#1 BAND Big Star

With their first two
albums just reissued and a remarkably revealing book recently published – and a
box set on the horizon – the power pop icons get their due.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

The lifeline of any rock fan is dotted with myriad this-is-what-I-was-doing
moments regarding first musical encounters – those metaphysical occurrences
when, upon discovering a record so profoundly moving, time stood still, the
earth cracked open, the cosmos shifted, etc., and nothing is ever quite the same
thereafter. It’s no wonder that we refer to hearing this or that album for the
first time as “losing my music virginity”; the impossibility of busting one’s
literal cherry more than once notwithstanding, listening to a truly timeless
album can be, indeed, as good as (or better than) sex.

 

And so it is with this rock fan’s lifeline, and with Big Star.

 

It was at a house party in Chapel Hill, probably around ’77 towards
the tail end of my undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina,
attended by sundry acquaintances and strangers – among the latter, one Will
Rigby, future dB’s/Steve Earle drummer, with whom I’d soon become fast friends.
Rigby, apparently not too shy about commandeering the stereo at a party if
he disapproved of the current selection, anounces to no one in
particular, “Let’s hear some Big Star!” then tugs a black vinyl album from an
odd-looking record sleeve (depicting a white/yellow neon sign in the shape of a
star against a blackish-blue background) and settles it on the turntable. A
slow, almost languid, irresistible descending guitar riff issues forth, and as
my head turns towards the speakers the drums kick in, followed by a
high-pitched vocal yelp and the guitars progressively growing chunkier. By the
time the tune reaches its first chorus, all dreamy, Beatlesque ahhhhs, I’m hooked. Three decades on, I
can still see myself fumbling around on the floor of the living room, searching
for the remnants of my jaw.

 

“Feel” is followed by a sweet, jangly number bearing the inscrutable
title “The Ballad of El Goodo” (more angelic harmonies), and that is followed by the throbbing,
slightly twangy “In the Street” (wait for the short-and-sweet guitar solo, and,
um, more cowbell please!), and that by
a luminous, impossibly fragile acoustic ballad, “Thirteen”… sigh… and then that by a dirty-assed, tart-tongued
rocker called “Don’t Lie To Me” straight outta the Move/Cheap Trick school of
pop-tinged hard rock I so dearly love. As the album side gradually comes to a
close with the candy-coated psych-pop of “The India Song” (what’s up with those
flutes?!?) I’m sitting there on the couch, still transfixed, lower mandible marginally
intact, though sore.

 

Thanks to namechecks in magazines like Trouser Press and CREEM, by
1977 I had at least heard of this
band Big Star. I even knew a few background details, such as how they were from
Memphis and were led by ex-Box Tops vocalist Alex Chilton (the latter a
somewhat erroneous factoid, for as I’d learn later, the group was actually the brainchild
of pop wunderkind Chris Bell; it was rounded out by drummer Jody Stephens and
bassist Andy Hummel, with Chilton coming into the fold latterly but
enthusiastically, swayed by the inordinately gifted Bell’s vision of an
Anglophiliac band of southern boys). Also how #1 Record and its 1974 followup Radio City were on the Stax-distributed Ardent label, but since neither album notched
anything beyond critical acclaim, the band broke up soon afterwards, Bell having already bailed
prior to the sophomore platter. Roughly around the time of the Chapel Hill party, Chilton was undergoing a minor revival
in NYC, courtesy the nascent punk/new wave scene, and as it turned out, a
native North Carolinian, Chris Stamey, had been playing in Chilton’s band. Rigby
himself was a past and future bandmate of Stamey’s (before, seminal garage/punk
combo Sneakers; later, of course, the dB’s) so his degrees of separation from
Big Star were appealingly few.

 

Rigby talked about all of this and more, throwing in some
tantalizing tidbits that made me feel as if I had been invited into some inner
sanctum of Big Star intimates. Chief among the goodies: the knowledge that
there existed a third, unreleased Big Star album Chilton and Stephens had
recorded some time after the band dissolved; and that not only was Rigby willing
to tape both Big Star LPs for me, as he owned a hissy but listenable cassette
dub of that unreleased record, he’d gladly copy that for me as well. (As a
bonus, on the flipside of the latter cassette Rigby dubbed an FM broadcast of
the band playing in some New York
area radio station. Nowadays, Big Star fans everywhere know that the 1974 performance
in question hailed from Long Island’s
Ultrasonic Studios and was aired live by WLIR-FM, later released by the Ryko
label as Big Star Live.)

 

I left the party that night a changed man. I’d always had a
certain Brit-pop streak in me (I was more a Stones man than a Beatles buff, but
still…), and I also treasured my Raspberries and Nazz albums, so the Americanized
strain of the genre – power pop, I
think we still call it; I’ll have to consult Greg Shaw via Ouija board to be
certain – that Big Star specialized in during its brief lifespan felt
instantly familiar. To discover a group that had somehow eluded me until now
only made the band more desirable, because as any record collector will tell
you, having a brand new musical quest is half the fun.

 

It wasn’t long before I was scouring record dealer ads in
the back of Trouser Press as well as
the ones in collectors’ bible Goldmine,
eventually netting a near-mint copy of #1
Record
and a sealed edition of Radio City that had a slice through the
bottom right corner to indicate it was a cutout. If memory serves, each LP set
me back between twenty and thirty bucks, which to me at the time was a pretty steep
price but a fee I willingly and eagerly paid. I’ve still got ‘em, in fact.
Looking at the albums now – holding them – I’m struck both by the tactile
qualities of each package (thick cardboard stock sleeves, thick/heavy vinyl) plus the iconoclastic artwork that keeps drawing music fans to them year after
year, generation after generation.

 

And I’ve heard the songs, a dozen per album, so many times
since that fateful night in Chapel Hill that
they’re literally scored into the crevices of my cortex. Because with Big Star,
and I’m sure my experience isn’t unique, it’s the musical love affair that
keeps on giving. The band continues to be discovered by new fans, yet the
thrill of rediscovery among we older acolytes has hardly lessened. If anything,
the bond has been strengthened, not undermined, by familiarity.

 

***

 

Now, it must be said that those 24 songs have been dissected
so often by critics and historians that it’s almost pointless to retrace
old territory. Yet because we have new editions of the albums in hand – Concord
Music Group, which owns the old Stax catalog, has reissued both of them on
vinyl, additionally issuing a slightly expanded version of a 1992 CD two-fer reissue
– I’d be journalistically remiss if I didn’t at least give those of you still
relatively fresh to the Big Star oeuvre some sense of why it matters.

 

That first half #1
Record
is flawless, from the vitriol-spewing proto-punk of “Don’t Lie to
Me” to the oh-so-perfectly teenage sentiments of “Thirteen.” It’s like an
entire history lesson of pop and rock compressed into one album side, and with
a production so utterly empathetic to its creators’ original influences (all
tunes save “The India Song” are credited to Bell-Chilton) that it’s tempting to
paint the album in homage colors. It’s no mere tribute, however, as the
not-flawless-but-still-mesmerizing Side 2 proves. Flip the record over, or cue
directly to cut #7 if you’re a CD or iPod person, and there’s the astonishing “When
My Baby’s Beside Me,” as original and bracing a track in the pop/rock idiom as
has ever been penned; with its twinned, sinewy descending/ascending riff,
loin-pumping bassline, tambourine-powered percussive heft and buoyant,
swaggering vocal line (not to mention an outrageous wah-wah guitar solo), it’s
nothing less than pure Big Star.

 

Several tracks later, when the gorgeously intricate
12-string showcase “Watch the Sunrise” curls into being, alight with fretboard
harmonics, subtle deployment of harp and gospel choir-worthy backing vocals,
one gets the uncanny sensation that by ’72 the four men of Big Star, as abetted
by their fifth Beatle, Ardent Studios maven John Fry, hadn’t just soaked in the
sounds of their formative years – they’d already surpassed them. Bell, in
particular, was an astonishing pop savant with an ear for arranging, while
Chilton brought to the table a seasoned toughness wrought by his experiences
touring with the Box Tops and working as a folksinger. Factor in an uncommonly
intuitive Hummel-Stephens rhythm section and Fry’s inside-out studio savvy, and
you had that ever-elusive chemistry that only comes along once in a rare while.

 

Radio City,
recorded by Chilton, Stephens and Hummel (plus a handful of fellow Memphis musicians who hung around the Ardent enclave) in
the aftermath of Bell’s
departure, comes close to matching its predecessor. For one thing, it’s got
what’s arguably the best-known Big Star song – or “most loved,” as #1 Record‘s “In The Street” probably
qualifies as best known, thanks to the Cheap Trick (!) cover of the song that
fuels the title sequence for TV hit That
70’s Show
the eternal
“September Gurls.” As more than a few pundits have observed, is one of those
perfect power pop songs, on equal footing with the Beatles “Day Tripper,” the
Raspberries’ “Go All The Way,” Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” the
Move’s “Do Ya” and the dB’s “Black and White.” Many have covered it, and at
least one – the Bangles – came close to matching it, but none have ever fully recreated
its sonic magic, its sense of yearning, its dream marriage of guitars, vocals
and lyrics.

 

There’s plenty more on Radio
City
, of course, from kinetic, wiry, twangy opener “O My Soul” and
slinkysexycool groove-rocker “You Get What You Deserve” to the
as-timeless-as-“September Gurls” “Back of a Car” and Chilton’s gently
sentimental solo acoustic turn, “I’m In Love With a Girl” (why not “gurl,”
Alex?). Radio City‘s a wholly
different creature from its predecessor, too, although it should be said that
Big Star founder Chris Bell’s influence is still felt in Chilton’s songwriting
style, and it’s also to the three musicians’ collective credit that they
remained under the spell of classic pop for the duration of the album sessions
rather than attempt to branch out or experiment (that would come soon enough when
Chilton and Stephens joined forces with producer Jim Dickinson in late 1974 to
begin work on what would eventually be released as Big Star Third). Paired with #1
Record
, Radio City forms one of pop’s true Mount
Olympuses, and the charms
of both albums have not diminished with time. Rather, they’ve grown more
profound.

 

Some may find it curious that Concord opted to reissue the Big Star albums
on CD in the same format as they appeared back in ’92. Aside from a pair of
somewhat inessential bonus tracks (single mixes for “In the Street” and “O My
Soul), there’s no difference in the product and packaging. The latter, in fact,
repeats the egregious offense of the 1992 CD in which the memorable front
sleeve artwork of Radio City (a photo of a naked lightbulb in the ceiling of a crimson-hued room) is removed
in favor of the back cover photo of the band. Why not add a couple of panels to
the booklet and restore all the
original art? For that matter, since they’re also doing the albums as separate
vinyl reissues, why not do two standalone CDs, with complete artwork, fresh
liner notes and additional bonus material? Rumor has it that an agreement was
struck between Concord and Rhino, which is doing a Big Star box this fall, to
not unduly cannibalize each other’s projects, so that may have come to bear
here. But it’s still a shame that more thought and care wasn’t put into the CD.

 

I will add, however, that a sleeve note indicates it’s a
fresh remaster (done by one George Horn, at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios), and indeed, an
A-B test of selected tracks does reveal a new crispness to the music.
Considering how great those LPs sounded back in the ‘70s, it’s hard to imagine
improving on the originals, but compared to the ’92 reissue, this new CD
benefits in particular in the vocal department (those Chilton-Bell harmonies
literally float from the speakers and wrap around you like a soft pillow) and
on Stephens’ percussion (listen to his snare-taps and subtle cymbal deployment,
for example). All that aside, if you really want to experience Big Star the way
its creators intended – hell, to experience the albums the way I experienced
them, too! – go for the vinyl.

 

***

 

The Big Star story has been recounted in great detail over
the years, most recently by British journalist Rob Jovanovic, whose 2005
biography Big Star: The Short Life,
Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop
is a
must-read, so it’s not as if these characters are the same hazy figures they
were back when I first discovered them. Amazingly, then, a new book ostensibly
about the making of the second album takes the story to an entirely new level. See, practically from day one Chilton has resisted the overtures of journalists, typically downplaying Big Star’s overall importance both in the larger sense
and in how it relates to his particular musical vision. He’s consistently been
“not available for interviews” during Big Star’s periodic revivals (for
example, in 2005, when a reborn Big Star featuring Chilton, Stephens and two
members of the Posies issued In Space,
Stephens assumed virtually all the media-fielding duties), so writers have
generally had to rely on the reflections of Chilton’s friends, former band
members and even other writers to cast an impression of the man.

 

But in Radio City the
book – the latest installment in Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series on classic
albums – author Bruce Eaton pulls a bonafide rabbit out of his hat, and Big
Star devotees owe him an immense debt as a result. Not only does he get Chilton
to go on record about the band, he coaxes in-depth commentary out of the
notoriously elusive musician, who holds forth on everything from his childhood
and experiences with the Box Tops to his relationship with Chris Bell (good, it
turns out, and not adversarial as has often been reported) and detailed
descriptions of Big Star recording sessions. Eaton, it should be said, was
holding one card that all the other journalists who’ve picked away at the
Chilton monolith didn’t: based in upstate New York, Eaton, a musician himself,
found himself, through a series of coincidences, playing in one of Chilton’s
early eighties bands, and although the alliance was short-lived, the
relationship was friendly enough to allow the two to remain in occasional
contact. When Eaton decided he wanted to do his book, he was able to tap that
friendship, Chilton apparently trusting that Eaton’s agenda was neither
self-serving nor exploitative but rather a sincere desire to set the Big Star
record straight. (Memo to fellow journalists: yes, despite all our protestations
of doing what we do because we love the music, we can come across as self-serving and exploitative to musicians.)

 

The best titles in the 33 1/3 series tend to be
making-of-the-album stories (sorry, but the ones that read like novels or
fantasies or a protracted exercise in autobiography are rarely engaging), and
when the author is fortunate enough to conduct interviews with the principals
themselves, the books can become invaluable reference works. That’s Eaton’s Radio City,
in spades. He frames his main narrative with a intro relating how he discovered
the band and why he thinks it’s noteworthy, and a closing section outlining how
he wound up playing with Chilton (which itself is insightful as it provides glimpses
into Chilton’s mercurial personality and musical modus operandi).

 

But the bulk of this 144-page volume is given over to the
events leading up to the formation of Big Star and those surrounding the first
album, followed by a blow-by-blow breakdown of Radio City. In addition to Chilton, Eaton’s respondents include
Stephens, Hummel, Fry, Ardent engineer Richard Rosebrough and Ardent label boss
John King, plus the late Chris Bell’s brother David who pitches in on the pre-Radio City section, and they all supply
incredibly detailed descriptions of who did what, when, where, and how. Even
when memories get slightly fuzzy – for example, as it was the musicians’ habit
to record late into the night at Ardent, often without a producer or engineer
on hand (the Big Star members all had keys to Ardent studio), specific session
details sometimes didn’t get transcribed – the reader still gets a vivid sense
of what it must have been like to be part of the Ardent inner circle.

 

Fry’s recollections tend to be the most reliable, summoning
up specific notes on how he placed the mics on certain songs, how this
particular take differed from that one, even how he approached mixing the
album. Yet the three musicians are generally clear-headed in their
reminiscences, and as noted above, Chilton supplies his share of invaluable
anecdotes, even talking a little about the Radio
City
aftermath in 1974-75 and the Big
Star Third
sessions. (Countering another journalist-spawned misconception,
Chilton states unequivocally, “[Stephens and I] never saw it as a Big Star
record. That was a marketing decision when the record was sold in whatever year
that was sold.”) For his part, Eaton structures his book as a semi-oral
history, interspersing sections of expository narrative as needed between
blocks of quotes – many of them quite lengthy, such as a nearly ten-page passage
dictated by Chilton on his life prior to Big Star. Oral histories can be risky,
but in this instance the editorial decision was sound; perhaps Eaton sensed
that after all the telling and retelling of the Big Star saga, maybe it was
finally time to let the men get it down in their own words, without
journalistic filters.

 

Plus, one mark of any great music bio is that while you’re
reading it you want to listen to the artist or album in question. When you get
to the Radio City song-by-song descriptions, I guarantee you’ll be compelled to cue
up the record and listen for the parts that Fry, Chilton, Stevens, Hummel and
Rosebrough are describing. It’s as close to a fly-on-the-wall experience as
you’re likely to get with Big Star.

 

Incidentally, Eaton has his own this-is-what-I-was-doing
epiphany on Big Star that he relates. Coming across a used copy of Radio City in the bins of a Buffalo, NY,
record store one afternoon in ’76, he was struck by the William Eggleston lightbulb/room
photo gracing the sleeve. “Curious, I picked up the album,” writes Eaton. “The
sturdy cardboard cover sheathed a nice thick slab of wax. Like a vintage Blue
Note jazz LP, it felt like a record made by people who cared about the music
and knew what they were doing.” At home later that evening, Eaton put the album
on while he sat down to write some letters:

 

Song by song, it
pulled me in until by the end of the first side I had stopped writing and was
propped back in my chair with my feet on the desk, listening as the sun set
behind the woods outside my window, feeling the June breeze blowing in through
the window screen. I flipped the record over to Side Two, and by the time the
needle reached the middle of ‘September Gurls,’ five cuts in, I was riveted…”

 

Across the land, over the years, a similar scene would
continue to repeat itself. So I ask you, dear readers: where were you when you first heard Big Star?

 

***

 

Watch for yet more Big Star navel gazing this fall,
incidentally. That’s when, on September 15, Rhino issues its rarities-heavy
4-CD box on the band, Keep an Eye on the
Sky
. (You can get details on it, courtesy BLURT, right here.) Mucho media
coverage is inevitable, and yeah, I’ll probably have to weigh in on the band
one more time myself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

 

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