Big Star

If the short-lived but fondly remembered Big Star could have experienced popular success in direct proportion to its posthumous influence, the rangy Memphis rock quartet would have lived up to its ambitious name, and then some. With the possible exception of the Velvet Underground (which enjoyed considerably more notoriety in its heyday), no other underground pop band has left such a lasting and indelible legacy. Although its original four members recorded only one album, #1 Record, and the group was dissolving rapidly when the second, Radio City, was completed, those records have influenced countless ‘80s and ‘90s rockers on both sides of the Atlantic, from the Replacements and REM to England’s Primal Scream and Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub. Although they had been packaged on a British import CD, this current reissue is the first time since their initial release that these albums have been available together in their entirety, including the previously deleted tracks, “In the Street” and “ST 110/6.”

That Big Star’s impact should extend so far afield is less surprising in light of the band’s own inspirations. Taking the gritty soul of Memphis rhythm and blues and fusing it with the artful melodies and vocal harmonies of British power pop, and injecting it all with a flailing, pre-punk, garage-band energy, Big Star created a unique sound with a potentially universal appeal.

Founded in 1971, the band had its origins in the friendship of guitarist/singers Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. The two had known each other from their early teens in Memphis. Bell led his own bands (one of which Chilton joined briefly when he was 15) and Chilton sang with a group called Ronnie and the DeVilles, which evolved into the Box Tops. The precociously soulful Chilton was only 16 years old when he sang the gruff lead on the 1967 Number One hit, “The Letter.” After recording such other hits as “Cry Like a Baby,” “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March,” and “Soul Deep,” Chilton left the Box Tops in 1969. He dabbled at solo projects at John Fry’s Ardent Recording studio in Memphis, drifted briefly to New York, and then migrated back to Memphis.

In the meantime, Bell, who had also been working at Ardent, had formed a trio called Ice Water, with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, who had known each other since junior high school. They played a combination of original songs and covers of such favorite bands as Badfinger, the James Gang, and Led Zeppelin. When Chilton joined, Ice Water became Big Star, a name adopted from a supermarket sign across the street from Ardent—“Big Star Foodmarkets.”

#1 Record was the second release for the newly formed Ardent Records, but its distribution was in the hands of the legendary Stax label, whose fortunes were in decline, and it was swamped in a pop market dominated by such lightweight 1972 fare as “American Pie,” “A Horse With No Name,” “The Candy Man,” “Alone Again (Naturally),” and “Ben.” Nonetheless, #1 Record garnered critical acclaim and attracted a nascent (and diehard) cult following. Village Voice writer Robert Christgau expressed admiration for Chilton’s voice (a “deep, soulful, bullfrog whopper” and “the biggest freak of nature since Stevie Winwood sang ‘I’m a Man’”) and for the “tense energy in the harmonies.”

Much of that tension apparently came from the undercurrents of competition instilled by the media’s perception of Chilton as the leader of the band that Bell once steered. Near Christmas of 1972, Bell left the band. Chilton, Hummel, and Stephens continued as a trio, but Big Star was clearly on the rocks. They pulled themselves together enough, however, to record 1973’s Radio City, which has been called “one of rock’s most seminal albums,” and while Bell was not a formal participant, his lingering spirit is evident in several of the album’s 12 tracks.

Once again, Robert Christgau touted Big Star’s “brilliant, addictive, definitively semi-popular” effort, offering a concise synopsis of the band’s strengths: “The harmonies sound like the lead sheets are upside down and backwards, the guitar solos sound like screwball readymade pastiches, and the lyrics sound like love is strange. . . . Can an album be catchy and twisted at the same time?” But also once again, distribution bungles completely undermined Big Star’s artistic triumphs.

When Andy Hummel quit, Chilton and Stephens toured briefly with John Lightman on bass, and that Big Star trio is documented on Big Star Live (Rykodisc), a recent resurrection of a 1974 live radio broadcast on WLIR‑FM. In one final return to the recording studio in 1975, Chilton and Stephens were joined by Jim Dickenson and a large cast of guest musicians, including guitarist Steve Cropper, for the sessions that ultimately becameBig Star Third, also known as Sister Lovers, another rare commodity until its recent reissue by Rykodisc. But by that point, Big Star was almost completely a vehicle for Alex Chilton, and Big Star evaporated as Chilton set out on a marginal solo career that resulted in a series of 1980s albums and EPs recorded in New York and Memphis, including Like Flies on Sherbert, Feudalist Tarts, No Sex, Under Class, Wild Kingdom, High Priest,and One Day in New York. His most recent recording isBlacklist, a six-song CD released in 1989 on France’s New Rose Label. In 1991 Rhino Records released the retrospective anthology, 19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton, and Chilton, who has worked with or produced such alternative rock artists as Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, the Cramps, and Chris Stamey, continues to tour with his own band and has joined summer rock and roll revival revues, reprising his Box Tops hits.

Both Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens returned to college in the ‘70s—Hummel earning a degree in mechanical engineering and taking a job with General Dynamics in Fort Worth; Stephens studying marketing and eventually becoming Projects Director for Ardent Productions, launching the recording careers of John Klizer, Tora Tora Tora, the Eric Gales Band, and others. After quitting Big Star, Chris Bell went to work on an elaborate Beatlesque solo album. Only one single was released before his sudden death when he crashed his Triumph TR-6 on December 27, 1978. Fifteen tracks were assembled and released by Rykodisc in early 1992 as l Am the Cosmos.

But it is on #1 Record/Radio City that the reason for Big Star’s enduring reputation can be best heard. These are the recordings whose guitars, aching vocals, and inventive production resonate in the music of Paul Westerberg (his Replacements recorded a song called “Alex Chilton”), the Bangles, the Posies, the dBs, Game Theory, and more. “It may sound corny,” Jody Stephens says, prefacing his speculation about why Big Star has never dimmed in the constellation of modern pop, “but we were being true to ourselves and to a muse that was close to our hearts. We weren’t trying to do anything. That may account for the influence and longevity.”