Though Big Star failed to strike commercial success initially, their 1972 debut, #1 Record, is now widely hailed as a rock ‘n’ roll milestone. Heavily influenced by the British Invasion yet markedly original, Big Star offered a distinctly new sound characterized by driving, jangly guitars; sweet, anthemic harmonies and innocently melancholic lyrics. It came to be known as “power pop,” a genre that wouldn’t truly take off until later in the decade. Nevertheless, Big Star became an underground favorite, influencing some the biggest alt-rock artists of the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, including R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Wilco, and the Replacements (who famously penned the song “Alex Chilton” as an ode to Big Star’s frontman).
The Memphis band was formed in 1971 by singer-songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel. Chilton and Bell drew on the Lennon/McCartney style of collaborative songwriting for #1 Record. Working with Ardent Records’ founder and engineer, John Fry, Chilton laid down guitar and vocal tracks, often in one take, while Bell added polish with overdubs and harmonies on songs like “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Thirteen,” and “In the Street.” #1 Record was released to wide critical acclaim–Billboard even went so far as to say "Every cut could be a single”–but ineffective marketing and distribution issues thwarted their success. At the time of its initial release, #1 Record sold fewer than 10,000 units.
Big Star disbanded in late 1978 after two more underperforming albums, Radio City and Third. (These, too, were masterpieces.) They could have easily fallen into the abyss of could-have-beens and one-hit-wonders, but have instead become, in the words of Rolling Stone, "one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll.” Singles “When My Baby’s Beside Me” and “In the Street” have become cultural touchstones, alongside “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen.”
Big Star’s influence permeates even today, and countless artists–Elliott Smith, the Bangles, Placebo, Beck, and Jeff Buckley, to name a few–have covered their songs.
Bud Scoppa’s gushing February 1973 review shows just how successful Big Star might have been during their heyday if only their releases were marketed and distributed effectively.
Argues that history and hindsight point to Big Star as the band that provided the blueprint for ’70s power pop, ’80s college alternative, ’90s indie folk, and today’s retro hybridization of it all.
R.E.M. bassist and songwriter Mike Mills on his lifelong love affair with the cult band.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“The India Song” - Lead singer-guitarist Alex Chilton and singer-guitarist Chris Bell were the primary songwriters for Big Star, but it was bassist Andy Hummel who penned “The India Song.” It’s a quasi-psychedelic mid-tempo piece with wonderfully balanced harmony vocals (courtesy the band’s producer, Terry Manning), a flute-like mellotron riff, a sleigh bell sweetly keeping time and sunny acoustic guitar.
“My Life Is Right” - One of the most joyful moments on the album, this Abbey Road-esque rocker is anchored by drummer Jody Stephens’ bubbling triplet fills. You can’t help but smile as an ecstatic Bell proclaims, “You give me light/you are my day.”
“Give Me Another Chance” - This heartbreaking acoustic ballad emphasizes the songwriting talents of Bell and Chilton as a duo, you can hear Bell’s British Invasion influences meld with Chilton’s proclivity for blue-eyed soul and R&B. Chilton’s weary, regret-soaked croon is complemented beautifully by soaring organs and a wall of sweet backing vocals. One of the strongest of many strong moments on the album’s B-side.
DID YOU KNOW?
- The band was standing outside Ardent Studios taking a break from a recording session one evening when they were struck by inspiration in the form of a Memphis grocery chain across the street. Its sign bore a big red star as a logo–hence the name Big Star.
- Before joining Big Star at 16, Alex Chilton had experienced some major success as the front man of blue-eyed soul group the Box Tops (known for hits "The Letter", "Cry Like a Baby" and "Soul Deep.")
- The lyric "rock 'n' roll is here to stay" from “Thirteen” allegedly refers to the Beatles’ 1964 debut U.S. tour, which Chilton and Bell both attended at age 13.
- While recording at Ardent Studios with R.E.M. in the 80’s, Mike Mills met and befriended Jody Stephens. When Stephens became the only surviving member of the band after Alex Chilton passed in 2010, he invited Mills to join an all-star tribute band, called Big Star’s Third after their third album.
Words: Katherine McCollough