(Big Star, circa Third)
It’s 50 years since the release of one of the great albums, which in the fashion of classic rock’n’roll mythology sold barely anything, essentially disappeared from store shelves, led in part to the fracturing of the band, and would mean nothing to the vast majority of 21st century music fans – not to mention having a title that is a wry acknowledgement of what it wasn’t.
But Big Star’s #1 Record would one day be venerated by pop’s nerdy boys and girls, lauded by bands who sold far, far more than Big Star ever would, and enjoyed by people who didn’t need to know the back story but loved a tune, guitars and loads of emotion. (So is the second record, Radio City, while the never-released-at-the-time third album, Sister/Lovers or Big Star’s Third has its own mythology as you’ll see below.)
Over the weekend in Los Angeles an anniversary/tribute/celebration show was held to mark the 50th, with a proper indie rock/pop all-star bunch (Variety previewed it ) but in 2013 the last remaining member of Big Star, drummer Jody Stephens, brought a similarly star-packed outfit to Australia to perform Third in full, and some of the other gems in the catalogue.
Along with musician fan/producer/show-driver Chris Stamey, he talked myths and truths, heartbreaks and songs.
BEING A CULT BAND is all well and good but it can sure take a long, agonising time to bear fruit as Jody Stephens can attest. Waiting 40 years to be celebrated via a star-filled tribute in Sydney is a tad extreme.
The four Memphis men, including the drumming Stephens, who made Big Star’s 1972 first album – optimistically titled #1 Record – would have been happy with even cult status at the time. While what reviews emerged were very good and local radio played them, marketing and distribution were poor, knowledge of them outside the South was virtually non-existent and the album sold next to nothing.
As musician and producer Chris Stamey, who was then a teenage fan in Winston-Salem, remembers, "we thought they were a regular, well-known hit band in America. We didn't realise our hometown was one of the only places it was being played.”
Album number two – again possibly optimistically titled Radio City - did no better for much the same reasons, while the band’s own problems saw them lose two members including the debut’s dominant songwriter, Chris Bell, and bassplayer Andy Hummel.
Despite having made two brilliant albums of pop music powered by guitars and big Beatle melodies, flavoured by southern soul and shot through with both gentleness and direct emotion, Big Star had few friends. So much so that a third album, made by singer/songwriter Alex Chilton (who had been the teenage voice of ‘60s soul stirrers the Box Tops for their hit The Letter) and Stephens, didn’t even make it out of the studio in 1974.
“The spirit of the first album was pretty innocent, then the second got a bit more edgy and worldly I guess," says Stephens today. "Then the third album was even more raw emotionally and out there.”
That it did emerge, called Third/Sister Lovers, in 1978 did little to change this story despite the soon mythologised album having a mix of tenderness and torment, straight forward pop songs and rougher, experimental rock which seemed to predict a good part of the alternative 1980s and ‘90s.
But jump forward about eight years and the hottest rising band in the USA, another southern quartet called R.E.M., are telling Rolling Stone magazine how important Big Star had been to them. They’re not alone either, musicians spending the next decade coming out of the woodwork to talk about how this band had set the template, artists recorded their songs (the Bangles covered September Gurls, the British art music collective, This Mortal Coil, explored Kangaroo and Holocaust, the TV sitcom That 70s Show used In The Street as its theme song) and Big Star joined the Velvet Underground as the most influential band most people have never heard.
Luckily, Stephens and Chilton did for a decade get to enjoy some of the fruits of belated success. Firstly, in a reworked Big Star alongside massive fans, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, until Chilton’s death in 2010, then in well-appointed reissues and box sets and this year’s documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me.
The crowning moment for Australians at least of this revival or rediscovery or just belated recognition is the latest iteration of the album show, Big Star’s Third, which sees that once-lost album played in full. Led by Stephens, driven by Chris Stamey (who founded the influential power pop band the dBs and released Bell’s solo album, I Am The Cosmos) and featuring the likes of R.E.M’s Mike Mills and early R.E.M producer, Mitch Easter, Hoodoo Gurus’ Dave Faulkner, Stringfellow and indie rock luminaries such as Kurt Vile, this is very much living music.
"Very much so. It's not like it had that much of a life on stage in the early 70s: we only played a handful of gigs," says Stephens. "It’s a complex record and that's what's fun about playing this album live: any time someone really digs deep and gets into a song, it makes the whole trip worthwhile.”
While the album comes loaded with expectations and history, for Stamey (who played with Chilton in the late ‘70s and says “Jody Stephens is like in my DNA") that should be the least of the reasons for watching it being performed. The best music doesn’t need an accompanying essay.
"It's great that people have brought to it in that way but for me, I play Dream Lover and I get this vulnerability and the longing and the passion, it’s so rubato, it’s so expressive and the strings are in the right place and it works for me without having to know anything about its history."