Artist Spotlight – Big Star

big star chilton spotlight

Artist Spotlight – Big Star

Artist Spotlight: Big Star

artist spotlightBig Star is a critically-acclaimed rock band considered to be a pioneer of the “Power Pop” and “Indie Rock” musical genres.

Inspired by bands like the Beatles, Byrds, Who and Velvet Underground, they recorded three albums in the early 1970s, but remained virtually unknown until the first two records were re-released as a single album in the UK in 1978.

But it wasn’t until well into the 1980s that a lot more people started to take notice, when several indie and alternative rock bands mentioned Big Star as an influence. Over time, the legend of Big Star has only continued to grow.

In the beginning, though, they must have felt like the unluckiest band of all time…

Watch the Sunrise

During the 1960s, the British Invasion lit the fuse for the exploding popularity of rock and roll music, and youngsters started forming bands around the world.

In 1966, 16-year old Memphis native Alex Chilton became lead singer for a band that would later became the Box Tops. The group scored several hit singles including ‘The Letter’, which sold over 4 million copies and went to # 1 in 1967.

“I guess that my life has been a series of flukes in the record business. The first thing I ever did was the biggest record that I’ll ever have.” – Alex Chilton

After the Box Tops broke up in 1970, Chilton moved to New York to try his hand as a solo act and work on his guitar skills, disillusioned with the music business and his place in it. He later returned home to Memphis to plot his next move.

Meanwhile, back in Memphis, a guitarist friend of Chilton’s named Chris Bell had formed several bands in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and knew John Fry, the founder of Ardent Studios. For his latest band Icewater, Bell had recruited former roommate Andy Hummel on bass, and Jody Stephens on drums. But there was still something missing.

Big Star – The Ballad of El Goodo

After Chilton returned home, he re-connected with Bell, who asked him to join his new band. They wanted to combine the vocal harmonies and musical textures of bands like the Beatles and the Byrds with a modern rock sound. Chilton and Bell had each been writing songs, and decided to combine forces as the “Lennon & McCartney” of the group.

Bell had a knack for manipulating sounds in the studio, and a key to the Ardent studio thanks to Fry. After figuring out which songs were their best, they decided it was time to make a record.

“I never travel far without a little Big Star” – The Replacements – Alex Chilton (1987)

#1 Record

Big Star #1 RecordWorking late at night and on weekends at Ardent when the studio was unoccupied, they pieced together recordings over several months.

The new band still didn’t have an official name, until one day they were standing outside looking at the Big Star supermarket across the street when inspiration struck. They decided it would be a cool name for the band, and a group of Big Stars in the studio would naturally be there for only one reason: to make a # 1 Record.

They soon began to realize they were creating something special. Bell brought a love of pop and vocal harmonies to the mix. Chilton brought a sense of ragged professionalism. They both supplied dark lyrics, jangly guitars, and most of all … great songs. John Fry skillfully produced the album along with Bell, and #1 Record was released in 1972.

chris bell big star

Chris Bell in the Studio – Image by Groovindays under CC BY 3.0

Copies were sent to rock magazines, and the album got great reviews from multiple publications including Record World (“One of the best albums of the year”), Rolling Stone, Cashbox, and Billboard (“Every cut could be a single”).

It features a more polished sound than their subsequent releases, largely due to Bell’s studio wizardry.

Chilton’s contributions are classics, especially ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ and ‘Thirteen’. Slower in tempo, they both pack an emotional punch, as does the melancholy ‘Watch the Sunrise’. Another Chilton song, ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me,’ simply rocks.

Bell’s songs are equally good. His strained voice stands out in the intricate swirling sound of album opener ‘Feel’, and the background vocal harmonies in ‘My Life is Right’ are exquisite, building in intensity as the track progresses.

Another raucous Bell song, ‘In the Street’, would later be covered by Cheap Trick and used as the theme song for That 70’s Show in 1998.

Big Star – In The Street

John Fry was friendly with the bigwigs over at Stax Records, a record company famous for its association with many popular R&B and funk acts including Otis Redding, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and Isaac Hayes. Stax had its own studio, but it was often fully booked, and they would sometimes send the overflow to record at Ardent.

In 1972, Stax signed a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records, and Ardent was going to be a key part of the arrangement. However, Davis was soon fired by CBS, and his replacements were nowhere near as keen on the agreement. As a result, the terms of the deal were severely scaled back.

Further complicating matters was the fact that at the time, heavy blues and prog rock were all the rage, and record company executives and radio programmers didn’t see the appeal of this indie rock band with intricate vocal harmonies, jangly guitars and big dreams.

Despite enthusiastic reviews and word-of-mouth support, anybody who decided they wanted to buy a copy of #1 Record, couldn’t find it anywhere to purchase. The album flopped, and was quickly forgotten.

“We didn’t have much of an audience when those records were first released. I think our first record sold 4,000 copies. And it *was* different than what a lot of other people were doing, with the exception of bands like the Raspberries. With the exception of the first song [“Feel”], it wasn’t a very commercially slick record. It wasn’t maybe what commercial radio wanted to hear. And our second record [Radio City] was very edgy for its time. They were fairly dark records wrapped in a pop package. Maybe that’s what’s made them enduring.” – Jody Stephens

#1 Record would eventually be ranked #434 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Radio City

Big Star Radio CityChris Bell was a talented musician, but he also had his share of demons. He was crushed by #1 Record’s lack of success, and soon left Big Star. After returning briefly and fighting with the other members of the band, he quit again, and Big Star broke up in late 1972.

Exactly why Chris Bell left the band is still open for debate. Certainly he was drinking and doing a lot of drugs at the time, and suffered from clinical depression throughout the ’70s.

He took the lack of success personally, and his brother has also suggested that he was upset at the praise many fans and reviewers heaped on Chilton. Alex already had some notoriety due to his success in the Box Tops, and Bell may have felt uncomfortable under Chilton’s shadow.

After a few months, the 3 remaining members of Big Star decided to put the band back together. They performed at the Rock Writers Convention in 1973, and headed back to the studio to record a follow-up album.

They also decided to double down on their sense of bravado, naming the 2nd album Radio City after all the radio airplay it was sure to receive.

And the end result was just as brilliant as the first album.

Like the debut, Radio City features 12 high-quality songs worthy of repeated listens. ‘O My Soul’, ‘What’s Going Ahn’, and ‘Back of a Car’ are classic rock tracks that showcase Chilton’s unique talent (Bell had contributed to the writing of a couple of tracks before he left).

Radio City was released in February 1974. Once again, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. They even got some radio airplay for the song ‘September Gurls’, which should have been a hit single.

Big Star – September Gurls

Stax had hoped to add more rock acts to their largely R&B roster of artists, and planned to expand a new distribution agreement with Columbia. And Big Star was poised to be a key beneficiary.

But as fate would have it, right around the time Radio City was released, Stax’s deal with Columbia collapsed. The company faced mounting financial problems, and ended up filing for bankruptcy in 1975.

We did do a few shows but not many. Big Star never did a lot of shows. In our whole career, we probably did 20, 25 shows.” – Jody Stephens

Boxes of Radio City albums sat untouched in a warehouse. Although the 2nd album sold more copies than the first (estimated to be around 20,000 copies) it was still very hard to find in record stores. And even though ‘September Gurls’ received some airplay, radio programmers showed little enthusiasm for an album that wasn’t selling. Their live shows suffered from sparse attendance and indifferent audiences.

Once again, Big Star had released a brilliant, critically acclaimed album, with nothing to show for it. At least at the time.

Radio City is now listed at #405 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums list.

Third / Sister Lovers

Big Star 3rdBig Star’s first 2 albums were built for radio and critically acclaimed. But success was non-existent. Bassist Andy Hummel quit the group to return to school.

Things were looking bleak.

By late 1974, Alex Chilton, disillusioned with the record business and drinking heavily, had finally had enough.

He entered the studio once again, this time with legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson. Hummel was replaced by John Lightman on bass. Jody Stephens remained on drums. And this time, Chilton had no commercial aspirations. This time, it was personal.

He recorded a bunch of songs from late 1974 through the spring of 1975 during a period of personal turmoil.

Chilton was involved in a stormy relationship with girlfriend Lesa Aldridge at the time, and she was the inspiration for many of the songs. She also appears on several recordings singing background vocals (plus co-lead on a cover of Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’.)

No one is really sure today if it was supposed to be a Big Star project, or an Alex Chilton solo album. The record didn’t even have a name. Some recording notes list the title “Sister Lovers”, as Stephens was dating Lesa Aldridge’s sister Holliday at the time. It could have been a band name, an album title, or a joke.

Although I had nothing whatsoever to do with 3rd, I got a test pressing right after it was recorded and have thought ever since then that it’s one of the great LP’s of all time. Alex was very self destructive, but absolutely brilliant mode at the time.” – Andy Hummel

The songs are stark, moody and experimental. Chilton’s raw emotion drives the album into unsettled, sometimes uncomfortable, territory. ‘Thank You Friends’ feels like a sarcastic commentary on the failure of Big Star. ‘Big Black Car’, ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Kanga Roo’ are brilliantly uncommercial, dark and unforgiving. The sweet ballad ‘Blue Moon’ stands out like a lighthouse in a sea of chaos.

Big Star – Kanga Roo

Once recording was completed, Fry and Dickinson pressed some promo copies of a “test album” to play for record company executives, who showed no interest whatsoever. An official album tracklist or title was never finalized by Chilton, and after the attempt to sell the album failed, it got shelved and Big Star broke up for good.

In 1978, Big Star’s first 2 albums were re-released in the UK as a single record, and the band soon gained a cult following. Big Star’s third album was subsequently released on small record labels in the UK and United States, featuring different songs and tracklists. The album has been released in several formats over the years, alternately titled Third or Sister Lovers.

Many indie musicians and critics would fall in love with Third, citing it as Chilton’s lost masterpiece.

“We’ve sort of flirted with greatness, but we’ve yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star’s Third. I don’t know what it’ll take to push us on to that level, but I think we’ve got it in us.” – Peter Buck (REM)

Third / Sister Lovers is ranked #449 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums ever.

Mod Lang

One of the more interesting elements of Big Star is the sound of the guitars. Bell went for a jangly, chimey guitar tone on #1 Record, with its heavy Byrds influence.

Chilton expanded the guitar sound on Radio City, experimenting with his Fender Stratocaster and finding a sparkling bright ringing tone mixed with rough, raw edges. The acoustic guitars sound great as well, played on a Martin D-35.

Chilton (working with Richard Rosebrough) achieved a thick, grungy tone on ‘Mod Lang’ playing a Gibson Firebird III, and some mesmerizing guitar passages on ‘Daizy Glaze’ using a Fender Mando-Guitar. Steve Cropper added guitar to ‘Femme Fatale’. 

Other guitars used by Big Star include a Les Paul Goldtop, Gibson ES-330, Yamaha FG-180, Rickenbacher 12-string, and Martin 12-string.

Thank You Friends

After leaving Big Star, Chris Bell continued to record on his own, growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of success. He recorded a song called ‘I Am the Cosmos’, and traveled to England in the mid-70s to ask former Beatles producer Geoff Emerick to re-mix it. He tried for several years to get a recording contract, but eventually went back to work at his family’s restaurant after years of frustration and depression.

In 1978, after Big Star’s first 2 records were re-released and had gained a little traction, a small record label named Car Records released a Chris Bell single for ‘I Am the Cosmos’ / ‘You and Your Sister’ at the request of Alex Chilton.

On December 27, 1978, Chris Bell was driving home from a band rehearsal when he crashed his car into a light pole. He was killed instantly at the age of 27 – another ill-fated member of the infamous 27 Club.

A compilation of Chris Bell demos called I Am the Cosmos was released in 1992. A book on Bell’s life will be released in November, 2017, titled There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and the Rise of Big Star.

big star alex chilton

Alex Chilton on Stage – Photo by Marcelo Costa under CC BY 2.0

Alex Chilton would go on to have a strange and varied career. After he got his alcohol and drug issues under control, he moved back to New York in 1977 and became involved in the punk rock scene at CBGB’s. He released a solo album Like Flies on Scherbert in 1979, and occasionally played with the oddball performance group Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. He also produced a couple of albums for the punk band The Cramps.

Chilton returned to Memphis and later moved to New Orleans, where he spent several years out of the music business in the early eighties, including a stint washing dishes. He soon returned to music and released several solo albums, focusing on a more R&B sound with horns.

In 1986, the Bangles covered ‘September Gurls’ for their second album Different Light, providing some long awaited financial rewards to Chilton for his time in Big Star.

The Replacements paid tribute to him with a song called ‘Alex Chilton’ on their famous 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me, where he played guitar on the song ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’.

In 1993, after years of refusing to say much about his old band, Chilton shocked everyone by forming a new makeshift version of Big Star, featuring Jody Stephens on drums along with two members of the Posies (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow). They would continue to play gigs occasionally until Chilton’s death in 2010.

A Big Star tribute album was recorded in the 1990s featuring Teenage Fanclub, Gin Blossoms, and Matthew Sweet among others, along with a new Big Star track called ‘Hot Thing’. However, in true Big Star fashion, record company problems led to the project being shelved. It was finally released in 2006 entitled Big Star Small World.

A new Big Star album In Space was released in 2005.

Alex Chilton died of a heart attack in March 2010, and Andy Hummel passed away later that same year.

In 2013, Magnolia Pictures released an excellent documentary on the band called Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (which you can currently view on YouTube).

If you’re writing anything decent, it’s in you, it’s your spirit coming out. If it’s not an expression of how a person genuinely feels, then it’s not a good song done with any conviction.” – Alex Chilton

Ready to start your own band? Check out The Best Way to Learn Guitar.

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