If a band’s success were judged solely by critical acclaim, Big Star would be up there with the musical giants. The reviewers loved them, placing their three official albums among the all-time greats.
Sadly, through catastrophic mismanagement by their record labels, Alex Chilton’s band of power-pop pioneers achieved negligible sales and become only a footnote in rock history. Yet few have had such an enduring legacy – influencing countless acts and inspiring a loyal following almost half a century after their heyday.
William Alexander Chilton was born in 1950 in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a jazz musician. He became a star at 16 as singer with the Box Tops, who had a major international hit with The Letter and several other chart successes before disbanding in 1970. He then formed Big Star with fellow Memphis singer and guitarist Chris Bell, who shared a love of the Byrds plus British bands such as the Beatles, Stones and the Who. They were joined by Andy Hummel on bass and drummer Jody Stephens.
Their first album, #1 Record, was released in 1972 to ecstatic acclaim across the music press. Billboard magazine declared that every jangly track was a potential single. There are loads of great riffs, particularly on In The Street and When My Baby’s Beside Me, while quieter cuts such as The Ballad of El Goodo and Thirteen show the depth of Chilton and Bell’s songwriting skills.
Despite the buzz of approval, #1 Record sold a measly 10,000 copies because the Stax label, more commonly associated with soul bands, failed for some reason to supply record stores in sufficient numbers.
Disillusioned at their treatment by Stax, and with Bell and Chilton already developing psychiatric problems exacerbated by drink and drugs, the four fought among themselves while working on their second album, Radio City. Things got so bad that they smashed each other’s instruments and vandalised their cars. Bell walked out of the band, rejoined then quit again.
Radio City was ready for release by 1974 and the three-piece line-up was seen as providing a brighter, more spontaneous sound. Several critics have described it as the definitive power-pop album. Starting with track three, Way Out West, there are five great songs in a row, the others being What’s Going Ahn, You Get What You Deserve, Mod Lang and Back of a Car. And still the best is yet to come, the superb September Gurls. Once more, however, Big Star fell victim to the curse of the useless record label – this time Ardent. Again there was an almost wilful refusal to distribute and Radio City managed sales of only 20,000.
With Hummel also leaving the band because he felt it would not last, Chilton and Stephens went into the studio to record the dark masterpiece which would be known as Third/Sister Lovers. While there are still some rhythmic gems, chilling numbers such as Holocaust, Big Black Car and Stroke It Noel reflect Chilton’s continuing mental disintegration. There is an excellent cover of the Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale, with lovely playing by Chilton’s Memphis guitar mentor Steve Cropper, and my favourite Big Star song of all, Blue Moon.
Finished in 1975, Third/Sister Lovers was deemed too uncommercial for release and remained in the vaults. In 1978, the first two Big Star albums came out as a double in the UK. I eagerly snapped it up having for years read critics raving about this amazing band that no one had ever heard. Following encouraging sales, the third album finally saw the light of day. It has since been released in many forms, with different tracks and order of songs. Far from an easy listen, but haunting and fascinating. Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
Alex Chilton had various tilts at a solo career, always fighting personal problems and never turning his huge talent into commercial success. Attempts to revive the Big Star franchise fell on similarly stony ground. Chilton died of a heart attack aged 59 in March 2010, Andy Hummel of cancer four months later.
As is so often the case, Big Star are more successful dead than they ever were alive. There are various projects such as the excellent four-CD box set on Rhino, Keep An Eye On The Sky, and an exhaustive triple album Complete Third, which covers Sister Lovers from demos to final version. Acclaim at last for Alex Chilton, troubled genius.