FLASHBACK: Big Star
Cult band BIG STAR were a group who never really found success during their four-year lifetime. They’re one of those bands who were picked up and deeply adored by many a lot further down the track, inspiring the start of many musical careers; such as R.E.M, Primal Scream, The Replacements and Teenage Fanclub.
Before they were happy with “Big Star“, the band experienced a series of name changes, such as “Ice Water” and “Rock City” (what they were to later call their second album). The lineup at this point consisted of Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens and Steve Ray. After the band wrote a few originals and covered some songs, four would soon turn to three as Ray left the band.
Roughly nine months later, William Alexander “Alex” Chilton – lead singer of Box Tops, saw the group play at Memphis’ VFW Hall. Liking what he heard, he was soon recruited, filling the empty hole of the official Big Star lineup. This wasn’t a difficult decision getting him to join, especially considering the Box Tops had seen their track ‘The Letter’ reach the charts’ number one spot (1967) when Chilton was just 16 years of age.
Unfortunately though, this success wasn’t carried over to Big Star. One year after their formation, Big Star released their debut album via Ardent Records, #1 Record, which featured the tracks ‘Thirteen’ and ‘In The Street’; a track you’d be quite familiar with if you’re a That 70’s Show fan as the series’ intro features Cheap Tricks‘ cover of the said song.
Although the album reached the attention of many happy critics, it overstayed its welcome on the shelves of many record stores as its distribution sadly experienced quite a shortage of sales.
This wasn’t just a slow start either, it was pretty much what the set the tone for the rest of Big Star‘s short lived career. As a result of conflict within the band, the close of 1972 saw Chris Bell leave Big Star and start up his own solo project.
Issued in the following year to its recording date, Big Star‘s release Radio City was distributed in 1974. Featuring some of the band’s well-known hits (ie ‘September Gurls’), the album itself did not do well at all in the commercial world. This particular record delivers a sound that reflects on the band’s love for The Kinks, The Beatles and The Who.
1974 also marked the year of the recording of Big Star‘s third record, Third/Sister Lovers. Much later admitting to substance abuse, this particular album saw Chilton leading Big Star into a very dark and hostile world. It also sadly marks the year of Big Star‘s breakup.
Because Third/Sister Lovers was so terribly off the rails, it took a while for the album to be released. Eventually though, it was, four years later. Released through PVC Records, it documents the work of only two original Big Star members – Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, accompanied by other Memphis musicians. Chilton and Stephens never saw it as a Big Star record, it just happened to be marketed that way. This is because it is basically a look into the emotional state of Chilton at the time. Third/Sister Lovers includes the “band” covering The Velvet Underground‘s ‘Femme Fatale’.
1978 was also the year of original Big Star member Chris Bell’s tragic death. He passed from a horrific car accident at the age of just 27.
Over a decade later, 1992 saw the release of Big Star‘s first live album, appropriately titled Live. The 15-track album was recorded in 1974.
Subsequent to this release, Chilton and Stephens were asked to reunite for a show at the University of Missouri (Columbia) which was recorded and released as Big Star‘s second live album in 1993. The Posies‘ members Jonathan Auer and Ken Stringfellow joined Chilton and Stephens for the performance.
After touring on and off with Chilton and Stephens as Big Star for many years, Auer and Stringfellow recorded on the band’s fourth studio record In Space, released in 2005. Very different to how the band was known in the 70s, the record was basically unrecognisable to Big Star‘s following.
In 2009, Big Star finally received the justice that the talented yet horribly underrated outfit deserved. A four-disc box set was released, titled Keep An Eye On The Sky displaying 98 tracks of reissued tracks alongside never-before-heard material. Listen in on band practice, late night jam sessions and the solo work of Big Star members. Keep An Eye On The Sky ends with patches of three Memphis gigs in 1973 played by the original Big Star lineup (excluding Chris Bell).
Sadly, 2010 saw the horrid death of Big Star‘s Alex Chilton. The tortured genius was taken by a heart attack at the age of 59 in his New Orleans home.
Arguably the first cult band in rock and roll, Big Star were also very important to the birth of power-pop. A group who at their time were so unfortunately mislead, they are now regarded as one of the most important bands in rock history, who have helped influence the careers of many bands and artists. One in particular being The Replacements. Chilton funnily enough produced their record Pleased To Meet Me that carries the song ‘Alex Chilton’.
Just last week, an all-star band featuring Big Star‘s own Jody Stephens, R.E.M‘s Mike Mills, Television‘s Richard Floyd, The Posies‘ Ken Stringfellow, Kurt Vile and plenty more performed Third/Sister Lovers in Chicago and New York to pay tribute to the influential band. A documentary has also been put together on the band’s short life, titled Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me which was screened at Melbourne’s ACMI over the past two months. You can find more about Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me HERE.
To finish this article, I’ll leave you with this: Big Star‘s [supposedly] only live footage from the 70s, ‘Thank You Friends’.
Words by Hannah Galvin.