Big Star were a pop group formed in Memphis, Tennessee in the early 1970s who were very popular with rock critics but made zero impression on the general public. Their lack of success is nothing to do with their music being difficult or experimental (there are a few slightly inaccessible songs in their catalogue, but for the main part they’re as commercial as any stadium filler you could mention), but is more to do with ineffective distribution and promotion of their albums on release and the fact they tended to fall out and disband quite a lot, Spinal Tap style. They’re one of my favourite bands, and all three of their studio albums that came out in the seventies are well nigh essential. The group would go on to be an influence on many much more successful bands, notably REM.
The original personnel of the group featured two songwriters, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, as well as bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. If this line-up sounds a bit reminiscent of The Beatles, well, that’s kind of appropriate as the music does too – other major influences would include The Byrds and The Who. The first Big Star album came out in 1972 and was titled, with either misplaced optimism or justified wryness, #1 Record. It’s one of the most refreshing and melodic rock LPs to be issued in this period. The songs are perfectly crafted and recorded, with just enough layers of harmonies and guitars to reward repeated listens, but still sound startlingly spare and uncluttered. The two or three out-and-out rockers on the album are the least distinctive tracks (Don’t Lie To Me reminds me of Status Quo slightly), but there are half a dozen acoustic ballads here that should have made the band as big as Fleetwood Mac. The Ballad Of El Goodo, Thirteen and Watch The Sunrise are all unimprovably wonderful.
By the time the second album Radio City (1974) was recorded Chris Bell had left, which significantly altered the dynamic of the group. Bell had tended to be the perfectionist of the outfit, and his departure put the more instinctive Chilton in the driver’s seat. Radio City is just as richly layered as its predecessor, but the tension, melancholy and euphoria of the lyrics has now fed through to the arrangements, which are much rawer and rockier than before. The performances on this album are electrifying – while there are no audible fumbles in the playing, the band often sounds like it’s on the edge of falling apart, and Chilton tends to sing in a high register where his voice sounds in danger of cracking. The songwriting is masterful throughout, with some songs having unusual but effective structures (O My Soul, What’s Going Ahn, Daisy Glaze) and some simply being peerless pop masterpieces (September Gurls, Back Of A Car, You Get What You Deserve) and while the lyrics conform to the standard topic of lost or unfulfilled love, they’re wedded to such powerful music that this time you believe them. This is one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.
Andy Hummel walked shortly before the release of Radio City, leaving Chilton and Stephens to record the material for the third album with a revolving cast of guest musicians. Chilton’s manic-depressive streak seems to have deepened here, and these songs vary wildly in mood, from the blackest pit (Holocaust, Nightime) to optimistic (Stroke It Noel), from numbed (Big Black Car) to exultant (Jesus Christ, Thank You Friends). The arrangements here are much less obviously rock than before, with chamber string arrangements, piano and acoustic guitars being prominent. Despite the uneven tone these songs are as indelible as those on Radio City, and only the inclusion of a few curious cover versions prevents this collection from being a masterpiece. The album was never sequenced properly and wasn’t released until 1978, three years after it was recorded. It doesn’t even have an official title, usually being referred to as Sister Lovers or just Third. Every subsequent re-release has arranged the tracks in a different order, and other songs from the same sessions have been added at the compiler’s whim.
In 2009 the 4 CD set Keep An Eye On The Sky, a near comprehensive collection of Big Star’s seventies material, was issued. This rounds up all the songs from the three albums and adds a slew of carefully selected complementary material – early solo songs by Bell and Chilton, alternate mixes, demos and twenty songs from a 1973 live performance. It’s obviously a treasure trove to obsessives like me and is close to being definitive. The only niggle is that about half of the songs on #1 Record and three on Radio City have been replaced by different mixes – in most cases they’re close enough to make no odds, but the single version of Watch The Sunrise included here, which cuts off the sublime acoustic guitar introduction, is no substitute for the album version (the introduction in question is present on the box-set in the fadeout of another track, but it’s not really the same). There’s been a handy CD available for years that contains the first two albums back to back and I’d have preferred this to have been included in the box set, even if it meant messing up the strict chronological order of the tracks.
Carping aside, the bonus material here is of an unusually high standard. The compilers deserve much credit for including both sides of Chris Bell’s only solo single, which is proper Big Star music in everything but name and for unearthing early tracks by the band’s early incarnations Icewater and Rock City. Best of all are the many demos for tracks from the second and third albums that are in the form of solo recordings by Chilton, backed only by his own acoustic or twelve-string guitar – the Radio City songs are just as raw and penetrating as the final recordings but in a very different way, while the third album demos show that the weird, fractured nature of the songs on that LP is more to do with the arrangements and recording than the material. Downs in particular is a revelation in this respect. These demos have either been very well preserved or expertly restored as the sound quality is excellent. The live CD is more disposable, but does at least contain some interesting covers (The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Hot Burrito #2 and Tod Rundgren’s Slut) and a full-length version of the mysteriously short ST 100/6 from #1 Record.
So is this a good starting point for those curious about this band? No, not really: it’s fairly expensive, has a lot of tracks repeated in different takes and mixes, and as mentioned above, doesn’t feature every song from the first two albums in its definitive version. Those two albums are currently available from amazon.co.uk for £3.99 each and frankly that’s as good a bargain as you’re ever likely to find. The boxset is however heartily recommended to Big Star fans just for the demos, which made me realise how brilliant these songs are all over again. Why isn’t this band better known?
After Big Star, Chris Bell struggled to get a solo career off the ground and died in a car crash in 1978 after recording one single and an album’s worth of demos, now available as I Am The Cosmos. It’s well worth investigating. Andy Hummel went to college and had a successful business career. Alex Chilton released sporadic solo albums through the late seventies, eighties and early nineties before reforming a version of Big Star with Jody Stephens and two members of indie band The Posies. They released a new album In Space in 2005, which wasn’t bad but hardly measures up to its predecessors. Chilton died in 2010, seven months after the release of the box set and three days before the Radio City line-up of the band was due to play together for the first time in 35 days at a special performance at the South By Southwest festival. They never had much luck. Hummel died a few months later, leaving Jody Stephens as the only surviving member of the band.