“I never travel far without a little Big Star.”
When I first heard Paul Westerberg of The Replacements sing those words back in 1987, in the bridge to a tribute song called “Alex Chilton,” I took them at face value. They seemed like a boast, a call to arms, even. I didn’t know what Big Star was at the time, or why he felt the need to travel with some of it. Nor had I heard of Alex Chilton. But I thought Westerberg was incredibly cool and so, if he said that’s what he did, then I wanted to do it, too.
First, though, I had to find out what he was talking about. I assumed he was referring to musicians. And luckily, I was a college DJ back then and was allowed to roam the station’s stacks, where I easily found Big Star’s LPs — just three — and one Friday night, after doing a show, I took them back to my dorm room (which I wasn’t allowed to do). I spun the records a few times over the weekend and listened closely, searching for clues — who where these guys? Why hadn’t I heard of them? What was so compelling about their music that it caused Westerberg to declare, “I’m in love,” with their songs?
But I didn’t find any clues. Frankly, I didn’t get it at all. Big Star turned out to be a four-piece band from Memphis, led by a singer named Alex Chilton, that formed, performed, and broke up in the early 1970s. And they sounded like it — they sounded dated, in fact, and unfashionable to my mid-’80s eardrums. (Chilton’s main claim to fame was serving as the lead singer for the Box Tops, whose song “The Letter” went to number 1 in 1967.)
I remember trying to imagine Westerberg and his boozy, brawling bandmates carrying around Big Star’s LPs and listening to them on tour. But I couldn’t. I mean, what did these angry, raucous garage-rockers think was so vital about a band whose mellow, “groovy” songs seemed the antithesis of post-punk? Hell, they sounded like something my parents would have listened to when they were in college.
So I put the records back in the stacks on Monday, feeling perplexed. But on a whim, and out of stubbornness, I bought the university bookstore’s only copy of Big Star’s final studio recording, Third/Sister Lovers, and listened to it again — and again — and it eventually grew on me. In many ways, it’s one of the wildest, weirdest, most disjointed and infectiously interesting records I’ve ever heard. I still play it occasionally, having carted it around from place to place for these past 20-plus years, never wandering far without it, whether on vinyl, cassette or, as I recently discovered, on iTunes. I’ll admit it, I’m in love with those songs.
Well, all these memories came flooding back to me earlier this month when, sadly, I heard that Alex Chilton had died unexpectedly on March 17, after suffering a heart attack. He was only 59.
Since his death, I’ve had the chance to go back and listen to, read about, and reflect on his music. It’s been fun and educational. But I still feel a little perplexed. What I can’t figure out is why Big Star wasn’t and isn’t more popular. Why hadn’t I heard their music in 1987? Or worse, why is it that few people I’ve spoken to lately have heard of them at all?
After listening to all three records again, several times in their entirety, I can see more clearly now what I was missing (and why I was a bit turned off) two decades ago. Big Star were the consummate ’70s power-pop band, drawing on a host of musical styles, past and present. (Full disclosure: I don’t like much ’70s music.) Their songs often mixed shimmering harmonies and jangly guitars reminiscent of The Byrds, with a little Memphis-leaning R&B a la The Rolling Stones, some Grateful Dead electric-folk, the wild abandon of The Who, an occasional David Bowie-like spacey oddity, etc.
But Big Star’s songs were often a little edgier, darker, a little hipper and more sophisticated. For instance, can you imagine Badfinger, to whom they’ve often been compared, covering the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale”? In their version, Big Star claimed that song for their own. Most important, Chilton and company had a knack for crafting hauntingly beautiful melodies. Many of their songs, including “The Ballad of el Goodo,” “Thirteen,” “September Gurls,” “Stroke It Noel,” “For You,” “Nightime,” and “Thank You Friends,” are near-flawless compositions, on par with the greatest rock ballads and pop tunes ever written.
Don’t take my word for it. According to Rolling Stone, Big Star created a “seminal body of work that never stopped inspiring generations,” and Allmusic calls them the “quintessential American power pop band.”
In other words, Big Star were doing many of the same things as their contemporaries — everyone from T. Rex, Roxy Music, and The Stooges to Steely Dan, Elton John, and Supertramp — writing pretty pop songs with plenty of hooks, harmonies, and heartfelt lyrics. And in some cases, they were doing it better.
Except no one was hearing them. Critically acclaimed but never commercially successful, Big Star suffered the fate of many great but poorly managed bands, namely weak record label promotion and a dire lack of direction or ability for distribution. Fans may have heard Big Star on the radio, but they couldn’t buy their records in the stores. Consequently, out of frustration over sales, limited commercial success, and eventual infighting, the group broke up in 1974.
It’s ironic that Big Star’s first two releases were called (playfully and hopefully) #1 Record and Radio City — when they never had a big hit or ever saw much air play. Oddly enough, one of their best-known songs, “In the Street,” became the theme song for the wildly popular 1998 TV sitcom, That ’70s Show. But it’s a cover (and a cheap trick at that), so I doubt anyone but the most ardent fan knows it’s theirs.
Big Star may not have been a commercial success, but they served as a polestar for a lot of the “alternative radio” acts of the 1980s and ’90s, and this is where I come in. Many of the bands I hold dear, including R.E.M., The Posies, Teenage Fanclub, and The dB’s, claim Big Star as a major source of inspiration. Chilton was reportedly idiosyncratic (he was once offered the role as lead vocalist for Blood, Sweat & Tears but turned down the gig because it was “too commercial”) and had a DIY aesthetic that was appealing to a lot of young post-punkers getting started in that era. He helped them out — for instance, it turns out Chilton was a producer on The Replacements’ album Tim (later spawning the aforementioned tribute) — and they in turn helped revive his reputation and supported his solo efforts.
And now, after living with the music for awhile, I have begun to hear Big Star’s influence on many of the power-pop purveyors, past and present, that I adore and rave about, including Let’s Active, Gin Blossoms, Guided By Voices, Robyn Hitchcock, Whiskeytown, among others. And this, in turn, has inspired me to dig out their records and listen to them again, too.
I’m not sure what my problem was back in 1987, why I didn’t make more of a connection between Westerberg and Chilton. It was all there, right in front of me. Maybe, because I was a listener and not a musician, I was being overly loyal and too selective. Or maybe I was just being arrogant and foolish — but who isn’t at 21? In either case, I was off base, but I have been able to make up for it.
So here’s my advice to you, dear reader: don’t repeat my mistake. Go buy Big Star’s big three. All are available online as a download; the first two, in fact, can be had as a double album — that’s 25-plus songs for less than $10. You can’t beat that. And for the completist, last year Rhino Records released Keep an Eye on the Sky, a boxed set of virtually all known recordings related to the band. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.
Whether you are a fan of ’70s music (with all of its “rock” goofiness, like spelling girls with a “u,” hippy expressions like “my baby,” and, oh yes, more cowbell!), or just a fan of incredibly well-crafted and innovative feel-good pop music, you will fall in love with and (I hope) never travel far without Big Star, too.
As always, tell us what you think. Have you ever heard of Big Star or Alex Chilton? Which of the records or songs are your favorites? Or are there other bands from the ’70s that you think outshine Big Star? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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