It would be something of a misstatement to label Big Star the quintessential American band. No doubt the band’s influence has stretched leaps and bounds beyond the group’s original reach, but quintessence denotes a purity, and Big Star is anything but pure. It’s a mutt, a hybrid of styles, a fusion of worlds, and a revelation of spirits. Big Star was and is a melting pot, blending Delta and country blues with British Invasion harmonies, Memphis soul rhythms, and honest, straightforward lyricism. It was guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll but unlike anything heard before. The music spoke to its audience, not at it, and gave listeners, as Adam Duritz described, “direct gut-level access to what was going on inside.” History and hindsight point to Big Star as the band that provided the blueprint for future sounds such as ’70s power pop, ’80s college alternative, ’90s emotionally vulnerable songwriters, and the retro hybridization of it all during this century.
Big Star is the epitome of American rock ‘n’ roll.
Many musicians who began their earnest careers in the ’80s or early ’90s would declare that Big Star changed everything (or at least a good bit). Without Big Star it might be argued that American groups such as R.E.M. and The Replacements may never have left their basements and that British acts like Teenage Fanclub may have simply carried on with their “Catholic education” rather than come down from the Scottish Highlands. The magnificence found in Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend might never have been realized, and songwriters like Pete Yorn, Sharon Van Etten, and Kurt Vile, rather than producing compelling and emotionally provoking music, might be practicing accounting (though, according to Yorn, his sucking at math might have prevented that outcome).
Fate seemed to conspire against a nascent Big Star. Whether it was losing band members with each subsequent record or losing its distribution via Columbia Records after a deal fell through, Big Star’s music spent more time lining the halls of Ardent Studios than it did careening on American airwaves. After a bootleg reissue of the group’s first two albums as a double gatefold LP was released in England in the mid-to-late ’70s, Big Star found a somewhat attentive audience in the UK. Only then did that interest begin rippling back across the pond, eventually landing in towns like Athens, GA, and Minneapolis.
Prior to the advent of the Internet, there were many records and groups that simply could not be found or obtained easily. Big Star was among them. In 1992 when a revived Stax released the first two albums on a single compact disc and Rykodisc reissued Third/Sister Lovers, Big Star Live, and Chris Bell’s solo material as the collection I Am the Cosmos, Big Star’s music was at once readily available to the public at large. A release of the group’s 1974 WLIR rehearsal (not the actual performance heard on Big Star Live) also came out near the decade’s end, in addition to numerous collections and compilations. Despite the accessibility of the music and the group’s songs being used in films and TV shows such as That ’70s Show, the mythos surrounding Big Star remained.
In recent years, there’s been active progress in correcting that: revealing the truths behind the myths, stories, and, above all, the music. Keep an Eye on the Sky (2009) is perhaps the most comprehensive collection of Big Star music yet released. Complete with early demos and rare outtakes, when placed next to the group’s three albums, it presents a fuller, truer picture of these men as frail and fractured human beings far more than the martyred angels many came to see them as.
That picture is literally made even more complete with the release of Nothing Can Hurt Me, the first full-on documentary of the life and music of Big Star. Though their final chapter as a band may have closed, and Jody Stephens has said that the band officially is no more, the group and its music live on through live performances of Big Star’s Third. With Carl Marsh’s original string parts finally written out and new arrangements by Chris Stamey and a rotating cast of players that includes original members and familiar faces like R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Pete Yorn, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, and more, the group’s music is set to pass down to another generation.
Talking with musicians and mentors, friends and fans, the history of Big Star from the early days of Icewater and the Box Tops up to the group’s reformation, through all the disillusionment and disappointment, all the chaos and the cool, is revealed and all through the words of those involved, inspired and influenced by Big Star.
It all began when John Fry, founder of Ardent Studios in Memphis, walked into his office and saw a cocksure Chris Bell sitting in Fry’s chair with his feet propped up on his desk. Things in rock ‘n’ roll were about to change forever.
John Fry (owner/founder Ardent Studios, producer, engineer, Big Star mentor): He was hanging out with some of the musicians that were coming over there. That was kind of how the place ran back then. I don’t know what he was doing other than occupying my space.
Jody Stephens (drummer, Big Star founding member): I was introduced to Chris Bell and Steve Rhea the first time I actually walked through the door at Ardent. Their little project was called Icewater. They were engineering themselves and recording. They were probably 18 at that point.
John Fry: He was in a bunch of bands. There were all these really early bands like the Janx and Icewater and all that kind of thing. He fell in with Steve Rhea, sadly dead now, and Andy Hummel, and they were doing stuff together.
Jody Stephens: I had just been reconnected with Andy through a play at Memphis State. It was the first college production of Hair, and I was playing drums, but I was still in high school. We all got together to practice; no, the first time I met Steve was at practice at Chris Bell’s back house, or a “get together and play” kind of thing. And then the next time I ran into Steve was at Ardent.
John Fry: And then Steve went off to college at SMU.
Jody Stephens: He was going back to school, so they needed a drummer. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
John Fry: First time I saw Alex [Chilton] he was in the Box Tops, and Dan Penn, their producer, had started to come and do some sessions at Ardent. He was there one day, and I walked in and I’m looking around and I’m saying, “Where’s the artist?” There’s this kid sitting on the floor in the corner, and I’m going, “Oh, that’s Alex.” [Laughs]
Jody Stephens: I think the Box Tops had done some work here at Ardent.
Pete Yorn (singer/songwriter, Big Star fan): The Box Tops’ song [“The Letter”], my parents loved that song but I had never put it together. I heard some funny story that he smoked a whole carton of cigarettes (he was like 17 years old) to get his voice really deep for the recording of that song. That was such a monster hit. It was cool to know that Alex had such a big hit before Big Star.
Jody Stephens: He did a solo record at Ardent with Terry Manning producing. It was the 1970 album actually.
John Fry: Yeah, and actually it should be called 1969. He was scared to death that he wasn’t out of all of his Box Tops entanglements. So he says we better call it 1970, and I said laughing, “Okay, whatever.” He was pretty happy to break free of all that Box Tops stuff. He was doing 200 nights on the road for what, you know.
John Lightman (bass player, Big Star 1974): After the Box Tops, he was offered all kinds of money to do all sorts of things, and he said I’m going to do my own thing. I’m gonna write my songs; I’m gonna play guitar; I’m going to record them where I want to record them. I’m not going to do what anybody wants me to do; I’m going to do what I want to do. He turned his back on all of that potential empty fame in favor of being his own man.
Jody Stephens: Alex was looking to move back to Memphis from New York, and I think Chris had been lobbying to get him in the band.
John Lightman: Alex had been doing his solo thing in New York without much success, so he came back. He heard the group, you know, it was a three-piece group, and he asked if he could join.
John Fry: Chris and Jody and Andy were here. They had gone up with Steve Rhea to New York where Alex was up there playing a lot of solo acoustic gigs. They saw him and said hey we’ve got this band and we’re going to have the opportunity to make an album (because the whole Stax thing was just revving up), and they asked him if he wanted to come back to Memphis and join in and he said, “Yeah, okay.”
Jody Stephens: Alex came to see us at a VFW Hall in downtown Memphis. I guess he must’ve liked what he saw. I think that was December of 1970; could be January.
John Lightman: The first record, Chris was taking music at the University of Memphis. It was called Memphis State at that time. The first album he did sort of as his project, to turn in like an assignment.
Jody Stephens: The first record was pretty much Chris Bell’s production approach and vision.
Ken Stringfellow (bass player, Posies, Big Star 1993-2012): Much of the first album was created in the studio over the course of several years; many of the songs started for other projects related to Chris Bell.
John Fry: They would go off and write a lot of times at what was known as the Back House at Chris Bell’s place. It was kind of a writing and rehearsing place.
Jody Stephens: Well, for #1 Record, I think those songs were rehearsed. I can remember working “The Ballad of El Goodo” in the little side building at the old Ardent and just being knocked out at the song and being really proud of the drum part. I think “Life Is Right” was recorded maybe before Alex even came back to Memphis. So, that was rehearsed, and we would go in the studio for that.
John Fry: They would come in with this stuff fully formed. They would set up in the studio as a four-piece band and cut the tracks.
Jody Stephens: I went from playing in cover bands where you have drum parts written out for you to all of a sudden being in Big Star and having to create your own parts. It was thrilling to come up with a part that I created. I was ecstatic about “Ballad of El Goodo” and a lot of those songs, like “When My Baby’s Beside Me”.
Chris Stamey (dB’s, produced Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos”/”You & Your Sister”, performer in Big Star Third Live performances): The song “When My Baby’s Beside Me” was a radio hit in my hometown. Might have been the only place it was a hit! But I thought they were a regular, famous band, like Steppenwolf or Paul Revere and the Raiders.
John Lightman: They decided early on, they were kind of patterning their stuff after Lennon and McCartney, although they hated to be compared with them. They did the same thing with songwriting credits. You’ll notice that all the songs that either one of them wrote, except for when Chris went off and quit the group, then it’s Chris Bell, but when they were in the group together every song is Chilton/Bell.
Jody Stephens: I wasn’t a part of the writing process, so I can’t really comment on that because I don’t know, but I could see Alex and Chris working out guitar parts. They weren’t traditional, just sort of strumming, two guitars strumming. They always had different guitar sounds going on. They always had parts that complimented each other rather than just being redundant parts.
John Lightman: The group was more influenced by Chris, who was more into English Invasion stuff. He had a real Anglican aspect to his style, playing and everything. Whereas Alex was more into New Orleans, rhythm and blues, which Chris wasn’t into.
Adam Duritz (lead singer, Counting Crows, Big Star fan): I heard about it before that it was some combination of The Beatles and Stax/Volt; that it was like nothing else, like Bob Dylan meets something you’ve never heard before. That combination of the melody and the harmony of The Beatles, the guitar parts of Cheap Trick, the lyricism of Dylan, but also this thing, which I had never heard before, which was like a grown-up kid who you just felt for.
Chris Stamey: At first I liked the sound of that first record as much as the songs; it was trebly and insistent, and the guitars were great. But after a few listens, things like “Thirteen” seemed to be speaking right to me. And it didn’t seem to be full of boasts and lies, in contrast to much of the Spinal Tap-ish stuff out at the same time.
Adam Duritz: It’s hard to tell people about that now because there’s so much music that they’ve influenced that we hear now that’s like that, all of independent rock music. The idea of a vulnerable protagonist, a center of a story that is a man-child in a way, a grown-up boy who’s got innocence in him but also has intensity of feelings and is dealing with adult situations.
Ivo Watts-Russell (founder 4AD Records, This Mortal Coil): I can’t speak for anyone else, but, for me, it was the softer, more acoustic songs on #1 Record that sucked me in: “Thirteen”, “The India Song”, “Watch The Sunrise”.
John Lightman: The two of them, I think, had kind of a positive, competitive relationship. I think they brought out the best in each other as far as songwriting, because they were competing with each other, trying to outdo each other.
Adam Duritz: With Alex and Chris Bell, the stuff just came through. Real songs about real people who were very much still in touch with being young even as they were growing up. A song like “Thirteen”, where it’s really written from a perspective of a kid who is 13, and it sounds like it.
Chris Stamey: It was also a record made by a Southern band that was more like us and less like the Allman Brothers or Skynard, who were the currency of the day. It was a bit of a message in a bottle, that there were more people from our gene pool out there somewhere, better than us but still on our wavelength.
John Lightman: [Chris] was expecting that record to just go through the roof and rewrite recording history and just become like the Memphis Beatles. What happened is when that first album came out, Alex started getting a lot more attention than Chris. They were talking about his singing, his guitar playing, his songwriting.
John Fry: Steve Rhea says something in the documentary film that for Chris this was 100% going to work, and when it didn’t work commercially, he was very disappointed.
John Lightman: He was expecting instant success, overwhelming success. In fact, all of the people at Ardent, I found out, were. Fry and all the people were thinking this was going to blow the lid off everything. Nothing happened much.
Ivo Watts-Russell: In England, one DJ, Bob Harris, had played a couple of tracks from the first album on Radio One. Apart from that, they were pretty much ignored and definitely not readily available as imports. In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 that I bought copies, cutouts, along with another great Ardent release, “Say What You Mean” by The Hot Dogs, from a corner shop in the East End of London, for 50p each.
Jody Stephens: From what I’ve heard and what I believe is that Al Bell, who was running Stax at the time, sat down with Clive Davis, and the two of them had a vision for Stax and Columbia working together. Shortly after that deal was signed, Clive Davis was fired from Columbia, and Stax lost its champion. Frequently you get into trouble when you lose your champion.
John Lightman: They were having a distribution problem. One of the problems was Stax filed for bankruptcy, and they were the distributors. They were using the Stax network then, which was in the process of going under, restructured after bankruptcy.
John Fry: Stax developed a lot of problems. As is well known, they made this distribution deal with Columbia, which we all thought was going to be the best thing in the world. It turned out not to be because Al Bell made that deal personally with Clive Davis. Almost as soon as the ink was dried on the paper, [Columbia] had this big power struggle, and they put Clive Davis out.
Jody Stephens: Whether it’s a band signing with a particular A&R guy and that A&R guy gets fired or leaves, or whether it’s Al Bell inking a deal with the head of Columbia Records Clive Davis, and then Clive leaves. That’s what I think happened and what went wrong. Whoever followed Clive didn’t have the same vision and interest that Clive did.
John Fry: A lot of times when new people come, they’ll say, “We didn’t like the guy that did the deal; maybe we don’t like his deal.” It just never worked. There was never a good interaction or interface between Columbia and Stax, and it ultimately led to the demise of the whole company.
Jody Stephens: Chris quit, and we all just drifted apart. Alex put another band together with Danny Jones and Richard Roseborough, who wound up playing with Chris on Chris’s Cosmos record, and actually did some recording. But in the meantime, John King, who had put this Rock Writers’ Convention together (I think it was May of ’73) asked us to get back together and play that Rock Writers’ Convention, for lack of a better word.
Hell, rock writers were our only audience. They were the only people who really knew the songs. So, we agreed to do that. All those guys and girls were having a really good time. It was an open bar and whatever else forms of entertainment there were. It was just nuts; it was crazy. People were dancing on tables. Bud Scoppa, Cameron Crowe, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer.
Chris Stamey: The thing that stands out about Radio City is that the guitar arrangements were so extremely detailed. No one was doing that before then. They were based on a lot of folk and old rock licks, but combined and composed with loving care. A lot of hard work went into them.
Jody Stephens: Radio City was just an amazing record. It was rehearsed, too, because I’ve heard performances, live performances, or a live performance, and “O My Soul” wasn’t quite there yet, for me, in terms of my part. So yeah, Radio City was rehearsed. It was a simpler record in some respects because there were just three of us playing instead of the four of us. Drumming changed a bit because production was a lot more sparse for Radio City, so it gave me an opportunity to do things a little differently and gave John Fry the opportunity to do something different with the mix.
Chris Stamey: It was shockingly different in approach; maybe it came from Chris Bell to begin with, but Alex certainly carried it on after Bell left.
Jody Stephens: I think Chris’s contribution was he and Alex had written some songs together, and when Chris left the band, they kind of divided those songs up. I think one was “Sitting in the Back of a Car” and maybe a couple. There are three songs on Radio City we wound up using what Alex recorded with Danny Jones and Richard Roseborough, and that’s “What’s Going On?”, “Mod Lang”, and “She’s a Mover” because we just couldn’t capture that same spirit again. But yeah, all it says on Radio City is Danny Jones and Richard Roseborough played, too. Radio City was pretty much Alex with a bit of Andy’s vision in terms of production.
John Lightman: If I had it to do over again, I would have learned the songs closer to what Andy was doing because he put a lot of thought and attention into those two records, and he came up with some really brilliant bass lines. He was a really fine bass player.
Jody Stephens: The real driving force of any band is the songs. I was just inspired by those songs. Alex and Andy contributed a lot to Radio City.
Tav Falco (leader of Panther Burns; co-founded with Alex Chilton): I met Alex behind the camera with my art-action video group. I didn’t really know who he was, just another musician. I became aware of Big Star through a photograph, because I was working with [William] Eggleston for a while. I saw this color picture that ended up on the cover of one of their records where they were in one of these clubs in Memphis [Radio City, TGI Fridays]. That was the only awareness; I had no awareness of their music.
John Lightman: When I first went over to Ardent, all in the halls, piled up, were stacks of Radio City. They were waiting to distribute it. They were just sitting there in the studio, hundreds of albums. So fortunately, somehow, those records got into the hands of musicians who were influenced by it. People like R.E.M. and Teenage Fanclub and other groups who said that that was sort of like a blueprint for them as much as The Beatles were a blueprint for us.
Ken Stringfellow: I think my bandmate in the Posies, Jon Auer, when he moved to Seattle to join me as our first album was released in 1988, started working at a record store, and right around here is where we discovered the CDs of the albums and a re-issue of Radio City on vinyl.
Pete Yorn: I remember the song “September Gurls” blowing my mind at the time, and still does, and it just being pretty influential in the way I structured chord progressions for a while.
Adam Duritz: It was rock ‘n’ roll like Cheap Trick was, with those great guitars and great riffs, like “In the Street” or “Back of a Car”, but it was also this vulnerability and this innocence, almost like a faltering, vulnerability in the vocal, a cracking in the voice here and there. Robin Zander could blow it out, and so could Alex. But Alex would also just do this thing like he’s falling apart, and you can hear it. All the singers today have vulnerability in their voice, but they didn’t back then, except for folk singers.
Ivo Watts-Russell: I was never really much of a fan of Radio City.
Jody Stephens: Andy left, but I think Andy wanted to get on with things and get school out of the way. Andy had a passion for it, but he looked around and thought it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to make a living and have a career out of this. He was an English major, and he went on to get his associates degree in mechanical engineering. So he was ready to get on with it and get on with life and a career.
John Lightman: I didn’t even know about the band Big Star until Alex saw me playing with a group at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis in Overton Square. He came up to me (this was about November of ’73) and he said, “You’re a good bass player. I like your bass playing… We’re looking for a bass player. Would you be interested in playing with Big Star?” And I said sure. I joined the band right after Radio City and I quit right before they went in to record Third. I didn’t record on the Third album, although I did record on some things. I was with the group and did that WLIR radio broadcast from Ultrasonic Studio in Hempstead, Long Island. That was Nobody Can Dance, a CD that came out in ’98, if I’m not mistaken.
Anyway, that was the rehearsal. The one that came out in ’92, Big Star Live, was the actual show. It was not as good as the warm-up. We were exhausted and hungry. We were going to go get something to eat and rest a little bit, and they said, “No, you need to stay here.” We sat there for another couple of hours, tired and hungry. Nobody was able to leave; nobody came and brought us anything. By the time we played, our blood sugar was low, we were exhausted, and we didn’t play as well as we could have. But that’s recorded forever for posterity now. I quit in the fall of ’74. I was with them for about a year. I quit because Alex was going through a really intense phase of alcoholism. He finally quit drinking in 1980. But before that, he was in the process of really, really going off the deep end.
Jody Stephens: Radio City was May of ’73. We must’ve started in the latter part of ’73. Wasn’t Radio City actually released in January ’74? [Radio City and Third] were definitely recorded within a year of each other.
John Fry: By that time, it was down to just Alex and Jody, and so there were a lot of outside studio musicians who performed on that.
John Lightman: Well, what happened was, after I quit, six different people played bass on that Third album; they didn’t really have a band. Actually, I wouldn’t call that Big Star Third; I would call it Alex solo more than I would call that Big Star Third. Jody contributed almost, well, he played the drums, but the creative input all came from Alex.
Jody Stephens: I don’t know. I’ve looked at it a bunch of different ways. Sometimes I look at it and it’s an Alex project, and sometimes I look at it and I think there’s a lot of input there, so maybe it’s a Big Star record. But if you really look at it and think of the people involved… I mean, an Alex solo record for me would have been Alex on acoustic guitar and no other input. That’s kind of the way it is with any musician.
The band, the players play a pretty important role in anybody’s project. But Jim Dickinson’s production ideas and I actually had the idea to bring the strings in. I would think that there were some things that would be Alex and me and some things that are Alex and Jim Dickinson. At the end of the day, I think it’s a Big Star record. Listen to Alex’s first album that was identified as a solo record, and it’s so different.
John Lightman: You can listen to the three albums. The first album, that’s a band, and those guys really play together. The second one was more loose. The third one, it’s like there’s no band here; it’s just Alex and people playing on it. And Alex is not the Alex of the first two albums, especially the first one.
Tav Falco: Alex was always interested in the next thing that was happening, whatever that was. Aesthetically it had to draw him in. He became interested in the Sex Pistols, The Cramps, which is very much unlike the Big Star work he had done. I think, really, his work with Jim Dickinson was a turning point. Dickinson had a different way of working than any producer Alex had worked with. He gave Alex the freedom to experiment, to get in touch with himself. Dickinson opened doors for Alex, and as much as Alex didn’t want to admit it, in real life, I think he owed a large degree of gratitude to Jim Dickinson.
John Fry: For Third, Alex had said, “I think I need a producer. Can you get Jim Dickinson to do this?” Jim was the first guy that I ever worked with who was introduced to me as being an independent record producer. I said, “Yeah, I’ll call him.” [Jim] said, “Of course I want to do it.” So he was like super hands-on for that whole thing.
Jody Stephens: Jim got involved with the band for the Third album. It was Alex’s call to bring him in. We had never had a proper producer per se, or an independent. It was really nice having Jim to lean on and look to because there was so much respect for him that it was easy to go in after playing through a song and look at him and say, “What do you think?” and respect his opinion. Not to mention that he’s a really creative guy and can be wacky in a good way when he needs to be. On the Third album, Jim actually played drums on “O, Dana”. Jim definitely played on “Kangaroo” and a couple of other songs.
Tav Falco: Jim understood that it’s the secret life of the artist that matters and not much else. That’s what a producer has to bring out.
Chris Stamey: My memory of the songs on the Third record is from playing them live with Alex during the short time I played with him in NYC in the CBGB era; songs like “Holocaust” and “Kangaroo” and “Nighttime” are things we’d do regularly in our sets in clubs. Of course we also did “O My Soul”, “Back of a Car”, all the other ones (even “Watch the Sunrise”, although hard to believe that now), but the songs from Third were the ones where Alex would stretch out and pull at the fabric.
Jody Stephens: And the Third album, there were acoustic demos, but it was pretty much, from what I remember, walking into the studio and hearing the song for the first time and recording it. By that time I had a bit of experience. It seemed to work. I can hear little mistakes. In “Take Care”, there’s a place where there’s a different kind of meter, a different time signature that I missed, and so the snare comes in at a wrong place. But in the scheme of things, it just adds mystery to the song. So even the mistakes can be actually appealing.
John Lightman: You can hear how loose and disjointed it sounds, like it’s about to fall apart at any minute, when you listen to that stuff. It’s hard for me to listen to because I knew what was going on at that time, and it was not happiness. It was a lot of angst, a lot of hard, hard feelings.
John Fry: I think it’s all interconnected. Jim Dickinson was a really smart guy, and he says in the documentary that Third is about the dissolution of relationships. Jody always said it was about Midtown [laughs], the neighborhood we were in.
John Lightman: To me, music is communication, and when you have a band, you potentially have something where the song is greater than the parts because everybody is on the same page playing the same song, and they’re communicating with each other a little bit. That’s the result that speaks to other people, because there’s something tight among the people that are in the group producing that music that says something to people. But if you got people that are just going through the motions and don’t even talk to each other, that is going to be reflected in the music.
Ivo Watts-Russell: Like Berlin or Songs of Love and Hate, Sister/Lovers has a reputation for being a miserable and/or difficult record. That couldn’t be further from the truth for me. All three are consistent in mood and occupy a totally unique place in my heart.
Jody Stephens: Sister/Lovers was actually something Alex came up with as something we might call ourselves other than Big Star. It was something that was talked about for maybe five minutes.
Ivo Watts-Russell: “Kangaroo” was as much of an eye-opener in terms of its “on the verge of collapse at any moment” beauty, in 1975, as anything Syd Barrett had previously left behind. For the cowbell alone that track deserves respect. If I hadn’t chosen “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust” for TMC to cover, it might just as easily have been “Nightime” or “Take Care”.
Jody Stephens: Of all the Big Star songs that I thought would never have been covered, “Kangaroo” was probably the one that I figured would never be covered. But interestingly enough, This Mortal Coil did that along with “Holocaust”.
John Fry: Everything in the world was just melting down around us. Third sat on the shelf for several years before it got some minor releases in ‘78. Jim Dickinson and John King went around and shopped that thing to every major label in the country, and nobody would touch it. It was just like foreign territory. There were two of Jim’s good friends who were very high level A&R people; one of them said, “Jim, I find this music very disturbing,” and the other said, “Jim, I hope I don’t have to listen to this again.”
Pete Yorn: Some people tend to like it. I know at the time I don’t even think the guys in the band liked it. It didn’t come out for a little bit and had a delayed release, but then it seemed to be pretty influential. I’ve got to be honest; it’s not one of the records that I am that familiar with. I know a couple songs on it and dig it, but I’ve never really sat and really dug into that one. People dig it. There’s some fun rock songs on it. Maybe it just represents some sort of triumph and the fact that even the artists at the time maybe were kind of burnt out and didn’t realize how good their material was. Eventually it’s cool that it found its niche and found the respect that it deserves. If anything, that kind of story is always cool, the underdog story.
Ken Stringfellow: I think it satisfies the indie way of thinking; there’s a dream of albums that are made without any regards to commercial outcome, that are free of the influence of the marketplace. It’s uncompromised. In many ways it is one of the first documents that presages the indie way of thinking we find today… other stand-alone, uncommerical albums — The White Noise, The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders are so quirky that they’re more curiosities. But Third sounds like us, this generation, now in many ways.
Ivo Watts-Russell: I was lucky enough to borrow (from UK journalist John Tobler) one of the white labels that had been printed up of their third album. You can imagine how easy it was, especially given its rarity at the time, to fall head over heels in love with that record. I can’t remember the exact track listing, but I’ve a feeling it was different to the version finally released by PVC in, what, 1978?
Jody Stephens: I don’t ever think that there was ever an official order; it was put on vinyl in a particular way, so I would think that there was some thought that went into that. I don’t know whose input that was but at least there was some thought that went into that song order that was on the white label vinyl.
Adam Duritz: I went on this trip to England with my parents, and I had a list of about 50 records. I found all the Big Star records and all the Alex Chilton solo stuff. I got home, and the first thing I checked out was Big Star, and it knocked me out. I’d never heard anything like that.
John Fry: About 1978. That’s when I learned EMI in England had leased #1 Record and Radio City and put it out as a double gatefold vinyl in England. I also learned during that year, people there were paying the equivalent of $75 for an original pressing, if they could find one. It’s a funny thing, but I will always say that most of the whole resurgence was fed back to the US from the UK and Europe.
Jody Stephens: In ’78, I went to London and spent two and a half months. I would pick up a Melody Maker or NME, and there would always be something about Big Star. Whether it was just in the back in the classified ads and somebody was looking to buy a Big Star album or whether it was a little piece about Alex and it would mention Big Star. I actually ran into Nick Kent, who is a music writer, and Nick said that he had the Third album on bootleg, and he also had the WLIR broadcast that we had done in 73, 74. That was my first kind of real thought that more people know about this than I thought. Then Mike Mills and Peter Buck would talk about the band in the early ’80s.
John Fry: I don’t know where [R.E.M] found us. I never really asked anybody. But people in the US found it. Mike Mills said something. He was speaking at an awards show in Memphis a number of years ago, and he said, very few people heard Big Star, but they all went out and started a band.
Adam Duritz: I can’t remember who said it about the Velvet Underground – almost no one ever bought a Velvet Underground record, but everyone that did picked up an electric guitar. Those two bands were the same kind of thing; they influenced a lot of people who didn’t think they had a place in the entertainment business to take up instruments and make music anyways. The two bands that did that in a lot of ways were the Velvets and Big Star.
Pete Yorn: I just think they were doing something interesting. After I dug into their catalog a little bit, I realized how influential they were on a lot of the bands that I love like Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M, Matthew Sweet. You hear that blueprint of power pop in some of their songs.
John Lightman: Big Star was the strangest band I’ve ever been in. Every band I’ve been in we got together, we’d talk, we hung out, we talked about music, we got together and rehearsed, we went over the songs, we talked about the songs. We communicated. Big Star, everything was wrapped in enigma, everything. Nothing was up front.
Chris Stamey: With Alex, I felt like we were in a band together, although it was clearly his thing, and I was there to support him. He was very generous and kind to me, a mentor really, for a while. He brought my little label the Chris Bell song [“I Am the Cosmos”], actually by playing and singing it to me–before I even heard the real thing.
Jody Stephens: I actually play on three or four songs on the Cosmos record. One’s “Get Away”. It’s the one where the drums are real busy. There’s like a snap-back on the snare. Maybe two others, maybe three, that I had forgotten about until Richard Roseborough told me, “No you played on those.”
Chris Stamey: Alex came to me specifically to ask me to put it out. I doubt Chris even knew this; maybe he did.
John Lightman: There were plans for me to get together with Chris at one point, but I never played, I never jammed with him or anything. But I did see him at a talent show at White Station when he was in the seventh or eighth grade, and I was in the ninth grade. I think he had his red Gibson with him, too, at that point. His 335. I think he had that guitar at that point. So he’s had that guitar, or had it, for a long time. They still got that guitar.
Chris Stamey: I talked to Bell on the phone and gave him nutty “A&R” advice like, “Can you speed it up?” but I never met him in person. He died shortly after the record came out.
Jody Stephens: Chris had definite ideas about songs and his parts. Drumming or playing any instrument, for me, depends on what everybody else is doing, in terms of what I play. For Chris’ record, it was great to play with Chris because he always had interesting songs and guitar parts and guitar sounds. It was nice to be kind of inspired by that. It was easy, and Chris was pretty focused. He liked to get things right, in which case there are several different versions of songs that he would experiment with. He worked on those songs a long time.
Chris Stamey: I asked Chris to put “Sister” on the flip; he wanted it to be “Fight at the Table”, but I thought there was a perfect yin and yang to the two songs.
Pete Yorn: Chris Bell obviously did “I Am the Cosmos”, so I’ve always thought of that as a separate thing. That song also hit me in the same way that “September Gurls” did. I didn’t discover “I Am the Cosmos” until years later. I forget how it came to my attention, but that song, I put it on repeat like Brian Wilson’s “Be My Baby”, where I would just play the song over and over again for a while. I really love that song a lot.
Ivo Watts-Russell: The only “fan” letter I ever wrote was to the address for Car Records on the back of the Chris Bell Cosmos/Sister 7 inch. I wrote the letter after having heard that Chris had died and received a very sweet response from Peter Holsapple, who, I guess, ran the label with Chris Stamey. When TMC recorded their interpretations of those two songs, there was no way of hearing the original versions unless you had a copy of the original single. As with Big Star, or Tim Buckley even, I hoped I would turn a few people on to the man’s work. After TMC albums, I’m happy to say that all of Buckley’s work, Big Star’s Third, and Chris Bell’s album were all made available on CD… for a while anyway.
John Fry: I remember when we got the first Posies 45 on Sub Pop [“I Am the Cosmos”/”Feel”]. Jody had it in his office, which was and still is across the hall from mine, and he put that on and was playing it. I just jumped up and said, “What was that? That’s great.” Normally when you hear people cover stuff that you’ve done and worked on, the normal reaction is to just say, “Eh,” but not this time.
John Lightman: There were lots of reasons I was shocked they reformed the band. I was very, very surprised. So was everyone.
John Fry: Totally [surprised]. Because normally, if you would ask Alex if he wanted to do something, he would say no. But these people up at Columbia [University of Missouri] were determined that they were going to have a Big Star show.
Ivo Watts-Russell: I’m never excited by bands reforming. No exceptions, I’m afraid.
John Lightman: I’ll tell you why I was shocked. One, besides the fact that it’s hard to get Alex to do anything (all you have to say is I want you to do something, and you’re ensuring yourself that he’s not going to do it just by saying that you want him to), the fact is those songs were about being 16, 17, 18 years old and being in love for the first time and going through the angst of being a teenager and dealing with society and your feelings and romances. Those songs are not something that an adult would sing. Adults don’t relate to that music. It’s very specific to being young.
Chris Stamey: I got a call to play that first show from the college kids who had the idea, but I thought they were kidding–they were offering just transportation money but no fee for Alex and Jody, then Alex told them to call me to play bass, and I truly thought Alex would never do that, so I thought it was a crank call! Of course, Jody knew Ken and Jon from the Posies, who had been at Ardent, so it all worked out great. But I still kind of kick myself for that one!
Ken Stringfellow: It had been attempted by many promoters many times; Alex was never interested. The day he said yes to these kids from Missouri was supposed to be just another in a long line of no’s, requests routinely forwarded by Jody to Alex for his dismissal. But, for some reason, Alex said yes this time. Now what? Lots of ideas were bandied about, but I believe Jody was pushing for us the whole time, having seen what we could bring to the picture.
John Lightman: They’ve never contacted me about any part of Big Star. Any function they ever had, they never contacted me about anything.
Jody Stephens: Here’s what I was trying to do: I was trying to stay out of it in terms of who was going to join Alex and me. Because if it fell through, then I wouldn’t have to go back to that person and say, gee sorry it didn’t work. That, and I was busy here at Ardent doing other things. They set out looking at other folks, and at that point, I happened to have a single, a vinyl single, on my wall from the Posies. It’s “Feel” and “I Am the Cosmos”. Their version is so close, it’s scary. So I thought that makes perfect sense. [I] called Jon Auer, and Ken said, “I play bass.”
John Fry: So that’s when Jody and Alex picked up Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from the Posies. Because they knew all the songs; they played them all the time.
Jody Stephens: We incorporated them. Really, they’re such a huge part why you and I are talking on the phone. They’ve really helped keep it alive. They’re great players and incredibly great singers. They could do all those harmonies that we kind of struggled to do.
Ken Stringfellow: At the time, nothing was discussed or envisioned beyond this show. That’s why it was recorded and released; it was thought to be a one-off.
Jody Stephens: It was a one-off for the Spring Festival at the University of Missouri in April of ’93. Bud Scoppa, who had attended that Rock Writers’ Convention back in ’73 was now an A&R rep at Zoo Records. Bud heard about us playing this live gig and called and said, “I’d like to record this and put it out on Zoo.” Jim Rondinelli, an LA producer/engineer got involved, too. We were off and running with that. Then we also, Alex and I agreed to play the gig just for expenses. Zoo steps in and we might get to put a couple hundred of dollars in our pocket, but then we had money to fly up to Seattle and rehearse for this thing and then come play the gig. That came out, so we were able to book some gigs in England and one in the Netherlands; we had five dates in Europe to go in support of that live record. And then it just kind of kept on. Year to year, we would have two or three, four, one year we had six, a lot of European dates and some US dates. San Francisco has always been great for us; New York has been wonderful, and Seattle and Chicago.
Adam Duritz: When Big Star reformed and did those concerts, a few months later they decided to play a couple more concerts. I think they played San Francisco and New York; I’m not sure if they did any other ones. We get a call from somebody that said Big Star was going to play San Francisco, and they want you to open the show. I agreed to do it as long as we could go under an assumed name, because I didn’t want anybody to know it was a Counting Crows show; it needed to be Big Star fans. I didn’t want them to do a concert and have it be a bunch of our fans. So, we went as The Shatners.
Ken Stringfellow: We didn’t consider “You and Your Sister”, but as the Posies had recorded covers of “Feel” and “I Am the Cosmos”, it was considered that these would be part of the set from the git-go. “In the Street”, too, for some reason.
John Lightman: “In the Street”, even though Chris sings that, Alex wrote that song. That was Alex. I guess they envisioned it at a higher key than Alex could sing, although he did sing it sometimes in Chris’s key back then, but they transposed it later.
Jody Stephens: I think we were onstage in London, and Alex walks up to the mic and he says, “These guys don’t know it yet, but we’re going to record another record.”
Ken Stringfellow: One day onstage in London, in 2001, some eight years after we started playing together, Alex introduced our cover of Gary & the Hornets’ “Patty Girl” by saying, “Here’s a song we’re gonna record for our next album.” Huh?
Jody Stephens: I don’t know if he said this then or later. It must have been later. He made the comment, “Here’s a song from In Space. You won’t like it now, but give it 20 years, and you’ll love it” or something like that. So he tells this audience in London that we’re going to make a record.
Ken Stringfellow: Then around that time, after we’d been playing the same set list for almost 10 years, we got Alex to agree to rehearse in Memphis to try a few more songs from the catalog we were dying to play. We started to run through something, “You Get What You Deserve” or something, and Alex didn’t bother to sing, and then he stopped and said, “These other songs really don’t interest me. The songs we do now are the ones I can live with… the rest… are just not that good.” As much as I disagree, that’s his opinion. He continued, “What would be interesting to me, as I think this is a great band, would be to write and record some new material.” So, we did. As soon as he said that, Rykodisc was ready to cut a check.
Jody Stephens: A couple of years went by, and Alex said, “I’d like to make a record, and here’s how I want to do it and that’s write and record a song a day.” So, with that, I put a budget together for the record. I called Jeff Rougvie at Ryko Disc and told him the plan and asked if they wanted to be involved. It was a leap of faith on their part. There were no demos to share, nothing. We had X number of dollars to go in and record a record, and this is how we’re going to do it, and they said, “Ok.”
It was wild how that record unfolded. It literally was, somebody would come in and say, “I’ve got a song” or “I’ve got an idea”, and we’d go out in the studio and work through it. We’d get a basic track, and somebody would go write lyrics for it. I went home a couple of nights in a row and was walking my dogs and had ideas for “February’s Quiet”. Jon Auer and I finished it the next morning; we recorded it that afternoon. And the same with “Best Chance”. I was up walking my dogs and came in the next morning, and Jon and I finished it. I forget how “Love Revolution” evolved. Maybe Jon and Ken had some riff in mind, and then Alex came up with “Love Revolution” and then the play on that kind of ’70s kind of thing.
Ken Stringfellow: You could probably imagine it was written in the studio; Alex liked things loose and spontaneous at that point.
Jody Stephens: We all have some credit on every song, but there were primary folks on the songs, like Ken with “Turn My Back on the Sun”. Basically, it’s Ken’s song that we all join in on credits for. Jon Auer’s “Lady Sweet”. I think “Love Revolution” was a combination of folks. It’s funny, “Aria, Largo” is a classical piece, and Alex just had transposed it to work for two guitars, bass, drums. They were all out there, and they had music stands, and they were reading the music. We actually did three or four of those, and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is going to be different” doing these classical pieces like that, but it got narrowed down to “Aria, Largo”, and I think that it makes for a nice little interlude between songs.
Chris Stamey: Frank Heath, who has the Cat’s Cradle club here and is a guiding light in the local (and national) scene, did a concert of Elliott Smith’s music, with our local players, and we were really proud of it. I was talking to Frank, saying, okay, what hill do we climb next?, and then thought of the Third Big Star record–and of getting the original string arrangements to boot. It was about both a challenge and a way to show what our local NC musicians are capable of.
Jody Stephens: The unique thing about Third is it had a string section on much of the album. Chris Stamey actually had the idea of performing Big Star’s Third live and incorporating those strings because it would be a unique event; it hadn’t been done before.
John Lightman: Alex moved to New Orleans. Whenever I would go down to New Orleans, we would get together and sit around his house and jam. The first few years we would do it not even plugged in, just the sound of electric guitar and bass not even plugged in, which was very, very quiet as you can imagine. Then I brought down a little pig-nose amp and a ’58 Longhorn bass, which had a real upright sound, and we jammed for a while where you could hear us. Then, shortly after that, Alex died. He went out to cut the lawn one day, and it was a hot day. He was just mowing the lawn, and he just died; he had a heart attack.
Chris Stamey: I was on my way to Austin, at Jody’s suggestion, to talk to Alex about it when we heard that he had died. We dropped the idea. We were too sad. But then, after talking to Jody a bit, months later, and with Carl Marsh volunteering to re-transcribe his arrangements, we decided that the pros outweighed the cons. And for those involved, it has been a truly great adventure. Some very musical moments, wonderful at times, and great camaraderie as well among the participants.
Jody Stephens: It’s a wonderful group of people getting together to do this: Chris Stamey, Mike Mills, Mitch Easter, Gary Louris is going to join us in Chicago. Ken Vandermark, a world renown sax player.
Pete Yorn: I just got an email from Ken Stringfellow, who is an old buddy of mine, asking if I wanted to take part in it. And I said, “Sure, sounds fun.”
Jody Stephens: We do other songs from the first two records, too, and it looks like we might do a couple from In Space this time. It’s really the string parts. Carl Marsh re-charted the strings. I think John Fry pulled the string parts off the multitrack from Third and sent them to Carl. Carl re-charted them, so we have Carl Marsh’s charts. It’s amazing to hear those strings just rehearsing. It also blows my mind to hear somebody run through it one time and it’s perfect, and then I realize they’re reading music; it’s not like they memorized it. It’s a trip with those strings. I think the strings might be the star of the show.
Chris Stamey: I have loved being able to write orchestral arrangements for some of the other songs, like “Kangaroo”, “Big Black Car”, “Holocaust”, that try to evoke what I remember of the vibe of some of the live shows with Alex long ago. Also, we have the scores done now, more or less, so that in years to come perhaps other people can use them to keep the music alive. To remember, and to discover it anew, as well.
Jody Stephens: It’s hard to play on those songs when we do Big Star’s Third live because I can’t capture that same spirit that Jim had because I play drums full-time, and Jim didn’t play drums, so you have somebody that’s inexperienced, and it comes out sounding a lot different.
Adam Duritz: What I learned from Big Star is it’s okay to just say simple things, that simple things are often brutal.
Ken Stringfellow: Big Star was something like the unicorn; growing up in Bellingham, WA, as I did in the 1980s, it’s not like you were going to find those albums. But they were routinely referenced in music reviews. It hadn’t reached a momentum to where I was trying to find those albums yet. Anyway, it wouldn’t have mattered if I tried. Then came The Replacements.
Pete Yorn: Even The Replacements when they had that song “Alex Chilton”, I had no idea what that was. I was a kid, and I didn’t really know where that was coming from, but I go back and I get it now.
Chris Stamey: Each record is very different, but the theme of honesty carries through them all I think, and a searching quality, as well. It’s the sound of real people trying to communicate what was going on in their lives, trying to figure it out and also share it. Sometimes ironic, sometimes clever and funny, but never cynical.
Adam Duritz: You listen to music nowadays and Big Star makes perfect sense because we’ve heard 20, now 30 years of people who were learning a lot of lessons from [Chilton]. Guys like The Replacements, Paul Westerberg. A song like “Answering Machine”… “How do I say I love you to an answering machine?” The raggedness in his voice, but the honesty and the romance of it – that’s Alex Chilton and Chris Bell.
Ken Stringfellow: I think it presaged our current age in that it’s a very honest series of records. Pain, sorrow, joy, wonder, tenderness, anger… it’s all there. No one is dressing it up in a showbiz mantle or making out their feelings to be of epic proportions (“I can’t Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiive……if living is without you….”) It’s just feelings. Nothing more. It’s like having a conversation with a person. It’s a relief. No Golden Gods. Even things like Judee Sill, which I love, her music is like putting her faith in the music of the spheres, to take her to a loftier place then her drug- and prostitution-tattered life. So, in a sense, it’s not as honest. Lou Reed… well, that was honest, but his darkness is a bit relentless. Big Star came off like people you know… but expressed beautifully.
John Fry: In a sense, it’s kind of puzzling. I go to these events all the time and these teenage kids will come up and they know more about it than I do. I think what makes any music last is first of all good songs, good songwriting, and good performances of those songs. My role was to try to add the sonics to it a little bit, and apparently all that worked.
Jody Stephens: [John Fry’s] engineering and the sonics of those records was a major part of the way people perceived Big Star’s music.
Ken Stringfellow: Well, of course it was a revelation. I think til that point, ’80s music, for example, was involved in a protracted argument with the past — read, pos-tpunk; and pop music was divided between insipid chart fare and the barrel-chested proclamations of hard rock. ’60s and ’70s music seemed cheerful, playful but also childish. Where was there a template for pop music, but not of frivolous emotion? Big Star. It was gorgeous, gloriously singable, but the emotions were adult. That was a great template, the one we, my band, was waiting for, in many ways. Upon hearing those records for the first time, in 1988, we instantly incorporated that music as our gospels and began to cover many of the songs.
Pete Yorn: I don’t know how big of a following they have. I know at the time they really didn’t have any following. For me, there’s just certain kinds of melodies I like. I like a lot of different kinds of music, but there’s just kind of a sad melancholy in some of the songs that resonates with me but is presented in a way that has a kind of jangle guitar and these progressions that descend down from like a minor to major. I like Jody Stephens’ drumming a lot; I remember I was into that. Years later, I got to meet him a couple of times down in Memphis and had dinner with him. That was pretty cool.
Adam Duritz: They were a big thing in my life, more than almost any other band. Big Star taught me a lot. Even if I don’t listen to it that much anymore, all the time, somehow it really gets me wrecked up. It kinda tears me up a bit.
John Lightman: He [Alex] was very genuinely modest about Big Star. He himself didn’t understand all the hoopla about the group, the way people would go nuts over the group and hold them up on a pedestal. He said there were about maybe four, three or four, maybe five, great songs in Big Star, and the rest were just mediocre. Actually, I agree with him.
Ken Stringfellow: There is no Big Star without Alex. We can play the music, and we often do, but it’s something else. It’s a way to honor Jody, as a living musician, and a way to keep these songs alive. Just as sure to say that if I outlive Jody, I am sure to continue to cover these songs and continue to tell people far and wide about the music of Big Star.
Chris Stamey: It will never be the same without Alex singing his songs, but I hope that the music can still be played live in years to come.
Jody Stephens: Somebody once asked me, “How do you celebrate something like ‘Holocaust’?” “Holocaust” is a really dark song; it might be the definitive dark song, but it’s all music that there’s this emotional connection to, and maybe that’s what we’re celebrating.