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Big Star

Stifled by his frontman role within the largely, pop-industry-motivated band, The BOX TOPS (whom he left in early 1970), singer/guitarist Alex Chilton headed back to Memphis, Tennessee, where he hooked up with former schoolfriend and the equally-astute, Chris Bell, to form the hugely influential but desperately unlucky BIG STAR. Whilst Chilton was trying hard to shake the monkey from his shoulders (a la BOX TOPS hits, `The Letter’, `Neon Rainbow’, `Cry Like A Baby’, Soul Deep’ etc.), Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, drummer Jody Stephens and guitarist Steve Ray, were plying their trade in 1971 as the going-nowhere-fast Icewater/Rock City. The subsequent arrival of Chilton meant curtains for surplus Ray.
One of three main power-pop protagonists – along with BADFINGER and The RASPBERRIES – to bring a fresher, post-BEATLES/BYRDS-ish sound to the rock’n’roll table, the quartet seemed forever on the threshold of a major breakthrough. Co-lead singer/guitarist, Bell, acted as a foil for Chilton’s inspired outpourings on the band’s debut album, #1 RECORD (1972) {*9}, a set that contained such plugged-in gems as `The Ballad Of El Goodo’, `Thirteen’, `Feel’ and `In The Street’. Despite garnering rave reviews all round, the set failed to sell, due almost wholly to the distribution problems of their label, Ardent (a Stax offshoot).
Realising the former BOX TOPS man’s input would always over-ride his own, CHRIS BELL, left for a solo career at the end of 1972, the upshot being that BIG STAR became Chilton’s “power-pop” baby. Generally thought to be his artistic peak, 1974’s sophomore set, RADIO CITY {*8} had a gloriously raw spontaneity, with `O, My Soul’ and September Gurls’ (both issued later in the year as singles) proving the pained highlight. Distribution problems continued to dog Ardent and, as the record stiffed, Hummel was replaced by John Lightman.
As 1975 approached, Chilton and Stephens were now the sole BIG STAR beneficiaries; adding session people, including STEVE CROPPER and Lee Baker (guitars), Tommy Cathey, William Murphy and Tommy McClure (bass), Jim Dickinson (guitar, keyboards, vocals, producer) and other drummers Richard Roseborough and Tarp Tarrant, when recording a shelved set, before they gradually broke up that year.
Although released under the BIG STAR moniker, 3RD (1978) {*9} – later re-released as “Sister Lovers” – was more or less the work of single-minded songwriter Alex. A difficult album released on P.V.C. Records (Aura in Britain), although nonetheless rewarding, it showcased a vulnerable man exorcising his demons in haunting and deeply introspective songs such as the haunting `Holocaust’, `Kangaroo’ (both later covered by THIS MORTAL COIL), `Jesus Christ’, `Kizza Me’ and a fragile re-make of The VELVET UNDERGROUND’s `Femme Fatale’.
Meanwhile, CHRIS BELL’s similarly downbeat `I Am The Cosmos’ album (also the name of a lone single) was recorded just before his death, aged only 27, in a car accident on December 27, 1978. It was posthumously released by Rykodisc Records in the early 90s.
The praise lavished upon BIG STAR by the likes of R.E.M., The REPLACEMENTS, PRIMAL SCREAM, TEENAGE FANCLUB et al, brought about a renaissance of sorts and, inevitably, with his own solo career on hold, CHILTON (and Stephens) re-formed the band for a reunion gig in spring 1993. A supergroup of sorts when roping in ex-POSIES Jonathan Auer (guitar, vocals) and Ken Stringfellow (guitar, bass), the commemorative album COLUMBIA (LIVE AT MISSOURI UNIVERSITY 4/25/93) {*6} was a welcome addition to the collection of fans past and present. Interestingly enough, nesting with sublime slides from their first two sets, there was room on board to pay homage to Chris (a la “Cosmos”), alongside covers of T. REX’s `Baby Strange’ and TODD RUNDGREN’s `Slut’. CHILTON would duly go back to a solo career, and even combined with most of The BOX TOPS originals to release a one-off set in 1998.
The previous BIG STAR incarnation reconvened for one last stab at writing their wrongs by releasing studio set, IN SPACE (2005) {*6}. Turning the clock back to times when power-pop was prince among the kings of rock (and taking the genre further back with a re-hash of The OLYMPICS’ `Mine Exclusively’), songs such as `Dony’, `Turn My Back On The Sun’, `Hung Up With Summer’ etc., sounded more like their devotees than the BIG STAR record buyers had grown to love.
Sadly, cult legend ALEX CHILTON died of a heart attack on March 17, 2010; Andy Hummel died of cancer July 19, 2010 – big stars plucked from the planet and re-directed to rock’n’roll Heaven.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2016

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