Still, it’s a matter of finding someone who couldn’t like Big Star, as opposed to someone who doesn’t. Despite their mastery of pop songcraft and their inherent appeal, they never achieved commercial success during their career, and even now, knowledge of the band is generally limited to people with more than just a passing interest in popular music.
Big Star were a band who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were determined to create Beatle-esque pop nuggets with lyrics about girls at a time when the public wanted anything but that. Let’s face it, during Big Star’s initial period of activity, the casual rock fan was more interested in the dirty blues rock of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the progressive ambitions of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and David Bowie’s glam-rock blitz of Ziggy Stardust. Big Star’s hometown of Memphis also left them to sign with Ardent, a label distributed by Stax, which primarily released soul records. Stax was far more focused on promoting records from Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers, and not knowing what to do with a pop group like Big Star, the label left their albums with poor promotional campaigns and distribution.
The band’s debut, #1 Record, which contained such immaculate songs as “Feel,” “Thirteen” and “The Ballad of El Goodo” and received positive press, still sold poorly. Frustrated with the situation, Bell and bassist Andy Hummel left during the creation of equally brilliant follow-up Radio City. That record, which would end up being arguably better than #1 Record, due to the strengths of songs like “September Gurls,” “O My Soul” and “I’m in Love With a Girl,” was equally praised by the critics and equally unconsumed by the public.
Chilton, along with drummer Jody Stephens, went back to the studio to record Third/Sister Lovers, an album marked by disappointment, depression and heartbreak. Ardent found the record too uncommercial to be released despite strong pop moments in “Kizza Me,” “Jesus Christ” and “For You” and the album sat on the shelves for nearly four years until it was finally issued in 1978. Months later, Chris Bell died in a car accident, effectively ending Big Star’s activity for nearly twenty years.
So the band was always in an unfortunate position and was essentially doomed from the start, but with the eventual rejection of bloated progressive and hard rock and with countless young bands openly embracing three-minute pop songs toward the end of the 1970’s, Big Star’s music began to earn the respect of an ever-increasing number of young upstarts. By now, their legacy is largely unmatched in the world of independent and alternative rock and roll. Perhaps the first signs of this were found in the Replacements’ 1987 college rock hit “Alex Chilton,” where Paul Westerberg sang the praises of the Big Star leader. R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and Wilco have all acknowledged the influence of the group in their work. Chilton has joined Yo La Tengo on stage. Elliott Smith covered “Thirteen,” released posthumously on 2007’s New Moon. Fellow 70’s power-pop legends Cheap Trick covered “In the Street,” which became the theme song to That 70’s Show.
The band’s critical reputation has only steeped since their initial end. All three of their albums and many of their songs consistently end
up on “best of” lists, and both #1 Record and Radio City found spots on Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 albums of all time” list. “Dean of American rock critics” Robert Christgau was a fan from the start and critic Rob Sheffield wrote extensively about Big Star in his memoir Love is a Mix Tape, noting that they were the first band that he and his late wife bonded over.
The effects of Big Star’s growing underground popularity made their way back to Chilton, who along with Stephens and members of the Posies, reunited the band in the ‘90s and eventually released an album, In Space. Hummel was slated to join the band during a further reunion at this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, but this event was to be cut short by tragedy. Last Wednesday, Alex Chilton suffered a heart attack and passed away at the age of 59.
And so, as a tribute to his passing, I present my top five Alex Chilton moments, culling together four Big Star tunes and one from earlier band the Box Tops. Admittedly, I am still unfamiliar with much of his solo
work, but these songs should be a great entry point for anyone unfamiliar with the band and a reminder of Chilton’s incredible talents for those who know them.