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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? 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.

-David Cavanaugh, UNCUT Magazine

DOWNLOAD:
Various Artists-THANK YOU FRIENDS: THE ARDENT RECORDS STORY (2008 compilation)
320kbps MP3

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