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Big Star, Radio City, and the Downside of Being a Cult Favorite

on March 14, 2019, 12:00am

Popular music is not a meritocracy.

It’s a hard lesson that’s been learned by countless acts across music history. Sometimes bad bands and artists get heard by everyone, and sometimes great bands get utterly ignored.

But there are also those acts that fall into the weird middle ground of cult success, hardly ignored but also far from household names. Commercial success might not be for everyone, but many bands have accrued respectable legacies on the strength of the near-fanatical adoration of their fan bases. XTC, Joy Division, Kate Bush, Townes Van Zandt, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Kraftwerk, The Misfits, Black Flag, and Neutral Milk Hotel could tell you all about it, not to mention almost every jazz musician not named Miles, Coltrane, or Monk.

There’s a romantic quality to cult success, the end product of doing good, meaningful work despite being underappreciated by the masses. But sometimes it’s an unfair and ill-fitting consolation prize. Big Star, for one, arguably deserved more than its posthumous-but-still-growing legacy. Forty-five years after the release of the Memphis band’s sophomore effort, Radio City, it’s still near impossible to figure out why they didn’t break through the ceiling. While many cult acts boast qualities that understandably curb their mainstream appeal (too loud, too cerebral, or simply too different), Big Star aimed straight for pop music consumers. Their songs were interesting and forward-sounding without being alienating, at least not too much. In fact, it’s fair to say they mastered the fundamentals of solid pop rock as good as any band since The Beatles.

Today, Big Star, and frontman/guitarist/chief songwriter Alex Chilton, in particular, is talked about with near-universal reverence. The success of bands such as The Replacements and R.E.M. in the ’80s gave the band new life, and by the ’90s, Big Star’s guitar work, hooks, and harmonies could be heard in almost anything from the alternative rock canon. But the question still remains why the band wasn’t equally appreciated in its own time. Chilton and company no doubt saw alternative rock coming before almost anyone, but they were traditionalists much more than they were stubborn experimentalists. At its core, Big Star was a band of proud rock and roll loyalists bred on Beatlesque pop, the bluesy bar rock of the Stones, and the melodies and harmonies of The Byrds. They wrote tender ballads that could make you crumble and weep just as easy as they did ballsy rockers with arena-ready guitar solos. Their songs have aged phenomenally well, better than those of many of their peers who found mainstream acclaim. On a more surface level, they looked like pretty much every American band the early-to-mid ’70s ever produced. And yet mention the name Big Star at your next family gathering and you’ll no doubt be met with blank stares.

The product of a musical family, Chilton didn’t spend his career entirely in the weeds. He actually found mainstream success at 16 when his band, The Box Tops, registered a chart-topping hit with “The Letter”. But Big Star never came anywhere near replicating that kind of success, this despite the fact that the ironically-titled # 1 Record might stand today as one of the best debut rock records of all time. The record’s commercial failure tore at the fabric of the band, prompting guitarist and co-founder Chris Bell to leave the band at the end of 1972. This could have, and arguably should have, been a big blow, as Bell wrote some of # 1 Record’s best songs, including “Feel” and “In the Streets” (which decades later would find a new audience thanks to its use as the theme song to That 70s Show).

And yet Bell’s absence on Radio City didn’t hamper Big Star’s flair for near-perfect pop rock. Bassist Andy Hummel stepped up his songwriting game, writing or co-writing five of the record’s 12 tracks. But Chilton remained the constant variable that made the band’s music soar. His “September Gurls” is among the band’s finest moments and one of American music’s prototypical power pop jams. It’s just as easy to see where many future alternative rock bands copped their moves listening to “Mod Lang”, “Back of a Car”, and the wistful Hummel-penned “Way Out West”. When it’s not busy knocking out tight pop songs, Radio City makes a play for listeners’ hearts (“I’m in Love with a Girl” is about as achingly simple as love songs get). Even when it isn’t as focused, nowhere more so than on the sprawling opener, “O My Soul”, it’s fun to listen to the band try and get its arms around pop, rock, and soul.

Big Star came armed and ready to tackle any mood on Radio City. But the band’s pop craftsmanship once again failed to translate into commercial success. The band’s final studio record, the aptly titled Third, was a much more experimental affair that also marked the end of its original run.

Chilton kept busy as both a solo artist and a session player, performing with and producing records for Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. But success continued to elude him, so much so that he briefly abandoned music altogether in the early ’80s to take a gig washing dishes. In fact, it was Bell who arguably left the most resounding impression post-Big Star. His lone solo outing, I Am the Cosmos, was built on his former band’s formula of big hooks and soaring harmonies, but the record lingered unreleased for years before finally coming out in 1992. The record today has accrued its own sizeable underground legacy. Bell, however, didn’t live long enough to see the acclaim Cosmos would eventually receive. He died in an automobile accident in 1978.

The story of Big Star is that of a band that deserved much more than it got. But it was hardly the only band of its ilk to strike out on crossover success. The ’70s were checkered with near misses by several other proto-power pop bands, whether it be The Raspberries, The Quick, or The Flamin’ Groovies, to name but a few. Others that did achieve some measure of mainstream success did so with a little help from their friends. Badfinger made great records, but beyond the McCartney-penned “Come and Get It”, the band largely remains a footnote in the minds of many music fans.

As it turned out, the ’90s proved to be more Big Star’s time than the ’70s. Radio City’s influence showed itself explicitly in the success of many band’s that broke through during the alternative rock wave. Matthew Sweet hit his commercial stride with 1991’s Girlfriend, while Teenage Fanclub, for the briefest of moments, found itself as one of the biggest bands in rock with the release of Bandwagonesque that same year. The Gin Blossoms, meanwhile, have over time emerged as arguably rock music’s most enduring power pop act. All of that finally amounted to some measure of attention and respect for Big Star, which Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens reformed alongside Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies in 1993. The band toured successfully and played The Tonight Show. Years later in 2005, the new-look lineup even released the fourth official Big Star record, the likeable-but-uneven In Space. When Chilton and Hummel both died in 2010, they at least got a taste of the deserved success that long eluded them.

That sounds like a nice, tidy ending to a classic underdog story, but it hardly feels like enough for one of America’s truly great pop rock bands. In 2019, most bands would kill for the kind of legacy that Big Star lays claim to. But indie cred and a pronounced Replacements name-check still feel like far too small a return on one of the best rock discographies of the ’70s. Cult adoration is cool, that is if you’re not a band that should have had it all. Radio City, if nothing else, proves that in the zero sum game of pop music success, Big Star should have been bigger winners.

Buy: Check out Big Star on vinyl here.

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