Big Star

I’ve been listening to the new-ish Big Star box set, “Keep an eye on the sky”. It prompted me to dig out the Rock City cd(one of Chris Bell’s first bands, early versions of “My life is right” and “Try again” credited to Rock City but featuring Alex Chilton) which also has the Icewater version of “Feel”, pretty much the same as the Big Star version. I’ve adored Big Star since around 1975/1976. Their name apparently came from a grocery store Alex and Chris used to visit for snacks between recordings.

“Radio City” called so, Andy Hummel said, because “If someone suggested going to a store but you had gotten a bad deal there you might say, “Oh no, that place is ‘rip off city’.” Calling an LP Radio City  would be kind of wishful thinking. I mean we hoped it would be played on the radio a lot, making it “radio city”. Of course it didn’t pan out that way”.
Andy Hummel sadly passed away recently. Aside from his fabulous colossal reverbed bass playing, he wrote a number of Big Star tracks, notably for me “Way out West”. And the first AV of “the India song” on cd 1 in the box, also written by Andy, is beautiful.

My bud from Art school Matthew borrowed “Radio City” from Eddie Pouncy, and as soon as I heard it, I took it from him! I obsessed over it like I did the New York Dolls albums and played it several times a day for many months. I did eventually get an original copy, still sealed, for 2 quid, but it had an annoying pressing fault at the end of “September Girls” so I sold it. According to some listings that would now cost me £400!
I recall the first time I heard “Radio City”. I was at a party with Will and Matt in Boreham I believe, and Matthew put the record on the turntable of a half reasonable stereo. It was certainly in the early hours after we’d been drinking and smoking some. My memory is seeing a loft type room, with pine panelling, very Scandi!
But the music, well it overwhelmed me, captivated me, and I simply couldn’t let it out of my grasp. There were Beatles/Byrds overtones for sure, but the vocal harmonies, listening to them 33 years later, were almost like the Beach Boys in their complexity and timbre. And oh Chilton’s guitars, trebley, crystalline, glassy, chiming, all the old Byrds cliches, but beyond anything I’d heard before, with the possible exception of perhaps Tony Hicks (from the Hollies)guitar sound starting at “Look through any window” and “So lonely” and beyond.

I wasn’t sure about where Alex’s head was at, but it was a place full of regret, sadness and space. The songs had so much melancholia and soulful emotion, glimpses of winter bleak darkness and sunny morning optimism.
At the age of 18 my girlfriend was a fiery red haired 28 year old Glaswegian. She squatted in an old house in the country, surrounded by farmland and trees. Radio City sound tracked some of that love affair, and I recall listening to it spaced out whilst gazing out across the autumnal countryside.

When Paul and then Mark Robins heard Big Star they loved them too and wondered how Alex Chilton got that sound. We feverishly looked for pictures of Chilton playing with Big Star, to see what guitar he used, and what amps. But of course in 1977 NO ONE aside from a very small hip few knew who Big Star were, and none of the weekly Rock rags(Sounds, NME, Melody Maker)ever mentioned them.
So we totally obsessed over “Radio City” and in 1978 Line records released a twofer of “No.1 Record” and “Radio City”. The Accidents became Big Star/Radio City  mega fans. Paul spotted a pic in Sounds showing Chilton playing a Strat, with a Capo, through a Sun amp. Much speculation ensued.
Could we make out the settings on Chilton’s amp and guitar? Where was the Capo, and how did it affect the key?
We simply didn’t know, but we talked about the EQ and Reverb as being critical, not to mention Chilton’s wacked chords, all 5th’s and 9th’s.

Paul cleverly analysed Chilton’s writing and came up with songs like  “Blood Spattered with Guitars”, whilst Mark provided suitably Chilton-esque guitar solos.
We were ahead of the pack for sure. We covered the Choir’s “I’d rather you leave me”, a fabulous slice of Power pop maximum, channeling the Byrds, the Beatles and Big Star simultaneously!
We loved “No 1 Record” too, tho’ it’s dynamics and songs weren’t nearly as hard hitting or original as “Radio City”.

It was an all together more “Rock” album, but I love the acoustic songs at the end of the album, “Give me another chance”, ” “Try again”, “Sunrise” and “ST 100/6”. The alternative version of “My life is right” in the box is phenominal, and for me one of the few reasons to buy the box, tho’ of course I’d heard it before on the “What’s goin Ahn” cd. And there’s a wonderful supposed outtake from the 1st album on another Big Star cd called “Beale street green”, a song called “Another time, another place and you”. An instrumental featuring much acoustic guitar and mellotron, fabulous.

The big difference between the first and second albums is the presence of Chris Bell, who left the band in 1972. Although uncredited he wrote or co wrote “Back of a car” and “O my soul”, and I’ve read many times that a significant amount of Bell’s guitar playing was left on “Radio City” which he worked on before quitting the band.

At some point in either 1979 or 1980 I got a copy of the “I am the cosmos” vinyl 45 by Chris Bell, which for the Accidents was manna from heaven. I remember some wasted sunny day Paul, Nick and I on the roof of Foulden road, listening to “Cosmos” over and over again, revelling in it’s wonderful guitars and voices, like some long lost outtake from “Radio City”. Thank you Chris Stamey. What we didn’t know was that Chris Bell had died in a car crash on the 27th of December 1978. We originally heard he’d driven his car off a cliff, but actually he hit a lamp post after he’d lost control of his car. By all accounts Chris was a major depressive, perhaps mostly down to  the fact he was ashamed of being Gay, tho’ apparently he struggled with Heroin addiction most of his adult life. (strangely, Chris was buried the day after he was killed, the 28th of December, Alex Chilton’s birthday!)He tried to deal with his troubles by becoming a devout Christian, which explains a lot of the lyric on the “Cosmos” album.

Thankfully Ryko released “I am the Cosmos” as a full album, in 1992.
It was a great record, and Alex Chilton guested on “You and Your Sister”(the b-side of the vinyl 45),tho’ as I’ve mentioned elsewhere pretty much the only indispensable track for Big Star fans was “Cosmos”
In 2009 Rhino Handmade released a deluxe version of “Cosmos”, with lots of bonus tracks and AVs, but as it costs £25 upwards I don’t know anyone who has a copy! I quote Rhino: “On the second disc, all but two of the 15 tracks are previously unreleased. Among the wealth of unissued recordings are eight alternate versions and mixes of album tracks, including “You And Your Sister” with Mellotron in place of the original’s string arrangement, and a later version of “Get Away” featuring Big Star’s Alex Chilton on guitar, Ken Woodley on bass and Richard Rosebrough on drums. The collection also gathers up a number of unreleased songs Bell recorded that did not appear on I AM THE COSMOS, including two songs by Icewater (a precursor to Big Star); collaborations with Memphis songwriter Keith Sykes (“Stay With Me”) and singer Nancy Bryan (“In My Darkest Hour”); and “Clacton Rag,” an instrumental recorded in 1976 that features Bell solo on guitar.” Shame that the bonus tracks couldn’t have been put on the “Sky” box, that would have rounded it up nicely……

Paul actually met Alex at the Music Machine in Camden, I’m guessing the Summer of 1980?(help me out here Paul!).
Alex was pretty drunk, and Paul was probably getting there, but Paul managed to pop the big question to Alex, “would you like to produce our new album?” Alex said sure, but we’d have to pay his flights, accommodate him whilst he stayed in London and there’d be his fee for producing……
Paul wrote about this meeting in a song for the Gene Tryp, called “Colour me gone” a phrase I first heard Jed Wilson use, sometime in the late 1970’s. The title is typical Paul, psychedelic and pun-ful. The second chorus says “met a Big Star, drunk in a London scene, TV guitar looks bright on a shiny screen”. And the lyrics in the chorus “I had a dream, when I was nine” is referencing my serious awakening to Rock’n’Roll, but perhaps his too?

With the Gene Tryp a lot of influences collided. US hardcore punk(Husker Du being formost)the Paisley underground(The Three O’clock/Rain Parade/Long Ryders)and of course English Psyche, the Beatles, and the Who and other Freakbeat bands. But we never lost that Big Star/Radio City vision, and with songs like “Horseless” and “Angel face of a gun gurl”(as in “September Gurls”) we still tried to keep the torch burning, because sadly Alex didn’t.
Although in retrospect I actually like quite a lot of “Sisters/Lovers”, when it was first reissued in 1978 aside from “Thankyou Friends” and “Jesus Christ” I thought it was horrible depressing shit! We wanted more songs like “September Gurls” and “Back of a Car” not a dreadful drunken version of “Whole lotta shakin'” or some such. It’s a widely held belief that “3rd” spawned a thousand Indie/Alt Rock bands in the 1980’s and 90’s. They were a kind of Velvet Underground for their time.

Reading one of the last interviews with Alex(in Mojo, 2009) he comes across as a bitter disappointed soul, with little or no respect for the Big Star cannon, although “In the street” was picked up by a US sitcom (That 70’s show)so he finally made some dollars as a result. People talk about Alex’s solo records with words like harrowing or loose and chaotic, but that wasn’t the Alex I wanted. I wanted the uber jangle, the unmistakable vocals, those unique and beautiful melodies.
Tho’ “Sisters/Lovers” had “Thankyou Friends” “You can’t have me” and “O Dana” which lent towards “Radio City”, and there were chords and vocals reminiscent of the glory days, it seemed like Alex had drunk from a poisoned chalice, washing down his Heroin with lots of liquor, and I didn’t want that kind of darkness. But strangely tracks like “Take care” and “Holocaust” sound amazing to me now.

When “In Space” was released in 2005 the reviews were mixed, and just like Paulie said about Brian Wilson’s output, post Beach Boys, I was scared to listen to it in case it buggered the beautiful vision.
I love the obviously Alex written “Dony” with it’s classic nasal Anglophile vocal and I think we can thank the Posies for several wonderful tracks on that album, notably “Lady Sweet”(although I read that the lyrics were Chilton’s paean to Heroin, just like “Lady” by Dennis Wilson was supposedly his ode to Cocaine)and “February’s quiet” and the very wonderful “Aria Largo”(although a traditional song it’s Big Star goes Medieval!)but frankly a lot of the album was throwaway shite, and just like the box, would have made a great EP.
But I think that was always Alex, sabotaging his breaks, and perhaps that was a throwback to resentment of the Boxtops treadmill. Who knows, but as Alex died on the 17th of March 2010, maybe we’ll never know, except perhaps when the Posies spill the beans. And let’s hope they pick up the pieces real soon, because they’re a wonderful band in their own right.

Finally, just as a heads up to those who may not have heard them, here’s my top 5 Big Star soundalikes:-

1) The dB’S – Nothing is wrong (from “Repercussion” 1982) Daisey Glaze by any other name……

2) Teenage Fanclub – Alcoholiday (from “Bandwagonesque” 1996) September Gurls rhythm guitar with perfect Big Star harmonies, which pretty much defines the whole album!

3) The Scruffs – She say yeah (from “Meet the Scruffs” 1977) No. 1 Record Big Star style, recorded at Ardent studios just like both Big Star albums. Stephen Burns(the anglophile/nasal/Eric Carmen meets Chilton vocalist for the Scruffs)also recorded with both Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. A great album, a lost Powerpop classic!

4) The Posies – Apology (from “Dear 23” 1990) A mish mash of chords and harmonies from both Big Star albums, much reverb and melancholy. What a great band, what a fabulous album!

5) The Gene Tryp – Horseless (from “Psychedelic Feedback Farmers” 1986) Our life was white……

6 Responses to “Big Star”

  1. There’s never been a band like ’em although Badfinger come close for thwarted dreams and personal tragedy. I actually can’t imagine my twenties without them and the indescribable way they made me feel.
    Meeting Chilton was one of those perfect moments that come along so infrequently. He was pissed but a perfect gent, quite unlike any descriptions of him I’ve ever read in the press. Anyhow, a lovely piece Tev, great memories x

  2. Allo Tel
    I have you to thank for introducing me to Big Star (in word, not by playing it to me) during a drunken evening in a pub in Maldon in 1977 (I forget the name of it, now. You don’t mention the Big Star demos on the Ardent Records Story double CD, especially the Alex-sung version of Chris Bell’s I Got Kinda Lost with different lyrics. Essential listening. I got hold of original import vinyl copies of both #1 Record and Radio City in the sadly gone Vinyl Solution record shop in Bayswater in 1980. I wonder what they’re worth now.

    Very bohemian,

  3. Cheers Danny, and yup you’re right, should’ve given the heads up on those demos, thankyou.
    I’ve been eyeing up the Ardent double cd for a while now……
    Check Gema for an accurate price on your vinyl,
    I remain Sir, your obediant Serpent……

  4. Nice article Terence. Being a bit of a nipper I first heard of Alex Chilton when he produced The Cramps’ first album. I later purchased Like Flies On Sherbert after hearing it at a house party a few laters later.

    BTW regarding obtaining an idea of what Big Star LP’s maybe worth nowadays it’s not Gema but GEMM (althought personally I find Discogs to be the ONLY place to garner such info!)

    Also I think that I would like to mention Lindsay Hutton’s Next Big Thing blog for all things Big Star/Chilton and generally terribily cool current scene articles.

  5. I am really enjoying Sisters/Lovers currently.
    Listening to “You can’t have me” last night, I realised it’s Chilton’s “Won’t get fooled again”.
    From Jody Stephen’s Keith Moon drum breaks, to the wonky (I assume?) Moog bass (shouldn’t imagine Ardent had an ARP, tho’ they did have a Mellotron) and Chilton’s Townsend power chords, it’s actually coming from the same space as “I don’t know what I want” by the Raspberries, minus the Who sell out-isms, Que?

  6. To be precise I met Alex at an Iggy gig at the Music Machine the night after he’d played Dingwalls (where Live in London was recorded). I still have his hand written lyrics for an unreleased and unrecorded song he’d composed with the guitar player from the Vibrators. Something about Catholic school girls I remember, so no change there. I say unrecorded though I assume it was recorded along with everything else that night, as he did it as an encore, and the album was compiled from the two gigs he did there.

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