Power Pop: Big Star, All The Way From Memphis

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It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, and you look like a star but you’re still on the dole: The true story of Big Star, Alex Chilton’s rematch with musical glory. By Corey duBrowa

Paul Westerberg once proudly proclaimed that he’d “never travel far without a little Big Star.” Teenage Fanclub owes any career momentum it was ever able to attain to the style codified on Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City, the first of which was released 30 years ago. The Fanclub’s fetishistic obsession was deep enough to inspire the naming of its third album in honor of a favorite Big Star track (“Thirteen”), a song upon which Elliott Smith would later put his own wounded imprint. Cheap Trick—a band that clearly cribbed a move or two from the Big Star playbook—recently resurrected its career from irrelevance by re-recording Big Star’s “In The Street” as “That ‘70s Song,” the opening theme to Fox’s retro sitcom That ‘70s Show. (The original’s “Wish we had/A joint so bad” couplet has, of course, been surgically removed for the TV version.)

Musicians from all over the alt-rock kingdom have chased down Big Star’s producers, John Fry and Jim Dickinson, in an attempt to tap into the vein of beautiful loserdom they so perfectly captured on tape—the Afghan Whigs, Replacements, Primal Scream and Mudhoney foremost among them. Despite Herculean efforts, none has really ever gotten it quite right.

The Memphians known as Big Star forged the template for the genre that would come to be known as power pop: a mash-note mélange of sweet and sour that would be emulated by nearly every band that ever attempted to write a love song for the radio. If you ever sat in your car transfixed as 3:35 of jingle-jangle guitars, wobbly harmonies and lyrics putting a face to teenage confusion poured out of your speakers and down your spine in a cascade of chills, you have Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel to thank for it.

As Butch Cassidy once asked the Sundance Kid, “Who are those guys, anyway?” They’re the guys who launched a thousand rock-crit ships, the doomed purveyors of a style for which no sizable audience existed during the band’s heyday, a star-crossed ensemble whose influence is tattooed upon two generations of music created since their demise. For all you “ladies and gentlemen who made this all so probable” (Chilton’s sarcastic shout-out to the ungrateful on Third’s “Thank You Friends”), we introduce to you the band you’ve (sort of) known for all these years.

I See Only Sunshine
In 1970, 20-year-old Alex Chilton was already a wizened veteran, having racked up a number-one single with blue-eyed-soul progenitors the Box Tops via his gravel-throated essay on teen longing, “The Letter.” This, in turn, had exposed him to the wild-eyed wonders of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle when the Box Tops toured with such icons of the era as the Doors, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Beach Boys (who, among other things, introduced Chilton to Charles Manson and LSD). It was a wild, reckless time, and Chilton was ready to have a go at doing his music his way, without the “adult supervision” that had been imposed on the Box Tops by svengali producer Dan Penn.

“Dan had his agenda and didn’t much care what I thought,” says Chilton. “Some of his choices of material wouldn’t have been my choices. But I could see that if I got out of line, I was gonna have to go back to high school, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. I stayed in line until I was 18, and then I said, ‘The hell with y’all.’” Chilton retains this indifferent attitude toward the music industry to this day.

“Alex is what I’d call an art brat,” says Jim Dickinson. “Memphis’ underground community in the ‘60s was small and multigenerational. (Photographer) William Eggleston had a developing room behind the Chiltons’ place in a guest house. Alex’s mother ran an art gallery, his father was a wannabe jazz musician. I’d been aware of Alex on the scene from the time he was 12.”

Chilton spent the summer between leaving the Box Tops and joining Big Star playing folk clubs in New York City’s Greenwich Village, occasionally sitting in with Memphis friend Keith Sykes and even once with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. By the time Chilton returned home, it was evident something had changed, both physically and psychically. “I have never known exactly what happened to him up there,” says Dickinson, “but he came back with that Big Star voice and was a completely different person, quiet and withdrawn.”

When Chilton got back to Memphis, he had a band waiting for him: Ice Water, a trio that included singer/guitarist Chris Bell (whom Chilton knew from hanging around Ardent Studios), drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel. They set to work on their debut, adopting a new name from the Big Star grocery-store chain whose sign winked at them across the road from their rehearsal room on National Street. Although Memphis was steeped in the kind of gritty soul music that would ultimately forge its lasting musical identity (Booker T. & The MG’s, Al Green, Stax Records), Big Star was an anomaly at the time, given the group’s primary influences were more British than anything remotely homegrown. For his part, Stephens was thrilled to be among such sympathetic company. “I liked where everybody was coming from, in that we all seemed to have the same English rock influences,” he enthuses.

“Chris had a concept, and I got with the concept,” adds Chilton, who was himself enough of a British Invasion fan to have seen the Beatles play Memphis in 1966. “He was such an Anglophile, and I thought, ‘OK, groovy, we’ll make some of this kind of music.’”

#1 Record was released in 1972 on Ardent’s in-house label and haphazardly distributed through Stax and, later, CBS; the album would go on to reap rave critical notices but little in the way of sales (estimates at the time reporting 20,000 copies sold seem to be optimistically high). Rolling Stone’s Bud Scoppa was one such convert, writing in 1973 that “there’s not a trace of Memphis in Big Star. Parallels are Badfinger and the Raspberries, but Big Star shows more depth and consistency than either of those. A closer parallel is Todd Rundgren, but even [he] hasn’t made a whole album as impressive as this one.”

This was some pretty lofty company for a fledgling band, and it was clear from day one that the Bell/Chilton songwriting partnership was something special, producing as it did such stone classics as “The Ballad Of El Goodo,” “Thirteen” and “In The Street.” The high-lonesome harmonies, simple charms of the songs’ structural architecture and bittersweet batter that folded in the ragged defiance of Chilton’s “Don’t Lie To Me” and the fragile melancholia of Bell’s “ST 100/6” set the group apart from 99 percent of everything that surrounded it at the time.

But problems were already beginning to dent the band’s shiny surface. For one, Big Star was more a studio creation than a working band; the original quartet did a total of three gigs together, including a finale played to 20 fans at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, after which Bell, Chilton and Hummel were arrested for marijuana possession on their drive home to Memphis. “Those early dates were really a struggle,” says Stephens. “The band never really rehearsed, and I didn’t practice on my own because I didn’t have a place to do so.”

Furthermore, Bell was beginning to resent the fact that—due primarily to Chilton’s work in the Box Tops—his partner was quickly becoming the focus of media coverage. It was Bell’s group, after all, and the lack of recognition began to eat at him. “Chris got disenchanted with having to live in Alex’s shadow,” says Stephens. “Not that this was the case in the studio or in practice, but it was the case in our reviews. Chris probably resented that, and he quit the band.”

Dickinson sees things slightly differently: “It was Chris’ band, and Alex took it away from him, just like Jagger and Richards took the Stones away from Brian Jones.”

The longer answer as to why Bell left his own band is decidedly more tangled. He was struggling with twin demons—increasingly voluminous drug use and a growing self-awareness that he might be gay—and spent several years after leaving Big Star trying to sort out these conflicts, including a lengthy period of spiritual exploration that found Bell declaring himself a born-again Christian. (Some of his lyrics on #1 Record bear witness to Bell grappling with matters of devotion and doubt.) Just as he was beginning to see some momentum in his musical career again via the sessions for solo album I Am The Cosmos, Bell died Dec. 27, 1978, in an early-morning auto accident when his speeding Triumph hit a telephone pole. He was 27 years old.

“The night he died, I drove out to Ardent Studios looking for him,” remembers Stephens. “I was driving down Poplar Street and realized that traffic was stalled up ahead. There were police cars, and it was obvious there had been a wreck. I didn’t want to witness any of that, so I took an alternate route home. To find out that it was Chris that was involved the next morning … ” Stephens trails off. “Chris’ emotions ran deep. There was a lot stirring there.”

Try Again
Given the bonds that had developed between Big Star and the rock-writing fraternity that adored the band, it’s somewhat fitting that it would require a gathering of the rock-scribe tribes in Memphis in 1973 to resurrect Big Star from the ashes.

The band effectively split up after Bell’s departure. Stephens and Hummel had both returned to college, while Chilton once again turned his attention to a solo career and began recording a new batch of material with drummer Richard Rosebrough and bassist Danny Jones; a subset of this work (“Mod Lang,” “She’s A Mover” and “What’s Going Ahn”) would eventually appear on Radio City. But Ardent publicist John King had other ideas and was determined to breathe a little more life into the Big Star balloon.

“I remember John giving me a call to see if we would get back together for a one-off performance at this rock writers’ convention,” says Stephens. “His idea was to give rock writers a voice in what they do and how they’re compensated—and maybe promote a little Stax product at the same time. We’d gotten a lot of great press, and we figured the audience would be friendly, so we’d just go out there and have a good time. And that’s exactly what happened. It was pretty wild.”

Critic Richard Meltzer introduced the band in typically foul and hilarious fashion: “Puke on your momma’s pussy, here’s Big Star.” Says Stephens, “I remember him up dancing on a table with his shirt off. Cameron Crowe was there, Bud Scoppa, Danny Goldberg, Lester Bangs. It encouraged us to do a second record. For me, that was the genesis of Radio City.”

If #1 Record was the sound of pop meeting rock on the playground after school for a fistfight, Radio City was the messy aftermath of the battle. Gone was the polish Bell had contributed to the debut (with the exception of “Back Of A Car,” which surely bears his imprint if not his writing credit), replaced by a more jagged, desperate energy that made Radio City crackle. While some of its tracks blaze along with an amphetamine-fueled urgency (“O My Soul,” “Mod Lang”), others demonstrate Chilton’s increasingly jaundiced worldview. A resigned, self-medicating vibe permeates songs such as “What’s Going Ahn” and “Daisy Glaze” like syrup soaking through a sponge. The album also features “September Gurls,” the prototypical power-pop tune and one of Chilton’s finest moments as a songwriter, a sub-three-minute symphony of wistful memories, quicksilver guitar runs and a carved-in-granite chorus.

But, as ever, Big Star was never far from systems failure. Radio City fell prey to distribution woes of an even higher order than #1 Record had been subject to, and even after Hummel was replaced by John Lightman in order to facilitate a more loose-limbed touring trio, the band struggled to line up gigs. After playing Max’s Kansas City in New York and opening for Badfinger in Boston (a gig that cost the band the majority of its equipment when it was stolen before the show; Billy Squier’s pre-fame band the Sidewinders ended up supplying the necessary instruments for the evening), Big Star slugged it out on the second-division circuit and generally limped around the country in search of an audience. “We opened for Anne Peebles in some clubs in Ohio,” remembers Stephens. “It was tough to find gigs. We’d take whatever we could get.”

It was around the time Big Star returned from this grueling road duty that the group’s lingering malaise finally developed into a full-blown meltdown. Chilton, after the years of frustration that had built up trying to exact some measure of artistic freedom within an inherently fickle business, simply took it upon himself to destroy his work before others could do the job for him. With Stephens the only original band member still along for the ride, Chilton re-entered Ardent with a new producer (Dickinson, who’d worked with the Stones and Arlo Guthrie), intent on bringing the house down around him.

“Big Star was over,” insists Dickinson. “Alex was on his way to a solo career and had some songs left over that he wanted to do his way. People have accused me of indulging him—and maybe I did—but I just saw fit to unleash Alex’s vision. There was this demo that Alex had cut with Spooner Oldham in Dan (Penn)’s old studio; this was when he was starting to get into his ‘obscure-material cabaret act.’ They did a take on ‘Dark End Of The Street,’ and everybody is playing different chords. It’s a mess. They got to the bridge and stopped cold. Then Alex says, ‘Hit me, band,’” he laughs, giving Chilton’s phrase an exaggerated, venomous drawl. “When I heard that, I thought, ‘He hears the band in his head.’ On Third, I wanted to get that out of his head and on tape.”

Third (referred to later as Sister Lovers due to Chilton and Stephens’ parallel romantic involvements at the time with twins Lesa and Holliday Aldredge) was the final straw. Chilton was drinking heavily in order to take the edge off the steady diet of drugs he was ingesting and generally making a valiant effort to throw himself down the well in one last headlong attempt at artistic righteousness.

“It was an entropy statement,” says Dickinson. “That record was [about] deterioration; the group had fallen apart, the label was falling apart, several important relationships were falling apart. Alex developed this attitude: ‘All right, I understand this game. It’s gonna get screwed up by somebody, so it might as well be me.’ ‘Kanga Roo’ is the one where I hooked him. One night he and [Lesa] put down his vocal and a 12-string guitar on the same track so they couldn’t be separated, then buried the needle in the red—really heavy tape compression. And I came in the following morning, and he played it for me and said, ‘All right, Mr. Producer, let’s see you produce that.’ I started overdubbing and put the mellotron on it, and he perked up. When I started in on the feedback, he came out of the booth and put the solo on it, playing his guitar with a drumstick. After that, he was mine.”

Third occupied nearly nine months of off-and-on work in 1974 and represents all the darkness Chilton was capable of summoning; “Big Black Car,” “Holocaust” and “Dream Lover” are the work of a tortured, devastated soul, someone running the car at full throttle with no gas whatsoever in the tank and nothing in the way of lubrication to cool the parts properly. By the time Chilton had come to loggerheads with Dickinson over his prodigious substance intake, he was too gone to fight and simply walked away from the whole affair, leaving the record unkempt, unfinished and unheard. It wouldn’t receive a proper release until 1978 (although bootlegged copies circulated through underground circles in sufficient enough quantities to accord the set semi-legendary status well ahead of its official pressing) and wasn’t mastered in a sequence even remotely close to its creator’s intentions until Rykodisc’s 1992 re-release, which was assembled by Dickinson. To this day, Chilton still bears the producer ill will for seizing control of the project; in fact, its very existence is somewhat puzzling to those who were around to witness the carnage involved in its creation.

“I don’t know what Alex’s intentions were,” says Stephens resignedly. “I never really asked. For all intents and purposes, it’s an Alex solo record.”

Give Me Another Chance
If Big Star were any other band, its story would stop there. Chilton would’ve disappeared like Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson or Skip Spence, a casualty of the era now in seclusion, in need of state care or dead. But, of course, being Big Star, that’s not how it ended up happening.

The 1980s didn’t really exist insofar as the band was concerned; yet in other ways, this was the decade that kept its musical legacy afloat long enough for people to grab it and make it their own. Chilton spent the better part of this lost decade weaving in and out of music; 1980’s Live In London found him backed by the Soft Boys, and he would later try his hand at producing the Replacements and the Cramps. After another spell in New York, Chilton moved to New Orleans, got clean and worked sporadically as a cab driver and as a dishwasher in the French Quarter. In 1987, he released High Priest, his first album since 1979’s messy Like Flies On Sherbet; it contained only four Chilton originals among a sea of obscure covers and hewed to a campy, lounge-like persona, seemingly out of spite.

Stephens, meanwhile, had returned to Memphis State to pursue a marketing degree. He got married and subsequently landed a job at Ardent, first as a talent scout, later as studio manager just as Ardent was experiencing a renaissance period. Stephens could see that—slowly—musicians were rediscovering Big Star’s vibrant body of work, as ‘80s acts like R.E.M., the dB’s, Bangles and Replacements all paid tribute.

“The first day I started (at Ardent), the Replacements were recording Pleased To Meet Me with Dickinson,” recalls Stephens. “Of course, I had no idea who they were and never said anything to them. I figured I’d just be bothering them, so I never met them while they were at Ardent. But from reading accounts of how people were turned on to Big Star, [Replacements song “Alex Chilton”] certainly did a lot for us. We got helped a lot that way.”

The next chapter in the legend of Big Star began in early 1993, when a couple of DJs from the University of Missouri at Columbia radio station, seeking the headlining band for the school’s annual Springfest concert, decided they should “go big.”

“It was supposed to be a one-off show,” recalls Ken Stringfellow, Posies co-founder and a card-carrying member of the resurrected Big Star for nearly a decade. “These two guys thought what if they could pick one of their favorite bands to headline the show and pulled the name Big Star out of the air. They said, ‘Let’s see if we can actually do it.’ So they tracked Jody down, and he said, ‘I’ll do it, if you can get Alex to do it,’ figuring that was the end of it right there. He gave them Alex’s number, and much to everyone’s shock, he said, ‘Sure.’ So then they needed to figure out how the hell they were going to form a band.”

The Posies were not only the right men for the job, they had been lobbying for it all along. “The [DJs] wanted a four-piece band, a second guitarist to do the harmony thing,” says Stringfellow. “They figured they should get some names of marquee value, so they looked into Mike Mills, Paul Westerberg and Matthew Sweet, all of whom for various reasons either couldn’t or wouldn’t do it. Chris Stamey was also asked at some point, but I guess he wanted too much money; he said, ‘I’ll do it for $10,000,’ or at least that was the rumor, that he wanted this unreasonable fee.” (Stamey denies the accuracy of this figure, calling it “absurd but hilarious.”)

“Jody ended up really liking our music,” says Stringfellow, “and in 1991, the Posies released a seven-inch with covers of ‘Feel’ and Bell’s ‘I Am The Cosmos’ on it. Jody had suggested us from the beginning as bass and guitar, but we were never on the level of notoriety as the people considered in our stead. It made sense to us, like we were born for the job, and I made no secret of my opinion. I mean, we were already a unit, and singing impossibly high harmonies was part of the deal. That’s kinda what we did for a living.”

After Stringfellow made his way down to the South By Southwest music festival in Texas to press his point in person with Stephens, he and Posies partner Jon Auer were awarded the coveted bass and guitar slots in the reformed Big Star. Chilton and Stephens flew out to the the duo’s home turf of Seattle for a get-acquainted session and succeeded in creating an indelible impression.

“I’d heard all sorts of things (about Chilton),” says Stringfellow. “Like he could be difficult and arbitrary, kinda broken. We were just waiting to see what kind of character we were dealing with. He came through the door and didn’t say much, just set up his guitar and then asked, ‘Y’all mind if I smoke?’ His detached, cool-guy persona seems like a weird pursuit of some sort of Zen. It’s an image he thinks works for him, gives him an edge. But when Alex plays his music, underneath all that, there are so many emotions that are so powerful. He loses half his years and all of his nihilistic construction.”

The first gig they played together was recorded for posterity: the shaggy 1993 set Columbia: Live At Missouri University. The quartet ended up touring Europe in tandem with the Posies, and Big Star remains a live act to this day, doing a handful of shows every year for a fiercely devoted following while somehow managing to avoid the stale aura of the oldies/reunion circuit. There’s a new song in the set list these days called “Hot Thing,” one Chilton began introducing onstage a few years ago by promising it was “gonna be on our new record.” Contradictory as ever, there are no plans currently on the books for such an album.

Oddly enough for a man who’s seen more than his share of the seamy underside of the music biz, Chilton seems vaguely contented with his lot. Big Star and Box Tops publishing royalties and receipts from both band’s shows make up the majority of his income now, and he takes a more measured approach in evaluating the band’s legacy. “Those records are brilliant in some ways and they are the gropings of young fools in others,” he says.

Stringfellow has come to see the group in much the same way as he began: as a fan. “Big Star, to me, is proto-emo in a way,” he says. “Even stuff that’s trying to be fun, like ‘In The Street,’ there’s just something very fucked-up about it. There’s a very tangible poignancy about their music.”

“Ultimately, we’re a soul band,” says Stephens. “There’s nothing more powerful in music than influencing or touching somebody at a particular time and age in their life. Between the ages of 17 to 22 are pretty emotionally charged years—at least they were for me. I was pretty unsure of myself. But music empowered me, gave me a self-assuredness I didn’t have otherwise. Then the song would end, and all that empowerment would go away. That’s why you had to keep playing the song over and over and over again.”

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4 Comments

  1. Posted June 2, 2009 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Note: they did put out an album in 2005 called “in space”. only if you expect it to absolutely suck to high heaven will you be pleasantly surprised on some of the tracks.

  2. Posted November 6, 2009 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Blondie’s Union City Blues is pretty up there in a hotly contested field. Another Girl/ Another Planet probably challenges September Gurls for the title of the most up while down power pop song of all time.

  3. geebee
    Posted November 14, 2009 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    I pray that Alex takes care of himself and undergoes another fertile creative period. There is such a depth to Big Star songs that they demand repeated listenings. When the Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up album came out I parked the rest of my life and spent a chunk of my time ingesting every note and nuance of the lyrics of that album. Every time I listen to Columbia University and In Space I get the same buzz. If Alex only knew how wonderful another album, any album, would be…

  4. Corey duBrowa
    Posted March 19, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Wow, looking back at this story just makes me miss the late Alex Chilton all the more. It’s like the Mats sang: Children by the millions mourn for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round/they say ‘I’m in love, what’s that song?’ RIP Alex. You were well and truly one of a kind.

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