It would be something of a misstatement to label Big Star the quintessential American band. No doubt the band’s influence has stretched leaps and bounds beyond the group’s original reach, but quintessence denotes a purity, and Big Star is anything but pure. It’s a mutt, a hybrid of styles, a fusion of worlds, and a revelation of spirits. Big Star was and is a melting pot, blending Delta and country blues with British Invasion harmonies, Memphis soul rhythms, and honest, straightforward lyricism. It was guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll but unlike anything heard before. The music spoke to its audience, not at it, and gave listeners, as Adam Duritz described, “direct gut-level access to what was going on inside.” History and hindsight point to Big Star as the band that provided the blueprint for future sounds such as ’70s power pop, ’80s college alternative, ’90s emotionally vulnerable songwriters, and the retro hybridization of it all during this century.
Big Star is the epitome of American rock ‘n’ roll.
Many musicians who began their earnest careers in the ’80s or early ’90s would declare that Big Star changed everything (or at least a good bit). Without Big Star it might be argued that American groups such as R.E.M. and The Replacements may never have left their basements and that British acts like Teenage Fanclub may have simply carried on with their “Catholic education” rather than come down from the Scottish Highlands. The magnificence found in Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend might never have been realized, and songwriters like Pete Yorn, Sharon Van Etten, and Kurt Vile, rather than producing compelling and emotionally provoking music, might be practicing accounting (though, according to Yorn, his sucking at math might have prevented that outcome).
Fate seemed to conspire against a nascent Big Star. Whether it was losing band members with each subsequent record or losing its distribution via Columbia Records after a deal fell through, Big Star’s music spent more time lining the halls of Ardent Studios than it did careening on American airwaves. After a bootleg reissue of the group’s first two albums as a double gatefold LP was released in England in the mid-to-late ’70s, Big Star found a somewhat attentive audience in the UK. Only then did that interest begin rippling back across the pond, eventually landing in towns like Athens, GA, and Minneapolis.
Prior to the advent of the Internet, there were many records and groups that simply could not be found or obtained easily. Big Star was among them. In 1992 when a revived Stax released the first two albums on a single compact disc and Rykodisc reissued Third/Sister Lovers, Big Star Live, and Chris Bell’s solo material as the collection I Am the Cosmos, Big Star’s music was at once readily available to the public at large. A release of the group’s 1974 WLIR rehearsal (not the actual performance heard on Big Star Live) also came out near the decade’s end, in addition to numerous collections and compilations. Despite the accessibility of the music and the group’s songs being used in films and TV shows such as That ’70s Show, the mythos surrounding Big Star remained.
In recent years, there’s been active progress in correcting that: revealing the truths behind the myths, stories, and, above all, the music. Keep an Eye on the Sky (2009) is perhaps the most comprehensive collection of Big Star music yet released. Complete with early demos and rare outtakes, when placed next to the group’s three albums, it presents a fuller, truer picture of these men as frail and fractured human beings far more than the martyred angels many came to see them as.
That picture is literally made even more complete with the release of Nothing Can Hurt Me, the first full-on documentary of the life and music of Big Star. Though their final chapter as a band may have closed, and Jody Stephens has said that the band officially is no more, the group and its music live on through live performances of Big Star’s Third. With Carl Marsh’s original string parts finally written out and new arrangements by Chris Stamey and a rotating cast of players that includes original members and familiar faces like R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Pete Yorn, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, and more, the group’s music is set to pass down to another generation.
Talking with musicians and mentors, friends and fans, the history of Big Star from the early days of Icewater and the Box Tops up to the group’s reformation, through all the disillusionment and disappointment, all the chaos and the cool, is revealed and all through the words of those involved, inspired and influenced by Big Star.
It all began when John Fry, founder of Ardent Studios in Memphis, walked into his office and saw a cocksure Chris Bell sitting in Fry’s chair with his feet propped up on his desk. Things in rock ‘n’ roll were about to change forever.
John Fry (owner/founder Ardent Studios, producer, engineer, Big Star mentor): He was hanging out with some of the musicians that were coming over there. That was kind of how the place ran back then. I don’t know what he was doing other than occupying my space.
Jody Stephens (drummer, Big Star founding member): I was introduced to Chris Bell and Steve Rhea the first time I actually walked through the door at Ardent. Their little project was called Icewater. They were engineering themselves and recording. They were probably 18 at that point.
John Fry: He was in a bunch of bands. There were all these really early bands like the Janx and Icewater and all that kind of thing. He fell in with Steve Rhea, sadly dead now, and Andy Hummel, and they were doing stuff together.
Jody Stephens: I had just been reconnected with Andy through a play at Memphis State. It was the first college production of Hair, and I was playing drums, but I was still in high school. We all got together to practice; no, the first time I met Steve was at practice at Chris Bell’s back house, or a “get together and play” kind of thing. And then the next time I ran into Steve was at Ardent.
John Fry: And then Steve went off to college at SMU.
Jody Stephens: He was going back to school, so they needed a drummer. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
John Fry: First time I saw Alex [Chilton] he was in the Box Tops, and Dan Penn, their producer, had started to come and do some sessions at Ardent. He was there one day, and I walked in and I’m looking around and I’m saying, “Where’s the artist?” There’s this kid sitting on the floor in the corner, and I’m going, “Oh, that’s Alex.” [Laughs]
Jody Stephens: I think the Box Tops had done some work here at Ardent.
Pete Yorn (singer/songwriter, Big Star fan): The Box Tops’ song [“The Letter”], my parents loved that song but I had never put it together. I heard some funny story that he smoked a whole carton of cigarettes (he was like 17 years old) to get his voice really deep for the recording of that song. That was such a monster hit. It was cool to know that Alex had such a big hit before Big Star.
Jody Stephens: He did a solo record at Ardent with Terry Manning producing. It was the 1970 album actually.
John Fry: Yeah, and actually it should be called 1969. He was scared to death that he wasn’t out of all of his Box Tops entanglements. So he says we better call it 1970, and I said laughing, “Okay, whatever.” He was pretty happy to break free of all that Box Tops stuff. He was doing 200 nights on the road for what, you know.
John Lightman (bass player, Big Star 1974): After the Box Tops, he was offered all kinds of money to do all sorts of things, and he said I’m going to do my own thing. I’m gonna write my songs; I’m gonna play guitar; I’m going to record them where I want to record them. I’m not going to do what anybody wants me to do; I’m going to do what I want to do. He turned his back on all of that potential empty fame in favor of being his own man.
Jody Stephens: Alex was looking to move back to Memphis from New York, and I think Chris had been lobbying to get him in the band.
John Lightman: Alex had been doing his solo thing in New York without much success, so he came back. He heard the group, you know, it was a three-piece group, and he asked if he could join.
John Fry: Chris and Jody and Andy were here. They had gone up with Steve Rhea to New York where Alex was up there playing a lot of solo acoustic gigs. They saw him and said hey we’ve got this band and we’re going to have the opportunity to make an album (because the whole Stax thing was just revving up), and they asked him if he wanted to come back to Memphis and join in and he said, “Yeah, okay.”
Jody Stephens: Alex came to see us at a VFW Hall in downtown Memphis. I guess he must’ve liked what he saw. I think that was December of 1970; could be January.
John Lightman: The first record, Chris was taking music at the University of Memphis. It was called Memphis State at that time. The first album he did sort of as his project, to turn in like an assignment.
Jody Stephens: The first record was pretty much Chris Bell’s production approach and vision.
Ken Stringfellow (bass player, Posies, Big Star 1993-2012): Much of the first album was created in the studio over the course of several years; many of the songs started for other projects related to Chris Bell.
John Fry: They would go off and write a lot of times at what was known as the Back House at Chris Bell’s place. It was kind of a writing and rehearsing place.
Jody Stephens: Well, for #1 Record, I think those songs were rehearsed. I can remember working “The Ballad of El Goodo” in the little side building at the old Ardent and just being knocked out at the song and being really proud of the drum part. I think “Life Is Right” was recorded maybe before Alex even came back to Memphis. So, that was rehearsed, and we would go in the studio for that.
John Fry: They would come in with this stuff fully formed. They would set up in the studio as a four-piece band and cut the tracks.
Jody Stephens: I went from playing in cover bands where you have drum parts written out for you to all of a sudden being in Big Star and having to create your own parts. It was thrilling to come up with a part that I created. I was ecstatic about “Ballad of El Goodo” and a lot of those songs, like “When My Baby’s Beside Me”.
Chris Stamey (dB’s, produced Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos”/”You & Your Sister”, performer in Big Star Third Live performances): The song “When My Baby’s Beside Me” was a radio hit in my hometown. Might have been the only place it was a hit! But I thought they were a regular, famous band, like Steppenwolf or Paul Revere and the Raiders.
John Lightman: They decided early on, they were kind of patterning their stuff after Lennon and McCartney, although they hated to be compared with them. They did the same thing with songwriting credits. You’ll notice that all the songs that either one of them wrote, except for when Chris went off and quit the group, then it’s Chris Bell, but when they were in the group together every song is Chilton/Bell.
Jody Stephens: I wasn’t a part of the writing process, so I can’t really comment on that because I don’t know, but I could see Alex and Chris working out guitar parts. They weren’t traditional, just sort of strumming, two guitars strumming. They always had different guitar sounds going on. They always had parts that complimented each other rather than just being redundant parts.
John Lightman: The group was more influenced by Chris, who was more into English Invasion stuff. He had a real Anglican aspect to his style, playing and everything. Whereas Alex was more into New Orleans, rhythm and blues, which Chris wasn’t into.
Adam Duritz (lead singer, Counting Crows, Big Star fan): I heard about it before that it was some combination of The Beatles and Stax/Volt; that it was like nothing else, like Bob Dylan meets something you’ve never heard before. That combination of the melody and the harmony of The Beatles, the guitar parts of Cheap Trick, the lyricism of Dylan, but also this thing, which I had never heard before, which was like a grown-up kid who you just felt for.
Chris Stamey: At first I liked the sound of that first record as much as the songs; it was trebly and insistent, and the guitars were great. But after a few listens, things like “Thirteen” seemed to be speaking right to me. And it didn’t seem to be full of boasts and lies, in contrast to much of the Spinal Tap-ish stuff out at the same time.
Adam Duritz: It’s hard to tell people about that now because there’s so much music that they’ve influenced that we hear now that’s like that, all of independent rock music. The idea of a vulnerable protagonist, a center of a story that is a man-child in a way, a grown-up boy who’s got innocence in him but also has intensity of feelings and is dealing with adult situations.
Ivo Watts-Russell (founder 4AD Records, This Mortal Coil): I can’t speak for anyone else, but, for me, it was the softer, more acoustic songs on #1 Record that sucked me in: “Thirteen”, “The India Song”, “Watch The Sunrise”.
John Lightman: The two of them, I think, had kind of a positive, competitive relationship. I think they brought out the best in each other as far as songwriting, because they were competing with each other, trying to outdo each other.
Adam Duritz: With Alex and Chris Bell, the stuff just came through. Real songs about real people who were very much still in touch with being young even as they were growing up. A song like “Thirteen”, where it’s really written from a perspective of a kid who is 13, and it sounds like it.
Chris Stamey: It was also a record made by a Southern band that was more like us and less like the Allman Brothers or Skynard, who were the currency of the day. It was a bit of a message in a bottle, that there were more people from our gene pool out there somewhere, better than us but still on our wavelength.
John Lightman: [Chris] was expecting that record to just go through the roof and rewrite recording history and just become like the Memphis Beatles. What happened is when that first album came out, Alex started getting a lot more attention than Chris. They were talking about his singing, his guitar playing, his songwriting.
John Fry: Steve Rhea says something in the documentary film that for Chris this was 100% going to work, and when it didn’t work commercially, he was very disappointed.
John Lightman: He was expecting instant success, overwhelming success. In fact, all of the people at Ardent, I found out, were. Fry and all the people were thinking this was going to blow the lid off everything. Nothing happened much.
Ivo Watts-Russell: In England, one DJ, Bob Harris, had played a couple of tracks from the first album on Radio One. Apart from that, they were pretty much ignored and definitely not readily available as imports. In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 that I bought copies, cutouts, along with another great Ardent release, “Say What You Mean” by The Hot Dogs, from a corner shop in the East End of London, for 50p each.
Jody Stephens: From what I’ve heard and what I believe is that Al Bell, who was running Stax at the time, sat down with Clive Davis, and the two of them had a vision for Stax and Columbia working together. Shortly after that deal was signed, Clive Davis was fired from Columbia, and Stax lost its champion. Frequently you get into trouble when you lose your champion.
John Lightman: They were having a distribution problem. One of the problems was Stax filed for bankruptcy, and they were the distributors. They were using the Stax network then, which was in the process of going under, restructured after bankruptcy.
John Fry: Stax developed a lot of problems. As is well known, they made this distribution deal with Columbia, which we all thought was going to be the best thing in the world. It turned out not to be because Al Bell made that deal personally with Clive Davis. Almost as soon as the ink was dried on the paper, [Columbia] had this big power struggle, and they put Clive Davis out.
Jody Stephens: Whether it’s a band signing with a particular A&R guy and that A&R guy gets fired or leaves, or whether it’s Al Bell inking a deal with the head of Columbia Records Clive Davis, and then Clive leaves. That’s what I think happened and what went wrong. Whoever followed Clive didn’t have the same vision and interest that Clive did.
John Fry: A lot of times when new people come, they’ll say, “We didn’t like the guy that did the deal; maybe we don’t like his deal.” It just never worked. There was never a good interaction or interface between Columbia and Stax, and it ultimately led to the demise of the whole company.
Jody Stephens: Chris quit, and we all just drifted apart. Alex put another band together with Danny Jones and Richard Roseborough, who wound up playing with Chris on Chris’s Cosmos record, and actually did some recording. But in the meantime, John King, who had put this Rock Writers’ Convention together (I think it was May of ’73) asked us to get back together and play that Rock Writers’ Convention, for lack of a better word.
Hell, rock writers were our only audience. They were the only people who really knew the songs. So, we agreed to do that. All those guys and girls were having a really good time. It was an open bar and whatever else forms of entertainment there were. It was just nuts; it was crazy. People were dancing on tables. Bud Scoppa, Cameron Crowe, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer.
Chris Stamey: The thing that stands out about Radio City is that the guitar arrangements were so extremely detailed. No one was doing that before then. They were based on a lot of folk and old rock licks, but combined and composed with loving care. A lot of hard work went into them.
Jody Stephens: Radio City was just an amazing record. It was rehearsed, too, because I’ve heard performances, live performances, or a live performance, and “O My Soul” wasn’t quite there yet, for me, in terms of my part. So yeah, Radio City was rehearsed. It was a simpler record in some respects because there were just three of us playing instead of the four of us. Drumming changed a bit because production was a lot more sparse for Radio City, so it gave me an opportunity to do things a little differently and gave John Fry the opportunity to do something different with the mix.
Chris Stamey: It was shockingly different in approach; maybe it came from Chris Bell to begin with, but Alex certainly carried it on after Bell left.
Jody Stephens: I think Chris’s contribution was he and Alex had written some songs together, and when Chris left the band, they kind of divided those songs up. I think one was “Sitting in the Back of a Car” and maybe a couple. There are three songs on Radio City we wound up using what Alex recorded with Danny Jones and Richard Roseborough, and that’s “What’s Going On?”, “Mod Lang”, and “She’s a Mover” because we just couldn’t capture that same spirit again. But yeah, all it says on Radio City is Danny Jones and Richard Roseborough played, too. Radio City was pretty much Alex with a bit of Andy’s vision in terms of production.
John Lightman: If I had it to do over again, I would have learned the songs closer to what Andy was doing because he put a lot of thought and attention into those two records, and he came up with some really brilliant bass lines. He was a really fine bass player.
Jody Stephens: The real driving force of any band is the songs. I was just inspired by those songs. Alex and Andy contributed a lot to Radio City.
Tav Falco (leader of Panther Burns; co-founded with Alex Chilton): I met Alex behind the camera with my art-action video group. I didn’t really know who he was, just another musician. I became aware of Big Star through a photograph, because I was working with [William] Eggleston for a while. I saw this color picture that ended up on the cover of one of their records where they were in one of these clubs in Memphis [Radio City, TGI Fridays]. That was the only awareness; I had no awareness of their music.
John Lightman: When I first went over to Ardent, all in the halls, piled up, were stacks of Radio City. They were waiting to distribute it. They were just sitting there in the studio, hundreds of albums. So fortunately, somehow, those records got into the hands of musicians who were influenced by it. People like R.E.M. and Teenage Fanclub and other groups who said that that was sort of like a blueprint for them as much as The Beatles were a blueprint for us.
Ken Stringfellow: I think my bandmate in the Posies, Jon Auer, when he moved to Seattle to join me as our first album was released in 1988, started working at a record store, and right around here is where we discovered the CDs of the albums and a re-issue of Radio City on vinyl.
Pete Yorn: I remember the song “September Gurls” blowing my mind at the time, and still does, and it just being pretty influential in the way I structured chord progressions for a while.
Adam Duritz: It was rock ‘n’ roll like Cheap Trick was, with those great guitars and great riffs, like “In the Street” or “Back of a Car”, but it was also this vulnerability and this innocence, almost like a faltering, vulnerability in the vocal, a cracking in the voice here and there. Robin Zander could blow it out, and so could Alex. But Alex would also just do this thing like he’s falling apart, and you can hear it. All the singers today have vulnerability in their voice, but they didn’t back then, except for folk singers.
Ivo Watts-Russell: I was never really much of a fan of Radio City.
Jody Stephens: Andy left, but I think Andy wanted to get on with things and get school out of the way. Andy had a passion for it, but he looked around and thought it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to make a living and have a career out of this. He was an English major, and he went on to get his associates degree in mechanical engineering. So he was ready to get on with it and get on with life and a career.
John Lightman: I didn’t even know about the band Big Star until Alex saw me playing with a group at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis in Overton Square. He came up to me (this was about November of ’73) and he said, “You’re a good bass player. I like your bass playing… We’re looking for a bass player. Would you be interested in playing with Big Star?” And I said sure. I joined the band right after Radio City and I quit right before they went in to record Third. I didn’t record on the Third album, although I did record on some things. I was with the group and did that WLIR radio broadcast from Ultrasonic Studio in Hempstead, Long Island. That was Nobody Can Dance, a CD that came out in ’98, if I’m not mistaken.
Anyway, that was the rehearsal. The one that came out in ’92, Big Star Live, was the actual show. It was not as good as the warm-up. We were exhausted and hungry. We were going to go get something to eat and rest a little bit, and they said, “No, you need to stay here.” We sat there for another couple of hours, tired and hungry. Nobody was able to leave; nobody came and brought us anything. By the time we played, our blood sugar was low, we were exhausted, and we didn’t play as well as we could have. But that’s recorded forever for posterity now. I quit in the fall of ’74. I was with them for about a year. I quit because Alex was going through a really intense phase of alcoholism. He finally quit drinking in 1980. But before that, he was in the process of really, really going off the deep end.