Big Star was one of the handful of bands who most shaped my musical tastes at the crucial age of 14-18 or so. Radio City and Sister Lovers/ Big Star Third are icons of my personal aesthetics (I never loved #1 Record as much), but ironically I haven’t had either of them on MP3, other than some tracks included on an Alex Chilton cd collection. So Keep Your Eye on the Sky, the Big Star box set, which is full of demos, alternate tracks and some early live recordings, was a really cool birthday gift (thanks Jake). Getting it also inspired me to pick up the Continuum 33 1/3 book on Radio City.
Carrie Brownstein has a nice little blog post in that Best Music Writing of 2009 book about the diminishment of “mystery and the mysterious” in pop music today. Big Star is a perfect example of this. As everyone comments, being a fan of the band in the 1970s usually involved stumbling upon one of their albums — maybe Radio City, with its William Eggleston photo of a bare light bulb on the cover — in a dollar bin or something, being blown away by how amazing the music was, and having no idea who these people were. Peter Buck of R.E.M. is quoted in the box set liner notes:
No one I knew had ever seen them play. I think I’d read that one of the guys had been in the Box Tops — which made no sense either. Information was scarce. So these records they’d put out, they were simply artifacts. It was like seeing the heads of Easter Island or the Great Pyramids or something. You didn’t know what they were or how they’d gotten there.
By the time I got into Big Star in 1984 or so they were a lot better known, but even so, you couldn’t Google them, there was so Wikipedia page, so you ended up relying a lot on the little Robert Christgau capsule reviews or the Rolling Stone Record Guide entry and the like. Going through the box set and this book now offers a surplus of information and photographs that once and for all eliminates that numinous haze, born of a paucity of information, that used to surround the band — but at this point, that’s perfectly OK with me, as they deserve all-time-great historical status, with all the archival trappings.
Bruce Eaton’s 33 1/3 book is quite good. It’s austere in its formalist focus on “the music itself” — Eaton starts out explaining that because of all the gossip, rumor and falsehoods surrounding the Big Star and Alex Chilton stories, he’s going to focus pretty exclusively on the actual process by which the band formed and made Radio City. This involves a fair amount of to me, somewhat boring technical chitchat about production choices, recording and mixing, etc., but on the other hand, I did feel I got a better understanding of what was musically/technically special about the band and the importance of the producer John Fry. I also suspect there may have been a strategic element here, as Eaton makes clear that Chilton has expressed zero interest, in recent years, in talking with any journalists, and it sounds as if Chilton agreed to participate on the condition that the interviews would be almost exclusively about the music and recording.
A few tidbits/insights I gleaned from the book:
- Chilton grew up with a sometimes jazz musician father and was heavily immersed in Memphis/Stax R&B (Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, etc). The Anglophiliac, British Invasion sound of Big Star was almost entirely a product of Chris Bell’s obsessions, and Chilton seems always to have viewed the band as a vehicle for this particular, very “white” approach to music which he saw as only a small part of what he himself was about. Actually it’s kind of hilarious in Eaton’s book how much Chilton repudiates Big Star and Radio City, their masterpiece, in particular; he says he thinks “Back of a Car” (which he did not write) is the album’s “only good song” and that he thinks his lyrics on the album as a whole are terrible. (Although this struck me as heresy, if you actually look up the lyrics to “O My Soul” or something you realize that they are pretty flimsy; it’s a great example of how little lyrics matter except in their musical context.)
- Big Star opened for Badfinger in Boston in March 1974, one of their few performances ever outside Memphis; their instruments were stolen and they had to play with gear borrowed from Billy Squier (! — yes, of later “The Stroke” fame!) of local band Sidewinder.
- Notwithstanding the point about Chilton’s partial disaffection from the “whiteness” of Big Star’s approach, Chilton himself says that he copped certain musical structures and ideas on Radio City from Bach and other Baroque music… which actually kind of makes sense.
- During and after Big Star, Chilton was in a semi-/unofficial pickup studio band called the Dolby Fuckers. Surprised no one’s ever borrowed that name.
- Of course everyone knows that Big Star was a “critics’ band.” But the book makes clear that Radio City never would’ve been recorded (after Chris Bell’s departure from the band) if it hadn’t been for the somewhat bizarre event called the Rock Writers Convention in Memphis in May 1973. All surviving members of the band attest that the good response they got to their performance at the convention convinced them that they actually could have an audience. Considering that the very idea of a rock critic was a fairly recent invention at the time, Big Star may have been in some respects the first band who recorded specifically for rock critics and with their tastes in mind. (I was also surprised to learn that Chilton knew Richard Meltzer and other rock writers from his sojourn in NYC in 1970.)
- Eaton makes some good points about the difference between Big Star and other “power pop” bands of the era sometimes associated with them (like the Raspberries or Badfinger). While the latter were classicists trying to work entirely within pre-established musical structures, Big Star (after #1 Record especially) was always about taking and reproducing those kinds of pop structures but messing with them, disintegrating them, removing the ground beneath them. This then builds to an extreme on Big Star Third which is still unparalleled as a woozy, druggy, depressive, achingly gorgeous collection of songs.
One more thought: I was fascinated to hear the Flying Burrito Brothers cover (“Hot Burrito #2”) in the live set on the box set. Chilton seems to have more than a few things in common with Gram Parsons as a musically omnivorous, addictive, louche son of privilege (well, relative privilege in Chilton’s case) with an ambivalent relationship to pop music in what was becoming the New South.
I saw Alex Chilton in 1985 at the Rat in Boston. I was 16 and had the most ridiculous fake I.D. I was desperate to get in and was thrilled that I did. If I recall correctly he played stuff from Feudalist Tarts and various R&B covers and then a few Big Star songs like “September Gurls” which made me very happy. I think I ended up walking all the way back home to Cambridge from Kenmore Square at 2 a.m. or whatever.
The box set contains an amazing collection of photos. My favorite is one of Chilton at age 20 in the Chelsea Hotel in NYC with long hair, tie-dyed tank top (!) and scruffy facial hair holding a copy of the Byrds’ Untitled.
This photo above is from the back of Radio City: Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and Chilton — in the original T.G.I. Friday’s in Memphis!