Just a general round of appreciation for one of the most overlooked bands in the canon of Western Pop Music. It’s funny how a band like Big Star can make such amazing records without becoming a household name; it’s not even like they’re weird or experimental records or anything, just completely pleasant and gorgeous early-seventies rock-n-roll.
It’s also funny how the majority of the world has heard Big Star’s “In the Street” - re-recorded by Cheap Trick and retitled as “That 70’s Song” (how’d they swing that one?) - as the theme song to That 70’s Show without knowing that it’s a real song off of an incredible album.
#1 Record and Radio City, the band’s only two real records, should be household names but strangely aren’t. I’m sure there’s some reason that those records didn’t blow up among the general populace and didn’t become billion-sellers, entering the canon and vocabulary alongside records like Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin IV - records that everyone knows - just as I’m sure that there must be some reason that “In the street,” “the ballad of El Goodo,” “Feel,” “O My Soul,” “Mod Lang,” “Back of a Car,” and “Life is White” aren’t in constant rotation on every classic rock station around the country. Likewise, there must be *some * reason that “Thirteen” isn’t the standard coming-of-age ballad for every tender adolescent moment in every movie and TV show ever, but for the life of me I can’t understand why.
The mysterious quasi-finished third album, titled either Third Album or Sister Lovers depending on who you listen to and which quasi-official version of it you pick up, is an amazing record and a very interesting mess. You can tell that what you’re hearing is unfinished and cobbled together with aural duct tape, but when it hits absolutely transcendent moments like “Kangaroo,” or the defeated despair of “Big Black Car,” and “Holocaust” - not to mention ridiculously boisterous moments like “Jesus Christ” and “Thank you, Friends!” - you know that you’re hearing the makings of one of those classic “would have been the best record of their generation” records.
The first version of “September Gurls” I heard was the one on Big Star Live. I thought it was terrific. When I got around to hearing the studio version, it didn’t interest me nearly as much. Seemed stiff.
When I was a kid (9 or 10) I had an obscure Macintosh arcade game called “Fly, Don’t Die.” When you clicked on the credits, the first verse of “Thank You, Friends” played. At this point in life I already had a fairly serious appreciation of music, and I thought that was an awesome song. Of course, I had no idea who it was by, but I liked it.
Ardent Records, their label, had distribution problems (Stax and Columbia), resulting in there being not enough records in stores. Plus, they really didn’t promote them much, either. Chris Bell was depressed and quit between *#1 Record * and Radio City, although he contributed songs for the latter. The band quit, reformed, changed bass players, then soldiered on a bit, but personal problems (read: drugs) pretty much put the nails in the coffin, so to speak. Alex knew this, but still had some studio time, said “fuck it” and recorded much of *Third. * It didn’t really get released until later, though.
Anyway, in summation, they weren’t big stars because their little record company didn’t take care of business, the two main songwriters had problems, and the record business is a cruel mean bitch.
De gustibus and all that, but the notion of comparing Big Star to Wet Willie, Jo Jo Gunne, Spirit, or Delany and Bonnie, or McKendree Spring, is just laughable. They’re so different from Big Star in tone, approach, style, etc., that it’s meaningless to compare them – it’s not even close enough to be wrong. Aside from some tenuous Stax connections with Delany and Bonnie and the fact that they all released records in the early 1970s there’s no reason whatever to lump them together. Seatrain? If you can show me how to get from “Marblehead Messenger” to “September Gurls” in less than 30 moves, I’ll pay you an amount equaling Alex Chilton’s cumulative bar tab for the 1970s. Kak? Kak!!! Well, you said it, not me. And if you’re talking about the Dreams I think you’re talking about, they’re not even from the same planet.
And not only was Big Star quite different from all of them, it was, in my opinion, vastly better than all of them, plus their roadies and groupies, plus most of the people who ever saw them play, rolled up together into a big ol’ spliff.
The Emitt Rhodes comparison bears up a bit better, though I’ll still take Big Star any day.
And yes, the first two Big Star LPs are among the greatest of all time. I’ll never forget the day in fall of 1982 when I flipped through the shelves of LPs along the station walls during my first college radio show and came across the orginal Ardent releases of “#1 Record” and “Radio City” – had been trying in vain to find copies to buy for a couple of years by then. “September Gurls” is among my favorite songs ever (up there with “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”, “96 Tears”, “I Can’t Turn You Loose”, etc.). “When My Baby’s Beside Me” isn’t far behind it.
I’m also a huge fan of Chris Bell’s I am the cosmos (the title track is amazing), and I like Chilton’s solo career, warts and all. “Bach’s Bottom” is actually a really solid record, what with the drug-fueled covers (the Beatles’ “i’m so tired”, the Seeds’ “can’t seem to make you mine”) and arguments (like that hilarious breakdown in the middle of the first “Free Again” where a slurring Chilton explains to the guitarist that “it’sh in the shoulders, maaaaan” and “that wush terrrrrrrible”, and my favorite, “don’t fahget tuh maaaawdyoolate…we’re going to D!”). Some of the songs on it are just so totally awesome, like the totally manic first version of “take me home and make me like it” and the perfect “all of the time.”
“Like Flies on Sherbet,” on the other hand, is just about completely unlistenable. And I still love it.
That’s who they named themselves after - I think there was one of the stores across the street from Ardent or something like that…it’s in the liner notes from I Am the Cosmos or the Live recording or maybe Third/Sister Lovers…
Anyone want to compare and contrast the basic tragedy of Big Star vs. Badfinger? Ultimately, I prefer Big Star’s power pop over Badfinger’s, but Without You, Baby Blue, Day After Day and many other BF songs are truly wonderful. Badfinger had a much better taste of fame than Big Star did, but ultimately more like Icarus - that much closer to the sun and that much more of a fall, with two suicides…
For those who are dedicated fans, I can offer a qualified recommendation of Rob Jovanovic’s book on Big Star, Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop. Jovanovic did about as much as one could be expected to in researching the book (he interviewed all of the surviving members except Alex Chilton, who declined, as well as lots of peripheral figures, relatives, friends, etc., as well as doing plenty of legwork), and it shows in the level of detail included here. Jovanovic doesn’t managed to make a compelling narrative out of all this material, but then the story itself is sort of fractured, frustrating, and chaotic, so perhaps that’s to be expected. As a Big Fan, however, it’s great that someone has so thoroughly researched, reconstructed, and documented as much of the story as possible.
There was a Big Star on the corner of Summer and National across the street from Ardent recording studio. The legend is that they stepped out of the studio for a smoke and decided to name the band Big Star.