Big Star were a legendary Power Pop
band famous for their complete failure to gain massive 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
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
had a more chaotic edge to it, drawing more on The Who than The Beatles and with more Word Salad Lyrics
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
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's already in use to refer to a South Korean animation studio.
- #1 Record (1972)
- Radio City (1974)
- Third/Sister Lovers (1978)
- In Space (2005)
- Adaptation Expansion: Arguably comparing the 1992 and 1978 versions of Third/Sister Lovers.
- A Day in the Limelight: Right at the end of their career, Jody contributes one of the highlights of Third/Sister Lovers with "For You".
- Ascended Fanboy: Chris Bell met Paul McCartney while working on material for what became his posthumous solo album.
- Auto Erotica: "Back of a Car"
- Ballad of X: "The Ballad of El Goodo"
- Catholic Schoolgirls Rule: "She's A Mover"
- Christmas Songs: "Jesus Christ". Probably the best power pop tune about Jesus' birthday.
- Creative Differences: The reason Chris Bell left.
- Creator Breakdown: Alex on Third/Sister Lovers.
- Creator Couple: The "Sister Lovers" part of the third album's name is a reference to the fact that Alex and Jody were dating two sisters, Lesa and Holliday Aldridge, while the album was being recorded, both of whom ended up performing backing vocals. Jody mentioned in later interviews that Lesa featured more heavily on the album's first incarnation, but Alex's relationship with her was rocky enough that he erased a lot of her contributions at one point.
- Cover Version: On Third, we have: "Femme Fatale" by The Velvet Underground, "Nature Boy" by Nat King Cole, "'Till the End of the Day" by The Kinks and the rock 'n roll standard "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" by Jerry Lee Lewis.
- The band's songs have also been covered, the most frequent ones being "Thirteen" (by Garbage, Elliott Smith, Wilco, Kathryn Williams and others), "September Gurls" (by The Bangles, The Searchers and Superdrag), "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust" (by This Mortal Coil). Notably, Chilton said that the Big Star cover he liked the most was Garbage's version of "Thirteen".
- Darker and Edgier: Radio City, Third/Sister Lovers.
- Downer Ending: Chilton's death effectively ended the band.
- Either/Or Title: Third/Sister Lovers.
- El Spanish O: "The Ballad of El Goodo".
- Everything Is an Instrument: The bouncing basketball in "Downs". See below for further info.
- Executive Meddling: Since Big Star had basically broken up by that point, Third was supposed to be an Alex Chilton solo album, but the label put it out under the "Big Star" name. Also, we have no idea what the actual tracklist was supposed to be: both the 1978 release and the supplanting 1992 Rykodisc version with extra tracks are more guesses, educated or otherwise.
- Gayngst: Bell.
- Genre Throwback: The band played melodic, British Invasion-influenced pop at the height of Progressive Rock.
- Gender-Blender Name: Jody Stephens is a guy.
- I Am the Band: Third is essentially an Alex Chilton solo album except for Jody Stephens' "For You".
- Intercourse with You: There's probably at least a bit somewhere, but it's kinda hard to make it out with all the Word Salad Lyrics. For what it's worth, "Thirteen" hints at this.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Melodic, jangly songs about despair.
- And in reverse: "Big Black Car" features a chorus of Nothing can hurt me/Nothing can touch me, sung in possibly the most resigned, depressed voice imaginable over a slow ballad backing.
- New Sound Album: Third/Sister Lovers sounded more like Odessey and Oracle-era Zombies than The Who.
- Not Christian Rock: Aside from the aforementioned "Jesus Christ", the phrase At my side is God pops up in the lyrics to "The Ballad of El Goodo" (which itself doesn't make a big deal of it, it's just a standard "nobody's gonna get me down" song), and "Try Again"'s lyrics read like they belong in a gospel tune, but the band wasn't otherwise very Christian-oriented. Well, except Bell...
- Old Shame: Alex Chilton seemed to regard Big Star as this, refusing to perform the band's songs at most of his solo gigs and not seeming enthusiastic when he did play with the reunited band.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: "Holocaust".
- Revival By Commercialization: a cover of "In the Street" used as Real Song Theme Tune for That '70s Show.
- Rockumentary: The forthcoming Nothing Can Hurt Me: The Big Star Story. See here for info.
- Saved from Development Hell: Third/Sister Lovers.
- Screwed by the Network: Well, label. It's nice to be liked but better by far to be paid, and you can't get paid if your album isn't in stores.
- Short-Lived Big Impact: The band only released two albums while they were together, yet just about every Alternative Rock band cites them as an influence.
- Shout-Out: "Thirteen" has the lyrics Tell him what we said about "Paint it Black".
- And in reverse, Katy Perry's manager is a huge fan of the band and asked her to name her song "California Gurls" as a tribute after Alex died. We promise this is the last time we'll say "Big Star" and "Katy Perry" in the same sentence.
- The count-off that starts "She's a Mover" is reminiscent of The Beatles' "Taxman".
- Step Up to the Microphone: Andy Hummel on "The India Song", and Jody Stephens on "Way Out West" and "For You".
- Throw It In: "Don't Lie to Me" and "She's a Mover" both start with Studio Chatter.
- Vocal Tag Team: Chilton and Bell, on #1 Record.
- What Could Have Been: It's interesting to think what might have happened if Big Star did go on to become popular... It's Popular, Now It Sucks, maybe?
- Writer Revolt: The witheringly sarcastic "Thank You Friends" is basically a huge "fuck you" to the label politics that had screwed up Chilton's career. Notably, one executive commented that "Downs" sounded like a hit, so Chilton sabotaged it by replacing the rhythm track with a bouncing basketball.
- Word Salad Lyrics: Chilton was especially fond of these.