The Bodhisattva Beat
Music and Life

Big Star: It Begins

Big_star_72

This could have been the longest post I would ever make, but I decided to break it into sections. In order to do the subject matter justice, I had to be thorough. Do yourself a favor, and take it all in. I will post them in order to make it easy to follow.

Many people might be familiar with Alex Chilton because he was in the Box Tops, or his cult status as a solo artist. What you may not be aware of is the band from which his cult status began. After the Box Tops, and his first attempt as a solo, Chilton returned to Memphis and hooked up with his old friend Chris Bell. Bell was in a band with Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel. As timing would have it, their fourth member had just left, and the opening was perfect for Alex. Thus was born the best band you’ve probably never heard of, Big Star.

Big Star had all the right elements. They had a member with an established name, a contract with a Stax Records subsidiary, the brilliant songwriting team of Bell and Chilton, and a unique sound. In fact, they were indie / alternative long before it truly existed. The term power pop is often applied, but it was much more than that. So what went wrong? The sad fact is that Ardent and Stax were having distribution problems. The records just weren’t getting to the stores.

Problems concerning the band’s direction (plus the fact that Alex received more attention because of his previous fame) caused a rift, and Chris left the band after “#1 Record” to pursue a solo career. However, some of his work did make it to “Radio City.” Unfortunately the same distribution problems occurred with the follow up. Andy Hummel then gave up. Chilton and Stephens soldiered on to record another Big Star album, but it was shelved.

Chris Bell worked on solo music, and recorded the singles “I Am the Cosmos” and “You and Your Sister”  (with some help from some of his Big Star pals). As many truly creative talents do, he suffered from depression, and substance abuse. By the time there was enough material for an album, his life was cut short by a car crash in 1978.

The interesting part is that some of the music did end up getting heard by the right people. R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, The Replacements, and others have all cited Big Star as a major influence. The Replacements even have a song called “Alex Chilton.”

Probably because of these endorsements, the story continued. The first two albums were re-released on one disc, and “Third / Sister Lovers” (as the third album was eventually titled) finally saw the light of day. Chris Bell’s brilliant solo material was finally released as an album in 1992, appropriately titled “I am the Cosmos.” In 1993 Jody and Alex reformed the band with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from the posies. A few years later, households all over the nation would be introduced to the music without even knowing it, as a cover of “Down the Street” became the theme song for “That ’70s Show” (they should have used the original. It’s much better). Then in 2005, the unimaginable happened. Alex, Jody, Jon and Ken recorded a new Big Star album.

Something about this band struck me right from the first note. I found it instantly appealing. Then other levels began to reveal themselves. That would be enough, but the band’s story, and undeserved lack of notoriety makes it even more compelling. So, you now no about the band, but it is always really about the music. I will get to that now, so keep going.

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2 Responses to “Big Star: It Begins”

  1. Nicely done, HT. Great to see such an overlooked band get some exposure. Like what’s been said about the Velvet Underground, Big Star didn’t sell a lot of records during its existence; but everyone who bought one went out and formed an amazing band!


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