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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
full bio

Selected Discography

x

Track List: Nothing Can Hurt Me

1. O My Soul (Demo, 1973)

2. Give Me Another Chance (Control Room Monitor Mix, 1972)

3. In The Street (Movie Mix, 2012)

4. When My Baby's Beside Me (Alternate Mix, 1972)

5. Studio Banter (1972)

6. Try Again (Movie Mix, 2012)

7. My Life Is Right (Alternate Mix, 1972)

8. The Ballad Of El Goodo (Alternate Mix, 1972)

9. Feel (Alternate Mix, 1972)

10. Don't Lie To Me (Alternate Mix, 1972)

11. Way Out West (Alternate Mix, 1973)

12. Thirteen (Alternate Mix, 1972)

13. You Get What You Deserve (Alternate Mix, 1973)

14. Holocaust (Rough Mix, 1974)

15. Kanga Roo (Rough Mix, 1974)

16. Stroke It Noel (Backward Intro, 1974)

17. Big Black Car (Rough Mix, 1974)

18. Better Save Yourself (Movie Mix, 2012) Chris Bell

19. I Am The Cosmos (Movie Mix, 2012) Chris Bell

20. All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain (Movie Mix, 2012)

21. September Gurls (Movie Mix, 2012)

x

Track List: Keep An Eye On The Sky

Disc 1

5. Feel

7. In The Street

8. Thirteen (Alternate Mix)

9. Don't Lie To Me

10. The India Song

11. When My Baby's Beside Me (Alternate Mix)

12. My Life Is Right (Alternate Mix)

13. Give Me Another Chance Alternate Mix)

14. Try Again

16. Watch The Sunrise

17. St 100/6 (Alternate Mix)

19. In The Street (Alternate Single Mix)

20. Feel (Alternate Mix)

21. The Ballad Of El Goodo (Alternate Lyrics)

22. The India Song (Alternate Version)

24. I Got Kinda Lost (Demo)

25. Motel Blues (Demo)

Disc 2

1. There Was A Light (Demo)

2. Life Is White (Demo)

3. What's Going Ahn (Demo)

4. O My Soul

5. Life Is White

7. What's Going Ahn

9. Mod Lang (Alternate Mix)

10. Back Of A Car (Alternate Mix)

11. Daisy Glaze

12. She's A Mover

13. September Gurls

14. Morpha Too (Alternate Mix)

15. I'm In Love With A Girl

16. O My Soul (Alternate Version)

25. Take Care (Demo)

Disc 3

2. Downs (Demo)

3. Jesus Christ (Demo)

4. Holocaust (Demo)

6. Manana

7. Jesus Christ

8. Femme Fatale

9. O, Dana

10. Kizza Me

11. You Can't Have Me

12. Nightime

13. Dream Lover

14. Big Black Car

15. Blue Moon

16. Holocaust

17. Stroke It Noel

18. For You

19. Downs

20. Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

21. Kanga Roo

22. Thank You Friends

23. Take Care

24. Lovely Day

Disc 4

1. When My Baby's Beside Me (Live)

3. She's A Mover (Live)

4. Way Out West (Live)

5. The Ballad Of El Goodo (Live)

6. In The Street (Live)

7. Back Of A Car (Live)

8. Thirteen (Live)

12. Don't Lie To Me (Live)

15. Baby Strange (Live)

16. Slut (Live)

20. O My Soul (Live)

x

Track List: In Space

1. Dony

2. Lady Sweet

3. Best Chance

4. Turn My Back On The Sun

5. Love Revolution

6. February's Quiet

7. Mine Exclusively

8. A Whole New Thing

9. Aria, Largo

10. Hung Up With Summer

11. Do You Wanna Make It

12. Makeover

x

Track List: #1 Record / Radio City

1. Feel

2. The Ballad Of El Goodo

3. In The Street

4. Thirteen

5. Don't Lie To Me

6. The India Song

7. When My Baby's Beside Me

8. My Life Is Right

9. Give Me Another Chance

10. Try Again

11. Watch The Sunrise

12. ST 100/6

13. O My Soul

14. Life Is White

15. Way Out West

16. What's Going Ahn

17. You Get What You Deserve

18. Mod Lang

19. Back Of A Car

20. Daisy Glaze

21. She's A Mover

22. September Gurls

23. Morpha Too

24. I'm In Love With A Girl

x

Track List: Third / Sister Lovers

1. Kizza Me

2. Thank You Friends

3. Big Black Car

4. Jesus Christ

5. Femme Fatale

6. O, Dana

7. Holocaust

9. Stroke It Noel

10. For You

11. You Can't Have Me

12. Nightime

13. Blue Moon

14. Take Care

15. Nature Boy

16. Till The End Of The Day

17. Dream Lover

18. Downs

19. Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

x

Track List: Live

1. September Gurls

2. Way Out West

3. Mod Lang (Live)

4. Don't Lie To Me

5. O My Soul

7. The Ballad Of El Goodo (Live)

8. Thirteen (Live)

9. I'm In Love With a Girl

10. Motel Blues (Live)

11. In The Street

12. You Get What You Deserve

13. Daisy Glaze (Live)

14. Back Of A Car

15. She's A Mover (Live)

x

Track List: Live In Memphis

1. In The Street (Live In Memphis)

2. Don't Lie To Me (Live In Memphis)

3. When My Baby's Beside Me (Live In Memphis)

4. I Am The Cosmos (Live In Memphis)

5. Way Out West (Live In Memphis)

6. Till The End Of The Day (Live In Memphis)

7. The Ballad Of El Goodo (Live In Memphis)

8. Back Of A Car (Live In Memphis)

9. Fire (Live In Memphis)

10. Daisy Glaze (Live In Memphis)

11. Jesus Christ (Live In Memphis)

12. For You (Live In Memphis)

13. Baby Strange (Live In Memphis)

14. Feel (Live In Memphis)

15. September Gurls (Live In Memphis)

16. Big Black Car (Live In Memphis)

17. Thank You Friends (Live In Memphis)

18. The Girl From Ipanema (Live In Memphis)

19. Patty Girl (Live In Memphis)

20. Slut (Live In Memphis)

Comments

Report as inappropriate
wenberep
Great documentary out there on this band - Big Star; nothing can hurt me. I think it still is on Netflix. Under rated band for sure.
Report as inappropriate
Gotta love Pandora- just discovered this band & finally know who Alex Chilton is. Long time ago, before the days of "just Google it", I used to love this Replacements song and in the chorus he mentions Alex Chilton- always wondered who that was. Totally forgot about it though til now
Report as inappropriate
Alex Chilton was a legend for sure I wish I could have appreciated him more when he was around! !
Report as inappropriate
awesome band I can listen to them all day!
Report as inappropriate
rserva
I'm going to try to develop a taste for these guys considering their pedigree and influences. Technically they are obviously excellent!
Report as inappropriate
As a teenager Big Star 1# Record was one of my favorite lps I think I wore it out.
Report as inappropriate
the moloncholy made me cry,this is the most original work i have encountered in a while. WOW
Report as inappropriate
jeffreymqs64 1
I'm making around $70+ daily by just answering surveys from home. You can do the same thing just visit BLUDOS.COM (tHANK mE).
Report as inappropriate
dlambert489
Saw them in 1990 at The Metro in Chicago when they first reformed. Great band always. RIP Alex Chilton.
Report as inappropriate
So true Rhoades D'Ablo
Report as inappropriate
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
Report as inappropriate
Some great tunes, yes. Do they deserve the accolades critics heap upon them? Probably not. That's just me.
Report as inappropriate
I never heard of Big Star until Alex Chilton died. And hearing their music on Pandora, I never missed anything.
Report as inappropriate
yes mythical...c h r i s bell and alex together created a magical chemistry rarely found in music
Report as inappropriate
Another gem by Big Star!
Report as inappropriate
If you don't like Big Star, you are useless.
Report as inappropriate
Elliott Smith does Thirteen better.
Report as inappropriate
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

Report as inappropriate
I love Alex Chilton, because he was one of those rare artists that could craft a perfect song with a perfect melody.
Report as inappropriate
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.
Report as inappropriate
( : good tunes Thirteen takes me back to thirteen.
Report as inappropriate
277400245
I never travel too far
Without a little
Big Star
Report as inappropriate
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.
Report as inappropriate
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.
Report as inappropriate
oh nicholas i am laffin, laffin, laffin!
Report as inappropriate
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.
Report as inappropriate
Where have I been, great!
Report as inappropriate
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...
Report as inappropriate
Awesome contribution to this thread, soap pet. Spot on.
Report as inappropriate
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
Report as inappropriate
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?
Report as inappropriate
sbrown
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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