Big Star, the Great Forgotten American Band, Is Bigger Than Ever

Big Star—one of the great and greatly underappreciated American bands of the 20th century, once merely a cult loved band, but now their fame has grown into something closer to a full-blown religion . Interest in the work of the Memphis group has rippled steadily outward since the relatively quiet days when their two studio albums—1972’s No#1 Record and 1974’s Radio City both hailed by critics

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The albums led to a combined release in 1978 by a U.K. imprint to the desires of hungry music fans overseas. In the decades since, word of the band’s genius has filtered its way through bands like R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and The Replacements, who loudly trumpeted the group.

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A growing reissue market also embraced the band and its unique blend of British psych, Southern rock and radio pop, leading founding members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens to reunite under the Big Star name in 1993. Two decades later, the Big Star reissue market is something of a cottage industry, and it’s never had a better year than 2017. Fueled by the vinyl revival, the complexities of licensing deals and some buzz stirred up by the 2010 deaths of Alex Chilton and founding member Andy Hummel, record store shelves are now groaning under the weight of fresh reissues.

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We’ve seen the release of the second and third volumes of the Omnivore Recordings’ comprehensive Complete Third series, which gathers all existing work surrounding the group’s aborted 1975 album, Third; a cassette boxed set of the group’s first three albums, issued by Burger Records; “Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Third…Live”, a three-CD set featuring a live recording of Big Star’s Third, Chris Stamey’s all-star tribute to the band, and a documentary about the project; Big Star’s Third Live at the Alex Theatre, Glendale, CA, a limited-edition vinyl release of the live material from that aforementioned set; The Best of Big Star, a single-disc compilation culled from their studio work; an expanded reissue of Chilton’s 1995 album A Man Called Destruction; Take Me Home and Make Me Like It, a vinyl release from Spanish label Munster Records pulling together solo sessions Chilton recorded in 1975; Looking Forward, a CD compilation of Chris Bell’s pre-Big Star work; a deluxe reissue of Bell’s abandoned solo album I Am the Cosmos; The Complete Chris Bell, a vinyl boxed set featuring Looking Forward and the expanded Cosmos material as well as a rare interview with the artist from 1975.

For a long time, there wasn’t any Big Star at all, and now there is, Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings. “I believe strongly that the way you preserve music is to get it back out into the culture. Isn’ that good? Do you want it to be over?”

Incredibly, there’s more. On the docket for 2018 is a vinyl release of the 1973 live recording previously only available as part of the 2009 boxed set Keep Your Eye on the Sky, and there are rumors of a reissue of Alex Chilton’s 1979 album, Like Flies on Sherbert.

It’s a head-spinning amount of music to keep up with, especially for fans who were only recently introduced to the band. It can feel like sticking your mouth underneath the never-ending flow of a chocolate fountain, where the delights can give way to bloat. Naturally, the folks behind many of the above releases beg to disagree, to the point that Cheryl Pawelski, co-founder of Omnivore Recordings, the label behind Complete Third, Destruction and all the Bell releases out in 2017, sounds downright incredulous at the suggestion that it’s too much of a good thing.

As a fan, I most certainly don’t. All of the above releases are the kind of deep dives that I adore amid the current reissue craze. It’s opening doors into Big Star’s working relationship and creativity that I could never get when I was a budding music obsessive poring over my copy of “Third/Sister Lovers” that Rykodisc first issued on CD in 1992.

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Take, for example, “I Am the Cosmos”. While the material on this album was recorded in the ‘70s, it wasn’t pulled together for commercial release until Rykodisc got the rights to do so in 1992. The album was brought out by Rhino Records again in 2009 with a bonus disc of material, but issued in limited numbers through their mail-order only imprint,

Five years later, the label put out a mass-market version of the same two-CD set. Three years later, after leaving Rhino, Pawelski brought the album to Omnivore to once again re-release it on CD and now in the boxed set.

So how did the release dates for all of this music happen to land in one 12-month stretch? The process actually began about a decade ago, when Rhino started looking for the material that would make up Keep Your Eye on the Sky, much of it stored in the archives of the Memphis recording studio Ardent.

Big Star literally had the keys to the studio,” says Bob Mehr, music critic for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. “For them, the studio was a laboratory and a playground and a place to experiment. Relative to their output, there’s actually a lot more material than meets the eye. So all the stuff that ended up on [Keep Your Eye on the Sky], all the unreleased material and alternate takes of Third and live recordings, that was what kicked things off. Now you’re seeing the results of that, but it’s been in the making for a long time.”

Another factor is that Pawelski, who helped shepherd Keep Your Eye on the Sky and the 2009 Bell reissue into existence, did all that work before leaving her post as Senior VP at Rhino. So when she started up Omnivore, she was able to strike new licensing deals with Ardent and its owners Jody Stephens and producer John Fry. The wrinkle here is that those agreements didn’t include the material found on #1 Record and Radio City. The rights to those songs originally belonged to Stax Records, which helped release the first two Big Star albums, and were purchased—along with the catalog of famed R&B stars like King Curtis and Shirley Thomas—by Concord Music Group. That’s the label behind this year’s Best of Big Star compilation and the Big Star’s Third live set.

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There will always be a supply of new listeners ready to swoon over the band’s dark poetry, gritty guitar work and the winsome vocals of Chilton, Bell, Hummel and Stephens.

Every year, there’s more record buyers who get into Big Star because it has a certain level of hipness. This band isn’t a nostalgia act. While there’s a big romantic myth attached to it, the music doesn’t age. It stays hip and it stays valid for new audiences.”

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