Of all the hard-luck stories in rock – and there are many – you’d have to go a long way to beat Big Star. Perhaps only Badfinger (look em up on Wikipedia – a properly tragic tale) have a more depressing backstory. Big Star are one of those quintessential rock fables: a band with ridiculous talent who made 3 astonishing albums, who made no impact at all and fell to pieces – and who are now lauded by all and sundry as one of the great rock bands. Indeed, if you ever do a search under ‘Power Pop” (that is, rock music influenced by Brit invasion bands that are strong on melody and jangle, but are definitely crunchy rock pop rather than pop), Big Star will invariably be mentioned as one of the finest exponents: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_pop
And yet none of you own a record by them or have heard of them. Cruel old world, eh?
Big Star were formed in the early 70s in Memphis by Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, once of the teen-pop Box Tops, whose song The Letter you’ll remember:
Never have a band sounded less like they were from Memphis or from the early 70s. Bell and Chilton were both obsessed with The Kinks and The Who and I think Chilton even sings with a bit of an English accent! They certainly don’t sound like they were from the US South. And therein lies their tragedy. Their first album, the brilliantly titled Record #1, garnered amazing reviews, but Big Star were signed to Stax, a soul label who had no idea how to deal with them and seemingly underinterested in marketing them. The first album bombed. Bell’s drug use got out of hand. He and the band fell out and by the time their second album, Radio City, came around, he’d left – though the record bears some of his playing and songwriting. The second album fared as badly and the band only managed one more record, the bleak, harrowing Third/Sister Lovers, before disbanding. Soon afterwards, Bell died in a car crash.
Over the years, successive generations of musicians have discovered and their reputation has grown – R.E.M. were hugely influenced, as were The Lemonheads, Teenage Fanclub, Wilco and so on. They’re the basis, really, of melodic American college rock, except that makes them sound so-so when they’re so much better than that. I first came across them via 4AD’s supergroup This Mortal Coil, whose albums feature several covers of what I later realised were Big Star songs. You’ll also recognise September Gurls from The Bangles, who scored a hit with a cover. In the 90s, Chilton reformed the band with some success – he at least, got to see what the band’s reputation had become. Sadly, he died in 2010.
As with Bowie, there was a temptation to give you the most obvious album, which in Big Star’s case is their first album. It’s probably the most accessible, though their music is hardly difficult. But I think Radio City tells us the most about the band: despite Bell’s absence, it’s a band at the top of their powers making a bunch of quite incredible songs that burrow under your skin the more you listen to them. But you can also hear the strain on Chilton and a sorrow and tension in his songwriting and in his voice. Despite the chiming guitars, exquisite melodies and crunchy rock, it’s somehow quite a melancholy record. I also think it’s a beautiful piece of production. So much space between the instruments. Somehow both stripped back and yet really full. The guitar sound alone I could wax lyrical about endlessly. For me, it’s where chiming 60s pop meets 70s rock. It’s been often copied but never equalled.
Big Star have become a very, very important band to me. They’re one of the few bands whose work I can’t live without. When people first ask me who I’m into, I mention the three Bs: Beatles, Bowie, Big Star. I hope you feel the same.