My god! What is this thing? (Big Star)

I’d figured that I had pretty much all old music down. I knew I liked Velvet Underground and was substantially underwhelmed by the Beatles. For things that I hadn’t formed an opinion on, say, the New York Dolls, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I listened to some of their stuff and formed an opinon on them. They were filed in the to-do list.

But then this song called Thirteen by a band called Big Star crept up on me, and I fell in love with it. I mean, I’m not overly excited by the Rolling Stones, but when this guy sings ‘tell [your dad] what we said about “Paint It, Black”,’ I feel that not only do I love the Rolling Stones, but they’re one of the most important things in the history of music.

So who are these guys? What became of them? Is the rest of their catalogue comparable to the beauty of Thirteen (which, if you’re interested, I find works very well in a downbeat playlist amongst Songs: Ohia, Elliot Smith, The Shins and Aimee Mann)? And how had they escaped my attention over all these years?

And what should I look for next?

Incidentally, the way I found this song is interesting, I feel. You see, I like this show called Gilmore Girls, and never let it be said that family/teen orientated dramas have no worth. I knew I loved this show the instant one of the characters required another to drive to a record store 30 minutes out of town to purchase them the new Belle and Sebastian single. I found this song on the soundtrack, and it is a curious indie heaven considering that it belongs to a WB show.

Big Star was a 1970s rock group from Memphis fronted by Alex Chilton. Chilton had had a couple of big blue-eyed soul hits with the Box Tops (“The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby”) during the 1960s.
After the Box Tops split up Chilton teamed up with old school buddy Chris Bell to form a more rock-oriented group.

Big Star made two official studio albums and then vanished. They received plenty of critical acclaim, but never sold many records. They were probably better known for crunching rock songs than ballads like “Thirteen” – “In the Streets,” better known as the theme to “That 70s Show,” is an example of their sound.

Big Star remained fairly obscure until the mid-80s, when people like Peter Buck of REM and Paul Westerberg from the Replacements started singing their praises and launched a revival. (Westerberg wrote a great song, “Alex Chilton,” about his idol, and has pretty much followed Chilton’s path into cultish obscurity.)

I believe Big Star’s two albums are available on one CD.

They also have a third record called Third/Sister Lovers. But you do need to rush out and purchase the CD of the first two (#1 Record/Radio City.) “September Gurls” is one of my favorite songs ever.

gex, go ahead and buy the whole Big Star catalog: #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers. I don’t have a favorite, they’re all equally brilliant IMHO. My favorite songs are “Feel”, “The Ballad of El Goodo”, “Don’t Lie to Me”, “You Can’t Have Me”, “You Get What You Deserve”, “O My Soul”, “September Gurls”, “I’m in Love With a Girl”, “Back of a Car”, “Thank You, Friends”, “Big Black Car”, and “Holocaust” (which Jeff Buckley covered a couple of times, if you’re into that sort of thing).

Big Star and Alex Chilton personify the course of Memphis music–and the fate of Memphis musicians–in the last 30 years: excellent, soulful, extremely infuential, ignored by the masses, ripped off by the labels, broke, and humiliated. After recording Third/Sister Lovers, Chilton gave in to his demons and drank and drank and drank. He hit bottom washing dishes in New Orleans in the late 70’s /early 80’s. During the punk era, he appeared occasionally at the fabled Antenna Club (the second-oldest punk rock club in the country after CBGB’s that sprang up about a month after the Sex Pistols played Memphis) with Tav Falco and Panther Burns. If you can find a copy of their version of “Train Kept a Rollin’”, you’ll be suitably impressed, but it sounds NOTHING like Big Star. He sobered up enough to put out a couple of records in the late 80’s after others, like the Replacements, called attention to him. High Priest is probably the best of these. He is treated like royalty around here. I remember being in Taylor’s Music around 1995 when Chilton stumbled in drunk off his ass. He was scheduled to put on one of his exceedingly rare shows at the Overton Park band shell (where Elvis had his first public appearance) in about an hour. He said to old man Taylor “Hey, uh, I have a show and I think a black face Fender reverb head would sound just great. Do you have one?” Taylor had one (if he didn’t have it, you didn’t want it) and gave it to him. I saw him play with it an hour later, and he was brilliant.

Over and over again, the Chilton story has played out here. The Grifters had a few years of critical acclaim, toured with GBV, got a contract with Sub Pop, and disintegrated as if on cue. The Oblivans were totally unnoticed for years–my old band played with them and I saw them countless times play some of the most incredible rock and roll imaginable to mostly-deserted rooms. Now everybody from the Strokes to the White Stripes to the Hives sounds like them, and they’re waiting tables, running record stores, and working in publishing.

Big Star is awesome. You’ll love them. And they’re perfect fall music. I first heard of them when I came to Memphis as a college freshman, so they’ll always be intrinsically linked to fall for me.

Hit bottom? Man, that sounds like a sweet gig to me! :smiley: Beats dinner theater in Branson, MO*, if you ask me.

Nice post. Thank you.

*The Entertainment Gulog and Mini-golf Mecca of the south.


Delta-32 Skee-doo!

Not to hijack, but vibotronica, what was your band?
Opening for the Oblivians must have been the biggest rush ever. Greg Cartwright and Jack Yarber are still recording, the Tearjerkers was one of the best albums to come out in 2002.
Have you seen the Riverboat Gamblers?
Oblivians/Compuslive Gamblers incarnate, and one of the most blistering live shows my jaded eyes have seen in a while.
Caught them at the Vegas Rockaround, and the best part was they chased all the rockabilly kids out of the room.
Sorry, Hijack over, um…talk amongst yourselves.

I’ve seen Alex Chilton solo once, which was an excellent show, and I saw a Big Star show as well, about 4 or 5 years ago (a warm-up before playing the Beale St. Music Fest in Memphis), that had the original drummer (Jody something?) and Chilton with a couple members of the Posies on guitar and bass. Again, an amazing show. Great music that was ahead of it’s time. Both shows were at First Ave. and both were pretty much sold out.

Jody Stephens.

My band was called Pisshorse. We were in the Barrister’s scene in the mid-90’s with The Grifters, The Oblivans, Cornfed, Audios Gringo, The Neckbones, Impala, The Four Johns and a host of other really great bands you’ve never heard of. The scene was incredible, and I feel honored and lucky to have been a part of it. We recorded about three album’s worth of material (expertly engineered, BTW, by Roy Berry who is now the drummer for Lucero), but only a few songs ever saw the light of day. If you’re interested, look for “Smart”, “Radioactive Man”, “Right Now”, and “Luv Bomb” and an album called “Two Years In the Alley” which is a compilation of a bunch of live recordings of the above-mentioned bands.

Greg is in The Reigning Sounds right now and has put out two incredible albums. He also owns Legba Records in Memphis and his wife is expecting baby number three. The Reigning Sounds are in the movie my friends and I (including a star turn by the SDMB’s own jackolope) just finished. I used to work with Eric at a now-defunct publishing company, and I think he’s in the Cool Jerks. Jack was waiting tables for a while, but I don’t know what he’s doing for money now. i hope he’s getting paid to make music–he’s in about fifteen bands, I think. I still see them all the time. The Oblivians are having a reunion show on Halloween that has been sold out for about two weeks. They couldn’t get arrested for years, and now people are coming from Europe to see them after they’re not officially together any more. Back in the day, they were fucking amazing.

OK. I’m done name dropping now.

Yes, Big Star and Alex Chilton are great, but equally worth checking out is Chris Bell’s only solo album (released some twenty years late), I Am the Cosmos. If the song “You and your Sister” doesn’t move you, then you have no heart.

Chris Bell’s sad story recounted here, a unique and unrecognized artist.

Congratulations on discovering Big Star.

Thanks all. I’m definitely going to have to try to pick up those albums, and if they’re even half as good as Thirteen, I’m sure I’ll love them. And they’ve got good names vouching for them, too - R.E.M., The Replacements and Jeff Buckley.

Damn… that’s pretty awful. There needs to be a super fund set up for cherished rock acts down on their luck.