Ardent Studios is renowned as a place where everyone from R.E.M
. and the Replacements
to ZZ Top
and the White Stripes
cut great albums, but for many pop fans the name Ardent is associated with the Memphis-based independent label from the 1960s and '70s, the one that put out the three beloved albums by power pop legends Big Star
. Ardent has a history that stretches back far before Big Star, as they issued their first single in 1960, a full twelve years before #1 Record
. This history is chronicled on Ace's astounding double-disc set Thank You Friends: The Ardent Record Story
, the first thorough document of Ardent and, along with it, the Memphis underground pop movement of the '60s and '70s.
Ardent functioned as the fulcrum for all the Memphis misfits obsessed with the British Invasion and thereby not part of the city's soul and blues-drenched music scene: this was as true at the start of the '60s as it was during the label's power pop heyday in the '70s. In fact, Thank You Friends
makes a convincing case that the power pop glory years couldn't have happened without the foundation that Ardent head honcho John Fry laid during that first stretch of the '60s, when he was cutting garage bands and folk-rock. After cutting the stomping, gleefully moronic "Geraldine" with the Ole Miss Downbeats
, Fry let the label lie for several years, during which time he became obsessed with the British Invasion -- not the gritty blues of the Rolling Stones
, which he disdained, but the sterling pop of the Beatles
, the crunching camp of the Kinks
, and the modern pop art of the Who
and the Yardbirds
. Eventually, Fry found a fellow traveler in maverick producer Jim Dickinson, who helped jump start Ardent in 1966 with sneering singles by Lawson & Four More. These, along with the Avengers
' trippy tremeloed "Batarang," the Bitter Ind
's odd viola infused "Hands Are Only to See," and especially the Beatles-meets-Byrds
treat of the Wallabies
previously unreleased "White Doors" hinted at the tremulous, trebly pop of the Big Star heyday in its sound, but it was the songs recorded in the next few years -- the 18 songs that fill out the remainder of the first disc -- that truly established the Memphis pop sound and sensibility.
Of these 18, only four were released at the time, a startlingly low ratio that suggests the extent of how underground this scene really was. Fry tried to place these singles at larger labels, getting few bites, and soon the resident producer torch passed from Dickinson to Terry Manning
, a pop guy who let other pop guys record late into the night in Ardent, learning how to navigate the studio and creating the signature sound of Memphis, where guitars rang and clanged in equal measure. This is a key to how isolated this scene was, not just from the rest of Memphis but the world at large; they were shut off in the studio, creating their own sound, the precursor to indie kids holed away in the basement with a guitar and four-track. This scene eventually wormed its way into such solipsistic navel-gazing in the form of the endless unfinished sessions for Big Star's 3rd
-- its darkness brushed upon with the inclusion of an original mix of "Holocaust," but for the most part ignored as the Big Star-centric second disc focuses in their brilliant, blinding pop, often present in alternate mixes or demos, some of which are revelatory (Chilton's spoken asides during the original version of "Mod Lang" are disarming), all of which help their very familiar music seem fresh again.
Big Star is clearly central to the Ardent story and Thank You Friends
, which is appropriate as they are at the core of the label's mythology and legacy, as there were countless bands in the next decade as indebted to them as they were to the Beatles. The band dominates this collection, via these alternate mixes and rarities from both Chris Bell
and Alex Chilton (the original mixes of "Free Again" and "The EMI Song (Smile for Me)" are particular highlights). This may hook in the Big Star fanatics who may not realize the depth of the band's scene. They might not know the pre-history of Rock City
and Icewater, they might know who their peers Cargoe & the Hot Dogs
were, they might not know that Tommy Hoehn & the Scruffs
carried on the tradition after the band splintered in the mid-'70s. All that evidence is here on this glorious and important reissue, one that makes a convincing case for the uniqueness of the Ardent-based pop scene -- not just through Big Star but beyond -- through its wealth of ageless power pop.