I have just two words for you today: Big Star. This band from the early-Seventies was never popular during their run. Their original lineup of former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton, guitarist Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel was only together for one glorious album that no one seemed to hear until in the Eighties ironically titled #1 Record. The album failed due to poor record distribution and promotion, although critics praised the album at the time. Upon this failure, Bell left the band, taking with him the sweetness of his melodies but also a touch of personal darkness that made his contributions so important.
The remaining trio produced two more classic power pop albums over the next three years, Radio City and 3rd (or Third/Sister Lovers as the 1992 re-release is titled). But, these were essentially Chilton albums, that, to me, lacks the yin-and-yang, give-and-take of the first album that Bell and Chilton created. Now, don’t get me wrong! Those albums are fantastic, but they are not transcendent as the first album.
Unfortunately, Chris Bell passed away due to injuries in a car accident at the tender age of 27. At the time, he had released a single, “I Am the Cosmos” that became something of a cult hit over the years. Finally, in 1992, Bell’s album, also called I Am the Cosmos, saw the light of day and has been praised by critics throughout the rock world. Yet, once again, what made Big Star’s debut album so magical, was, as The Beatles’ songwriting dynamic proved, Chilton’s gruffness and Bell’s sweetness rubbed up against each other creating an artistic tension that made their music so soaring yet grounded with a lyrical darkness that made the band so very appealing.
Like I said, the band created this music in the Seventies but did not come into prominence until the Eighties. All of a sudden, it was as if Big Star had been transported to the correct decade to influence just the right group of early Generation X-preferred artists, such as R.E.M., The Bangles, The Replacements and many of the other alternative bands of the day. Personally, I discovered the band through The Bangles terrific cover of Big Star’s now-classic song “September Gurls” that appeared on The Bangles’ commercial breakthrough album Different Light, as well as The Replacements fantastic tribute song “Alex Chilton.” But, as hard as I tried, I never could locate any of Big Star’s albums until the heyday of CD reissues in the Nineties. But, once I obtained those three glorious albums, I was a fan. As a matter of fact, I have a Big Star T-shirt that I wear and bought my granddaughter a Big Star onesie so we can match. Of course, my boys get it. Big Star is an obsession of mine. So much so, that I continue to purchase every Record Store Day repackaging of their material on vinyl. It’s sad but true. I just love the band and their music.
The band’s influence can be traced from those great Eighties bands to the prominent power pop revival artists of the Nineties and today. I am talking about Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, Jimmy Eat World, Green Day, Material Issue, Fountains of Wayne and all the other pop-punk and power pop bands around. All of them are indebted to Big Star, either directly or indirectly.
So, today, after covering the Raspberries and Badfinger, I felt that it would be appropriate to finish this little tribute to three of my favorite early-Seventies bands who all contributed to me going back to learn about The Beatles, Beach Boys, etc., while priming me for the great music of my teen years in the form of Cheap Trick, The Knack, The Romantics, Marshall Crenshaw, Shoes, Fotomaker, Pezband and all the other great power pop/new wave artists of the late-Seventies and early-Eighties. So, here’s my Top 25 Favorite Songs by Big Star.
25. “What’s Goin Ahn” (Radio City, 1974)
24. “Slut” (Columbia: Live at Missouri University, 4/25/93, 1993)
23. “Blue Moon” (Third/Sister Lovers, 1992)
22. “Take Care” (Third/Sister Lovers, 1992)
21. “Til the End of the Day” (Third/Sister Lovers, 1992)
20. “I’m in Love with a Girl” (Radio City, 1974)
19. “Kizza Me” (Third/Sister Lovers, 1992)
18. “My Life Is Right” (#1 Record, 1972)
17. “Give Me Another Chance” (#1 Record, 1972)
16. “O My Soul” (Radio City, 1974)
15. “She’s a Mover” (Radio City, 1974)
14. “You Get What You Deserve” (Radio City, 1974)
13. “Turn My Back on the Sun” (In Space, 2005)
12. “Jesus Christ” (Third/Sister Lovers, 1992)
11. “Kangaroo” (Third/Sister Lovers, 1992)
10. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” (#1 Record, 1972). What an awesome song! This song is just begging to be heard by teens on the radio.
9. “In the Street” (#1 Record, 1972). More famous for its cover version by Cheap Trick that was used as the theme song for That 70s Show, this song is even more powerful in its original form.
8. “Holocaust” (Third/Sister Lovers, 1992). What a wickedly dark ballad.
7. “Feel” (#1 Record, 1972). This song is the blueprint for Cheap Trick’s entire career, all wrapped up in three minutes of pure bliss.
6. “Back of a Car” (Radio City, 1974). I would have loved to hear The Bangles cover this song just to hear the ladies work their vocal magic on these lyrics. Yes, I know what the lyrics say. I just want to hear women sing it.
5. “Thank You Friends” (Third/Sister Lovers, 1992). What a powerful swansong to a great band.
4. “Nighttime” (Third/Sister Lovers, 1992). This is the spiritual godfather to R.E.M.’s outstanding “Nightswimming.”
3. “The Ballad of El Goodo” (#1 Record, 1972). This is just a perfect song. Why isn’t it #1 on my list? Because the next too are classics.
2. “September Gurls” (Radio City, 1974). Sure, The Bangles made it their own, but the original is the perfect amalgamation of Sixties sweetness and Seventies sass.
1. “Thirteen” (#1 Record, 1972). Oh my! This song is one of the finest examples of teen yearning in all of rock history. It should be covered, but, on the other hand, probably not because it is just perfect the way it is. This song represents both the power and potential not fully realized by Big Star. This one melts my heart while reminding me how painful growing up was.