Band of the Week: Big Star

Resident sound-nerd thumbs through reams of musty vinyl so you don’t have to. Here are his weekly recommendations…

#33: Big Star

Who: Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel.

When: 1970s.

Where: USA.

Why: This entry will be my last band of the week (sob), as I’ll be heading off into the real world in seven days. So I’ve chosen one of my all time favourite bands to play me out: the breathtakingly brilliant and criminally underappreciated Big Star. They may not be a household name, but, along with their heroes The Velvet Underground, they can testify to being the most significant cult band of all time. Alex Chilton was only sixteen years old when he topped the charts in the Box Tops with blued-eyed soul classic ‘The Letter’ in 1967. Returning to Memphis after a botched attempt at a solo career in New York, he joined his old acquaintance Chris Bell and his bandmates Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel in their project Icewater. Renaming themselves Big Star, the moniker could have been mistaken for hubris were it not for the fact that it was pilfered from a local grocery store. They soon had a debut LP on their hands, the similarly bumptiously titled #1 Record.

With Bell and Chilton forming a Lennon and McCartney style writing team, reconfiguring songs written in their formative years like ‘Thirteen’ as well as coming up with a clutch of power-pop gems, every track sounded like a hit single. The acoustic numbers are taut with teenage energy, the rockers perfectly pitched and refined. But sadly, the story of this LP would become a metaphor for the band’s overall history. Stax Records were unable to get the record into stores, and, when they sold their catalogue to Columbia, the major label left smaller releases like Big Star’s in the dust. It affected Bell most, who, fuelled by a drug addiction, attacked their manager’s car as well as smashing up one of Hummel’s bass guitars. He quit in 1972, recording one heartbreakingly beautiful solo record, I Am The Cosmos, before his death in a car accident in 1978. His bandmates plugged on, recording a second album with a similarly hopeful title to their first, Radio City. It was just as good as, if not better than their debut. ‘September Gurls’ is simply the perfect pop song, while coda ‘I’m In Love With A Girl’ is just about the sweetest teenage hymn recordable. Combining primarily English influences – Kinks, Who, Move – with the breezy Americana of The Byrds, Big Star were the band that came closest to the oft-lusted after American Beatles sound.

If there were a God, Big Star by now would have been the biggest band in the world. But the bastards at Columbia refused to process the LP, meaning it shifted a paltry 20,000 copies. Ever persistent, eight months later Alex Chilton returned to the studio, to lay down what was to become his masterpiece. Big Star’s third release would take him to the frayed ends of wherever genius and insanity collide. Stephens and Chilton were creating something that at the time they didn’t consider to have anything to do with their former project, the drummer humouring his errant frontman in producing songs that took the Big Star sound and deconstructed it. Freed from constraints of label pressure and the power-pop format expected of them, they put together a damaged, fragile document of a band and group of friends falling apart. The sprawling adventure wouldn’t be released until the late 70s, and was revised many times over the years, under various titles; one of them Sister Lovers, a reference to the two dating a pair of sisters throughout its recording.

Listening to it is a journey; beauty replaced the next second by sorrow. There are baroque pop rock songs (‘Kizza Me’ and ‘Stroke It Noel’), end of the world laments (‘Holocaust‘), impossibly mysterious love songs (‘Kangaroo’ and ‘Dream Lover’) and straight up gorgeousness (‘For You’, ‘Blue Moon’). The cover versions are no less arresting, ‘Femme Fatale’ with its dreamy backing vocals, ‘Till The End of the Day’ affirming the Anglophile obsessions of the band in widescreen. It is without doubt one of the most touching yet enigmatic records available. The band would reunite decades later and finally get some reward for their labours, with R.E.M., The Replacements, Cheap Trick, Jeff Buckley, This Mortal Coil, Teenage Fanclub and pretty much any indie group worth listening to singing their praises in their absence. Alex Chilton died last year, and mourners emerged from all corners of the rock & roll world. As Paul Westerberg of The Replacements sang, ‘I never travel far, without a little Big Star’.

Influences: The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, The Kinks, The Move, The Byrds.

Influenced: The Replacements, Elliott Smith, Cheap Trick, Jeff Buckley, Teenage Fanclub.

Sample Lyric: ‘I first saw you, you had on blue jeans / You eyes couldn’t hide anything’.

Which Record: #1 Record (Stax, 1972), Radio City (Stax, 1974), Third (PVC Records, 1978)

2 comments

  1. Nice profile of my favorite band. Thanks, Tom and best of luck in “the real world”.

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  2. Very nice profile. Although I would like to add that the sound quality on their records is amazing because they learnt how to do sound engineering themselves. Came across your site by accident. I’m in my late 30’s and living in Hong Kong so it is a surprise to see an undergraduate know so much about music from the past, especially the cool stuff. Great profile on Rush, by the way. If only you could have done one on my favourite band ever, King’s X. Good luck in the real world.

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