Among the songs we’ll be sharing with you in this series, Big Star’s “September Gurls” is fairly well-known, and nearly everyone who knows it loves it.
Frankly, that’s nowhere near good enough.
Some events are just so heartbreaking, so unjust, so cosmically wrong that it makes you wonder if there’s any hope at all. It may not be large in terms of scale, but the failure of this song to catapult Big Star to stardom, or to at least make it the charts, is one of those cosmic injustices. Unlike some of the music I’ll share in this series, unlike even my own group’s music, this is a song that really, truly, deserved to be huge.
Not many pop songs are so perfect that not a single note could be bettered. This is one. If you’ve never heard “September Gurls,” stop what you’re doing and listen to it now. If you already know it, you know what you’re in for. You probably already started playing it.
What makes this song so perfect? A few things stand out to me. First, the sound of Alex Chilton’s electric 12-string is stunning: in rock, this instrument usually has a prettier, gentler tone, exemplified by the acoustic portions of “Stairway to Heaven.” But compare the opening of this song to the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for example, and marvel at how Chilton’s descending chords both chime and slash. The opening is beautiful, but not necessarily pretty. More like, visceral.
If you only know Alex Chilton from his bigger hits with the Box Tops—”The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby”—you’re likely to be shocked by the vocals. He’s traded in the gruff baritone he used as a teen for a gritty tenor. On “September Gurls,” Chilton’s voice, as usual for his Big Star material, is gorgeous. The melody is lovely, and the lyric is vague enough to be universal, but specific enough to evoke the sweet sadness most of us occasionally feel about what might have been.
At least, that’s what I hear. I honestly don’t know just what inspired Chilton to write “September Gurls.” I never felt like I needed to dig deeper to “get” the song: it speaks for itself just fine. I’ve always assumed the song’s about a summer love, ended by separate schools or jobs or just a difference in age pulling the lovers apart. But ultimately, both knew from the start that it wouldn’t have worked out anyway. You may get something different from it, but however you frame the lyric for yourself, you hear Chilton’s resigned sadness.
The whole story is really captured in one devastating line, which Chilton delivers almost offhandedly: “I loved you…well, never mind.” Yeah, that doesn’t read like much, but it packs a wallop in the context of the song.
I would adore this song forever just for the verses and choruses, but the moment in this song that really takes it to another plane occurs in the break, immediately after the guitar solo. That descending solo, simple and melodic in a way that completely obviates any need to be flashy, fits the song perfectly. At 1:40, the other instruments drop out and drummer Jody Stephens delivers a drum break that returns us to the verse. The extended snare hits that conclude the drum break, combined with the way Chilton’s 12-string slams back in, somehow takes the entire song to a whole different plane.
It’s so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s sonic alchemy, inexplicably magical.
The first time I heard that two-second sequence, I teared up, it was so exquisite. Having listened to the song literally thousands of time since then, when I hear that sequence now…I still tear up. It’s that powerful and perfect. We repeat the first verse, go into an outro with blissful, ethereal background harmonies and a brief, reiterated guitar solo, and we’re done.
So what happened? Why didn’t “children by the millions scream for Alex Chilton,” as Paul Westerberg imagined in his tribute to the Big Star leader? The story’s detailed in a documentary ironically titled Nothing Can Hurt Me, which is still playing on Netflix as of this writing, but it amounts to bad luck and bad timing.
They were signed to a division of the Stax record label, based out of Memphis. Unfortunately for Big Star, Stax was experiencing major financial trouble around the time Big Star released Radio City, the album on which “September Gurls” appears. A distribution kerfluffle with Columbia records limited the album’s availability. Further complicating matters was Stax’s relative inexperience in the rock world: the label was a soul powerhouse, but had trouble promoting Big Star effectively.
There was also a very anachronistic aspect to Big Star’s work. On the one hand, their devotion to Beatlesque pop and their ability to do it so exquisitely has made their work timeless. You can’t tell whether this was recorded in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or any specific decade, as it eschews obvious production biases. It’s music that’s completely oblivious to what’s fashionable.
Unfortunately for Big Star, the record came out in 1973, when Beatlesque pop was decidedly not in vogue and largely missing on the charts. They received plenty of critical acclaim, but good reviews don’t move the charts. In an era that demanded the The Sound of Philadelphia on the one hand, and Tales from Topographic Oceans on the other, it wasn’t clear to radio where Big Star fit in.
So how has this song informed my own music? I’ve never had the nerve to try to cop it directly, but when I wrote “Better Now,” the second track on An Index of Maladjustments, “September Gurls” was definitely on my spiritual radar.
Now, the main riff of this song is essentially “Ticket to Ride” played incorrectly. But the chiming guitars, double-stopped second guitar part in the chorus, and “hoo-hoo-hoo”‘s in “Better Now” certainly show the influence this song has had on me.
But happy as I am with how “Better Now” came out, “September Gurls” achieves a level of beauty I don’t expect to ever match. But every time I hear it, I’m inspired to try.