Monday, July 29, 2013

Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star

Rock and Roll is replete with its own mythology   For example, there's the one about the obscure band who made a few albums no one appreciated at the time, but ended up influencing countless others who went on to much greater success.  Big Star stands as one of those bands who laid the groundwork, but received none of the spoils.

From 1972-1975, Big Star made three albums for the Memphis label, Ardent Records. Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, both rising stars in Memphis music scene, formed Big Star in 1971. As a teenager Chilton had been part of The Box Tops who had number of chart topping hits, most famously, "The Letter."  The first Big Star album, #1 Record, featured a splendid assortment of British infused rock owing more to the Beatles than anyone else (apparently in 1972 the Beatles were considered passe). The first track, "Feel," sounds like an outtake from Abbey Road with lyrics full of angst, "feel like I'm dyin/I'm never gonna live again." Thematically, "Feel" set the tone for most of of their music: emotional turmoil, unrequited love, and wounded romanticism.  Bell's, "the Ballad of El Goodo," is a melancholy epic in which he pledges "to fight on against long odds."  The third song, "In the Street," later made famous as the theme to That 70's show, blends Byrds like harmonies with a tinge of Southern soul.  "Thirteen," one of most fragile love songs ever recorded, includes lyrics like "won't you tell your dad to get off my back/tell him what we said about paint in black" displays a tenderness rare in pop songs.  Another highlight, written by bassist Andy Hummell, "The India Song," imagines India as a paradise of indolence, "drinking gin and tonic and playing a grand piano."  Between its Lennon/McCartney harmonies, Byrds riffs, and delightfully inane lyrics, #1 Record stands as a classic reverberating through the decades.

Unfortunately, the Bell-Chilton partnership lasted for only one album.  Resenting Chilton's growing influence on the band, Bell embarked on a solo career.  But Big Star soldiered on as a trio.  Their second album, Radio City, in many ways surpasses the first in terms of scope and ambition. Listening to the first track, "O My Soul," overwhelms the senses with its ramshackle guitar sound evoking frustrated desires with Chilton screaming "dying to see you/i'll knock off your doors."  There's a harsher and less compromising attitude throughout Radio City as if they feel fate closing in on them.  On "Mod Lang" Chilton finds refuge in booze as he declares in slurred speech, "I can't be what you want me to be." Other amazing tracks include "She's a Mover," "September Gurls," and" "Daisy Glaze."

Rock critics loved Big Star, but due to poor distribution and marketing from Ardent they failed to sell albums.  Chilton's refusal to tour didn't help matters.  Nevertheless, he made a follow up to Radio City that's known as both Sister Lovers and Third.  Some debate whether Third qualifies as a Big Star album at all since only Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens played on it.  Third sounds far more experimental.  The lyrics weave between despair and absurdity. Strange juxtapositions occur throughout with the pro-Christian "Jesus Christ" to a cover of Lou Reed's "Femme Fatale." Peter Buck of REM cited Third as one of the chief influences on their music and it has it's own cult following.  Third stands as a bizarre, but fitting, epilogue to Big Star.

For most of the 1980s, Big Star albums were out of print and forgotten by all except a few devoted fans.  Sadly, Chris Bell died in 1978 at age 27 in an auto accident just as he was finishing work on a solo album, which included the magnificent, "I am the Cosmos." Interest in Big Star revived as "alternative bands" like REM, The Replacements, Teenage Fan Club, and many, many others sang their praises to the four guys from Memphis.  Paul Westerberg, in a song entitled "Alex Chilton" declared "he never travels far without a little Big Star." In 1993, the surviving members performed at the University of Missouri and came together for one more album in 2005 properly entitled, In Space.  Chilton and Hummell both passed away in 2010.  Jody Stephens has continued to perform through the years, notably as the drummer for Golden Smog.

In many ways, Big Star foreshadowed the rise of indie or alternative rock way before those terms entered the culture.  Their music favored the underdogs.  It's the type of record that sounds great at full blast on a Saturday afternoon or on low volume at 2am on a Wednesday morning.

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