Drummer Jody Stephens lifts the lid on Big Star

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During Memorial Day weekend in 1973, the First Annual National Association of Rock Writers’ Convention rolled into Memphis, Tennessee, dragging in its wake a who’s who of critics out to drink their fill on Stax Records’ dime. Around midnight at Lafayette’s Music Room, one of the media set’s pre-eminent hellraisers wound up on stage. Shitfaced, Richard Meltzer gripped the microphone and yelled: “Well, puke on ya momma’s pussy! Here’s Big Star!”

Big Star’s story isn’t prone to triumphalism, but the set that followed was a triumph. At the time, the band existed in a weird liminal space between their commercial wreck of a first record and the nebulous prospect of a second.

Their founding guitarist, Chris Bell, had quit, and they were essentially operating as a new-look three-piece for one night only. Once the house lights went down, these failed musicians played some of the greatest rock songs ever written – they opened with Feel, Alex Chilton performed Thirteen and The Ballad Of El Goodo solo, and they closed with The Letter, the one lasting hit from his Box Tops days – to a rare audience that ate up every last mouthful.

Towards the end of the show, they slipped in some new material that had to that point only been sketched in pencil. “We kind of came back together to play that show,” drummer Jody Stephens remembers. “The response was pretty amazing. It was enough to motivate Alex to want to do another record.”

Although weathered by time, this scene hasn’t become any less remarkable. The sort of applause and lairy abandon that rang through the venue has greeted lesser bands on thousands of nights, but in this context it’s a lighthouse that illuminates the bittersweet core of Big Star’s existence.

“Basically, in the mid-1970s, the only people on the planet who knew Big Star were rock critics and record store clerks,” R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, one of the countless musicians to take influence from Big Star after the fact, observed in the liner notes to 2009’s Keep An Eye On The Sky boxset.

The band’s short career is a tragedy that wears its heartbreak and dysfunction lightly. A decade on from the deaths of Chilton and bassist Andy Hummel, and 42 from the loss of Bell, their music still glimmers with hope, promise and longing.

Their first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, are unimpeachable rock classics, and Third is among the great experimental works in the pop firmament. “Big Star was some sort of ultimate guitar band, I guess,” Chilton told Melody Maker in 1985. “I don’t think that people will make a guitar band sound better than we made our band sound.”

SHOOTING FROM THE HIP

Big Star formed in early 1971, when Chilton drifted back to Memphis after a successful spell in New York following the dissolution of The Box Tops, the blue-eyed soul hitmakers he began fronting in his mid-teens. Now in his early 20s, he wandered into the orbit of the Stax-affiliated Ardent Studios, where Bell, Hummel and Stephens were regulars, either learning the recording ropes from owner John Fry or working on music as Icewater, a covers band that dabbled in original material. “I know Chris was pursuing Alex to join the band,” Stephens recalls. “Alex came to see us at the VFW Hall in downtown Memphis. Apparently, he liked what he saw.”

Bell, a studio geek with a head for pop arrangements and an obsession with instrumental textures, tuned into Chilton’s quietly majestic New York compositions. They came from different sides of the city – Bell from the well-heeled suburbs, Chilton from a bohemian home populated by visiting musicians and artists – and had contradictory approaches to their work, but they shared once-in-a-lifetime chemistry.

I DON’T THINK THAT PEOPLE WILL MAKE A GUITAR SOUND BETTER THAN WE MADE OUR BAND SOUND

“It was magic,” Stephens admits. “These guys were well studied players, very melodyoriented. They would form a guitar line, and I would liken it to just forming a sentence. Some people can form more interesting sentences than others. It’s just the way the words come out. It’s the same with a musician.

It’s just the way these notes come out.” Ardent provided them with a canvas. Fry started the studio and label in 1959, while still in his teens, and by the time Big Star lifted their winking name from a local grocery store chain he was earning a rep as a meticulous, sympathetic producer. They handled overflow work from Stax, hosting major names in their low-key storefront and later at a purpose-built downtown facility, and let these shaggy-haired outsider kids work after hours. “John Fry was definitely a member of the band if you want to count people who influenced the way you hear Big Star,” Stephens says. “His engineering and mixing – just a brilliant set of ears.”

By the summer of 1972, with Bell’s perfectionist streak and Fry’s studio savvy having mingled with Chilton’s shoot-from-thehip creativity, the band had a real-life album on their hands. Accidentally tipping their hat to the clusterfuck that followed, they called it #1 Record.

The songs were diamonds. The reviews were ecstatic. The shows were empty. No one in Memphis cared. The airwaves were heaving with the sounds of heavy rock.

To add to the mess, Ardent’s distribution tie-up with Stax was a non-starter and very few copies found their way to stores. The sales were pitiful. “I didn’t seem to focus on that too much,” Stephens remembers. “I loved playing.

The reward was making a great record.” Others didn’t share Stephens’ philosophical view. Bell, in particular, was crestfallen when #1 Record stalled. “Chris’s whole focus in life was to succeed as a musician and an artist,” Stephens adds. “He was truly disappointed. Alex had some comments, but I don’t think he dwelled on it.”

Frustrated by the press attention lavished on Chilton, Bell tumbled into a deep depression. By the autumn, he’d decided to quit, divvying up work-in-progress arrangements with his erstwhile bandmates.

After a particularly vociferous argument, Bell kicked in Fry’s car and attempted to erase the #1 Record masters. Thwarted, he tried to kill himself by swallowing a cocktail of pills. “The psychiatric floor of Baptist Hospital was like a prison,” Fry lamented in Big Star: The Story of Rock’s Forgotten Band. “It was frightening even to visit. Then Chris was moved to Mid-South Hospital, which was a psychological and rehabilitation facility with a more residential atmosphere.”

Big Star had two more classics in their locker, and a stacked corner with Fry flanked by true believers such as Ardent’s publicity man John King, but never again would they sound so wide-eyed and sonically pristine. Bell was the band’s dreamer. His death in a 1978 car crash left behind a tiny, almost flawless body of work (including his posthumous solo LP I Am The Cosmos) that enshrined him as one of pop’s great overlooked talents. Shorn of Bell as a sounding board and construction engineer, Big Star coasted on, writing new material and playing sparsely attended one-off shows. Between loves, as he so often was, Chilton got into Quaaludes and started drinking more heavily, often winding up at Ardent cutting demos in the early hours with a cavalcade of collaborators.

Despite his lacerating self-criticism, these nocturnal reveries resulted in songs such as Mod Lang, She’s A Mover and What’s Going Ahn, which would form the backbone of 1974’s Radio City, the Big Star LP that duly followed their rapturous convention set. “We thought, ‘We’ve got another shot at this’. So we took it,” Stephens says.

But Big Star still couldn’t catch a break. The album was another masterwork, and home to one of pop music’s crowning glories in September Gurls, but Stax’s deal with Columbia Records had permanently gone sideways. Columbia boss Clive Davis was fired, Stax bled out, and Ardent was cut adrift. Radio City went nowhere fast. After honouring a run of dates at Max’s Kansas City in New York, Hummel walked.

“Again, we got a lot of really good press,” Stephens says. “We encountered the same sort of thing with the records not being in stores. It was disappointing. But I’d been able to go back in the studio with Alex and Andy and make this great record. I love Radio City just like I love #1 Record.”

Chilton slipped further into drink and drugs, entering a prodigious period of radical writing that rode the rails of his relationship with 18-year-old Sarah Lawrence student Lesa Aldridge. Their affair was characterised by emotional extremes and physical violence on both sides of the ledger. Stephens, meanwhile, was dating Aldridge’s sister, Holliday, in the background.

The Sister Lovers project that became Third pushed Chilton into territory that he’d mine for the rest of his career. It was openended, self-destructive, beautiful and challenging. It snapped his relationship with Fry in two (his engineering fingerprints are still all over it, and he mastered the recordings at the request of producer Jim Dickinson) and left gin and blood all over the console at Ardent.

It was also the final straw for Stephens, who eventually baulked at the druggy mayhem. “There’s nothing like being part of a creative experience in a recording studio,” he says. “I got together with Alex again just to be part of that. I didn’t stick around long afterward, but I’m glad I did it.”

FALLING APART

Third dredged up some things that had been kept below the surface on earlier Big Star records. Its emotions were raw and unrefined, and some compositions disintegrated in listeners’ hands like burnt letters. “They’re constantly on the verge of falling apart,” Stephens posits.

Going one better than their previous records, this one was never definitively sequenced and wasn’t released at all. It eventually emerged on Aura/PVC Records in 1978, after Chilton had moved back to New York and embraced the city’s nascent punk scene. He played CBGB with The Cossacks, produced the first Cramps record and, in 1980, released his no wave-leaning solo debut Like Flies On Sherbert.

Some of the sadness found in Big Star’s music springs from the sense of rejection it conjures. Firstly, there’s the music industry’s indifference and the listening public’s trickle-down ignorance. Secondly, there’s Bell’s exit and Chilton’s rubbishing of his own music at every turn. He was an artist in perpetual motion, always reluctant to acknowledge any past successes. He dismissed Thirteen as regressive nonsense but, dude, Bruce Springsteen built a 50-year career on sentiments not a million miles removed from, “Would you be an outlaw for my love?”

I DON’T KNOW THAT THERE’S AN END YET TO THE BIG STAR STORY

Chilton continued to rage against his roots, with his jazzy solo work after getting sober and working a string of day jobs in his new home, New Orleans. But Big Star always found pockets of interest. The NME loved them, leading to a 1978 double LP reissue of their first two records. The Replacements penned a powerpop classic of their own and called it Alex Chilton. College rockers, twee popsters and shoegazers all flocked to their neglected altar.

In 1993, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies filled out a four-piece version of Big Star with Chilton and Stephens. They released an LP called In Space in 2005, and toured until Chilton’s death in 2010. His Rolling Stone obituary fixated on a show at Brooklyn’s Masonic Temple four months earlier, specifically on the smile he wore throughout. “There was an honesty there that Alex would never speak,” Stephens said at the time. “But he would show it on his face.”

These days, Stephens still works at Ardent and plays semi-regularly with Big Star’s Third Live, an orchestral spectacle with a revolving cast that has included members of R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Cat Power and more. “I don’t know that there’s an end yet to the Big Star story,” he says. “It’s begat other things that keep Alex and Chris and Andy in the contemporary part of people’s minds.”

REISSUE CITY

The collective shrug that greeted Big Star’s releases in real time has led to their music becoming prime reissue real estate. Beginning in the late 70s and continuing through Rykodisc’s CD version of Third in 1992, their three LPs have been repackaged and fine tuned almost constantly since the band folded. In early 2020, Craft Recordings put out fresh 180g versions of #1 Record and Radio City featuring a hometown spin thanks to analogue mastering by Jeff Powell at Memphis’s Take Out Vinyl and manufacturing at Memphis Record Pressing.

“I work at Ardent Studios and we had a gentleman in from New Jersey for a tour and he was talking about seeing new people turned on to Big Star,” Stephens says. “Having these reissues helps spread the word. It perpetuates that connection with an audience, and that makes it all worthwhile. I have a group called Those Pretty Wrongs, and at the end of the day people have to like the music that we make, but they listen to it because I was in Big Star. I get to do Those Pretty Wrongs and Big Star’s Third Live with some really good friends and I get to stay connected with these audiences. It’s a bridge to relationships.”

Huw Baines

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