It’s safe to say there would have been no modern pop movement without Big Star. Everyone from the Replacements, the dB’s, the Bangles and R.E.M. to Teenage Fanclub and Ride is beholden to Big Star for the post-Beatles, post-Velvets trails the band blazed in the early Seventies. Big Star dared to be poppishly offbeat when both pop music and nonconformity were being beaten back by the industry-driven push toward corporate rock and laid-back singer-songwriters.
Making matters more difficult, Big Star hailed from Memphis, a city with a long-standing rhythm & blues tradition but hardly a Liverpool when it came to pop bands. Big Star released a pair of classic albums — #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974) — on Ardent Records, a poorly distributed arm of Stax that folded not long after the group recorded its extraordinary third album. Third remained in the can until 1978, three years after the group’s breakup; issued twice by an indie label and never widely available, it has long been out of print.
Consigned to the obscurity of cutout bins, Big Star’s records circulated by word of mouth throughout a prescient underground of cult fens, rock critics and fledgling musicians, serving as a semiotic blueprint for the power-pop renaissance of the late Seventies and beyond. In 1987 the German Line label compiled #1 Record and Radio City onto a single CD. Now Rykodisc has gone one step further with the simultaneous release of three CDs that will prove a godsend to Big Star devotees and anyone curious about the band and its legacy. First and foremost, the label has pieced together the definitive version of Third (also known by its working tide, Sister Lovers — because two band members, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, were dating twin sisters), culling all tracks from varying domestic and overseas releases and adding a pair of heretofore unreleased numbers for a nineteen-song marathon. Next is Big Star Live, an energized hour-long concert performed in a studio for a live radio broadcast in 1974. Finally, Rykodisc has also unearthed an album’s worth of material by founding member Chris Bell, who went solo after #1 Record and died in a car wreck in 1978.
Third is guitarist-singer Chilton’s untidy masterpiece. It is beautiful and disturbing, pristine and unkempt — and vehemently original. In it you can hear loose ends beginning to fray, but the main fabric retains a haunting brilliance. To listen to it is to be plunged into a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. Songs are drenched in strings and sweet sentiment one minute, starkly played and downcast the next. No pop song has ever bottomed out more than “Holocaust,” an anguished plaint sung at a snail’s pace over discordant slide-guitar fragments and moaning cello, ending with these cheerless lines: “You’re a wasted face/You’re a sad-eyed lie/You’re a holocaust.”
On the up side, there’s the delicious pop minuet “Stroke It Noel,” the anticipatory magic of “Nightime” (“Caught a glance in your eyes and fell through the skies,” Chilton rhapsodizes), the tender “Blue Moon” and the unironic majesty of “Jesus Christ.” Big Star’s baroque, guitar-driven pop reaches its apotheosis on songs like “Kizza Me,” “Thank You Friends” and “O’Dana.” One of the songs making its first appearance, a cover of “Nature Boy,” contains these words sung by Chilton, who would never again allow himself to be so open and sincere: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” Without question, Third is one of the most idiosyncratic, deeply felt and fully realized albums in the pop idiom.
Big Star Live is a treasure recorded soon after the release of Radio City. The remaining trio — Chilton, drummer Stephens and bassist John Lightman (who replaced Andy Hummel) — blazes through nine of Radio City’s songs and four from #1 Record, with Chilton excelling vocally on “You Get What You Deserve” and instrumentally on a spunky run-through of “O My Soul” that beats the studio version. But the album’s high point might just be Chilton’s four-song acoustic interlude, a set of unabashedly vulnerable material capped by a wide-eyed rendition of Loudon Wainwright III’s “Motel Blues.”
Like Chilton, the late Chris Bell was no stranger to emotional turmoil, judging from the twelve songs (plus three alternate versions) that constitute I Am the Cosmos. The liner notes by his brother David offer a fascinating glimpse into Bell’s life, his passionate but short-lived devotion to popcraft interspersed with suicide attempts, injectable drugs and globe-trotting. The mostly demo-quality songs are wonderful, though Bell’s voice is a little ungainly here and there; he tends to mangle anything above middle range. But I Am the Cosmos offers a bevy of shimmering, angst-ridden pop, including the frantic rocker “Get Away” (which recalls Big Star’s raucous “Don’t Lie to Me”); the colorful and catchy “Make a Scene”; an acoustic jewel entitled “You and Your Sister”; and the utterly transcendent “I Am the Cosmos,” a lush, spine-tingling number in which megalomania and vulnerability come together in these unfathomable lines: “Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos/I am the wind/But that don’t get you back again.”
Big Star was totally out of sync with mainstream currents; its music has a timeless quality that can’t be pegged to any trend or era. During an interview segment on Big Star Live, the host asks Chilton if it’s “anachronistic” to be playing Beatles-derived pop in the mid-Seventies. Chilton answers forthrightly: “I don’t know. I really haven’t decided yet…. I’m just doing what I like to do, what sounds melodious to my ears.” Time has vindicated Big Star, and these three releases only confirm what #1 Record and Radio City intimated: Big Star is the Great Lost American Pop Band.