Unsung cult heroes. Quintessential power pop icons. Rock and roll underachievers. Big Star were all of these things, yet in the grand scheme of popular culture, they remain all but unknown except in the most esoteric circles of music snobbery, despite the shadow they’ve cast over the alternative rock scene of the past three decades. Even scuzz-rockers as harsh to mainstream sensibilities as the Velvet Underground have gone on to overcome their initial aversion to world-wide acceptance. Yet despite being heralded by artists as far-reaching as R.E.M., Wilco, Ryan Adams, the Afghan Whigs, and the Replacements (who immortalized frontman Alex Chilton in the classic ’80s single that bears his namesake), Big Star continue to languish in obscurity, seemingly nudging listeners to bypass general consensus and stumble upon them by sheer happenstance in order to discover their clanging, peerless glory.
Inspired by the British Invasion — and especially the Beatles’ mid-’60s output — and formed in 1971 in Memphis, Tennessee, around the songwriting partnership of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell (who consciously modeled themselves after the collaborative style of Lennon/McCartney), along with a rhythm section consisting of Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, Big Star blazed an unprecedented path of pristine pop over the first half of the ’70s before imploding without ever having reached a mass audience. Before their dissolution, they managed to release three of the most unjustly underappreciated records ever produced: the tight, crisp, and chiming #1 Record; the looser yet equally shining Radio City; and the shambolic, chaotic Third/Sister Lovers (held back from official release for years by executives who deemed the recording “too uncommercial”).
Utilizing the templates laid before them by their foreign British forefathers while adding a healthy dose of American soul and R&B, Big Star melded a formula that seemed at once instantly familiar and utterly indefinable. With the ringing, jangly guitars and jarring chord changes of A Hard Day’s Night, the enthusiasm propelled by ’50s rock and roll, and vocal performances culled from the undiluted passion of soul music, there was always a clear line of reference running through the undeniably reverential Memphis band, yet what made them so special spans a deeper and frankly much more interesting quality than spotting-the-influence. What made Big Star so special was their ability to blanket what at first seems ubiquitous with a defiant layer of self-effacement — by inverting conventionalism with twisting song structures masked by clean, bright production, an aura of elusive unpredictability forever permeates their discography.
What may seem like a cruel, fateful irony for a band who worshipped tradition and busked at the school of the most popular, mass-selling collectives in music history, Big Star’s lack of commercial recognition eventually reveals itself to be entirely appropriate. With album titles that exemplify their over-reach (how could #1 Record and Radio City not read as love letters to superstardom?), it becomes clear after their spotless output has been absorbed that the band’s demeanor and approach to music were far too self-aware — far too ahead of its time — to clearly communicate to an audience raised on the very relics Big Star used to subvert traditionalism.
Between reprints and reissues, Big Star’s catalogue has criminally floated in and out of circulation and print through the years, robbing each ensuing generation of the opportunity to properly and fully unearth their brilliance. So it’s a saving grace that Rhino has finally decided to rectify this atrocity by releasing this mammoth, flawless box set charting the band’s journey as the unheralded genuises of 20th century pop. Herein is every single track ever cut by the band in any of its incarnations, blessing the listener with what still stands up as one of the greatest pop catalogs ever written, no matter how few have actually heard it prior to obtaining this box.
While 55 of the 98 tracks here are previously unreleased, this may mislead some fans, as these all come in the form of slightly alternate mixes, studio demos, and live cuts, and Keep an Eye on the Sky lacks any of the treasured lost songs these sets tend to spotlight. Yes, each one of these tracks has been heard before — if not in its original state, then in a slightly altered cut — but this hardly hinders the music presented. Big Star were masters of the studio, endlessly revisiting songs with a plethora of re-recordings, production tweaking, and songwriting alterations. So successful were they as craftsmen that even in their most primitive states these songs arrive nearly fully formed, the different mixes hardly offering revelations. But this is only appropriate for studio-dwellers like Big Star: this approach only serves to enhance the strengths in these songs. Not only that, but we’re offered a fascinating (though subtle) glimpse at the recording process of one of the great recording units to have ever stepped into a studio. This alone is worth the price of admission.
These alternate cuts may not refashion these songs in a different light, but their greatest asset is that they magnify the emotional tones and undercurrents lurking beneath all of the sterling, incandescent noise being created here. What made Big Star attractive to so many of the disillusioned teens who went on to help build the alternative and indie rock movements decades later was the nihilism and despair inherent in these songs, masked by big, bright melodies. Presented in rough demos, many of the tracks that went on to form the messy, tormented Third/Sister Lovers breathe easier, allowing for the emotions roiling within to display themselves in a clearer, intensified setting. While that may not supercede the psychotic, implosive elements that wring around the heart of the album, they certainly complement it thematically. Of particular note is Alex Chilton’s spare demo of his cover of “Femme Fatale” — highlighting his honeyed, yearning voice and clean, hollowed acoustic guitar strums — which feels even more devastating than both the version that ended up on the final release and the Velvet Underground’s ominous, portentous original.
On the alternate tracks culled from #1 Record and Radio City sessions, Big Star’s presaging of the arena rock movement that culminated later in the ’70s becomes even more apparent. In witnessing the construction of songs that utilize such a tight, compressed soundscape yet sprout up like towering buildings, it’s easy to recognize the band’s use of dynamics and space to impel their music forward. The airheaded, substanceless bands in Big Star’s wake may have missed the point, lacking the emotional directness (as opposed to emotional simplicity) and youthful, big-eyed naiveté that both balanced their bombast and imprinted such raucousness with a sturdy current of grounded self-effacement, but their failures only amplify Big Star’s success. Self-aggrandizement is never championed over songcraft or eliciting sincerity, so the inflated senses of self-worth that may be found in Big Star’s followes never mire the genuine winsomeness that’s on such beautiful display within this set.
This is best exemplified in the unassuming nature of the live show captured for posterity on the fourth disc. Recorded just after the release of their debut album — and just following Chris Bell’s departure — it’s a rousing, crackling document of a band at the peak of their powers, swishing around and falling together in a ragged, endearing fashion that’s even more charming in light of the audience’s nearly total indifference to the band. It’s hard to imagine another recording better ensnaring the restless, underachieving spirit of Big Star, bringing into sharp relief the heartaches and missed opportunities that can’t help but dangle above their history like a broken halo.
Even disregarding the live show and the rarities offered here, and solely concentrating on the previously released catalogue collected on Keep an Eye on the Sky, it’s difficult to imagine even the most ardent supporters of the band not being taken aback by the sheer quality of the music gathered, especially when presented in such a historical, demonstrative context. No amount of revisitations could ever diminish the impact of such gems as the crystalline “September Gurls” (quite possibly the greatest single of the 1970s), the wistful, soft-hearted “Thirteen”, or even the crumbling beauty of “Kanga Roo”. When rounded up and spread across multiple discs, and taken all at once, the unwavering singularity of the music found here is absolutely staggering.
Big Star may have long dwindled on the threshold of musical ubiquity and dangling obscurity, but once you’re enveloped in their magical story, it strangely seems like the only befitting legacy for artists so caught between their innate standing as pop music outsiders and their reverential, ever-striving will for superstardom. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to declare Keep an Eye on the Sky an indispensable cornerstone of any serious music fan’s collection, and one of the greatest box sets ever assembled. Finally, Big Star get their due chance to shine.