Sunday, February 7, 2010
Memphis - Big Star
Hope all's going well. I'm writing to you from one of the most historic musical places, or musical hallowed ground, if you will, in the world. It's a city in the southwest of the US state of Tennessee called Memphis, which you may know from the title of the Chuck Berry song called, um, "Memphis, Tennessee". Chuck doesn't really talk to much about Memphis in the song, other than referring to "the southside" and "the Mississippi Bridge". Instead the song is actually a brilliantly executed lyrical gem, where Chuck writes about a young girl called Marie trying to get in touch with him but he missed her call. We of course initially think that Marie is of course a character of romantic interest for Mr Berry, but in the third verse, we are turned onto the truth by the line "Marie is only six years old", and it turns out that she is his estranged daughter, giving the song all new added poignancy. It's really a masterpiece, and I never cease to marvel at how well written a song it is. Chuck Berry, aside from being the first "guitar hero", really was one of the most lyrically talented songwriters that Rock'n'roll has ever seen in my opinion, and the deftness and structural genius of his lyrics is often criminally overlooked when discussing this giant of Rock music. Instead, everyone just thinks of that guitar riff from 'Johnny B Goode'.
But anyway, I didn't come on here to write about Chuck Berry, although maybe I will at a later date. I thought Memphis would be as good a place as any to start writing my blog series about bands and artists that you've probably never heard of, but should have. The first chapter in this series is about a band that is now regarded as one of the most influential, yet completely unsuccessful bands and thus one of the greatest commercial misfortunes of the modern rock era. This band's name is Big Star.
Big Star was founded in Memphis in 1971 by original members Alex Chilton (guitar/vocals), Chris Bell (guitar/vocals), Andy Hummell (bass/vocals), and Jody Stephens (drums/vocals). The band was formed when Alex was invited by the others to join their original band Icewater, after hearing some of Alex's songs, which he played for them on his trusty acoustic guitar. The band befriended local music figure and owner of Ardent studios, John Fry, and immediately started working on their first album. The band also adopted the new name of 'Big Star' after the grocery store nearby that the group visited for snacks during recording sessions. According to Jody Stephens and John Fry, Chris Bell was the 'tinkerer' of the band, spending hours in the studio playing around with new guitar parts or ideas for songs after the band had already cut the original rhythm section 'beds' for the tracks. The resulting album was called '#1 Record', and is often considered to be the first power-pop album; combining elements of British invasion-esque pop harmonies and jangly guitars with riffs and bass lines not unlike those in rhythm and blues music. The album was released in 1972 on Ardent's own label, and distributed by powerful Memphis record label, Stax records. It was critically acclaimed (Rolling Stone called it "exceptionally good"), but due to mismanagement and mishandling by Stax the album was virtually unavailable in stores for purchase, which practically eliminated any chance of sales or charting.
The subsequent disappointment in the lack of the record's success resulted in a lot of tensions emerging within the band, resulting in some physical violence between band members and destruction of equipment. Chris Bell also left the band, being very frustrated and disheartened by the poor commercial performance and handling of the record by Stax. Nonetheless, the band returned to Ardent to record a follow-up record, which would become their second album 'Radio City'. The record was recorded at Ardent by Chilton, Stephens, and Hummell, with technical assistance from John Fry. Chris Bell had already collaborated on some songs with Chilton before recording, and his influence is still felt in the harmonies, but it is really Chilton's edgy guitar that dominates this record. Released in February 1974 it was again met with great critical accolades, but due to a disagreement between Stax and a new deal it had made regarding its own distribution with Columbia records, the album languished in record label limbo. As a result of the disagreement, Columbia refused to distribute Stax's catalog, not promoting the release and additionally making the record extremely hard to get, and subsequently the record only sold around 20,000 copies (which was still more than '#1 Record). To compound the band's woes, Hummell left the group just before the record's release to finish his studies, and the record sank almost without a trace.
In late 1974, Chilton and Stephens, aided by an array of other musicians, returned to the studio to work on a third record, which was to be produced by Memphis luminary Jim Dickinson. More a series of recordings than an album, the record is still regarded as an essential part of the Band's ouevre (there's a fancy word), despite its dissimilarities to the first two records. The sounds are more disjointed, minimal, and contain synthesisers and horns and female backing vocals in place of the jangly guitars of previous releases. It is easily the most innovative record by the group, and well worth a listen, as it contains some great songs and incredible vocals from Chilton. It was regarded as too uncommercial for release, despite John Fry and Jim Dickinson's best attempts to sell the record to a new label following the demise of Stax in 1975 (another story). It was finally released under the name 'Third/Sister Lovers' on a couple of small independent labels in 1978, and was well received by somewhat puzzled critics at the time, yet still retained the unfortunate characteristic of all Big Star records: it was a commercial flop. It has recently developed more attention due it being the great 'lost' Big Star album, and was re-released on CD by Rykodisc in 1992.
Following the recording sessions for 'Third/Sister Lovers', the band officially broke up and Alex Chilton went on to a solo career of mixed success, and Chris Bell was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after the release of their final record in 1978. After leaving the band Chris Bell actually recorded and released a phenomenal solo record called 'I Am The Cosmos', but it too was a commercial failure, though it has now been re-released on CD. It is really worth checking out, and is a bit of a lost masterpiece.
Big Star actually re-formed (with Chilton, Stephens, with the assistance of Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from The Posies) in 1994 due to a renewed interest in their music, released a new album 'In Space' in 2005 and still does the occasional gig. However, the unfortunate circumstances and label disputes that combined to ensure the commercial failure of a group that was seemingly destined for success due to the quality of its music, is really nothing short of a rock'n'roll tragedy. I strongly recommend you check out Big Star's music, and revel in the superb songwriting, production and undeniable talent of these four young men, who never really got to fulfill their musical career aspirations, but still created some of the best music ever recorded. '#1 Record' is a good place to start, and just go on from there...
#1 Record (1972)
Radio City (1974)
Third/Sister Lovers (1978)
In Space (2005)
Keep An Eye On The Sky (Box Set - 2009)