Big Star had a short run—from 1971 to 1975—but the Memphis-based rockers recorded three influential albums and went on to acquire cult status. Earlier this year, Craft Recordings reissued on vinyl the first two Big Star albums, #1 Record and Radio City, originally recorded in Memphis at the legendary Ardent Studios. The Craft reissues feature all-analog mastering by Jeff Powell at Memphis’s Take Out Vinyl and were cut to 180-gram vinyl at Memphis Record Pressing. Those classic LPs initially were released on Ardent’s imprint and distributed by the Memphis-based Stax label, landing this upstart white rock band on the greatest soul label of all time.
Big Star blazed the trail for 80s and 90s alt-rock. The songs sound as fresh today as they did when this infectious mix of Southern rock, jangle pop, soul, folk, Beatle-esque hooks, and Velvet Underground hipness blew out of Memphis on the strength of the brilliant singer and songwriting team of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell—the Lennon and McCartney of indie rock. Rolling Stone has called Big Star the “quintessential American power-pop band” and “one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock and roll.” The original lineup featured Chilton (guitars, vocals), Bell (guitar, vocals), Andy Hummel (bass, vocals) and Stephens (drums). 1975’s Third/Sister Lovers featured Chilton and Stephens augmented by such Memphis session elites as Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and Jim Dickinson (who also produced).
The list of acts caught in Big Star’s orbit include R.E.M., the Replacements, Wilco, Yo La Tengo, and Chris Stamey of the DBs. The Replacements even recorded a namesake tribute to Chilton on 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me; the Bell/Chilton song “In the Street” became the theme song to the popular TV series That 70s Show; Wilco and others joined Stephens at a 2016 tribute concert (Jeff Tweedy and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills teamed up for a cover of “In the Streets”); and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs covered the Big Star single “Thirteen” in 2018.
Over the years, the band’s albums have been reissued in the UK, in 1978 as a double-LP featuring the first two albums; by Rykodisc (whose 1992 reissue series sparked a revival); and now Craft/Concord. In 2018, Omnivore released the obscure 1973 concert recording Big Star: Live at Lafayette’s Music Room, sans Bell. Chilton and Stephens reunited in 1993 with members of the Posies and recorded In Space. A subsequent tribute album, Big Star, Small World, recorded in the 90s, went unreleased until 2006. Chilton and Stephens continued to tour until 2010, shortly before Chilton’s death following a heart attack.
Here are three more essential Big Star-related recordings:
Chris Bell: I Am the Cosmos. Rykodisc.
This double album is a psyche masterwork. The commercial failure of #1 Record sent Bell into a deep funk and led him to quit Big Star, though he contributed several songs, including “O My Soul” and “Back of a Car,” to the band’s 1974 sophomore effort, Radio City. This, his only solo album, went unreleased for 15 years. I Am the Cosmos finds Bell channeling his inner Syd Barrett and adroitly contemplating his mental decline. Though the album includes shiny Big Star-worthy material (“Get Away,” “I Got Kinda Lost”), it is sometimes a gut-wrenching album, filled with angst and dark guitar hooks, as on “Better Save Yourself.” Chilton contributes vocal harmony on the delicate Beatle-esque ballad “You and Your Sister.” This two-CD compilation has been updated and expanded to feature all of Bell’s post-Big Star material.
Alex Chilton: From Memphis to New Orleans. Bar None.
As a teen, Chilton gained national attention as the singer of the hit Box Tops single “The Letter,” which showcased the raw blue-eyed soul he brought to Big Star and later to his solo recordings. This great sounding 15-track compilation gathers some of Chilton’s soul-oriented material, though it foregoes his quirkier songs—for those, including his ragged rendering of “Volare” and “Ti Ni Nee Ni Noo/Tip on In,” refer to High Priest (Big Time) or 19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton (Rhino).
Big Star: Live. Rykodisc.
Recorded for a radio broadcast shortly after the release of Radio City, this album captures Chilton, Stephens, and bassist John Lightman live to two-track at Ultrasonic Studios in New York in front of a dozen or so faithful fans. The sound is fantastic: tight, raw and intimate. Each of the band’s live recordings has its merits, but this one is special.