Memphis’ Ardent Studios is one of the most respected recording facilities in the world. Everyone from Led Zeppelin to ZZ Top, from REM to Cat Power have made music within its hallowed halls. But despite the studio’s credentials, it is Ardent Records, the label, that inspires awe amongst pop aficionados, particularly as the imprint that begat pop cult heroes Big Star.
“Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story” celebrates with a deluxe two CD anthology that ranges from the label’s earliest mid-60s garage studio recordings to the halcyon days of the early 1970s, when a distribution deal with Stax established Ardent as a purveyor of the finest pop-rock. Memphis might have been the city where rock’n’roll was born, yet a significant minority of its youth in the late 60s and early 70s appeared besotted with the sound of British rock, inhabiting a Southern demi-monde where the Yardbirds and Who reigned supreme. The sharply-dressed Brit-pop aesthetic seemed integral to the Ardent modus operandi, adding a certain flash to even its most undemonstrative acts. It was also reflected in founder John Fry’s unerring commitment to technical quality, and the permission to experiment: Ardent was always more Abbey Road than McLemore Avenue.
We have split the CDs neatly between the two eras of the studio/label. Disc One (the 1960s, when the studio was based on National Street) features a mind boggling array of rare garage singles and unissued psychedelic sessions, mostly overseen by Memphis maverick Jim Dickinson, as well as the early experiments of Big Star’s Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. Disc Two (the 1970s, when Ardent moved to Madison Avenue) examines the Stax era and beyond, with selections from Ardent acts Cargoe and the Hot Dogs, and no less than 14 rare or unissued Big Star-related cuts, most of which have not been on CD before. These include demos, alternate versions, original mixes and non-LP tracks. Everything is presented from the master tapes and the sound quality, as befits any Ardent recording, is second to none. Additionally, the lengthy sleeve notes draw upon in-depth interviews with both Fry and Ardent associates Dickinson and Terry Manning, as well as other behind the scenes personages such as Richard Rosebrough, Tom Eubanks and Steve Rhea, all of whom add unique insight to a cornerstone chapter of both Memphis and pop music history.
It was a thrill it was to spend so many hours at Ardent Studios during the lengthy assembly of this project. The magic that infuses all the recordings I have included on “Thank You Friends” is still quite tangible as you pass through its corridors and studio spaces at Madison Avenue. Thus, eternal gratitude to John, Jody, Adam and everyone else at Ardent from this long-time fan.
By Alec Palao