Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky is the shit, that thing the fanboys have been waiting more than 30 years for. It’s the validation, the vindication. It’s the drug, so open your veins, because now when your friends look at you blankly when you mention Big Star, you can sit them down, stick this in, all 98 tracks spread over four discs, hand them the beautiful 100-page booklet that comes with the set, and wait for them to finally acknowledge you as the trendsetter that you’ve always thought yourself to be.
That booklet I mentioned is as good a place to start as any. As usual, Rhino didn’t just dig up a bunch of moldy photos and hire some hacks to write trite copy. Following opening remarks from Ardent Studios owner and producer John Fry, we’re treated to a wonderful essay by noted Memphis musicologist Robert Gordon. Gordon gives us an oversight, the crucial details of Big Star’s career, such as it was. The story begins in Memphis in 1971 with creation of the band’s original lineup of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell on guitars, Jody Stephens on drums, and Andy Hummel on bass. The brilliant first album, #1 Record, that went nowhere. The departure, and later the death of Big Star co-founder Chris Bell. The even more brilliant second album, 1974’s Radio City, that once again got lost in the music business shuffle. The fateful decision to try one more time, the result being an album, Third/Sister Lovers, so dark and so fragile, that it wouldn’t be released for four years, and then only by a label, PVC, that had little to lose.
Once Gordon has told the story of the band, it’s time for Memphis Commercial Appeal music critic Bob Mehr to tell the story of the cult that grew up around the band’s music after they were gone. Using interviews with leading lights of the indie music scene such as Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, and Peter Buck, Replacements manager Peter Jesperson, and Rolling Stone writer Bud Scoppa, who was the band’s greatest print champion, Mehr tells what’s happened to the Big Star legacy since the band broke up in 1978. We get a poignant look at just how much this band meant to how few, and how those few spread the word until they were many more. There’s been a lot of conjecture over the years about who played what on which records and when. Alec Palao sets the record straight with extensive well-researched track notes, on an album by album basis. The book’s photos, many never seen before, are a treasure all on their own.
But what about the music? Disc one recreates #1 Record, but begins with tracks by Chris Bell, Icewater, Alex Chilton, and Rock City before there was a Big Star. The balance of the disc blends alternate mixes and demos to provide a look at the process that created Big Star’s debut album #1 Record. All the greats are here, including “The Ballad of El Goodo” in two versions, one featuring alternate lyrics. The sublime teenage ballad “Thirteen” appears in an alternate mix, and there’s the single mix of “In the Street” for fans of That ’70s Show. Then there’s an unreleased acoustic demo of Alex Chilton playing Loudon Wainwright’s tender “Motel Blues.”
Ardent’s distribution problems doomed #1 Record, and Chris Bell felt the failure in a very real and personal way. He left the band to go solo. When Big Star reunited to record Radio City, they were a trio, and they opted for a sound that was closer to the way they sounded live. For me, disc two is the best of the lot, because for me Radio City is the best Big Star album. My very favorite song by the band has been and remains the intense “Life Is White,” in all its wheezy harmonica and Telecaster glory. The song is presented here as a previously unreleased acoustic demo, and in its final album track version. I present both here to demonstrate the song’s progress from its early stages to a finished product.
Radio City’s other powerhouse songs are here as well. The classic “September Gurls,” successfully covered by the Bangles, should have been a hit for Big Star. So too are acoustic and finished versions of the stunningly beautiful “What’s Going Ahn.” There’s the funky and fabulous “O My Soul,” and the rare lead vocal foray from bass player Andy Hummel on his wondrous “Way Out West.” The bonus on this disc is the appearance of Chris Bell’s 1978 single “I Am the Cosmos,” and its B-side, “You and Your Sister.” I don’t mean to be forward, but I wish you could be sitting here listening to these tracks with me. This music is a high point in the history of rock and roll.
On disc three, things get dark, weird, and fascinating. It’s clear from the sound of things that perhaps some less than healthy impulses had taken over. The recently deceased Jim Dickinson was brought in to produce Third/Sister Lovers, which didn’t have a title at the time. Over the years people have complained that he gave Alex Chilton too much rope. Dickinson says he didn’t give him enough because Chilton “never had a bad idea.” No matter how you see it, this is not easy music. Pitch black tales like “Holocaust,” “Downs,” and “Big Black Car,” tell you all that you need to know about the state of affairs in the Big Star camp in 1975. As if to drive the point home, there’s an effective cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” Perhaps most revealing of all is the highly experimental “Kanga Roo,” which features sounds that wouldn’t be heard again for many years.
That’s not to say that the third disc is without its moments of grace, even fun. The wonderful “Kizza Me” is here, as is a terrific cover of the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day.” “Thank You Friends” is as effective a tongue-in-cheek kiss off as one might imagine, and the cover of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s “Nature Boy” is just downright odd.
Finally, we come to disc four, the live disc. The show was recorded at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis in January, 1973. It wasn’t long after Chris Bell left the band, and they are appearing as a trio. The crowd, and it doesn’t sound like there was much of one, could care less. They are unbelievably disinterested, most of them apparently there to see the headliner. #1 Record had been released a couple of months earlier, and the set features songs from the album, with Chilton taking over vocal duties on Bell’s songs, and covering the guitar parts as well. I love this live take on Hummel’s “Way Out West.”
The set is, of course, stunning. It is not a soundboard recording, but what these days would be called an audience recording, as mics were placed out in the house. The sound doesn’t suffer much as a result, though the vocals can get a bit low in the mix from time to time. In addition to the #1 Record songs, there are several songs that would eventually be recorded for Radio City. Then there are some very well-chosen covers of Todd Rundgren’s “Slut,” T-Rex’s “Baby Strange,” and the Flying Burrito Brothers “Hot Burrito #2.” There’s an acoustic set in the middle of all this that features a lovely version of “Thirteen.” Because of the audience indifference, no one remembered this as a particularly good show, so it went unheard. Thank goodness someone had the good sense to listen, as it’s a truly wonderful document of a live show from a band that, as more of a studio project, didn’t do all the many live shows. Oh, the headliners the crowd was there to see? Houston’s Archie Bell and the Drells. That makes it a bit easier to understand their apathy, but it’s still inexcusable.
Big Star loved the Beatles, and the Kinks, and the Who. With those influences and others, they forged a sound all their own. And that sound went on to influence countless bands including R.E.M., Cheap Trick, and the Replacements. Amazingly, Big Star lives on, in the form of a band that includes original members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. As Todd Rundgren used to say, “This is power pop!” Here’s hoping you can swing a copy of Keep an Eye on the Sky, or that it appears in your Christmas stocking.