It wasn’t until years after their breakup that these richly talented power-pop practitioners began to gain widespread recognition – at least on a cult level among music geeks and other musicians – for their ingenious way with a melody and a hook.
Their “almost famous” story is told with style and a lot of great music in “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori, now out on DVD and Blu-ray from Magnolia. It is truly a rock-doc that needed to be made, because people need to know this group existed, that its music is still available to be discovered, and its influence is still deeply ingrained in the modern/alternative rock of the last 30-plus years.
Back in 1970, Memphis native Alex Chilton had already enjoyed big-time Top 40 success with a band called the Box Tops and their hit singles “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby” – which were addictive mixtures of British-influenced psych-pop and Memphis soul – when he quit the hit-making group to find a new creative path.
He eventually hooked up with little-known Memphis singer-songwriter Chris Bell, whose mellow, often melancholy acoustic and electric music was in stark contrast to Chilton’s edgy and eccentric – yet irresistibly melodic and hook-bristling – pop-rock bent.
In 1972, after recruiting bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, they formed a band, named themselves after a local super market called Big Star, and came up with an amazing album that the christened “#1 Record.”
Drummer Stephens looks back today and notes that they may have jinxed themselves with that band name and that debut album title, which he calls “too pretentious.”
The documentary reveals through rare film footage, photos, interviews with friends, associates, admiring fellow musicians – and the band’s music – that Bell was a deeply spiritual, troubled, introverted, sexually conflicted and creatively insecure individual, and Chilton was an artistically searching, hell-raising rebel and malcontent, and that these two opposites became a Lennon-McCartney of the world of “best bands you’ve never heard of” in the early ’70s, unknown to the general public because their Memphis-based label, Ardent, a subsidiary of Southern-soul imprint Stax Records, couldn’t afford — and didn’t know how — to market them properly.
The film recalls the first annual “Rock Writers of the World” convention in 1973 (a short-lived organization) held at a Holiday Inn, where Big Star was featured in the live musical entertainment, and rock scribes no less than Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches and Cameron Crowe were knocked out, even dancing, which rock critics — especially critics of this stature — just didn’t do, because such fan-like enthusiasm was uncool. But they lost it that night, and the seeds of cult legend were planted.
Present-day alternative pop greats such as Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, Matthew Sweet, Robyn Hitchcock, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo and Kliph Scurlock and Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips give testimony to the greatness of Big Star’s original sound and talent.
“They really were on their own island,” Drozd says. “It’s that isolation that creates the uniqueness, you know?”
“To me, Big Star was like a letter that was posted in 1971 and arrived in 1985,” Hitchcock says. “It’s just like something that got lost in the mail.”
“There’s a sadness to it because those were some of the best records made in that decade, and they just didn’t get heard,” says Mike Mills of R.E.M.
There are old radio station interviews with Chilton, new interviews with Hummel and Stephens, all talking about their garage-band beginnings in Memphis, early performances in junior high school cafeterias and college encounters between Bell and Hummel, and the final coming together through mutual knowledge of reputations, and the disvovery of musical like-mindedness.
In a decade that was already into the “heavy-osity” of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the like, Big Star was playing pop-rock with balls, but their first album was being drowned out. Sure, there were the singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, and even electric pop-rock groups like Badfinger, who sounded too much like the Beatles and were produced and coached by Paul McCartney.
But the spare, acoustic-electric and total-electric sounds of Big Star were not reaching enough ears. Bell’s “Thirteen,” a yearning, tear-jerking song about a kid’s unrequited love for a girl slightly beyond his grasp, is a masterpiece of musically-expressed teen angst.
The track can be found on “#1 Record,” which also included the infectious “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Don’t Lie to Me,” but Bell, who’d “poured his heart and his soul” into the album, was crushed by the lack of public interest.
He survived an attempted suicide with pills, but he left the Big Star fold shortly thereafter, and launched a solo career which lasted until his death in a car wreck at age 27 in December 1978. His solo work was released posthumously in 1992 on the album “I Am the Cosmos,” a collection that reveals his tremendous contributions to the shaping of the Big Star sound.
Chilton and surviving company forged on and made some of the greatest fractured pop-rock ever recorded on the band’s brilliant sophomore album, “Radio City,” which contained such indelible guitar-driven kickers as the synth-laced “O My Soul,” the cranky, harmonica-backed “Life Is White” with its broken honky-tonk piano lines, and the exhilarating summer-night sex anthem, “Back of a Car,” a radio-friendly ditty if ever there was one.
The chiming and rhythmic youth theme “September Gurls” would later be covered superbly in ’86 by the Bangfes, and that’s just about the biggest claim to mainstream fame this solidly gifted band ever made, although the memorably sweet acoustic love ballad, “I’m in Love With a Girl” has found its way onto radio, movie soundtracks and other artists’ albums. It’s a tender heartbreaker that proves Chilton could be just as sensitive and melodic as ex-partner Bell.
The final album, “Third” – aka “Sister Lovers” (1975) – was an experimental affair, employing reverse-tape and electronically-skewed keyboard effects on such haunting, altered-state songs as “Holocaust,” “You Can’t Have Me” and “Take Care.” Again, no notice. Chilton and Stephens, the last remaining members of the original group, parted ways, and Chilton went on to record solo albums that bore no resemblance to Big Star.
He also became an underground legend. The Replacements, one of many later bands who were influenced by his band, even wrote a song called “Alex Chilton.” He died in March 2010 at age 59 of a heart attack, three days before a scheduled Big Star reunion performance at South by Southwest in Austin.
If someone had taken care of this band properly, they could’ve lived up to their name. They weren’t the Beatles, but they were indeed something like Badfinger on steroids, as good as – or far better than -any other group of musicians ever influenced by the Fab Four.
Like their music, the story of Big Star is one of the most riveting and bittersweet stories in the annals of rock. Thank goodness somebody finally realized it would make a good film.
- Gene Triplett