Formed around former Box Tops lead singer Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, Big Star existed for a brief period of time in the early 1970s and were spectacularly unsuccessful during their lifetime due to poor promotion and distribution. But their influence has spread far and wide – the group have earned a deserved cult profile due to their influence on 1980s and 1990s alternative bands such as R.E.M., The dB’s, Wilco, and The Replacements.
While their guitar based sound doesn’t sound revolutionary, it was unusual in the context of the early 1970s; their debut album #1 Record revisited the mid 1960s, musically bringing a slightly harder edge to the sound of The Beatles‘ Rubber Soul and The Byrds‘ Mr Tambourine Man, but emphasising tunefulness and bringing back a wistful and youthful innocence to songs like ‘Thirteen’ and ‘In The Street’. Chris Bell left before the more rock oriented Radio City, and the band’s final album, the slow and mournful Third languished in the vaults before finally seeing release in 1978.
Each record has a distinct flavour, although Radio City is the clear standout for me, and is high among my all-time favourite albums. While Chilton and Bell were the leaders, the rhythm section also contributed; bassist Andy Hummel co-wrote half of Radio City while drummer Jody Stephens has a recognisably busy and splashy style, and also contributed songs and lead vocals.
I’ve covered Bell’s solo album, I Am The Cosmos, below, but for some reason I’ve never looked into Alex Chilton’s solo career.
Big Star Album Reviews
#1 Record revisited the guitar groups of the mid 1960s, with Bell and Chilton singing harmonies and playing ringing guitars. The production on #1 Recordis gorgeous, making the guitars and harmonies lush and appealing, especially in the softer songs.
On #1 Record, it’s the softer side of Big Star that shines: ‘Give Me Another Chance’ and ‘Watch The Sunrise’ are laden with pretty acoustic guitars and warm harmonies, while standout track ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ and ‘My Life is Right’ build from gentle verses into arresting climaxes. Even the snippet ‘ST 100/6’ boasts a sparkling acoustic riff. #1 Record is a strong debut overall, but there is some weaker material; bassist Andy Hummel misfires with the insipidness of ‘The India Song’. The rock oriented material isn’t as convincing as that on their following record Radio City: ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ is grating and predictable, while the band’s most famous song ‘In The Street’ also has awkwardly keening vocals.
#1 Record is a gorgeous, if uneven debut – their next album would be a twisted rock masterpiece.
Big Star returned to the studio in 1973 without Chris Bell, who had felt threatened by Chilton’s dominance of the group. While #1 Recorddisplayed a lot of potential, Radio City shows Big Star subverting their influences into compelling and unique rock music. There are still moments of beauty and lovely harmonies, but they are augmented by a harder and messier sound.
Even the slower songs such as ‘Daisy Glaze’ build to a crescendo, while ‘Mod Lang’ and ‘O My Soul’ rock the whole way through. Chilton uses some first-rate vintage guitar tones, while Jody Stephens’ drumming is dynamic and idiosyncratic. Bassist Andy Hummel co-wrote nearly half of the songs, and sings lead on the outstanding ‘Way Out West’, ‘September Gurls’ and ‘Back of a Car’ should have been hit singles, while the nasty ‘Life is White’, an answer to ‘My Life is Right’ from #1 Record, is a wonderfully melodic rocker.
Radio City is slightly messy and off kilter, which gives it an extra edge; the last two songs gain impact through their presentations as rough demos. If you have any interest in rock music you need to hunt this down; make sure that you grab the twofer with #1 Record as well.
By 1975 Big Star was reduced to the duo of Chilton and Stephens, while their record company was collapsing around them. Third/Sister Lovers was not released until 1978, while Chilton and producer Jim Dickinson were never able to agree on an official title, let alone a track sequence. Chilton set out to make Third/Sister Lovers his way and the result is shambolic: but mellow and drugged out rather than the messier version of Radio City that I anticipated. Importantly, unlike Neil Young’s contemporary and similarly drugged out Tonight’s The Night, Third/Sister Lovers is pretty. Alex Chilton’s voice is far more pleasant than Young’s, even when he’s trying to deliberately sabotage the album by bad singing, while someone decided to plaster stunningly beautiful strings all over Third/Sister Lovers.
The production and strings counterbalance the roughness apparent in the unpolished performances and the scattershot nature of the songwriting. Chilton writes a Christmas Carol (‘Jesus Christ’), plenty of languid, despairing tunes (‘Holocaust’, ‘Kanga Roo’) and pretty, low key pieces (‘Nighttime’, ‘Take Care’), and only an occasional moderate rocker (‘You Can’t Have Me’, the irony-laced ‘Thank You Friends’). But almost all of them work. Stephens scores his only individual writer credit with the soppy ‘For You’, which would sound lifeless without the strings. Bonus tracks include some sloppy covers (The Kinks’ ‘Till The End of the Day’, Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, and the bizarre ‘Downs’ which Chilton sabotaged by substituting a basketball for a snare drum.
Third/Sister Lovers is purposefully sloppy, but it’s a compelling and surprisingly pleasant listen.
I Am The Cosmos
Leaving Big Star after #1 Record, Chris Bell never released another full length record during his lifetime; his only release was the ‘I Am The Cosmos’/’You And Your Sister’ single which appeared in 1978. Later the same year, Bell drove into a tree on the way home from rehearsal with a new band, dying instantly. The I Am The Cosmos album was pieced together from miscellaneous sessions by his brother, finally appearing on CD in 1992 and forming a surprisingly coherent record. Hearing Bell separate from Chilton here, it’s obvious which songs from #1 Record belong to Bell; Bell’s voice is thinner and rougher than Chilton’s and easily distinguishable.
The title track is the keeper from I Am The Cosmos, launching straight into its heartrending opening statement (“Every night I tell myself/I am the cosmos/I am the wind/But that don’t get you back again”) before launching into a memorable guitar solo; the first half is so overloaded with greatness that the last couple of minutes are almost redundant, but it’s a classic nonetheless. My other favourite is the closing ‘Though I Know She Lies’, with a delicate melody and even more delicate solo. Chilton guests on the pensive ‘You And Your Sister’, while ‘Get Away’ would have fitted beautifully onto #1 Record. As very much a two style record – tender acoustic balladry or pounding mid-tempo rockers – the lesser examples of each genre do stray close to mediocrity. On the other hand, ‘There Was A Light’ and ‘Better Save Yourself’ bring diversity to the record, with a pleasant gospel influence.
It’s limited in scope, but nevertheless the songs of I Am The Cosmos are the only solo recordings from a talented man; more than just a tragic footnote to Big Star’s commercial failure, it’s a satisfying recording in its own right.
Ten Favourite Big Star Songs
Back Of A Car
The Ballad of El Goodo
Life Is White
Give Me Another Chance
I’m In Love With A Girl
Way Out West