Book Review: Big Star: The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band by Rob Jovanovic

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Big Star were the quintessential "best band you never heard" of the 1970's, yet their influence on subsequent generations of musicians has been enormous. While they were together though, the lack of public acceptance took its toll. There was enough drama surrounding this band to rival a Greek tragedy. It is a fascinating tale, and in the newly revised and updated edition of Big Star: The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band, Rob Jovanovic captures it all.

Big Star formed in 1971 in Memphis, and featured Alex Chilton (vocals, guitar, piano), Chris Bell (vocals, guitar), Andy Hummel (bass, vocals), and Jody Stephens (drums, vocals). One thing they all agreed on was the music, which came to be called "power pop," and was rooted in the pre-psychedelic British radio fodder of the mid-sixties. Depending on your point of view, Big Star were either woefully out of date, or light years ahead of their time. One thing is certain however. In 1971, few people were listening.

The median age of the band was 20, yet Alex Chilton already had a hit record under his belt. At the age of 16 he had sung "The Letter" by the Box Tops. While the career of The Box Tops is not the focus of the book, the author gives us a pretty good idea of how difficult those bus tours were. Especially for no pay. It is little wonder Chilton wanted out, and looked to form a band with people he could relate to.

Memphis may not be a big city like New York, but it boasted an extremely vibrant music scene, thanks to Stax Records and the various studios around town. Chilton had known Chris Bell for some time, and felt that they could work together as a duo. Bell declined, as he was working with Hummel and Stephens in a band called Icewater. When Chilton showed the trio some of the songs he was working on, they decided to bring him in. The name Big Star came from a local Memphis-area grocery store chain.

#1 Record was recorded in Memphis, and was dominated by Bell-Chilton compositions. It was a fantastic album, with nary a dud among its 12 songs, and was well-received by critics. In fact, Billiboard magazine said: "Every cut could be a single." In a harbinger of things to come, Big Star's label Stax were having huge financial problems, and #1 Record was barely available anywhere. Add this to the fact that the music was not exactly considered "hip" at the time, and #1 Record went nowhere fast.

Actually, things were even worse for Big Star with Stax than that. Stax had signed a distribution deal with the major Columbia label, and Columbia had it in for the independents that had been distributing Stax. They would not use them, and even went so far as to remove the existing non-Columbia distributed Big Star albums out of the stores.

The frustration over what amounted to their label blocking sales was too much, and led to numerous rows within the band. In 1972, Chris Bell had enough and quit. Now reduced to a trio, Big Star soldiered on, and recorded Radio City. But before the album was released in 1974, Hummel departed. Like #1 Record, Radio City received strong reviews upon release. And just like the situation with the debut, Columbia's bizarre intransigence with Stax continued, and they once again obstructed sales. It is hard to believe such stupidity, especially in the face of such amazing music.

Now reduced to a duo who were basically at war with their label, and especially their distributor, Chilton and Stephens began work on their third album. They were assisted by various Memphis musicians, and producer Jim Dickinson in Ardent studios, and had it recorded and mixed in early 1975. By this time Stax had closed, and Big Star were forced to shop the album around to various labels, none of whom were interested.

The album was eventually released as Third in 1978 on the PVC label. The alternate title, used on the 1992 Rykodisc reissue was Sister Lovers, which reflected the fact that during the recording, Chilton and Stephens were dating sisters. Shortly after the release of Third, Chris Bell was killed in an auto accident. He had been working on the album that would be posthumously released as I Am the Cosmos.

Those four albums are widely available now, but were impossible to find for years. I would stack them up against the best of the best, cut for cut. Even though I Am the Cosmos is not a Big Star record, I consider it a part of the catalog. It is of a piece, even if it is a solo effort. In any event, by the end of the decade, Big Star seemed to be over for good.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing. It was the next musical generation who discovered Big Star. Beginning in the mid-eighties, bands such as R.E.M., the Replacements, and The Posies sang their praises. The Replacements even wrote a song titled "Alex Chilton" in tribute. The Posies paid more than lip service though, they actually got Big Star back together in 1993.

The Posies founding duo of Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow joined Chilton and Stephens to reunite Big Star. Although invited to participate, Hummel declined to join the festivities. This unprecedented turn of events culminated in the fourth Big Star album, In Space in 2005. We can enjoy In Space for what it is, and leave it at that. The fact that it was made at all is a feat in itself. Not that it is a bad record, but 34 years had passed since their debut, and that is a long time.

The Big Star story is incredible, and I have just barely scratched the surface. With the passing of both Hummel and Chilton in 2010, only Jody Stephens is left from the original foursome. The first edition of this book was published prior in 2004,prior to the deaths of Chilton and Hummel. This new Jawbone Press edition brings everything up to date. I cannot think of another group in the history of music who have had such an incredible tale, and Jovanovic gets it all, in detail.

In his Rolling Stone review of In Space, David Fricke called Big Star the "American Beatles." Obviously he was exaggerating, as there will never be another Beatles. But there will never be another Big Star either. Unlike The Beatles, this is the only book I have ever seen about Big Star. Thank heavens it is definitive, and this Jawbone Press edition looks marvelous as well. This is the place to start.