That 70s band
- John Chandler
- Portland Tribune - Features
Alex Chilton and the legendary Big Star continue to win sensitive young hearts
An entire cult of rock 'n' roll is dedicated to 'one-hit wonders.' The category is cluttered with names such as Syndicate of Sound, Sammy Johns and Kajagoogoo, folks who managed to roll the dice and come up with a seven. But only once.
The Memphis band Big Star is a different story: a no-hit wonder, perhaps. Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, 50, tells this story:
'I work for Ardent Records in Memphis,' he says. 'I was visiting a guy at a major label in New York, and I told him I played drums in Big Star.
'He says, 'Oh, yeah, Big Star. I remember you. What was your big record?'
'I said, 'Well, we didn't have one.'
'He says, 'What was your hit single?'
' 'We didn't have one.'
'He says, 'Well then, how come I've heard of you?' '
That's the question, and a spin through the band's classic discography will provide the answer.
'It's the songs,' Stephens says. 'Great, amazing songs.'
In its first incarnation as a band between 1971 and 1975, Big Star recorded three albums that didn't sell beans. Yet the few copies that managed to find homes influenced countless singers and groups, including Jeff Buckley, the Bangles, Matthew Sweet, Gin Blossoms, REM and even Elliott Smith.
Beck is currently playing Big Star's 'Kanga Roo' on tour. The Replacements wrote a song about Big Star singer Alex Chilton (called 'Alex Chilton') on their 1987 album 'Pleased to Meet Me.'
Chilton (who declines all interviews) remains at the heart of the Big Star mystery. As a 16-year-old kid, he had his biggest success the first time he opened his mouth with the Box Tops in 1967. 'The Letter' went to the top of the charts Ñ and in the next few years, Chilton and the Box Tops followed it up with the hits 'Cry Like a Baby' and 'Soul Deep.'
After the Box Tops dissolved in 1970, Chilton eventually returned to Memphis from New York City and became a part of Big Star the following year.
This time around, instead of the commercial soul-pop of the Box Tops, the sound was highly influenced by the Beatles. Over the course of four years and three records, Big Star recorded some of the finest (and certainly most critically acclaimed) music of that time. Unfortunately, poor distribution and zero label support doomed the band.
'We weren't much of a live act anyway,' Stephens says. 'We didn't tour. We'd get radio play in various cities, but then our album wouldn't even show up in the stores.
'The thing about those records was that Alex and Chris (Bell, a founding member of Big Star who died in 1978) wrote incredible rock songs that were very touching. They were very much about a certain time of your life, and they really hit on those feelings.'
To historians, critics and determined fans, songs such as 'September Gurls,' 'The Ballad of El Goodo' and 'I'm in Love With a Girl' are the very essence of teenage yearning and heartache.
Right now, the best place to find a Big Star song is 'That '70s Show,' which employs a rather slick version of 'In the Street' as its theme song. Stephens also notes that the ultratender love song 'Thirteen' was used recently on 'Gilmore Girls.'
Big Star broke up in 1975, but Chilton and Stephens reunited in 1993 to play a show at Columbia, Mo. It was recorded and released as Big Star's 'Live at Missouri University' (Zoo Records).
To augment their band, they chose Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of Seattle pop combo the Posies, both enthusiastic, wide-eyed fans who jumped at the chance. The reformed Big Star has been playing periodic shows ever since.
As for the present, Rykodisc has a Big Star retrospective album in the works, and the usually tight-lipped Chilton has talked about the possibility of a new record. Stephens would love to see it happen.
'I'm just thrilled and honored to still be a part of Big Star and to play all of those great songs,' he says.
'The people at our shows are mostly in their 20s Ñ it's great that we've been passed along to a new audience. In some ways, it's more enjoyable for me now than it was back then.'