The Upshot: The magic is still there, spread across three delightful discs.
BY FRED MILLS
Tell me honestly: What, if anything, can possibly be added to the Big Star public profile? In particular, as regards a review of the band or its albums, is there anything that hasn’t been said multiple times before, by other reviewers? But Big Star Third (or Sister Lovers, take your pick) has not only stood the test of time, it seems inevitable that music critics will continue picking its bones—lovingly, don’t get me wrong—for the rest of time. And I hope they do, because each new generation deserves the opportunity to discover this remarkable record.
I myself have written about Big Star countless times in the past, frequently for this very publication. (Just enter the term “big star” into the search box in the right-hand column and you’ll, er, spot more than a few missives of mine.) So maybe this time around I’ll opt for a different approach, one which is in keeping with the wonderful liner notes gracing the 3CD Complete Third box, served up by the diligent archivists at Omnivore. It’s clearly a labor of love—lust, even (thank you, Nick Lowe)—as those liners, penned by lifetime Big Star acolytes like Mitch Easter, Mike Mills, Peter Holsapple, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Wilco’s Pat Sansone and Steve Wynn, make eminently clear.
First, some of the basics: Collectors of Big Star and Alex Chilton ephemera have long prized their stash of outtakes and demos, some of which made it onto good-quality bootleg CDs (check this massive 9CD boot collection, I Got Kinda Lost), while others remained the domain of poorly-archived cassettes. To date, though, there’s been no comprehensive release of the material, and even in its “official” form, Big Star Third in particular has undergone a number of semi-confusing iterations, starting with the PVC label’s 1978 LP featuring 14 songs, and culminating with a 1992 CD on Rykodisc, 19 songs in all. 2011 also brought Omnivore’s 14-track Test Pressing Edition, but that was a strictly limited affair, one which can properly be viewed as a kind of preview for the box at hand. And what a box—as I wrote a few months ago at the news of its imminent release, “It’s a doozy, the kind of box set that sends fans into spasms of delight.”
The 3CD set (also to be issued as three separate 2LP sets later this year, each set corresponding with one of the CDs) contains 69 tracks, 29 of which reportedly have never been heard before: Disc 1 it titled “Demos to Sessions to Roughs”; Disc 2, “Roughs to Mixes”; and Disc 3, “Final Masters. (View the tracklisting HERE at Omnivore’s website.) In a statement, drummer Jody Stephens commented, “As Alex shared his acoustic guitar song demos, I would immediately think that they were complete feelings and performances, no additional production necessary. How do they evolve from here? Enter Jim Dickinson and John Fry in the production and sonic roles respectively.”
And that pretty much tells you what you need to know; if you are reading this, there’s a 99% probability you already own at least one of those Third iterations, and assuming you fell under the record’s spell like most of us did, you’re not going to need some reviewer’s “astute assessment” and a bunch of song descriptions. Plus, the aforementioned liner notes, which include detailed observations by critic Bud Scoppa, Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski, and Rykodisc’s Jeff Rougvie, nicely summarize everything else that you might want to know. (Blowing My Own Horn Department: Go HERE if you want to read a lengthy Big Star piece I did a few years ago, as it features interviews with Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, and Jody Stephens. I trust you know who those people are and their significance in the Big Star world.)
So anyway, my personal Big Star journey isn’t particularly unique. A story I like to tell is how I was at a party in Chapel Hill one night in the mid ‘70s when I first heard Big Star—this was during my college years, and I had fallen into a crowd of fellow UNC students who were Winston-Salem ex-pats, most of them musicians themselves. At the party, some nondescript music was blaring on the stereo, probably Jimmy Buffett or Kansas, I dunno. Suddenly a guy I’d just recently met, and part of that W-S gang, Will Rigby, jumped up from the couch, headed for the stereo, and, yanking the LP from the turntable, muttered something like, “Fuck this shit. We’re gonna hear some Big Star.”
It would have been #1 Record or Radio City, naturally; Third had yet to be released, the band long broken up. But, like so many others who encountered the band under unexpected circumstances (or through the workings of providence), a lifelong connection was forged almost instantly between me and the band’s music. I’m guessing that within 24 hours I was scouring the record dealer ads in the back of Trouser Press and Goldmine magazines, looking for anyone with copies of the two LPs for sale.
Sometime later that year, I was hanging out with Rigby when he shoved a low bias c90 cassette into my hands. On one side it read simply Big Star, while the other was labeled Big Star WLIR. I forget what he said to me, but since I’m the one doing the re-telling here, and rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not a cultural exercise in myth-making, I’m going to say that there was a conspiratorial tone to his voice, a kind of secret-handshake-meets-passing-along-state-secrets vibe in the air.
What I do know for sure: upon arriving home I popped the tape in the cassette deck, and the music that subsequently unspooled for nearly 45 minutes was unlike any Big Star I was familiar with. This was Third, and absent were the boisterous jangles and Beatlesque harmonies I’d come to associate with the band. I was utterly perplexed. The other side of the tape was a bit more straightforward, a recording of a three-piece Big Star performing live in the studios of WLIR-FM sometime in ’74. Again, nowhere near as pristine and pop-perfect as the two LPs, but the recording at least scratched my Big Star itch in a similar way. (Thanks, Will.)
I’d go on to nearly wear that tape out, subsequently making a couple of safety copies and also running off copies so I could perform the secret handshake ritual with other friends, just like Rigby had done with me. In 1978, of course, the PVC label’s LP was released, although judging from side A of my cassette, the track sequence was “off” and a handful of songs were missing; the live broadcast wouldn’t see the light of day in officially-sanctioned form as Live until ’92, when Ryko released it, a Chris Bell collection, and Third on CD. Meanwhile, that lifelong connection continued apace….
All of this comes back to me now while listening to Complete Third and reading the liner notes. In particular, Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple recount how they first experienced Third: Stamey, via a Big Star bootleg tape he’d ordered from a Trouser Press ad; Holsapple, from a Memphis acquaintance. Clearly, my introduction to Third paralleled Holsapple’s. I’m betting that Rigby’s copy, in fact, originally came from him. (Thanks, Peter.)
Writes Holsapple, “On one side was a live radio broadcast… The other side was a mish-mash of songs that was my first exposure to Big Star’s storied third album. I played that tape and made copies of it for people for many years, just as I’d tried to evangelize with the other records… I believed then and now that Big Star could only improve anyone’s musical appreciation, and it was only a matter of time before that was understood by something larger than a miniscule cult audience.”
Indeed. That cult audience would grow and grow, powered by reissues and archival releases and books and DVDs and a ‘90s reunion and even an ongoing latterday revival of Third for the concert stage, helmed by Stamey. (Thanks, Chris.) We now find ourselves at a culmination of sorts with Complete Third. And yes, before you ask, the magic remains intact. It’s a 5-out-of-5-stars release, without question. But don’t listen to me. You’ve got some shopping to do.