Ahead of Their Time: Big Star

Ahead of Their Time: Big Star

  • Article by: Andrew Miller
  • Posted: 09/11/2012

“Ahead of their time,” is a phrase that sycophantic and nostalgic rock journalists like to throw around, but few bands really are. The Velvet Underground.  MC5, maybe.  Big Star, definitely.

If Louis C.K. is a comedian’s comedian, then Big Star is a rock band’s rock band. They’ve influenced everybody who’s ever made a good record since the 1970s, but they’ve never gotten much credit for it, save for the cover versions and passing mentions by the musicians they influenced.

You’re probably in the minority if you can recognize a Big Star song when you hear it.  (Hooray for hipster cred!) If you can’t, you’ve definitely heard their songs without knowing it. “In The Street” was covered by Cheap Trick and used for the opening credits of That 70’s Show.  “Thirteen” has been recorded by Elliot Smith (on New Moon), Wilco (on Big Star Small World), Garbage (on Push It), and has been performed by countless others in live shows.  Matthew Sweet, Evan Dando, and Counting Crows have studio versions of “The Ballad of El Goodo,” and cover versions of other Big Star songs have been performed and recorded by Nada Surf, Teenage Fanclub, Beck, Jeff Buckley and Yo La Tengo. 

All three of the band’s albums were included on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and their songs “September Gurls” and “Thirteen” were among the magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time.”

How is it that Big Star isn’t better known?

Formed in Memphis, Tenn. in 1971, the name Big Star was tongue-in-cheek from the very beginning. Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel got the name from a chain of grocery stores in the Memphis area where they went for snacks during the recording of their first album in 1972, the playfully named #1 Record.  (The group would go on to use the store’s star-shaped sign as their logo and for the cover of #1 Record, though without the word “star” to avoid being sued.)

But Big Star would never become big stars at the top of the charts. #1 Record was met with universal critical acclaim, but was screwed by Stax Records who neither promoted nor distributed the record as it deserved. The same would happen with the band’s next two records, 1974’s Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers, which was completed in 1975 but shelved by Columbia Records until 1978 — after the band had broken up.

Despite poor album sales, the band became a seminal influence for alternative rock musicians of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and indie music groups today. Like The Velvet Underground, average music fans have generally ignored Big Star, but the effect of the band’s music is undeniable. Their influence can be heard in everyone from The Replacements to R.E.M., who often cited Big Star’s influence on their work.

In a tribute to the music of Big Star, Mike Mills of R.E.M. will be joining Chris Stamey (who played with Chilton in the early ‘70s and whose band, The dB’s, was highly influenced by Big Star), and Jody Stephens, the band’s only surviving original member, for a showcase of the band’s music during the Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tenn. 

If you’re a fan, it’s a rare chance to see Big Star songs performed live, and if you’re not, it’s a chance for you to see what you’ve been missing.

The Songs of Big Star showcase will be held at The Rutledge at midnight on Thursday, Sept. 13.  For more information on the showcase and the Americana Music Festival, check out http://www.americanamusic.org.

  • Ahead of Their Time: Big Star
  • Ahead of Their Time: Big Star
  • Ahead of Their Time: Big Star
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