Note: I was assigned this piece the spring of 2000 by Revolver, but the mag was recast as a metal monthly while I was working on it. So it s been languishing in my computer ever since.
In the early ’70s, four youngsters from Memphis, the birthplace of rock and soul, put together a pop band (of all things) and proceeded to make music that merged the architectural majesty of the original Byrds with the charged mystery of Revolver-era Beatles, adding to this rich brew an element of anxiety that gave it a dark undercurrent not usually associated with guitar-pop music. In retrospect, the fact that Big Star remained improbably obscure during and after its brief existence only added to its appeal for subsequent generations of musicians, who turned each other on to this music as if it were a secret religion or a new drug. For Big Star acolytes like Dan Wilson, now of Semisonic, the band s obscurity rendered its music extra-beautiful. I think the way Alex Chilton wrote songs actually might have put up a wall that most people couldn t get over, so the few of us who made it over the wall got the music plus the treat of feeling special.
“One of the coolest things about the whole Big Star legend is that they’ve always been such an enigma,” says Ric Menck, co-leader of the Velvet Crush and longtime drummer in Matthew Sweet s band. “Big Star are right up there with the Velvet Underground as perhaps the greatest cult group of all time. The only other groups working in a similar style at the time were Badfinger and the Raspberries, both of whom had hits and therefore weren’t as mysterious as Big Star, who, of course, didn’t. This only adds to Big Star’s allure, and Chilton has been very good at perpetuating that mystery over the years by being incredibly idiosyncratic about his career and his regard for his former rock combo.”
But what about the music itself? Where does Big Star fit in? Mitch Easter, the former leader of Let s Active and R.E.M. s first producer, tosses out some reference points via e-mail: “Obviously, there’s that slippery soul guitar thing heard on ‘O My Soul,’ ‘September Gurls,’ etc., that’s related to Steve Cropper, Joe South, etc., the George Harrison/other Brits Beautiful-Descending-Chords deal, like ‘Back of a Car.’ Generally [they purveyed] ’60s-style writing, with some late-’60s/early-’70s guitar playing and flash drumming, which a lot of people were (sort of) doing, although only Big Star put it together at that time from that place. Sort of English-style prettiness, but with soul elements. People who make comparisons to, say, the Raspberries are right, except they’re completely wrong, y know? I just think Big Star was a real band, like the Beatles, and the Raspberries were formalist fans, like a tribute band to their record collections. I guess it was the words, and the soul and taste of the musicianship. And the fact that Big Star evolved (devolved?) pretty quickly (like the Truly Heavy bands) so that eventually, one has to look to, oh, Skip Spence’s Oar for comparisons in the last days! But I think there are usually some legit comparisons, keeping them in sort of the mainstream of songwriting.”
The original Big Star cultist may well have been North Carolinian Chris Stamey, who played bass in Chilton s New York band in ’77 and the next year formed the Big Star-infatuated dB s as well as releasing Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” b/w “You and Your Sister” as a single on his Car label. Following Stamey’s kickstart, the myth grew through the ’80s, aided by R.E.M. and the Replacements (although Easter, who should know, doesn’t buy the much-cited Big Star-R.E.M. connection), until, by the early ’90s, Big Star’s influence could be heard everywhere, although only the initiated realized it.
The whole thing reached its crescendo in 1993. From where I sat at the timeæthe A&R chair at Zoo Records–I didn t have to look far for evidence, as Matthew Sweet made the dark epic Altered Beast, labelmates and recent Big Star converts the Odds released the tormented but melodious Bed Bugs, and Chilton agreed to play a Big Star reunion show with Jody Stephens and the Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, which we happily recorded and released under the title Columbia (after the Missouri college town where the performance took place). The Posies’ own Frosting on the Beater came out the same month, April, the reunion took place, while the worshipful Gigolo Aunts (whom I kept running into at Big Star shows from San Francisco to London) came with their own covert tribute, Flippin’ Out. Teenage Fanclub borrowed the title of one of Chilton s most memorable Big Star songs for its album, Thirteen. More prominently, Starophiles the Gin Blossoms and Counting Crows (who anonymously opened a Big Star show as “the Shatners”) ruled the airwaves with albums made at hallowed Ardent Studios in Memphis, where Big Star had recorded.
That year also marked the commercial apogee and psychological flashpoint of another artist Ric Menck sees as being emotionally connected to Big Star and its leader as no other. “Back when Nirvana were big, everyone was constantly comparing Kurt Cobain to John Lennon, but to me he always seemed more like Chilton in that he was flawed and real and couldn’t portray himself in any other light,” Menck pointed out to me in an e-mail. “I’m not certain whether Cobain ever listened to too much Big Star, but more than any of the groups on your list, I think Nirvana had both the sense of melody and pathos that Big Star had.”
But most of the bands that aspired to pick up where their heroes had left off possessed neither the insight nor the talent for the job, according to Easter. “Nobody got the lyrical thing that the best Big Star songs had (I mean as in ‘the lyrics’), which is why I’ve always cringed at every record I’ve heard that’s described as being like Big Star. To most people, that seemed to mean some kind of pop formalism that really missed the boat as far as I could tell. I mean, I find myself thinking, ‘Those guys don’t even qualify for polishing Big Star’s platform shoes.’”
While I don t dispute that the bulk of the Big Star-influenced bands and artists fell far short of the lofty heights of their avatars, a handful did capture the elusive spirit of the source music–its juxtaposition of beauty and danger, the uneasy romance of angels and demons, or the seductive pressure of unexpected chords and oblong grooves against lithe melodies. Here’s a subjective top 10 in this admittedly ambiguous category.
Matthew Sweet: Altered Beast (Zoo, 1993)
If his classic Girlfriend (Zoo, 1991) reflected #1 Record’s fusion of pop richness, smarts and heart, this gutsy follow-up paralleled the unlikely juxtaposition of troubling themes and lovely melodies of Third/Sisterlovers. Altered Beast shudders with anxiety, paranoia and mortal dread, as a young man anticipates the loss of all that is dear to him as he goes through his allotted years. Heavy and very real, this album is especially dear to Sweet’s diehard fans.
Jayhawks: Smile (American/Columbia, 2000)
On its second album since the departure of founding member Mark Olson, the veteran heartland band completes its seamless transition from alt-country avatars to pop-rock masters in the Big Star tradition, with the expert help of storied producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, KISS). The unlikely pairing results in a thrilling widescreen opus that merges ’70s-style rockisms (screaming guitars, lush orchestrations, massive chorales), modern loop-aided grooves and the delectable hooks that current bandleader Gary Louris is so adept at concocting. The life-affirming Smile is a compelling companion piece to 1997 s dark classic, Sound of Lies.
Posies: Frosting on the Beater (DGC, 1993)
Says Jody Stephens, who handpicked the Posies to fill in the holes for the reunited Big Star: “Frosting on the Beater does to me what all my favorite albums do: They surprise me with a sense of wonder much like the kids in ET must have felt when all their bikes took to the air.” Also The Best of–Dream All Day (Geffen, 2000) for Auer’s touching rendition of Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos.”
Matt Wilson: Burnt, White and Blue (Planetmaker, 1998)
Says Dan Wilson, who once worked with his brother in avant-pop group Trip Shakespeare, “The melancholy of Burnt, along with chimy guitars and built-in downward-spiraling vibe, does make it the perfect reincarnation of Big Star.”
Velvet Crush: Teenage Symphonies to God (Sony 550/Creation, 1994)
“Although people are constantly comparing us to them, I’m not sure anything the Velvet Crush has ever done is very much like Big Star,” says Menck. Also Free Expression (Bobsled, 1999), recorded and produced by Matthew Sweet in his home studio, Lolina Lane.
R.E.M.: Murmur (IRS, 1983)
Also Lifes Rich Pageant (IRS, 1986)
dB’s: Stands for Decibels (I.R.S., 1981)
Teenage Fanclub: Bandwagonesque (DGC/Creation, 1993)
Also Songs From Northern Britain (Creation/Columbia, 1997)
Aimee Mann: I’m With Stupid (DGC, 1995)
Also Bachelor No. 2 (SuperEgo, 2000)
Wilco: Being There (Reprise, 1996)