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Music: Big Star
Big Star, circa 1972. Left to Right: Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell, Alex Chilton.

Big Star were a legendary Power Pop band from Memphis, famous for their complete failure to gain massive commercial success but being embraced by the indie scene and remaining a significant influence on Alternative Rock.

The band's classic lineup was as follows:
  • Alex Chilton - vocals, guitar
  • Chris Bell - vocals, guitar
  • Andy Hummel - bass
  • Jody Stephens - drums

Big Star were formed in 1971, when Chilton (former lead singer for '60s blue-eyed soul group The Box Tops) joined Bell, Hummel and Stephens' band Icewater. They took the name "Big Star" from a local Memphis grocery store, and were quickly snatched up by Ardent Records, a subdivision of famous soul/R&B label Stax Records. Stax had hit a bad spell and its future was uncertain, so they thought Ardent and Big Star would become successful and manage to stave off its decline.

The band's first album, the humorously-titled #1 Record, was quickly recorded at Ardent Studios with label founder John Fry as producer and released in 1972. While it did obtain widespread acclaim, Stax's financial difficulties translated into an inability to get the album into stores, torpedoing the goal that the title playfully alluded to. The album itself proved to be a landmark in the establishment of Power Pop thanks to its catchy The Beatles-plus-The Who songwriting and several of its songs have remained widely celebrated in the genre, such as "Feel", "The Ballad of El Goodo", "In the Street" (later covered by Cheap Trick as the theme song to That '70s Show) and "Thirteen". One song in particular, the chaotic, Stonesy rock of "Don't Lie to Me", would predict the group's sonic evolution.

With #1 Record bombing in stores thanks to Stax's horrendous distribution, tension and fights erupted between bandmates, to the point that Bell left the band towards the end of 1972. Chilton, Hummel and Stephens carried on as Big Star and recorded another album with Fry once again in the producer's chair, Radio City. In contrast to the polished production of #1, City had a more chaotic edge to it, drawing more on The Who than The Beatles and with more Word Salad Lyrics. City bombed just as hard in stores due to a dispute between Stax and its distributor Columbia Records, but still produced at least one classic power pop song, "September Gurls" (later covered by many artists including The Bangles).

Tired of the lack of success, Hummel left the band after City's release, choosing to finish his final year at college instead. Undaunted, Chilton and Stephens re-entered the studio with new Record Producer Jim Dickinson and several session musicians. Plenty of material resulted from the sessions, but record label interest was not forthcoming. Big Star finally broke up in late 1974, and their third album Third/Sister Lovers was finally released in 1978, and later re-released by Rykodisc in 1992 with additional tracks. The 1992 edition has basically supplanted the earlier version.

Third served to only amplify the messy sprawl of City, with its material taking a much bleaker and more desperate tone, reflecting Chilton's dissatisfaction with years of being fucked around by incompetent record companies. Third's critically acclaimed material largely alternated between chaotic, rough power pop and bleak, haunted ballads, but it still managed to provide a few more songs judged as "classics", such as the depressing ballads "Big Black Car", "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust" and the oddball Christmas-themed power pop "Jesus Christ", which became a mainstay on college radio stations every December.

While Big Star failed to become what their name and debut album envisioned them to be, they were eagerly embraced by the emerging Alternative Rock scene at the beginning of The Eighties - the first wave of popular alt-rock bands led by R.E.M. were nicknamed "jangle pop" and owed an obvious debt to Big Star. Later on, Dream Pop supergroup This Mortal Coil helped re-awaken interest in Big Star through their covers of "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust". Chilton went on to a erratic solo career, and Chris Bell put out a well-received album and single, "I Am the Cosmos"/"You and Your Sister" (which later was also covered by This Mortal Coil), before dying of a car accident in December 1978. The funeral was held the next day, which happened to be Chilton's birthday.

Chilton revived Big Star in 1993 alongside old mate Stephens and new blood Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. A new album, In Space, followed in 2005 to a predictably mixed reception.

In March 2010, Chilton died the day before Big Star was to perform at South by Southwest. Immediately, the music websites of the internet exploded with grief.

Andy Hummel also died in July the same year after a two-year struggle with cancer, leaving Jody the only remaining original member of the band.

Notice: If you're trying to use the standalone Big Star markup to refer to this band, don't. It is a disambiguation page

Discography:
  • #1 Record (1972)
  • Radio City (1974)
  • Third/Sister Lovers (1978)
  • Live (1992)
  • Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93 (1993)
  • Nobody Can Dance (1999)
  • In Space (2005)


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