Named after a Memphis supermarket, Big Star were so far ahead of the game that even though co-founder Chris Bell died in 1978, it would be another decade before the rest of the world caught on to their sweet-natured Beatles/Byrds hybrid.
Critically lauded (the Chicago Tribune declared them “the most influential group in pop music outside The Beatles“), highly influential and copiously name-dropped by lovers of chiming guitar rock, Big Star were a band who seemingly had everything going for them and yet ended up with precisely nothing . . .
Alex Chilton’s career began as the voice of The Box Tops. They were originally “Ronnie and the DeVilles”, but Ronnie left and 16-year-old Alex had been with the band for about three weeks when their manager, local DJ Roy Mack, booked them some time at American Studios. They cut a song called The Letter.
The key to the Box Tops sound was producer Dan Penn who got Alex to put on his most soulful voice and imitate Penn himself.
Alex lasted three years with the Box Tops. “We were terrible, ” he admitted. “We were always terrible. We never could get ourselves together. Nobody had any desire to. Nobody liked what we were doing so there wasn’t much spirit. The people who played on the road weren’t the people who played on the records, and it was very demoralising for them.”
Nevertheless, Alex sang his way to two gold records, The Letter and Cry Like A Baby, plus several additional hits like Neon Rainbow, Choo Choo Train, Soul Deep, I Met Her In Church, and Sweet Cream Ladies. By 1969 he was writing “B” sides and cutting much hipper material like The Band‘s I Shall Be Released.
After leaving The Box Tops, Alex got together with Terry Manning of Ardent Studios in Memphis and cut a solo album which sits to this day unused and containing at least one potential hit called Free Again.
Alex soon soured on Memphis and in the spring of 1970 moved to New York for a year or so. He was writing songs for Dan Penn’s publishing company and living on Box Tops royalties.
He had occasion to jam with Roger McGuinn of The Byrds plus assorted folkies hanging out in New York at the time. He concentrated on playing guitar which he had picked up toward the end of his Box Tops career and played a few obscure clubs as a solo act.
After returning to Memphis in 1971 he reaffirmed his friendship with Chris Bell, whose guitar style he admired and who was looking for someone to complete his band. They approached Ardent Studios, which was in the process of forming its own record label.
Big Star were a fusion of 60s anglophile pop, The Velvet Underground and pure Stax. Their brisk, guitar-encrusted power pop was an unlikely product of a city better known as the home of southern soul.
Not only that, their debut album, No.1 Record (1972), hardly fitted in with most white rock of the time, when longer/louder/heavier was the mantra. Further handicapped by being distributed by Stax – a label with no experience of handling such material – is it any wonder the album tanked?
The few who did discover it, though, found a shimmering oasis of adolescent anglophile lust and restlessness (Thirteen, In The Street), coiled rockers (Feel, Don’t Lie To Me) and melodious angst (The Ballad of El Goodo).
Disillusioned, Chris Bell quit the band before Radio City was released in 1974, leaving Alex Chilton in control. Having attempted suicide several times, Bell died in a car accident four years later on 27 December 1978, while returning from a rehearsal for a solo project, half a mile from his home.
Radio City was a stronger collection of songs, from the giddy funky O My Soul to the yearning September Gurls and the melting What’s Going Ahn. It’s the sound of Memphis boys schooled in Stax soul, but reaching for Byrds–Beatles songcraft, with guitar chime and Chilton’s yearning voice. But still nobody was interested.
As a parting shot, Chilton went into the studio and let his demons loose. The result was an album –Third/Sister Lovers (1978) – with a death rattle (witness Holocaust, Kanga Roo, Big Black Car) that would have spooked Kurt Cobain.
Stark, bleak and depressing, the album lay unreleased for four years before being reclaimed as a work of troubled genius.
Chris Bell’s solo album, I Am The Cosmos, was posthumously released in 1992 on Rykodisc. Wracked with depression and homosexual guilt, Bell’s album was even more harrowing than his work with Big Star.
Recorded in France and Memphis before his sudden death, Bell’s suicidal, soulful honesty is matched by some of the darkest music ever committed to tape.
Alex Chilton died of a heart attack in New Orleans on 17 March 2010. Bassist Andy Hummel died five months later. He had been diagnosed with cancer in 2008.
Vocals, guitar, keyboards