Big Star fans, rejoice. Ardent/Stax is repackaging the band for a new generation of music listeners. The official press release/band bio sets the tone better than we ever could, so we’ll let it speak for itself.
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LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Big Star released two albums in the early ‘70s, neither of which set sales records. Yet in the 35 years that have ensued, artists like R.E.M., Wilco, The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream, Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey, The Bangles and Steve Wynn have enthusiastically acknowledged the band’s influence. On June 16, Ardent/Stax Records through Concord Music Group will reissue Big Star’s #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974) albums, completely remastered with the never-before-released single mix of “In the Street” and single edit of “O My Soul.”
Additionally, Ardent/Stax has released #1 Record and Radio City on two separate vinyl LPs featuring faithfully reproduced artwork, including the original Ardent Records labels.
Big Star’s legacy has long outlasted its short tenure as a band. Led by ex-Box Tops singer Alex Chilton and including Chris Bell (vocals, guitar), Andy Hummel (bass) and Jody Stephens (drums), the group’s inspired mixture of ‘60s pop, powered interplay and irresistible melody was exciting and special: it was out of step with the mainstream rock sounds of 1972. Though Chilton had come off of a #1 blue-eyed soul hit, the Box Tops’ “The Letter,” Big Star’s music was a glorious mesh of British-influenced pop, Byrds-esque harmonies, taut edginess and studio expertise. Traces of the Beatles, the Kinks and Badfinger pulsate through their repertoire.
Big Star began as Alex Chilton, having left the Box Tops to forge a solo folk career in New York, returned to his hometown of Memphis, encouraged by guitarist and engineer Chris Bell, who led a local trio called Ice Water. Chilton joined the band, which immediately set up camp at the city’s Ardent Studio with aid from the studio’s owners/in-house producers John Fry and Terry Manning. The band’s name was changed to Big Star, after the supermarket chain prevalent in the South.
The band’s debut album, #1 Record, flew in the face of 1972’s abounding folk-rock and progressive-rock sounds. The album’s greatness was not lost on rock critics of the day, but in the end it did not sell particularly well, attributed in part to the piecemeal distribution network of Ardent’s distributor, Stax. Still, songs like “In the Street,” “Don’t Lie to Me, “Feel” and “The Ballad of El Goodo” became cult classics.
Tension began to mount within the band’s ranks as Bell saw his role as leader eclipsed by Chilton’s dominant personality. Bell preferred that Big Star remain a studio entity while Chilton was eager for the band to hit the live circuit. Around Christmas 1972, Bell quit his own band and Big Star soldiered onward as a trio.
In 1974, Ardent released Radio City, the second and (for the moment) final Big Star album. Its best-known song, “September Gurls,” remains one of pop’s classic songs with its mesmerizing chorus and Chilton’s ringing guitar break sounding like the Byrds fused with the venom of the Kinks. “O My Soul,” “Back of a Car” and “Mod Lang” are cut from a similar cloth while “Life Is White” and “Way Out West” show the band’s slower side. And as liner note writer Brian Hogg observed, there are times on this album that the tension within the group is plainly audible: “The ever-present aura of something gradually becoming unhinged, combined with masterly songs, somehow jells to create a remarkable collection and makes Radio City one of rock’s seminal albums,” he writes.
After Radio City, Hummel quit the band and was replaced by John Lightman on what was to become Big Star 3, shelved for years until the myth surrounding the band grew to titanic proportions. Tragically, Chris Bell died in a car crash in Memphis in December, 1979. Chilton went on to record inspired if sporadic solo albums while producing records by the Cramps and Chris Stamey. Jody Stephens works at Ardent Studio to this day and has been the sparkplug behind Big Star’s reunion tours, during which the band played on both The Tonight Show and The Late Show With David Letterman.
As the reissue’s other liner note writer Rick Clark observed, “It has been said that art should create the sense that time has stopped. Big Star transcended normal escapist pop convention by creating music that somehow froze moments that were concurrently vibrant and startlingly brilliant, yet oddly spent. Somehow Big Star could make you feel good in the face of dashed expectations and decay. It’s that realness, in the band’s lyrics and urgently bright sound, which has allowed Big Star’s vision to endure way beyond its brief lifespan.”