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Big Star

The quintessential American power pop band, Big Star remains one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll. Originally led by the singing and songwriting duo of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the Memphis-based group fused the strongest elements of the British Invasion era -- the melodic invention of the Beatles, the whiplash guitars of the Who, and the radiant harmonies of the Byrds -- into a ramshackle but poignantly beautiful sound which recaptured the spirit of pop's past even as it pointed the way toward the music's future. Although creative tensions, haphazard distribution, and marketplace indifference conspired to ensure Big Star's brief existence and commercial failure, the group's three studio albums nevertheless remain unqualified classics, and their impact on subsequent generations of indie bands on both sides of the Atlantic is surpassed only by that of the Velvet Underground.

The roots of Big Star lie in the group Icewater (also known as Rock City), formed in 1971 by singer/guitarist Bell in association with guitarist Steve Ray, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. Ray left the group a short time after its inception and was soon replaced by Chilton, the one-time Box Tops vocalist who was just 16 years old when the group topped the pop charts with their 1967 classic, "The Letter." Chilton had recently returned to Memphis after attempting to mount a solo career in New York City; he first played with Bell years earlier in a high school cover band, and with his arrival, Icewater rechristened itself Big Star, borrowing the name from a local supermarket chain. Recording soon commenced at the local Ardent Studios, where Bell occasionally worked as an engineer and session guitarist; despite solid critical notice and some radio airplay, their brilliant 1972 debut, #1 Record, nevertheless fell prey to the distribution problems of the newly formed Ardent label's parent company Stax -- more often than not, the album simply never made its way to retailers.

In the meantime, Bell and Chilton continued to butt heads over Big Star's direction -- the former envisioned a primarily studio-oriented project, while the latter preferred performing live; moreover, Chilton's past success in the Box Tops guaranteed him the lion's share of attention from listeners and critics, minimizing Bell's own contributions in the process. In late 1972, Bell finally left the band -- his subsequent attempts to mount a solo career proved largely fruitless, with only a spectacular solo single, "I Am the Cosmos," receiving official release prior to his untimely death in a 1978 car crash. (A posthumous solo compilation, also titled I Am the Cosmos, was finally issued to unanimous critical acclaim in 1992.) Following Bell's exit, Big Star briefly struggled on as a three-piece before disbanding, with Chilton returning to his stalled solo career; months later, he reteamed with Hummel and Stephens to play a local music writers' convention, and the performance was so well-received that they decided to make the reunion permanent.

Big Star's second album, 1974's Radio City, remains their masterpiece -- ragged and raw guitar pop infused with remarkable intensity and spontaneity. It also contained perhaps their best-known song, the oft-covered cult classic "September Gurls." (Another highlight, "Back of a Car," bears the unmistakable input of Chris Bell, although the duration and extent of his return to duty is unknown.) Distribution difficulties again undermined whatever hopes of commercial success existed, however, and Hummel soon announced his resignation; Chilton and Stephens recruited bassist John Lightman for a handful of East Coast live dates, including a WLIR radio broadcast later issued as Big Star Live. Work on a planned third album soon began, but the sessions proved disastrous as Chilton, reeling from years of music industry exploitation and frustration, effectively sabotaged his own music -- where Radio City teetered on the brink of collapse, the new songs tumbled over completely, culminating in one of the most harrowingly bleak pop records ever made. An album's worth of material was completed and shelved, and then Big Star was no more.

The story might have ended there, but in 1978, the third Big Star album was finally issued overseas -- variously titled Third and/or Sister Lovers, it appeared for years in essentially unauthorized versions containing neither the complete session nor the proper sequencing. Still, the record earned a significant cult following, and with the emergence of the nascent power pop movement, it became increasingly clear just how prescient Big Star's music had been. Countless alternative rock bands -- R.E.M., the Replacements, the dB's, and Teenage Fanclub, to name just four -- cited the band's enormous influence in the years to follow, and in 1993, the Posies' Jonathan Auer and Ken Stringfellow backed Chilton and Stephens for a reunion gig at the University of Missouri, a performance captured on the Columbia live disc.

To the surprise of many, the Big Star reunion continued with tours of Europe and Japan, and -- most shocking of all -- even an appearance on television's The Tonight Show, although no new studio recordings were forthcoming. Sporadic reunions continued, and a new track ("Hot Thing") was recorded for a compilation released in 2003. Chilton, Stephens, Stringfellow, and Auer then entered the recording studio to complete a new Big Star album, In Space, released in 2005. The band also played high-profile gigs in England and America, while in 2009, Rhino issued a definitive box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky. One year later, however, on the eve of 2010's SXSW festival, Chilton died in New Orleans of heart failure. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

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Track List: Keep An Eye On The Sky

Disc 1
Disc 2
Disc 3
Disc 4

Comments

rserva
I'm going to try to develop a taste for these guys considering their pedigree and influences. Technically they are obviously excellent!
As a teenager Big Star 1# Record was one of my favorite lps I think I wore it out.
the moloncholy made me cry,this is the most original work i have encountered in a while. WOW
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dlambert489
Saw them in 1990 at The Metro in Chicago when they first reformed. Great band always. RIP Alex Chilton.
So true Rhoades D'Ablo
Big Star continue to inspire and amaze me. A true under-rated American rock and roll treasure, anyone that doubts this is musically challenged and just plain ignorant
Some great tunes, yes. Do they deserve the accolades critics heap upon them? Probably not. That's just me.
I never heard of Big Star until Alex Chilton died. And hearing their music on Pandora, I never missed anything.
yes mythical...c h r i s bell and alex together created a magical chemistry rarely found in music
Another gem by Big Star!
If you don't like Big Star, you are useless.
Elliott Smith does Thirteen better.
marybrown999
Reviewer says...
The quintessenti a l American power pop band, Big Star remains one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll.

That's ridiculous. I've never heard of them...but I like it when in comes on Pandora

I love Alex Chilton, because he was one of those rare artists that could craft a perfect song with a perfect melody.
Mythical, please. One or two good albums to be sure and a good dose of American folklore, but let's not overdo it on this band.
( : good tunes Thirteen takes me back to thirteen.
277400245
I never travel too far
Without a little
Big Star
Very good - but geeze; critics are a bit over the top about them. Terrific songwriters - occasionally great songs - interesting story line around the band. But "one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock and roll"? Hmmmm.
Big Star!! YEAH! Ok, so I missed the boat on them too. (And was a late-comer to The Kinks as well. But love them both now). SUPERDRAG (who are really awesome too) played a tribute to Alex Chilton (RIP) in East Nashville. They performed 5 Big Star tunes and really rocked them out. If you missed the show, you can see all the videos on YouTube. Do a search for TheDailyViny l and you can watch each song.
oh nicholas i am laffin, laffin, laffin!
tcb1955
Love everything I've heard so far. Am I the only one who hates the word "Cult" being applied to every band with talent that just missed the boat. That's the industry, sad to say. Thank goodness for royalties! Now listening to Mason Profitt, I rest my case.
Where have I been, great!
ahnotuh
...the french have a word for this: "manque"...i n the states we say "woulda, coulda, shoulda"...( ps - check out the retrospectiv e in the 10-09 issue of 'relix' magazine...
Awesome contribution to this thread, soap pet. Spot on.
Robert, don't be glum. I AM Big Star, and I never got to see me play live! What a joke right? My promoter's name was Rod Shelby, he smelled of armpits vaguely garnished by some women's dry idea and he ate his boogers. He had a soft spot in his head, and during a foam noodle pool fight spurned on by my blue haired aunt Edna(in her ubiquitous inflatable tube seahorse) I KILLED ROD SHELBY BY THUDDING HIM SOLIDLY IN HIS SOFT SPOT AND POPING HIS BRAIN
Steven, don't feel bad...Chilto n , Bell and Andy Hummel were all from Memphis, my hometown, AND went to the same high school I did. They graduated about 11 years before me though. Huge music fan that I was (and am), Big Star never crossed my radar screen back then...would n ' t you like to get your hands on the promoter for these guys?
I just don't know how I missed these guys at the time, but somehow did...and I was living in Knoxville at the time! I'll have to look into more of their stuff. Chilton ended up spending a lot of time where I ended up: New Orleans.

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