How big is Big Star? That depends on how you look at them.
Most dedicated audiophiles consider the group to be one of the greatest in the annals of pop music, and second only to the Velvet Underground in terms of its frenzied cult following. Their sole output—three studio albums plus a few live tapes—were instrumental in kick-starting the power pop genre (not to mention influencing indie pop as well 30 years later). Popular bands, such as Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, The Replacements and R.E.M., carry on the “Big Star Sound” with catchy melodies, ringing guitars and harmonies. And virtually any “greatest” list of power pop groups will list them in the top five—if not number one.
But, of course, all of that means very little if you’ve never had a hit record. The story of Big Star has the makings of a really great episode of Behind the Music, complete with fights, bad blood, the death of a member, and the return to recording with In Space, their first studio album since 1978. But since their only current place in mainstream culture is having authored the song “In the Street” (which was murdered by Cheap Trick in search for the theme of That ‘70s Show), it’s unlikely we’ll see the episode any time soon.
That doesn’t mean their history isn’t interesting. In fact, much like Badfinger’s, the story of Big Star is one of the great tragedies of pop music. Virtually every utility that any novice band could ask for—killer musicianship, ultra-catchy songwriting ability and a hint of celebrity (bandleader Alex Chilton sang with the Box Tops at the tender age of 16)—were at their disposal and none of it helped their first album, Number One Album (1971), crack the charts. Though it was deemed brilliant by critics, distribution problems killed the album’s chances for momentum and ultimately cost them guitarist/writer Chris Bell (who died in 1978 after releasing the equally brilliant single I am the Cosmos). The follow-up as a trio, Radio City (1974), was somehow even better. Chilton and company recorded another album’s worth of material, released in Europe variously (and illegitimately) as Third or Sister Lovers in 1978, but Big Star (and especially Chilton) had had enough and called it quits.
Fifteen years later, to the shock of many fans, Chilton agreed to perform a reunion concert with original drummer Jody Stephens and Jonathan Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. This new line-up, which has performed a handful of dates in the last 12 years, is the line-up that can be found on In Space, the first studio Big Star record since Third/Sister Lovers.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it goes without saying that this line-up, Big Star version 2.0, is a completely different animal than the band who recorded those first three albums. New band members aside, time has a habit of changing band members, their outlooks and their methods, and almost 30 years has happened to Chilton and Stephens. In Space is completely a group effort, and is credited as such; no longer the Alex Chilton show, all four members have a piece of the album. This could be why In Space sounds nothing like any previous Big Star record; a band with half of the original members missing would obviously sound different, but the addition of Auer and Stringfellow has actually succeeding in making Big Star sound more like the bands they influenced than either Number One Record or Radio City.
That’s not to say that In Space isn’t fun or well-made. The lead-off song, “Dony,” is a catchy fusion of garage and power pop, and it isn’t the only killer on the album. Much of the disc plays like a pastiche of the glory days of power pop: they’ve got the obligatory slow, meditative pop numbers (“Lady Sweet,” “Turn My Back on the Sun”) which probably would have gone head-to-head with Eric Carmen and The Raspberries if this were 1973, while the jangley R&B of “A Whole New Thing” and “Hung Up With Summer” have the feel of the Shake Some Action-era Flaming Groovies.
The strangest track, albeit a hilarious one, is “Love Revolution”, a disco-ish thumb of the nose to revolutionist music of the 1970s ala the Clash’s ska days and the MC5, complete with a “list of demands” in the bridge: “Three: we need a platform!/ Four: we need some platforms!”
The songs are well-written and produced, but overall the disc is lightweight compared to what the group used to be. Instead of the tight crunch of British Invasion rock and roll, which they exuded in their glory days, the album plays more or less like an Alex Chilton solo album. Chilton, who has been known to regard the recording of his solo material more as happenings, or works of art complete with happy accidents, has applied this same technique to In Space, which has resulted in a looser, sloppier Big Star. (Just listen for the guitar flub about fifteen seconds into “Dony.”) Chilton fans may revere such an atmosphere; Big Star fans may not, although the sloppiness does grow on you after repeated listenings.
Of course, the real special part of a new Big Star album is the fact that it even exists at all. Figure that it took Chilton over 12 years to go from playing concerts here and there to recording a new album; the pushing and shoving (and cash) it took must have been momentous. But for what it is, some listeners may feel that Chilton could have pushed for a better effort.
Then again, that just might make it the perfect snapshot of Chilton (and the group) as they exist today, 30 years down the road. It just depends on how you look at it.