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The Most Famous Unknown Band in Rock History

Marc Horton, Acting Senior Librarian, Wilmington Branch Library,
Big Star: Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton
Big Star: Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives

The story of rock and roll is full of missed opportunities, poor decisions, and tragic turns of fate that consigned many worthwhile artists to obscurity. While many are little more than footnotes in musical history, some, like the legendary Memphis combo Big Star, pick up a second life as an influential force far beyond their original lifespan. 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of the release of Big Star’s debut #1 Record. Though their shimmering Beatles-influenced guitar pop sound was acclaimed by critics, very few people heard Big Star, but as Brian Eno famously noted about the Velvet Underground, many of those who did would start their own bands.

#1 Record

Barely out of their teens, the duo of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton composed songs that fused the chiming guitars of the 1960s British Invasion sound with touches of the gritty soul sounds that put Memphis on the musical map. Bell knew his way around the studio as a session musician at Ardent Studios, where many local R&B hits were born, and Chilton was already a cynical veteran of the music industry from his time in the Box Tops. Bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens completed the group.

The songs on #1 Record (1972) expressed a strident self-confidence, “The Ballad of El Goodo”, and a deep spiritual yearning, “Try Again”, but they could also keep pace with the AM radio sound of the time, on rockers like “In The Street”, which would become adapted as the theme from 1990s sitcom That ‘70s Show, and the Rolling Stones-styled boogie of “Feel”. The acoustic ballad “Thirteen” evoked the feeling of early adolescence like few songs in the rock idiom, previously or since. Strong reviews, however, did not translate into sales, and the record sank from view.

Radio City

Disappointment over the record’s failure led Bell to quit the group before the 1974 followup Radio City was recorded, but Big Star forged on as a trio led by Chilton. Songs like “September Gurls”, later covered by The Bangles, “Back of a Car” and “O My Soul” were evidence that the magic of the debut was no fluke. But as a rare rock group on soul label Stax Records’ roster, and because of a failed distribution deal, few of their records made it to the shelves. The band remained a well-kept secret to anyone other than a few journalists and industry insiders.

With little left to lose or to strive for, Alex Chilton retreated to the studio and recorded what would become the third album with various musicians and noted producer Jim Dickinson. Songs like “Big Black Car”, “Nighttime” and “Kanga Roo” were harrowing but beautiful, and Chilton seemed to reflect on Big Star’s failures with sarcasm (“Thank You Friends”) and anger (“You Can’t Have Me”). The recordings of what would be known as Big Star’s Third were the nihilistic sound of an artist and band falling apart, and true to Big Star’s commercial fate, other than a few bootlegs the record was shelved until the late 1970s when it was released in England.

Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton continued on as a solo act, making many eclectic, often difficult records that would also achieve their own cult-like appreciation. His later music could be heard as a rejection of the “power pop” sound he helped to pioneer and the Big Star myth, as he would become a prickly godfather of the spirit of punk and independent music. Chilton resurrected Big Star in the 90s and kept it going—on his own terms, of course—off and on until his death from a heart attack in 2010, including a new collection of songs released under the Big Star name in 2005. After leaving the band he started, Chris Bell would eventually give up on music and died in a motorcycle crash in 1978, but not before recording an album’s worth of songs with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick while in France. These recordings were issued posthumously as the collection I Am The Cosmos and stand alongside the very best music that Big Star released. Bell’s pre-Big Star work was included in the Big Star box set Keep An Eye on the Sky, along with other Big Star rarities.

Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More

Big Star would find their listeners; in fact, all three records have been included in Rolling Stone’s ever-evolving 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Artists like Beck, Wilco, R.E.M., the Replacements, and Teenage Fanclub would claim them as an influence. Since Chilton’s death, a collective of musicians from across the musical spectrum including surviving member Jody Stephens and latter-day Big Star members from the band The Posies have gathered to perform Big Star’s music in epic concerts on stages around the world. A 2016 show at Glendale’s Alex Theatre was captured on the live recording and DVD Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Third Live and More. More archival live sets and radio sessions would emerge, enhancing the Big Star archival legacy, including a comprehensive collection of the Big Star Third sessions. Most illuminating of all was the 2013 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which finally told the story of rock’s most celebrated cult band.

You can enjoy many of these recordings and documentaries free with your library card on hoopla and read more about Big Star, Memphis musical history, and power pop music on Overdrive e-books.

Big Star, Alex Chilton and Power Pop Reading List

A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor
George-Warren, Holly

Cult Musicians: 50 Progressive Performers You Need to Know
Dimery, Robert

Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music's Hometown
Gordon, Robert

Go All the Way: A Literary Appreciation of Power Pop
Myers, Paul