Posts Tagged ‘Radio City’

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Originally released in 1972 and 1974, respectively, #1 Record and Radio City can still take your breath away with their bracing guitars, soaring melodies, emotionally-charged lyrics, and song structures that often zag when you’re expecting them to zig. Though the Fab Four are an audible influence on the albums, it’s generally more White Album–era Beatles being drawn upon than A Hard Day’s Night, along with such disparate elements as Led Zeppelin’s swaggering hard rock, Kinks leader Ray Davies’ brooding introspection, and the sweet soul music of Big Star’s Memphis hometown.

In rock and roll, there are moments when bands poised to break barriers and redefine an era are held back from their destiny because of logistics, promotional neglect, bandwidth, or all of the above. In the early 1970s there was no bigger victim of all three than the band Big Star. What began as a Memphis–based quartet soon became a power trio. They were a group who created a pop rock sound that would frame the musical future of bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements (It’s safe to say that Matthew Sweet’s 1991 hit record Girlfriend wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for Big Star). Even Paul Stanley of KISS has called them “an early influence.” Their moment was brief but lasting.

The Memphis band was formed in 1971 by singer-songwriters Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel. Working with Ardent Records’ founder and engineer John Fry, Chilton laid down guitar and vocal tracks — often in one take, while Bell added polish with overdubs and harmonies to songs like “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Thirteen” and “In The Street.” #1 Record was released to wide critical acclaim, yet distribution issues severely limited the album’s availability in stores. It would sell fewer than 10,000 copies. Things didn’t improve with the two releases that followed and the band quickly dissolved.

Since then, awareness of their music has only grown, widening the band’s base and spreading their influence. The music they made was expansive, ambitious and anchored in their love for the British Invasion of the 1960s. The bands that lead that charge can regularly be heard within the seams and between the folds of Big Star’s infectious production. They were never focused on fame or fortune. Instead, Big Star was a creative hot shop with boundless imagination and a drive to make music that aligned strictly to their personal vision.

Now, Craft Recordings is about to reissue Big Star’s first two albums on 180-gram vinyl. It’s a Memphis based affair. Jeff Powell at Memphis’ Take Out Vinyl conducted an all-analogue mastering, and manufacturing is being handled locally at Memphis Record Pressing. This is fitting for a band that is now part of the cultural fabric of Memphis.

Jody Stephens, the last surviving member and the rhythmic heart of Big Star, about this rerelease and what he thinks matters most about the band’s enduring legacy. We continue to build an audience. People continue to be into the music and it gives us a platform to do the “Big Star’s Third Live” performances. [Live performances of Big Star’s 3rd album.] It also gives a platform for Those Pretty Wrongs with Luther Russell. We released a new album in September with Burger Records. We also did seven dates in England and two in Scotland and it was really enabled by having been in Big Star. It’s great to just to continue to play these songs, play them for this community and feel connected. I never attach physical sales or anything to it. It would be awesome if it sold a lot so that Concord (Craft Recordings) will keep doing this and continue to make the music available. That keeps us relevant and maintains our profile.

Big Star's 180-gram vinyl reissues of #1 Record and Radio City via Craft Recordings.

Craft Records is about to reissue Big Star’s acclaimed, first two albums on 180-gram vinyl.  Set for a January 24th, 202 release date, and available for pre-order now, #1 Record and Radio City feature all-analog mastering by Jeff Powell at Memphis’ Take Out Vinyl, and also manufactured locally—in Big Star’s hometown—at Memphis Record Pressing.

Though they both failed to strike commercial success at the time of their releases, 1972’s #1 Record and 1974’s Radio City are now considered to be milestones in the history of rock by critics and musicians alike. Heavily influenced by the British Invasion, yet markedly original—with their jangly pop, driving guitars, sweet harmonies, and wistful melancholia—Big Star offered a distinctly new sound when they first emerged in the early ‘70s, and are counted among the founders of power pop—a genre which wouldn’t truly take off until later in the decade. Nevertheless, Big Star would become an underground favorite, influencing some the biggest alt-rock artists of the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, including R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Wilco, and The Replacements (who famously penned the song “Alex Chilton” as an ode to the band’s frontman).

The Memphis band was formed in 1971 by singer/songwriters Alex Chilton (1950-2010) and Chris Bell (1951-1978), drummer Jody Stephens (b. 1952) and bassist Andy Hummel (1951-2010). Chilton and Bell drew on the Lennon/McCartney style of collaborative songwriting for their aptly titled debut, #1 Record. Working with Ardent Records’ founder and engineer John Fry, Chilton laid down guitar and vocal tracks—often in one take, while Bell added polish with overdubs and harmonies to songs like “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Thirteen,” and “In The Street.” #1 Record was released to wide critical acclaim, yet distribution issues severely limited the album’s availability in stores. It would sell fewer than 10,000 copies.

Although Chris Bell departed the band shortly after the release of #1 Record, Big Star’s remaining members began work on a second album in the fall of 1973. Losing the creative input of Bell could have wreaked havoc on the band’s progress, but Chilton confidently took the helm, and his undeniable talents shone through—especially on tracks like “I’m in Love with a Girl,” “Back of a Car,” and cult favorite, “September Gurls.” Released in February of 1974, Radio City garnered praise from the press, but, unfortunately, critical acclaim did not translate to sales.

Disbanding in late 1974, Big Star could have easily fallen into the abyss of could-have-beens and one-hit-wonders, yet they have instead achieved near-mythic status in pop music history. The legacies of #1 Record and Radio City—as well as the band’s third LP, Third—have far exceeded their original commercial performances. All three of Big Star’s albums are included on Rolling Stone’s 2012 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” lists, and tracks from the first two (“Thirteen” and “September Gurls”) are also among the magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Numerous artists (Elliott Smith, The Bangles, This Mortal Coil, Beck, and Jeff Buckley, to name a few) have recorded covers of the band’s songs.

Big Star has been honored with a tribute record (Big Star Small World, 2006), a documentary (2012’s Nothing Can Hurt Me) and a touring live show, “Big Star’s Third,” in which an all-star roster of guest vocalists and musicians join a core group (including R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Chris Stamey of The dB’s, The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and sole surviving Big Star member, Jody Stephens) to perform Third, plus selections from #1 Record and Radio City. Most recently, the 2016 concert film and live album, Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s “Third” Live…And More, captures one such performance in Glendale, CA. Through their heartfelt renditions of the band’s songs, a cross-generational lineup of talent—Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), Robyn Hitchcock, Dan Wilson, Jessica Pratt, and San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet among them—prove the enduring appeal of Big Star’s music.

#1 Record and Radio City (180-gram vinyl editions) will be available on Friday, January 24th, 2020

Big Star’s Third performing live from the Bumbershoot Music Lounge. Recorded August 31st, 2014.

Songs:
For You
Take Care
Nightime
Give Me Another Chance
Thirteen
Blue Moon
I Am The Cosmos
In The Street

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.”

Big Star- Radio City, cherry red & white split vinyl, Ltd to 500 Pieces, Out 2/16

Big Star have the tagline of “cult band” following them wherever they go. It’s tragic considering their world conquering ambitions – embedded in their album titles like #1 Record-and how they wanted to be the first and final word on Beatlesque pop. The challenge with Radio City was to see if guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Alex Chilton could prove he could carry on without songwriting foil Chris Bell, who left after the commercial failure of #1 Record. The relief with hearing Radio City is how Chilton not only rose to the occasion but arguably superseded #1 Record in the process. It’s a looser, sparser affair in parts yet his (and the rest of his bandmates’) grasp on melody and songwriting hadn’t regressed: the track sequence “You Get What You Deserve” to “Morpha Too” has some of Big Star’s best pop writing on record.

Chilton had his best ballad yet in the chiming “September Gurls,” with its guitar arpeggios straight from the Byrds’ songbook while the drums push it along with a peppy stride. It’s an approach that’s been tried many a time by imitator bands looking for some of Big Star’s magic but none seem to have nailed that idyllic yet angsty feeling that Chilton does here.

An exclusive version of Big Star’s classic second album ‘Radio City’! After Chris Bell’s departure, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel dug in to produce this urtext of power pop, with alternate universe hits like “September Gurls” and “Back of a Car”.

‘Radio City’ is pressed on Cherry Red and White Split Vinyl in a limited edition of 500 pieces.

Praised as “one of the unsung heroes of American pop music” Despite a life marked by tragedy and a career crippled by commercial indifference, the singer/songwriter’s slim body of recorded work proved massively influential on the generations of indie rockers who emerged in his wake.”

He was one of the pioneers of power pop – and his catalog of proto-alternative rock has inspired the likes of Beck, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream, Afghan Whigs, Pete Yorn, Wilco, The Posies, and The Replacements, all of which have covered his music or name-dropped his band, Big Star, in the press. His name was Chris Bell.

Christopher Branford “Chris” Bell (January 12th, 1951 – December 27th, 1978) was born in Memphis, Tennessee to a well-off family. He was a sharp, funny, deeply introverted and sexually confused young man, who dreamed of rock stardom.

Omnivore Record’s Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star Featuring Chris Bell was the first of several planned releases from the Grammy Award-winning label showcasing the talents of Big Star co-founder Bell, who passed away in 1978. The label recently announced their next two Bell projects: a new expanded edition of the quintessential Bell collection I Am The Cosmos, and a definitive archive of his work as a 6LP box set.

Prior to Rykodisc’s I Am The Cosmos in 1992, only two of the tracks (the title cut and “You and Your Sister”) were released during Bell’s lifetime; both tracks were pressed on a single released shortly before a car crash took the Memphis hero’s life. (Much of it was recorded long before that, after Bell had departed Big Star and decamped to Paris in 1974 and 1975.) In 2009, Rhino Records also issued a double-disc Cosmos set that featured not only alternate versions and mixes of the album’s original tracks but also cuts by Bell’s pre-Big Star bands Icewater and Rock City for context. As those tracks (and more) are now a part of Looking Forward, this new double-disc edition sweetens the deal with another 10 tracks, most previously unreleased. Compilation producer Alec Palao and writer Bob Mehr provide liner notes, and a clear vinyl version of the original album (the first release of this material on the format in years) will ship day and date alongside the 2CD set.

The material of Looking Forward and I Am The Cosmos will also be featured on a comprehensive vinyl box set, The Complete Chris Bell, to be released later this fall. That set includes the vinyl premiere of Looking Forward (reconfigured to include only the Icewater and Wallabys tracks, plus Bell’s solo “Psychedelic Stuff”); a separate vinyl debut of the material from Rock City, the I Am The Cosmos vinyl (as well as the material from the bonus disc on two LPs); and, exclusive to this set, a newly-discovered career-spanning interview with Bell, conducted by journalist Barry Ballard in 1975 and sourced from his own personal copy of the conversation.

Palao and Mehr again offer notes for the box (alongside an excerpt from Rich Tupica’s forthcoming biography of Bell), all tracks are remastered by Michael Graves, vinyl was cut at Ardent Studios by Chris Jackson and Adam Hill, and Palao, Hill and Omnivore head Cheryl Pawelski serve as the box set’s producers, with the full cooperation of Bell’s estate (as run by his brother David). I Am The Cosmos is back in print , while The Complete Chris Bell is available November 24th!

In 1964 and 1965, Bell played lead guitar in a British Invasion-influenced group called the Jynx (the name is a takeoff on The Kinks) with local musicians, including lead vocalist Mike Harris, rhythm guitarist David Hoback, drummer DeWitt Shy, and bassist Bill Cunningham, and later, bassist Leo Goff. Other lead vocalists at some of the group’s shows and rehearsals (though not present on their recordings) included local teens Ames Yates, Vance Alexander, and Alex Chilton. Chilton, who attended many Jynx shows and sang lead vocals at a couple of gigs, soon joined the Box Tops with Cunningham, as the Jynx split up in 1966. Here are the Jynx, with Bell on lead guitar, performing Little Girl:

Bell continued to perform and record in Memphis throughout the rest of the decade, including a stint in the heavier psych-rock band Christmas Future. By the late 1960s, after attending UT in Knoxville, he had turned his focus toward writing original songs. The group later known as Big Star stemmed from two Bell band projects that began in the late 1960s, while he recorded and performed live in groups, named Icewater and Rock City. These groups featured a revolving set of musicians including Jody Stephens, Terry Manning, Tom Eubanks, Andy Hummel, Richard Rosebrough, Vance Alexander, and Steve Rhea. Here are Icewater and All I See Is You:

Bell asked Alex Chilton to join several months after the group had started performing. Eventually, during a period of recording demos and tracks for their first album, the group settled on the name “Big Star.” The lineup for Big Star’s first album was composed of Bell (guitars/vocals), Chilton (guitars, vocals), Hummel (bass, vocals), and Stephens (drums, vocals). Bell and Chilton wrote most of the group’s songs, with occasional writing contributions from Hummel and Stephens.

Big Star were, in the words of Robyn Hitchcock, “a letter posted in 1971 that didn’t arrive till 1985.” Crowned the inventors of power pop, they were, over the course of three critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums, much more than that. Nobody could turn pain into beauty like Big Star.

In 1971, the 20-year old Alex Chilton has already been a star. He was the front man of The Box Tops, a manufactured rock combo who had one the biggest hits of 1967 with The Letter. His teenage stardom meant that he’d already met Charles Manson, toured with the Beach Boys, and watched Hendrix from the side of the stage before he could legally drink. He was an “art brat” who’d been given peyote as a kid and was already living a remarkable life. But witnessing the guitar shredding, five-part harmonizing experimenters of rock had left him feeling uncomfortable. He was essentially in a boy band. He needed to step up and make his own music. So he quit The Box Tops and after a brief spell in New York, returned to his hometown of Memphis to make music he wanted to listen to.

Just to remind you what a great pop group The Box Tops were, here are a few of ther hits. Their first hit was their biggest, surely one of the classic singles of the 60s (and of all-time). Here’s The Letter, with 16-year-old lead singer Alex Chilton:

Here’s their third single, which was their second-biggest hit, “Cry Like A Baby”:

Chris Bell obsessed with creating perfect, multi-layered pop music. To do this, he had the studios of Ardent Records, run by whizz kid engineer John Fry, who let the local musical kids use it at night for their own sessions. Fry taught Bell how to multi-track. Ardent had become a subsidiary of the legendary Stax Records, taking on some of its recording sessions and, in return, agreeing to be its pop/rock imprint. The studios and – bizarrely -TGI Fridays, were the twin pillars of a raucous Memphis counter-culture scene that was big on drinking, sexual experimentation and drugs, particularly ludes, Mandrax and related pills.

“That pill culture is unique to Memphis”, says director and screenwriter Drew DeNicola. “It’s what killed Elvis and it’s what those Big Star boys were doing too. Everyone knew a crooked doctor. Polite society would go to bed and then, in the margins, the alternative kids could do what they wanted, as long as they made it to Sunday lunch with Momma.”

It was out of this southern stew that Big Star’s first album, #1 Record, came. The band’s name had come out of desperation, taken from a chain of supermarkets, one of which sat across the street from Ardent. Chilton and Bell put their heart and soul into the album, with Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel on drums and bass respectively. It’s an album of perfect pop songs, suffused with pain and melancholy, up-tempo and down-tempo, beautifully layered, subtle and all over the place genre-wise.

On its release in June 1972, #1 Record immediately received widespread acclaim, and continued to do so for six months, although an inability by Stax Records to make the album available in stores meant it sold fewer than 10,000 copies. Record World called it “one of the best albums of the year”, and Billboard commented, “Every cut could be a single”. It was described it as one where “everything falls together as a total sound” and one that “should go to the top”. In 2003 it was ranked on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Eight years earlier in 1964, when their home town of Memphis, Tennessee became a tour stop for The Beatles, primary songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were thirteen years old. They went to the show together – and it made them see the light. Thirteen, a song Chilton wrote nearly six years after he first witnessed that Beatles performance, referred to the event with the line “Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay”.

Heavily influenced by the UK band, the pair – Bell in particular -wanted to model their songwriting on the Lennon–McCartney partnership, with the result that they credited as many songs as possible on Big Star’s debut album to “Bell/Chilton”. In practice, they developed material incrementally in the studio, each making changes to the other’s recordings. Drummer Jody Stephens recalled, “Alex would come in and put down something rough and edgy and Chris would come in and add some sweet-sounding background vocals to it.” The pair also each contributed songs individually composed before Big Star was formed, Bell bringing Feel, My Life Is Right, and Try Again, and Chilton, The Ballad of El Goodo, In The Street, and Thirteen.

Here’s Feel, the album’s opening track:

… and here’s the song with which Alex “auditioned” for the band: Watch the Sunrise.

The album’s short closing track, ST 100/6, is the only song where Alex Chilton and Chris Bell share lead vocals (lead vocals are divided among them on the rest of the album).

The critics loved the album but the public couldn’t get their hands on it. Press attention focused on former teen star Chilton. Chris Bell, the driving force behind the album, was relegated to the sidelines.  The failure of #1 Record devastated him. He was tormented by his sexuality: he was probably gay but was unable, in Tennessee, to deal with it, and there were rumours in Memphis that he was in love with Chilton and that the latter’s lack of reciprocation hastened his departure from the band, which came not long after #1 Record.

The frustration at #1 Record’s obstructed sales contributed to tension within the band. There was physical fighting between members: Bell, after being punched in the face by Hummel, retaliated by smashing Hummel’s new bass guitar to pieces against the wall. Hummel took revenge at a later date: finding Bell’s acoustic guitar in the latter’s unattended car, he repeatedly punched it with a screwdriver. In November 1972, Bell quit the band. When work continued on songs for a second album, Bell rejoined, but further conflict soon erupted. A master tape of the new songs inexplicably went missing, and Bell, whose heavy drug intake was affecting his judgment, attacked Fry’s parked car. In late 1972, struggling with severe depression, Bell quit the band once more, and by the end of the year Big Star disbanded.

After a few months Chilton, Stephens, and Hummel decided to reform Big Star, and the three resumed work on the second album. The title chosen, Radio City, continued the play on the theme of a big star’s popularity and success, expressing what biographer Robert Gordon calls the band’s “romantic expectation”

Although uncredited, Bell contributed to the writing of some of the album’s songs, including O My Soul and Back of a Car. Shortly before the album’s release, Hummel left the band: judging that it would not last, and in his final year at college, he elected to concentrate on his studies and live a more normal life.

For all the trouble surrounding it, Radio City met with general acclaim. Critics judged the musicianship “superb” It was called “a collection of excellent material”; giving it an “A” rating, Robert Christgau calls the album “Brilliant, addictive”, observing meanwhile that “The harmonies sound like the lead sheets are upside down and backwards, the guitar solos sound like screwball ready made pastiches, and the lyrics sound like love is strange,” concluding his review with, “Can an album be catchy and twisted at the same time?”

However, sales were thwarted (again!) by an inability to make the album available in stores. As a result, the album achieved only minimal sales of around 20,000 copies at the time.

September Gurls is the best track on the album, almost as good as their best track overall, Thirteen.

Before returning to Bell’s solo career, I would be amiss not to present Big Star’s legendary third album known as Third or Sister Lovers. It was recorded in 1974. Though Ardent Studios created test pressings for the record in 1975, a combination of financial issues, the uncommercial sound of the record, and lack of interest from singer Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens in continuing the project prevented the album from ever being properly finished or released at the time of its recording. It was eventually released in 1978 by PVC Records.

After two commercially unsuccessful albums, Third documents the band’s deterioration as well as the declining mental state of singer Alex Chilton. It has since gone on to become one of the most critically acclaimed albums in history and is considered a cult album.

You have to take into account that most of the songs in Third/Sister Lovers are practically demos. I wonder what would be the final form of these songs, had Alex decided to properly complete the album…

Chilton went on to have an interesting solo career, but commercial success always eluded him. In truth, he wasn’t really aiming for it. He also briefly reformed Big Star, as well as regrouped with the original Box Tops for a number of tours. He was taken to the hospital in New Orleans on Wednesday, March 17th, 2010, complaining of health problems, and died the same day of a heart attack. Four months later, Hummel died of cancer.

Back to our man, Chris Bell. After leaving Big Star, Chris would attempt suicide, abuse strong sedatives and use religion to suppress doubts around his sexuality amid an inherently homophobic Deep South.

Vocally, to some, Bell was an icon trapped in the wrong era. “At times Chris could be so punk rock and he’d just make this painful noise from the back of his throat like a Cobain,” beams Adam Hill, an engineer at Ardent, who remastered Bell’s recordings for posthumous collection I Am The Cosmos. “On grungy solo track Better Save Yourself, Bell contorts his voice, sometimes shouting, to bellow: “You should’ve gave your love to Jesus, it couldn’t do you no harm. You better save yourself, if you wanna see his face.” This was songwriting that had little time for affectation. Whereas on a song like Though I Know She Lies you could be listening to Dylan on Lay Lady Lay. He always pushed his vocal cords to their very limit.” On the delicate You And Your Sister, Bell pours his heart out about an unrequited love. When he reflects “Plans fail every day,” to backing vocals by Chilton, who remained an acquaintance, you sense heartbreak of both a romantic and professional nature. And Speed of Sound – with its existential dread of “The plane goes down, it will not land. The pilot’s dead, nowhere to be found”—hits you right in the gut, writing the angsty blueprint Elliott Smith would later follow to a tee.

Seen by friends as an intervention, Bell’s brother David took him across Europe in the mid-70s, armed with these solo demos. Bell, an anglophile who imported copies of NME, would get the chance to work with hero Geoff Emerick—a pivotal engineer on all the best Beatles albums—at the legendary Air Studios. “It was good for him to go to Europe but I sense he was still in a really dark place. He was an impatient artist after Big Star,” says Van Duren, a fellow Memphis musician. With a record deal not forthcoming, Bell accepted he needed a regular 9-to-5 upon his return to Memphis. For a while, he worked for his father’s hamburger chain Danvers—a heartbreaking scene for friends who understood his talent.

While Bell was back home flipping burgers, Big Star were blowing up in the UK, with NME unable to keep up with reader letters requesting copies of their first two albums. In fact, demand for both albums was so high they were eventually reissued in a gatefold release. “I called Chris and it was one of the only times I remember him being really happy, as all those Beatles Parlophone pressings he loved had the same address on the back,” remembers Stephens, noting that the reissue said “Pressed by EMI at Hayes, Middlesex” on the back. However, Bell’s adulation would be short lived.

“When I came back to Memphis we made plans to meet at the studio. However, when I arrived he had already left,” recalls Stephens. Friends and family still don’t know for sure what happened in the early hours of December 27th, 1978, the dark mystique of Bell’s music holding even in death. “What’s weird is I decided to drive back and when I got to the Sears department store, I could see police cars with their lights flashing and there was this car in the middle of the road. A pole had fallen and completely crushed the left side of the roof. I immediately thought ‘I shouldn’t look.’ The next day John [Fry] phoned to say Chris had died in a car accident. I had passed by Chris.” He was 27, that fateful age.

Unreleased for over 15 years, I Am the Cosmos, Bell’s only solo album, is nevertheless an enduring testament to the brilliance of Chris Bell; lyrically poignant and melodically stunning, this lone solo album is proof positive of his underappreciated pop mastery. The title track is a harrowingly schizophrenic tale of romantic despair:

We end this story with the album’s highlight, You and Your Sister – which features backing vocals from none other than Bell’s Big Star mate Alex Chilton – which is simply one of the great unknown love songs in the pop canon, a luminous and fragile ballad almost otherworldly in its beauty.

Thanks to Yianna/John

Big Star Movie Comes To DVD and Blu-Ray

 

The hugely influential 1970s melodic rock band Big Star will have the feature length documentary about their life and times, ‘Nothing Can Hurt Me,’ released by USM on DVD and Blu-Ray next month. The group’s many admirers will also be excited to learn that a deluxe package will be available that adds the first two of the three albums they released in their initial incarnation.

Their debut LP was ‘No#1 Record,’ first released on the Ardent label via Stax in 1972, and this will be in the package along with the 1974 follow-up ‘Radio City.’ The band released ‘Third’ in 1978 before their split, and were then “discovered” by the next generation of rock fans after being cited as an influence by the likes of R.E.M., the Replacements and later favourites such as Flaming Lips. ‘Third’ was reissued as ‘Sister Lovers’ in 1992 and the band reformed for a fourth and final new studio record, ‘In Space,’ in 2005.

‘Nothing Can Hurt Me,’ a feature length documentary about Big Star, was first shown in cinemas last summer, and its new DVD and Blu-Ray release will be on March 2nd. Alex Chilton, who had been the original band’s frontman and co-songwriter with Chris Bell, died in 2010.