Isaac Hayes, ZZ Top, Cat Power and The White Stripes.
UNCUT Q&A WITH: JOHN FRY (Founder, Ardent Records and Studios), TERRY MANNING, JIM DICKINSON AND JODY STEPHENS:
FRY: “I started a studio in my parents’ house around 1959, recording 45s and trying to release them locally. Ardent Records is not a continuous thing, it’s been an off-and-on thing. If you look through the timeline, there are these hiatuses for several years.”
TERRY MANNING(producer/musician): “John was still running the studio from his house when I came along. I was in a band called Bobby & The Originals, later called Lawson & Four More, later called The Goatdancers.”
FRY: “In 1966 we rented a commercial building and put in a proper studio. The national profile of Memphis was always Elvis and Sun Studios; then there was a shift in the ’60s when Stax started to gain prominence with soul music. But we were Beatles fans and Anglophiles. We were out of step with Memphis.”
MANNING: “The studio started doing well. We took on a lot of Stax’s business, and Hi Records’, and people would come up from New Orleans. Anything non-country, that was our domain.”
FRY: “Jim Dickinson was introduced to me as a producer who could create a vibe, make things happen. Our idea was to find groups and make records which we would place with labels that could sell and promote them nationally.”
JIM DICKINSON (producer/musician): “We were doing very un-Memphis-like music. I was trying to be Glyn Johns. He was the big name I kept reading in New Musical Express. About half the material I produced at Ardent was never released. That’s one of the problems with Memphis over the years – it’s hard to find the door out.”
FRY: “Most of the bands we recorded were kids that Jim knew. The Wallabies had a guy who went around speaking in an Australian accent. I think he was from Mississippi.”
MANNING: “Nobody was taking these deals, nobody was leasing our bands. We were isolated. We were obviously influenced by the British Invasion more than R&B. Finally we got a couple of bands – Cargoe and Big Star – and decided to start up Ardent Records again.”
FRY: “Everything was optimistic. The studio was going great guns, we had property, we had plans, we had a new building under construction. Stax was offering us a distribution deal for Ardent Records.”
JODY STEPHENS (drummer, Big Star): “Stax was like Mount Olympus. Musically in Memphis, Stax was the highest peak you could aspire to.”
FRY: “Stax was primarily a soul label and people were not expecting products like #1 Record from them. I thought it was going to be great, but then Stax moved their distribution to Clive Davis at Columbia. The Columbia deal never worked for Ardent or Stax. It came into effect in 1973 and by ’75 Stax were bankrupt.”
MANNING: “Stax were almost no help in the pop genre. Cargoe’s ‘Feel Alright’, we promoted in-house. It got into the Top 100, and we had a make-it-or-break-it week where we needed a certain number of radio adds to get a star or a bullet. Our last hope was a station in Waterloo, Iowa, and we were hitting them, calling them, ‘please add Cargoe in heavy rotation, we need this, we need this’. And they wouldn’t do it.”
FRY: “Big Star got great press and some airplay, but they never got on Columbia’s radar. When Radio City came out, I went to a Columbia sales conference in Nashville and they had a presentation, where the new albums are projected on a screen and a song from them is played. Radio City came on the screen, and “September Gurls” kicked off. Everybody under twentysomething in the room cheered and hollered. The rest of them looked around and said: ‘Are we distributing this crap?’”
JIM DICKINSON (producer, Sister Lovers): “I had known Chris Bell since he was a little kid and I found it hard to take Big Star seriously. East Memphis rich kids, y’know, I wasn’t interested. But Alex [Chilton] remembered me as someone who had shown interest in his musical vision.”
FRY: “When we made Sister Lovers, there were dark clouds. We didn’t have anybody to distribute our records. I got really depressed and almost left the music business to go into aviation. And Alex was having a dark time, as is reflected in those songs.”
DICKINSON: “Alex was resentful because he hadn’t made any money from Big Star, and he’d already been badly exploited with The Box Tops. The third Big Star album was a series of recordings that was never finished. We just kept on recording while Stax went out of business.”
FRY: “I didn’t know what to make of it. Even songs that sounded happy and upbeat had a twist. Where’s he coming from? Is he sincere or is it sarcasm?”
DICKINSON: “Fry made the mistake of telling Alex he liked the demo of ‘Downs’. Alex totally destroyed the song after that. We used a basketball for a snare drum. That’s because Fry said the demo sounded like The Kinks and he could imagine hearing it on the radio.”
FRY: “The reason the album didn’t come out was, we went around literally every major company in the country and nobody would touch it.”
DICKINSON: “I went to New York and LA and played it for people who now worship it. Jerry Wexler told me: ‘This music makes me feel very uncomfortable.’ Lenny Waronker said: ‘I don’t have to listen to it again, do I?’”
MANNING: “The label was already over by the time of Chris Bell’s death [in 1978]. His death was the great tragedy of the whole thing.”
FRY “We cranked Ardent up again in the ’90s and started releasing contemporary Christian music. During the ’60s and ’70s, I’d been one of the most dedicated pagans you could meet. I came to my faith at the end of 1978, after Chris died. Ardent is not a Christian company, and you don’t have to be one to work here, but we’ve probably issued more Christian music, now, than any other kind.”
INTERVIEWS: DAVID CAVANAGH