Certain Songs #51: Big Star – “Stroke It Noel”

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Album: Third.

Year: 1978.

While the first two Big Star albums were basically unheard mysteries when I first encountered them, by the time I bought the 1985 PVC reissue of Third, I was well aware of the tales of madness and disintegration that surrounded its recording. So it’s kinda ironic that side one, track one of this record that is supposed to experimental and off-putting is this perfectly composed, meticulously arranged pop nugget.

Not much more than Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens and a simple string arrangement, “Stroke It Noel” might be the least raucous song in rock history that features a chorus of “Do you wanna dance?”

Of course, it was a feint: there was plenty of madness and disintegration on Third, so “Stroke It Noel” served as the same kind of palate cleanser / misdirection as “Sunday Morning” did on The Velvet Underground & Nico.  

It was also an indicator of one of the types of songs on the record, which I would roughly classify as Acoustic with Strings (“Stroke it Noel,” “For You” “Nighttime); Big Offbeat Rock ("You Can’t Have Me,” “Thank You Friends,”  "Jesus Christ" and, of course, Madness and Disintegration (“Holocaust,”  "Kangaroo").

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When I saw the Big Star’s Third concert in Los Angeles earlier this year, not only did they have Ken Stringfellow do the lead vocals on “Stroke It Noel,” (which made sense, as it would have fit in on any Posies album)  they had the legendary Van Dyke Parks do the string arrangements.  Like so much of the rest of that evening, it was equal parts sad, joyous and sublime.

Fan-made video for “Stroke It Noel)

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