[15 October 2003]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Big Star might have only put out three measly albums that were all commercial flops three decades ago, but that band’s influence was so huge, it’s still felt today. It was R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck who said, “Big Star served as a Rosetta Stone for a whole generation of musicians in the early Seventies.” Hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, and led by the supremely gifted duo of guitarists/singers Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the band would combine the sounds of Memphis Soul and British Invasion rock ‘n’ roll perfectly, recording some of the most extraordinary pop rock albums ever recorded, ranging from the sheer brilliance of #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974) to the brooding experimentalism of Third/Sister Lovers (1978). The sound they helped pioneer would have an undeniable influence on bands over the next three decades, from post-punk artists like R.E.M. and the Soft Boys, to ‘80s heroes the Replacements, to ‘90s Brit rockers Teenage Fanclub, even to today’s emo bands. Paul Westerberg put it best when he sang in 1987, “I never travel far / Without a little Big Star”. Nobody should, and the Rykodisc label did a good job re-releasing the Big Star catalog in the early ‘90s, enabling younger audiences to discover just how special the band really was.
Although Big Star’s output consists of only three studio albums, two live albums, and a half-live/half-outtakes release, the idea of a single-disc best-of compilation is a pretty good one. The band never had any real “hits,” but there are enough timeless songs to potentially make up one of the greatest compilations in rock history. The mere thought of a Big Star best-of is enough to get any music fan excited. Unfortunately, Rykodisc’s recent attempt at a definitive career overview, Big Star Story, falls well short of the mark, a sloppy disaster of an album that does not do Big Star justice one bit.
What happened here? A Big Star compilation should be an easy thing to pull off well, but it seems like the project was placed in the hands of people who obviously do not know what on earth they’re doing. The album is only 58 minutes long, wasting more than 20 minutes of valuable CD space. The sequencing is so out of whack that there’s no continuity: you get pop gems from #1 Record and Radio City haphazardly interspersed with darker material from Third/Sister Lovers, making it impossible to hear Big Star evolve as a band. The liner notes are awful, and are heinously misleading, failing to inform listeners that six of the album’s tracks are inferior live or rehearsal performances. However, what’s worst of all is the track selection. Where’s “When My Baby’s Beside Me”? “I’m in Love with a Girl”? “She’s a Mover”, “Oh My Soul”, “Kanga-Roo”, “Big Black Car”, “Watch the Sunrise”? Unbelievable.
Thankfully, nobody has messed with the most essential Big Star songs. Radio City‘s “September Gurls” is the most perfect rock ‘n’ roll song ever (at least in this writer’s mind), with its shimmering guitars, Jody Stephens’ fluid drumming, and Chilton’s unforgettable voice. You won’t come across a better moment in pop music as when Chilton sings, “When I get to bed late at night / That’s the time she makes things right / Ooh when she makes love to me…” as he slips into a reverie, made palpable by the background “oooh”‘s and that great guitar solo. “The Ballad of El Goodo” is arguably the band’s greatest ballad, as Chilton opens it with the stunning lines, “Years ago my heart was set to live / And I’ve been trying hard / Against strong odds / It gets so hard in time to hold on”, displaying surprising maturity and optimism, culminating in the wonderful chorus of, “There ain’t no one going to turn me ‘round”. Radio City‘s Byrds-like “Back of a Car” is a perfect, sweet depiction of life as a teen (“Music so loud, can’t tell a thing / Thinking ‘bout what to say / And I can’t find the lines”), while Third/Sister Lovers’ dark masterpiece “Holocaust” is just the opposite: a dark, sparse portrait of Chilton on the brink of despair. Chris Bell, who left the band before Radio City was completed and who died tragically in 1978, released the classic single “I Am the Cosmos” in 1978, and that beautiful track, as well as its equally lovely B-side, “You & Your Sister”, have both been wisely included on this album.
The majority of Big Star Story, though, is a big mess. You’ve got great little gems like “In the Street”, a song made popular by That ‘70s Show, the heartbreaking “O Dana”, and the sublime “Jesus Christ”, from Third/Sister Lovers, for example, but any momentum is killed by the songs culled from the two posthumous releases, Big Star Live and Nobody Can Dance. The rough rehearsal version of “Don’t Lie to Me” and the live versions of “You Get What You Deserve”, “Thirteen”, and “Mod Lang” all pale in comparison to the originals, and as decent as the covers of T. Rex’s “Baby Strange” and Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues” are, both Chilton and Bell amassed enough superb material of their own, that the focus should be strictly on their own songs. Also, the one “new” track, “Hot Thing”, recorded by Chilton and Stephens, with the help of former Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, has no business being on the album. Remove the cover songs and the new track, and you’d have room for maybe nine or ten more songs on this CD. The wasted potential here is frustrating.
Still, despite being a shambolic compilation, Big Star Story‘s one saving grace is that it’s Big Star, after all, and flaws and all, it’s still impossible to hate. The sad thing is, there is no reason whatsoever for anyone to shell out their hard-earned money for this CD. New listeners are better off buying the great #1 Record/Radio City two-in-one CD, and saving up to buy Third/Sister Lovers after that. That’s all the Big Star anyone really needs, and any Big Star mix CD they make for friends will easily be better than this shoddy effort.