By Eleni P. Austin
Look up the definition of “cult band” in the dictionary and you will probably see a picture of Big Star. During the 80s, groups like R.E.M. and the Bangles name-checked Big Star as a huge influence. In fact, one of the Replacements’ best songs was “Alex Chilton,” an exuberant homage to the lead singer of Big Star. Sadly, during their prime, the band toiled in obscurity.
The members of Big Star, Alex Chilton, (guitar & vocals), Chris Bell (guitar, vocals), Andy Hummel (bass), and Jody Stephens (drums), formed in late 1971 in Memphis, Tennessee.
At age 21, Alex Chilton was the seasoned veteran of the group, having spent his early teens fronting the Box Tops. A potent combination of Blue-Eyed Soul and Bubble Gum Pop, the Box Tops shot up the charts with hits like “The Letter,” “Cry Like A Baby” and “Soul Deep.”
Chilton briefly relocated to New York City, hoping to jump start a solo career, but he quickly returned to Memphis and reconnected with Chris Bell, an old friend from school days. Bell had already formed Icewater, (sometimes known as Rock City) with Hummel and Stephens.
Once they joined forces with Chilton, the band hunkered down at Ardent recording studio. The name change to Big Star was a sideways tribute to the small Southern grocery stores that provided sustenance during their long nights of practice.
Ardent had recently signed a distribution deal with Stax Records. Big Star became the first Rock & Roll group connected to the R&B record label. Their debut, cheekily entitled #1 Record was released in late 1972. It was immediately embraced by critics, but the album was hampered by shoddy distribution.
Alex Chilton had already experienced fortune and failure with the Box Tops, so he was familiar with the vagaries of the music industry. For Chris Bell, their lack of immediate success was a huge disappointment.
Although they had already begun work on their sophomore effort, Bell quit the band. Big Star released Radio City in 1973. Chris Bell’s presence was felt throughout the record, but the group continued as a three-piece.
Radio City was just as brilliant as their debut. Again, critics were enthusiastic. Despite the fact that Ardent was now distributed by Stax and behemoth record corporation Columbia, the record slipped through the cracks. The album never reached the masses, and received minimal airplay on the radio.
This time Andy Hummel jumped ship. Chilton and Stephens entered the studio with veteran producer, Jim Dickinson. Work on Big Star’s third album was completed in 1974, but no label would release it.
Finally four years later, tiny record label PVC released it under the utilitarian title 3rd. This time the music felt dark and desolate which was a huge departure from the sunny and soulful Power Pop of their first two recordings. Predictably, 3rd went nowhere.
Alex Chilton embarked on an erratic solo career. Chris Bell moved to England, hoping to begin his solo career there. He returned to Memphis and began recording an album. Sadly, he was killed in a car crash a few days after Christmas, 1978. His solo work wouldn’t surface until 1992.
In the ensuing years, a funny thing started to happen. Big Star was a band revered mostly by rock critics and record store clerks. Because there was a scarcity of Big Star music available, their albums became a rite of passage for the discerning few. A bit of mythos grew up around the band. Scraps of information, (pre-internet era) passed around, along with taped copies of #1 Record and Radio City. Here was this brilliant American band that the music industry just threw away.
Quite organically, a Big Star renaissance was in the works. The Bangles got the ball rolling in 1986 by including their version of “September Gurls” on their multiplatinum album, A Different Light. In 1987, the Replacements proclaimed their man-crush on a track called “Alex Chilton, and in 1988, R.E.M. recorded their sixth album, Green, using the same mellotron Alex Chilton used on 3rd.
By 1992, Chilton and Jody Stephens agreed to a one-off concert, with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (from the Seattle band, the Posies) filling in for Chris Bell and Andy Hummel.
Commercially, Big Star got its biggest boost when Cheap Trick recorded a version of “In The Street,” as the theme for “That 70s Show.” Suddenly, Big Star music was featured on national television on a weekly basis.
Chilton and Stephens, augmented by Auer and Stringfellow, continued to play live sporadically. They even recorded an album of new Big Star material, In Space in 2005. Sadly, on the eve of performing a showcase at SXSW in 2010, Alex Chilton suffered a fatal heart attack. Andy Hummel succumbed to cancer a few months later. Only Jody Stephens remains.
All these facts are presented in more elegant and poignant terms in the documentary, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.” The movie, currently in theatres, and the accompanying soundtrack are attempting, once again, to introduce this band to the world.
Alex Chilton and Chris Bell really were Memphis’ answer to Lennon & McCartney. Eight songs from #1 Record display their astonishing level of songcraft.
Two songs brilliantly encapsulate the jumbled emotions of teenage rebellion, In The Street and 13. The former blends jangly tilt-a-whirl guitar riffs and tick tock percussion. It’s the typical tale of adolescent ennui… “Hangin’ out down the street, same old thing we did last week/ Wish we had a joint so bad…” A country-rock guitar break rides roughshod over a stuttery cowbell beat.
The latter is a more nuanced portrait of growing pains. Hushed sha-la-la harmonies cushion the ache of raging hormones… “Won’t you tell your dad get off my back, tell him what we said about ‘Paint It Black’/Rock & Roll is here to stay…” Delicate finger-picked arpeggios accent this tentative assertion of independence.
Three tracks navigate the murky waters of romance. “Give Me Another Chance” wraps a brittle tale of angst and doomed reconciliation in shimmering guitars and quavery vocals.
“When My Baby’s Beside Me” offers up love as the ultimate panacea. Chilton has no need for a doctor or a shrink when his true love is close at hand. Underscoring this lyrical sangfroid, guitars spiral clockwise and counter-clockwise, just ahead of a chugging rhythm.
Finally, the whimsically entitled “Ballad Of El Goodo” is a shy and tentative plea for emotional rescue. The track is cloaked in sinuous acoustic guitar and gorgeous harmonies.
Other songs from #1 Record include the strident, piano-driven “My Life Is Right. The fractious “Feel,” which is piloted by a jaunty handclap rhythm, and the bluesy, bar band swagger of “Don’t Lie To Me.”
Radio City is represented by on three tracks. “O My Soul” is suitably shambolic. Chunky power chords and funkified bass lines anchor this agitated quest for sexual gratification.
“Way Out West” is a heartfelt entreaty for romantic reconciliation, while “You Get What You Deserve” is a withering post-mortem powered by falsetto vocals, tumbling drums and a serpentine guitar solo.
The 3rd songs, “Holocaust,” “Kanga Roo,“ and “Big Black Car” are equal parts brutal and beautiful. The soporific melody of “Big Black Car” is leavened by angular piano accents. It also contains the solitary lyric the documentary takes it’s ironic title from…” nothing can hurt me.”
Other highlights include two tracks from Chris Bell’s solo record, “Better Save Yourself” and “I am The Cosmos,” as well as Chilton’s solo effort, “All We Ever Got From Them Is Pain.”
The album closes with “September Gurls,” the perfect combination of jangle guitar and effortless harmonies. The lyrics yearn for something just beyond reach.
Big Star’s music was almost too good to be true. Melodies that felt classic and timeless, coupled with fragile, melancholy lyrics. Here is yet another introduction to this band. C’mon, what are you waiting for?