Big Star: A Star Is Reborn

Music Features Big Star
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The members of Big Star sound off on the legendary power-pop outfit’s history and first new studio album in nearly three decades

Hanging on the walls of the lobby at Memphis’ Ardent Studios is an eye-catching collection of album covers, all best-sellers: R.E.M.’s Green, ZZ Top’s Eliminator, Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, among them. Further into the building’s depths—along a hallway between two of its tracking rooms—are a trio of mounted collectors’ items from the ’70s: Big Star’s #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers. Though these discs only sold in the thousands upon their initial release, they’ve served as a powerful calling card for the legendary studio, inspiring scads of alt-rock musicians to record there, among them guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow of Seattle’s Posies. These two recently joined Ardent’s studio manager Jody Stephens (Big Star’s founding drummer) and Alex Chilton (Big Star’s singer/songwriter/guitarist) to cut the long-awaited In Space, the first album of new Big Star material in nearly three decades. “Making a record with a band that hasn’t made a record in 30 years is always a gamble at best,” says Auer. “But I think it turned out great.” Stephens agrees: “When I listen to it, I get pumped.”

With its R&B-tinged power pop, In Space is a worthy addition to Big Star’s hallowed canon. All four participants contributed vocals and song ideas, which the band then fleshed out together. There are the effervescent harmonies that were a trademark of the first Big Star and Posies recordings, as well as the sly humor and soulful strutting that’s characterized Chilton’s solo work for the past 20 years. Song selections veer from the majestic to the madcap. Muscular guitar interplay (handled by Chilton and Auer), the occasional keyboard (played by Stringfellow) and horn section (courtesy of saxman Jim Spake and trumpeter Nokie Taylor) round out the sound. According to the band, there was no attempt to follow the course Big Star set with its original ’70s work. “The circumstances of making those first Big Star records were so special and unique, and the combination of so many factors coming together,” says Stringfellow. “That can’t be redone. Besides, I just assumed we were gonna commit various sacrilegious acts by being in the studio and calling it Big Star.”

Big Star was originally formed in Memphis in 1971 by singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and Stephens. Local-boy-made-good Alex Chilton, who’d tasted the big time as teenaged lead singer of blue-eyed soulsters The Box Tops (“The Letter,”), joined soon after. In a city celebrated for its rockabilly and R&B, Big Star perfected Brit Invasion-inspired pop rock colored by the California sound of The Beach Boys and The Byrds. “I was certainly quoting pretty directly from some things,” Chilton has said of his early Big Star work. “We were so in?uenced by The Beatles and mid-’60s British music.” At Ardent, in spring 1971, Big Star began #1 Record, full of masterfully blended vocals, chiming guitars and hooks galore. Released in 1972 on the new Ardent label, and poorly distributed by Stax, the album didn’t ?nd its audience. “If you took somebody who’d been in a bomb shelter for 35 years and played him Led Zeppelin III [also recorded at Ardent] and #1 Record,” Stringfellow says, “and asked, ‘Which one of these sold more?,’ he’d say, ‘Obviously, #1 Record, because it’s a little more accessible and the songs aren’t as scary.’ Then you’d say, ‘No—it only sold a thousand copies, not 10 million.”

Bell, a tortured genius, became totally disheartened and quit the band around the time Big Star returned to Ardent to work on its follow-up. A more stripped-down effort, 1974’s Radio City—though filled with even more pop gems than the debut (including the oft-covered “September Gurls”)—met the same commercial fate. “The songs on both albums are so well-written, arranged and recorded,” says Stringfellow. “They reference all the big things in pop music at that time or before. In Paris recently, I heard on the radio ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me’ [from #1 Record] played between Coldplay and R.E.M., and it sounds like a hit record.”

On the verge of hanging it up, Big Star played a Memphis rock-writers convention, which initiated the band’s ever-increasing cult following. Big Star made a live recording during a brief Northeast tour (with a new bassist replacing Hummel who departed after Radio City’s failure); then Chilton and Stephens, with producer Jim Dickinson and various compadres, cut the unhinged yet brilliant Third/Sister Lovers, which went unreleased for years. (Chilton has said of that musical ensemble, “We never knew what we were going to call ourselves—I’m not sure we were calling ourselves Big Star at all.”) Since he left the band, Bell had been working on solo recordings. Tragically, he was killed when he ran his car into a telephone pole in December 1978. Eventually, all the Big Star and Bell recordings of the period were released by Rykodisc in the ’90s.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Big Star on vinyl (and bootlegs) became the rage of post-punk musicians: Chris Stamey of The dBs released a posthumous Bell single, “I Am the Cosmos” on his indie label; R.E.M. took the Big Star sound to the masses; and (at Ardent) The Replacements wrote and recorded “Alex Chilton.” In 1992, Scottish group Teenage Fanclub recorded the Big Star-ish Bandwagonesque. When asked about the Glaswegians in 1992, Chilton said, “They seem to have that kinda narcissistic, adolescent thing Big Star had.” (The following year, Chilton appeared on BBC radio with the band, recording The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Older Guys,” for a U.K. release.)

In late-’80s Seattle, new converts The Posies cut “Feel,” #1 Record’s opening track, and Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos.” “We didn’t drastically reinterpret them,” says Auer. “We did forgeries. It was almost an experiment to see how much we could sound like those records. I remember hearing from Jody that ‘I Am the Cosmos’ gave him goosebumps—it weirded him out a little. That was what led to him coming to check us out, and eventually got us the [Big Star] gig.”

In 1993, Stephens and Chilton each got calls from students at the University of Missouri in Columbia, asking them to reunite and play the campus Spring Fling. Just a year earlier, when asked about a possible Big Star reunion, Chilton—who’d released several R&B- and jazz-flavored solo albums since Big Star’s demise—had said, “It’s nothing I’m thinking seriously about.” When the offer came from Missouri, however, the always-unpredictable Chilton agreed. “I got the call and I was on the shortlist [to play with Big Star],” Auer recalls, “along with Chris Stamey, Matthew Sweet and Paul Westerberg. I remember calling Ken and playing him the message from Jody and I was like, ‘holy shit, what are we gonna do here?’ Ken went on an active campaign [to play in the band, too]. In retrospect, it makes total sense because we are totally in harmony with our music and our abilities.” After “threatening physical violence,” Stringfellow was in, and the band met in Seattle to rehearse. “I hadn’t played in four years,” recalls Stephens, who’d become an Ardent employee in 1987. The out-of-the-blue set of Big Star classics was recorded and released as Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93 by the now-defunct Zoo Entertainment in September ’93.

Since then, Auer and Stringfellow have sporadically joined Chilton and Stephens onstage, including a gig at SXSW ’04 (following a Big Star history panel featuring The Posies, Stephens and early musical colleague Terry Manning) and most recently in New York City at Little Steven’s Underground Garage Fest in August 2004 (a five-song set sandwiched between Nancy Sinatra and The Dictators). The foursome got its feet wet at Ardent in 2003, recording the fetching “Hot Thing,” released later that year on the Ryko anthology, Big Star Story.

Produced by Big Star and Jeff Powell, In Space got underway in spring 2004: Recording took place over a two-week period in March and April, with overdubs and mixing finished in May. (Its release has been delayed partially due to The Posies’ busy schedule, with Auer also having just completed a solo album and Stringfellow joining R.E.M. for its world tour.) “Our goal was to write and record a song a day,” Stephens recalls. “It was ‘create as you go along’—there was forethought to it, but it also seemed pretty spontaneous. Jon and Ken have been working together for so long that there’s this wireless connection to how they create. And it’s pretty remarkable to watch Alex do things on the ?y—how Alex’s guitar parts would interact with Jon’s. We learned pretty quickly that we were taking either the first or second take of each song.”

Stephens, who sang lead on Radio City’s “Way Out West” (written by Hummel), took over vocals and writing duties on two tracks, “Best Chance We’ve Ever Had” and “February’s Quiet.” Stephens hadn’t written a song since penning “Fear of Falling” in 1997 for Minneapolis-based “supergroup” Golden Smog, with whom he continues to perform occasionally. “I write under pressure,” says Stephens, who collaborated on the songs with Auer.

“Jody is a great musician when it comes to playing drums,” says Auer, “but he doesn’t play guitar or piano, except super minimal. He’d get a melody into his head and sing it out of thin air. I’d fill in the blanks for him—I’d basically put the chords behind it and make suggestions. But the words and the melodies were pretty perfectly formed. It was really fun. We had great rapport.”

Auer introduced the gorgeous “Lady Sweet,” a kind of sonic sequel to #1 Record’s stunning “Ballad of El Goodo,” and Stringfellow concocted the chiming “Turn My Back on the Sun.” Of the latter, Stringfellow says, “It’s definitely an homage to The Beach Boys, who Alex loves. We’ve been known to play ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ live, and I wrote this as an anti-Beach Boys song that was tied to Alex’s attitude in a way.”

Chilton’s singular vocals carry seven tracks, with The Posies’ harmonies blending beautifully behind him. The album opener, the catchy shuffle “Dony,” features his distinctive drawl. (“A dony is a reference to a really pretty girl that you’re really taken with,” Stephens explains. “[The word] was originally used by a blues band, maybe Furry Lewis.”) “We all worked on ‘Dony’ together,” Auer says, “but after I came up with most of the verse and chorus riffs, I can remember sitting there with Alex and he was breathing down our necks saying, ‘Where’s the bridge to this song?’ There was some actual palpable tension at that point. But it was like, ‘We’re all in this room together, let’s f—in’ write this thing.’ That kinda broke the ice. It’s very odd how collaborative the whole thing was. We all took turns taking the lead.”

A rib-tickling nod to the ’70s disco boom, “Love Revolution” finds Chilton calling via megaphone for “platforms”—both the political agenda and the shoes—as well as soulfully crooning and using his falsetto. “‘Love Revolution’ felt like doing drugs without actually doing the drugs,” Auer recalls. “I thought I’d taken an odd mushroom.” Stephens calls it “maybe my favorite song on the album.”

One of Chilton’s other commanding performances is obscure soul nugget “Mine Exclusively,” which barely made it into the Hot 100 in 1966 when recorded by L.A. R&B vocal group, The Olympics, best known for ’60s novelty numbers like “Western Movies.” “Alex and I recorded a version of ‘Mine Exclusively’ with Teenage Fanclub in ’93,” says Stephens. “It was only available as a flexidisc in NME, and Adam Hill, our assistant engineer on In Space, had the idea for us to redo it. I’m ecstatic with this particular version.”

The sole instrumental track, “Aria Largo,” has a much more distant provenance: 17th-century classical composer Georg Moffat. “Alex is really into that composer,” says Stringfellow. “He’s been teaching himself to write music, and he transcribed the Moffatt for two guitars, bass and drums. We had staff paper and notes.” Stephens adds, “We did two or three classical pieces, but the Moffatt piece seemed to work the best. Everybody was sitting with little music stands in front of them.” “Hung Up With Summer” and “Do You Wanna Make It” find Chilton in more familiar terrain, with Bill Cunningham of The Box Tops (with whom Chilton occasionally performs on the golden-oldies circuit) contributing to the former’s lyrics.

With In Space finally out, what’s next for Big Star? “Figuring out dates for Big Star can be difficult,” Stephens admits. “Jon and Ken are on the road with The Posies, but we’re trying to work out some shows for the fall.”

It’s clear that a new chapter of the band is in progress, with elements of all the members’ previous and ongoing gigs resulting in an impressively cohesive project. As Chilton told the late critic Robert Palmer about his ’93 performance with the new Big Star (documented on Columbia), “When we hit the stage, I didn’t necessarily try to do everything as straight as possible. I tried to put in a little bit of real spontaneity here and there … just trying to do it the way I feel it at the time.” Undoubtedly, Chilton’s credo will keep Big Star fans—old and new—on the edge of their seats.