That ’70s Cult Band: Big Star Remembered
In October, Relix looked back on Big Star’s career as the cult heroes prepared to release a new box set. It turned out to be one of the last magazine features on the band to appear in singer Alex Chilton’s lifetime. Below is a complete copy of the article.
Photo by John Fry
In the 35 years since Big Star’s original lineup dissolved, they’ve been the direct and indirect inspiration for scores of bands and artists, casting a huge shadow across the history of indie rock. Back when the band was initially recording and releasing records, though, it was barely a blip on the rock and roll radar. If you’re an indie rock fan, you’ve probably heard a Big Star song, whether you know it or not. “Thirteen,” from the group’s debut album #1 Record, has been covered by Wilco, Elliott Smith and Garbage, among others, while The Bangles redid “September Gurls,” from its second disc, Radio City. The group also managed some aboveground pop-cultural penetration: Cheap Trick recorded the #1 Record track “In the Street,” which served as the theme song to the sitcom That ‘70s Show for eight seasons.
Big Star was essentially an outgrowth of Memphis singer/songwriter Chris Bell’s band Icewater, which included bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. Alex Chilton, a friend of Bell’s for several years who’d had a couple of hit singles (“The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby”) as vocalist of The Box Tops joined the trio. The four were part of a tight-knit crew that hung around Memphis’s Ardent Studios, the backup recording location for Stax Records and host to sessions for Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, and Booker T. & The MGs, as well as ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin. Owner John Fry ran both an unofficial “recording academy,” teaching young local musicians the ins and outs of the studio, and Ardent Records, Stax’s rock imprint.
“I don’t wanna sound bigheaded or pompous, but I think we were our own scene,” recalls Andy Hummel. “Most people in Memphis were doing rockabilly or stuff that had evolved from rockabilly, or R&B and stuff that had evolved from R&B. There were a few of us who were really into British Invasion stuff, and I’m not sure a whole bunch of people in Memphis really were, [but] I don’t think it’s something where we consciously thought, ‘We’re different from the guys at Stax,’ or ‘We’re different from the guys at American.’”
Big Star recorded #1 Record in the summer and fall of 1972, and released it toward the end of that year. It featured 11 songs and a one minute-long outro, the enigmatically titled “ST 100/6.” The opening track, “Feel,” is a three-minute manifesto. Over strummed acoustic guitar, which is soon doubled by a distorted electric guitar and bolstered with a round, full bass line, Chris Bell sings “I feel like I’m dying/ I’m never gonna live again/ You just ain’t been tryin’/ It’s gettin’ very near the end.” It could be a typical rock and roll anthem of sexual/romantic frustration, but it’s much more. The sharp pain in Bell’s high-pitched vocals, and some unexpected left turns in the arrangement (the buzzing saxophones that appear after the second verse, never to be heard again), mark it as something familiar yet wholly new. In the coming years, this sound—high vocal harmonies, instantly memorable choruses, sugary lyrical sweetness with a slightly cynical edge—would come to be called “power pop,” and become a codified style. Think The Knack, Cheap Trick, The Romantics and many more. But in 1972, this was something that Big Star (and, to be fair,
Badfinger and The Raspberries) were doing in relative isolation.
Other tracks on #1 Record, such as “In the Street,” “Don’t Lie to Me” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me” offer a crunching, catchy, basic rock and roll sound that’s echoed in the discography of acts from Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and Cheap Trick to the early KISS albums. But these are balanced by ballads such as “Try Again” and “Give Me Another Chance,” which showcase the plangent beauty of impeccably recorded acoustic guitars and Chilton and Bell’s vocal harmonies. The emotion mustered when the singers stretch above their normal range gives the melancholy lyrics (mostly by Bell) an unexpected power. As a whole, #1 Record is that rarest thing—an album that is both immediately rewarding and possessed with depths that only reveal themselves over time. The deceptively simple arrangements unfold gracefully like flowers blooming in time-lapse photography, making it a record that one can return to for years on end.
#1 Record should have made a commercial splash. At the time it was released, though, almost no one heard it. Stax had signed a distribution deal with Columbia, which in theory should have sent the soul label’s releases into every record store in the country. But almost as soon as the ink dried, Columbia head Clive Davis was ousted, and many projects died with his departure—the Stax deal among them. With no money to do so, the task of promoting Big Star landed back in John Fry’s lap. “We were trying to do what we could,” he recalls. “Basically what we had to work with on the marketing front was critical acclaim from the rock press—which was not nearly as widely circulated or as immediate as it would be today in the Internet age—and the radio support we had from all these FM radio rock stations that were starting up.”
Fry believes that the band might have been able to build an audience through live performances, but that didn’t happen, either. “They didn’t have a booking agent, they didn’t have management,” Fry says. “As I look back on it, it could have made a big difference if they’d gotten out there and played live extensively. But [while] it wasn’t like they hated to play live, this was in the post-Beatles era, where you have folks looking and saying, ‘those guys just became a recording entity and stopped playing live altogether.’ I never heard that verbalized, but it’s got to [have been] in the back of someone’s mind— that if you just record some good music it’ll find some way to get out.”
Andy Hummel sees things even more starkly than Fry. “We were a studio band first and foremost—and always—and when we played live it was a huge stressful deal that we all freaked out about,” he recalls. “Those times when we did play live, it didn’t seem like there were a whole bunch of people who wanted to hear us, unless the audience was a construct like it was at the Rock Writers’ Convention, where they actually brought people in specifically to listen to us.”
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
Ron Sexsmith visits the Relix office to perform a tune from his latest record Forever Endeavor.
Crystal Bowersox stops by Relix to perform a song from her new album, All That For This.
Wake Owl stop by Relix to share the title track from their debut EP.
- Relix Live Fridays: Lotus 2013
- Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa "If Heartaches Were Nickels"
- The Chapin Sisters "Crying in the Rain"
- The Salvation of Page McConnell (Relix Revisited)
- Phil & Friends at Terrapin Crossroads (A Gallery)
- Kung Fu at The Bowl (A Gallery)
- Dawes "From a Window Seat" and "Most People" on Jimmy Kimmel Live
- The New Orleans Suspects
- Interlocken Festival to Feature Neil Young, Furthur, String Cheese Incident, Black Crowes, Zac Brown and More
- Beyond Cornell: David Lemieux on the Grateful Dead Archives and May 1977
- Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis Tried to Form Supergroup with Paul McCartney
- Weir’s Here: On TRI, RatDog and Solo Gigs
- The Salvation of Page McConnell (Relix Revisited)
- The Final Ingredient in Dogfish Head’s Grateful Dead Tribute Ale Is…
- Stone Gossard Readies His Moonlander
- Allie Kral Says Goodbye to Cornmeal
- Doctor’s Orders: So what should we call the Super Ball IX Newspaper?
- John Kadlecik Posts Statement on Bob Weir’s Collapse
- "I Wanne Be In moe.": The Latest Volunteers
- Bob Weir Escorted Off Stage During Furthur Show
- Furthur Cancels BottleRock Show as Bob Weir Is Out Of Commision
- Vote for Your Favorite "I Wanne Be In moe." Contestant
- Doctor’s Orders: What’s Your Favorite Furthur Song? (Win Copy of Relix Signed by Phil and Bobby)
- On The Verge Poll