For most music fans, there comes a point when simply liking a band isn’t enough. Suddenly, we need answers: What do these songs mean? Where do its members come from? Who are their influences?
When I was in high school, I realized many roads led back to Big Star.
Big Star, an influential power-pop outfit out of Memphis, only released a handful of albums and never had a big hit. Nevertheless, its impact was extraordinary, and the group made indelible impressions on R.E.M., Wilco, Elliott Smith, The Replacements and countless other rock, pop and “alternative” acts that rose to fame in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond.
“I’m in love — with that song,” Replacements singer Paul Westerberg declares in the chorus of “Alex Chilton,” a blistering, catchy gem named after Big Star’s front man. To call Chilton a songwriting genius is hardly hyperbole; he seemed to have an innate understanding of the art form. (He also demonstrated his vocal skills early with The Box Tops, a band that topped charts in 1967 with “The Letter.” Chilton was just 16 when he recorded it.)
By the time Chilton began making music with another Memphis-based singer/songwriter, Chris Bell, both had spent their teen years in various bands and gained an appreciation for the singer-songwriters and British Invasion acts of their adolescence. Bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens rounded out Big Star’s lineup, and the quartet released its cheekily titled debut, #1 Record, in 1972.
The beauty of #1 Record is multi-faceted: Tracks can sound deceptively simple then deliver a riff or lyrical detour that defies expectation (“Don’t Lie to Me,” “In the Street”). A song like “The Ballad of El Goodo” exemplifies the band’s ability to deliver heart-swelling harmonies on par with predecessors like The Byrds or, yes, the Beatles.
“Thirteen” is arguably #1 Record’s best track. In two and a half minutes, we hear Big Star’s hummable melodies and sweet harmonies honed to perfection, layered beneath a gripping vulnerability.
Perhaps it’s this characteristic — a willingness to express such raw emotion — that makes Big Star truly timeless. Even #1 Record’s upbeat, guitar-driven opener, “Feel,” is muted by a stunningly downbeat but relatable lyric (“I feel like I’m dying/I’m never gonna live again.”)
Despite positive reviews and a wealth of radio-ready material, #1 Record failed to catch on, largely because the band’s label, Stax, failed to market or distribute it properly. Months after its release Bell left the band, frustrated and angry.
For most bands, the shoulda-been-a-success story would end there, but Big Star went on to release a second critical success, Radio City, in 1974. Despite Bell’s absence (or maybe even because of it), Chilton was spurred to take more of a leading role.
From the get-go, we can detect a difference in production, which feels spontaneous and a little rough around the edges. “O My Soul” swaggers with a vitality that almost serves as a sonic bridge between ’60s pop and the Southern jangle groups that would crop up over the next decade.
One of Big Star’s best-known tracks, “September Gurls,” is virtually a master class in songwriting. The irresistible chorus very well could be what Westerberg refers to in his own song and has been reinterpreted by dozens of artists over the years. (The Bangles released a cover in the ‘80s; even Katy Perry’s 2010 single “California Gurls” includes a nod to the group.)
Never a band to peter out on the B-side, Radio City ends with “I’m in Love with a Girl,” somewhat of a sequel to “Thirteen” that R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills has said “may be the best, simplest love song ever.”
Unfortunately, history repeated itself upon Radio City’s release and distribution problems persisted. In many ways, Big Star was a victim of its time. Back in the day, if a label couldn’t get records on radio and into stores, it was a crushing blow to the artist.
While #1 Record and Radio City are separate achievements, they’re often treated as one; in fact, in the late ‘70s they were released as a double album and were sold this way for decades. (Earlier this year Stax reissued them separately again.)
Big Star deserved a long and prosperous career, but that wasn’t meant to be. The group officially disbanded in 1974, after its third record was shelved. (Four years later, Third/Sister Lovers came out to critical raves.) Bell, who had gone on pursue a solo career, died in a car accident in 1978 at age 27.
In the 1990s Big Star made a long-awaited return, thanks to several artists who credited its music as an influence. A new lineup performed off and on, and long-running sitcom That ‘70s Show adopted “In the Street” as its theme.
Sadly, Chilton and Hummel died in 2010, which left Stephens as the only surviving member. While Big Star as we knew it is gone, in recent years Stephens has joined other musicians (including Mills, The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and Chris Stamey of The dB’s) to perform Third across the country.
It’s clear that Big Star was influential and beloved by critics. But even more than that, I consider the group a personal band, one that sparks an intimate connection.
I can recall the first moment I heard #1 Record and Radio City in a friend’s bedroom in the early '90s. When I listen to them again now, I’m transported back to those days of young love, rebellion and creative discovery — all complex feelings Big Star managed to articulate so masterfully.
Whitney Matheson (@whitneymatheson) is a pop-culture writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.