Music / Big Star

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

Big Star was 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

The band formed in 1971, when Chilton (former lead singer for '60s blue-eyed soul group The Box Tops) joined Bell, Hummel and Stephens' band Icewater. Taking the name "Big Star" from a regional grocery store chain, they were quickly snatched up by Ardent Records, a subsidiary of the 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 the company's 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 '80s - 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 single, "I Am the Cosmos"/"You and Your Sister" (which was later covered by This Mortal Coil on their album Blood (1991)), before dying of a car accident in December 1978. The funeral was held the next day, which happened to be Chilton's birthday. An album of Bell's post-Big Star recordings, also titled I Am the Cosmos, was released in 1992.

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.

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)


Tropes

  • 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, a huge fan of The Beatles, met Paul McCartney while working on material for what became his posthumous solo album.
  • Auto Erotica: "Back of a Car"
  • Baroque Pop: Third/Sister Lovers
  • 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.
  • Compilation Re-release: Stax reissued the first two albums on one CD in 1992. A double LP set collecting both albums was also released in the U.K. in 1978.
  • Cover Version: On Third/Sister Lovers, we have: "Femme Fatale" by The Velvet Underground, "Nature Boy" by Nat King Cole, "'Till the End of the Day" by The Kinks, and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" by Jerry Lee Lewis.
    • The band's own songs have been covered in turn, 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.
  • Depression: "Holocaust" is a tearful description of its symptoms.
  • Dolled-Up Installment: Everyone involved seems to agree that Third wasn't intended as a Big Star album, but it's still not clear whether the plan was to release it as an Alex Chilton solo album, or whether it was technically supposed to be a side project by Chilton and Stephens under the name Sister Lovers. Either way, by the time it got taken off the shelf it was retroactively credited to Big Star.
  • Downer Ending: Chilton's death effectively ended the band.
    • Chris Bell died suddenly, and in obscurity, at the age of 27.
  • Dramatic Timpani: Leading into the choruses of "Jesus Christ".
  • Either/Or Title: Third/Sister Lovers.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The bouncing basketball in "Downs". See below for further info.
  • Gayngst: Chris.
  • Genre Throwback: The band played melodic pop influenced by The British Invasion at the height of Progressive Rock.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Jody Stephens is a guy.
  • Greatest Hits Album: Despite not actually having any hits, they've still managed to get several of these, as well as a comprehensive 4-CD box set called Keep an Eye on the Sky.
  • 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.
  • Lighter and Softer: #1 Record
  • Line-of-Sight Name: The band name was taken from a Big Star supermarket located across the street from Ardent Studios.
  • Live Album: Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93, a reunion concert in which Chilton and Stephens were joined by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from The Posies (who would also appear on the studio album In Space).
    • Then there's a live-in-the-studio set recorded in 1974 and finally released 18 years later as, simply, Live.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Melodic, jangly power pop songs about despair and hopelessness.
    • 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 had a Baroque Pop sound that was somewhere between the Left Banke and The Zombies' Odessey and Oracle more than it sounded like The Who.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: According to the documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, Chris Bell, frustrated by #1 Record's lack of commercial success, erased the album's multi-track tapes.
  • 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 Chris...
  • Rockumentary: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012). See here for info.
  • 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."
  • The Something Song: "The India Song".
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Andy Hummel on "The India Song," and Jody Stephens on "Way Out West" and "For You."
  • Straight Gay: Chris.
  • Vocal Tag Team: Chilton and Bell, on #1 Record.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Chilton was especially fond of these.

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