Friday, December 30, 2011

Rock Bio #12: Big Star

Part of a series of brief artist biographies I wrote for in the spring of 2010 ...

Everyone who bought the Velvet Underground's first album in the 1960s ended up forming a band, while everyone who bought Big Star's first album in the '70s became a rock critic—or so the saying goes. Though they were beloved by critics, Big Star also influenced a new generation of bands in the '80s and beyond, from the Replacements, who sang "I never travel far / Without a little Big Star" on 1987's "Alex Chilton," to R.E.M., the Lemonheads, Teenage Fanclub, and Wilco.

The group got its start in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1971 when 20-year-old singer and guitarist Alex Chilton, having abandoned his role as teenage frontman for the Box Tops two years earlier, joined Ice Water, a trio consisting of Chris Bell (guitar and vocals), Andy Hummel (bass), and Jody Stephens (drums). Inspired by the Byrds and the Beatles, Chilton and Bell started writing songs together, and during a break in rehearsal one day at Ardent Studios, the new band decided to name themselves after the grocery store across the street.

When Big Star's debut album, #1 Record, was released in the spring of '72, critics raved; Rolling Stone's Bud Scoppa called it "exceptionally good" and praised the guitar work and harmonies on songs like "The Ballad of El Goodo" and "Feel." Unfortunately, a convoluted distribution arrangement between Ardent's in-house label and Stax Records prevented the album from reaching many listeners: when readers of those rave reviews went to buy #1 Record, it was nowhere to be found. The band's tongue-in-cheek name and their album's wishful title suddenly seemed like cruel jokes.

When a disillusioned Bell quit the band in late '72, Big Star appeared to be finished, but the following spring Ardent held a convention for rock journalists, and Chilton, Hummel, and Stephens agreed to perform. The enthusiastic response from Lester Bangs and other writers convinced them to give it another go.

Thanks to Chilton's love of Memphis soul, Radio City (1974) has a grittier sound than its predecessor, exemplified by the funky "O My Soul" and blues-tinged "Mod Lang." It also features "September Gurls," one of the defining anthems of power pop. Once again, however, Stax was unable to get the album into record buyers' hands.

Hummel bowed out and headed back to college, while Chilton and Stephens returned to Ardent Studios in the fall of '74 and recorded what eventually came to be known as Third, or Sister Lovers. By the time it received a belated release on the PVC label in 1978, Big Star was no more, but the resulting album was a masterpiece, filled with fragile love songs ("Nightime"), furious rockers ("You Can't Have Me"), and bleak ballads ("Holocaust").

On December 27, 1978, Chris Bell died in a car accident at the age of 27. He only released one solo single before his death, the achingly majestic "I Am the Cosmos," the title of which was used for Rykodisc's 1992 compilation of his post-Big Star recordings (Rhino Handmade reissued I Am the Cosmos in 2009 as a deluxe two-disc package).

Chilton went on to have an eclectic solo career, and Stephens was hired as director of A&R at a revived Ardent Records. In 1993 two students at the University of Missouri asked Big Star to reunite for a concert; to Stephens's surprise, Chilton said yes. With Hummel enjoying a career as an aerospace engineer, Stephens recruited Big Star disciples Jon Auer (guitar) and Ken Stringfellow (bass) of the Posies to fill out the lineup.

Big Star 2.0's performance was captured on CD as Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93, and the group continued to perform one-off reunion concerts throughout the '90s and the following decade, culminating in the first new Big Star album in 30 years, 2005's In Space. It was followed in 2009 by Rhino's four-disc retrospective Keep an Eye on the Sky.

Chilton died of a heart attack on March 17, 2010, three days before Big Star was scheduled to play at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. The concert was then refashioned as a memorial to the iconoclastic musician, with R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, the Lemonheads' Evan Dando, the Watson Twins, and even Andy Hummel paying tribute in song.

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