Big Star

  • Big Star
  • #1 Record (Ardent) 1972 
  • Radio City (Ardent) 1974 
  • 3rd (PVC) 1978 
  • Sister Lovers (PVC) 1985 
  • Big Star's Biggest (Ger. Line) 1987 
  • #1 Record/Radio City (Stax/Fantasy) 1992 
  • Live (Rykodisc) 1992 
  • Third/Sister Lovers (Rykodisc) 1992 
  • Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93 (Zoo) 1993 
  • Chris Bell
  • I Am the Cosmos (Rykodisc) 1992 

The ’70s American power pop group to which all good indie melodicists pray, Memphis’ Big Star (named, prosaically enough, after a supermarket chain) released exactly two studio albums, #1 Record and Radio City, during its little-noticed lifespan; a third record meant as an Alex Chilton solo project and completed by the remnants of the shrinking group in 1974 wasn’t even issued until the singer/guitarist/fuckup genius had thrown in the towel, knocked around various haunts and finally alighted in New York, where he formed a Bowery band with local pop undergrounders and started a new wave solo career. Loaded with timeless adult creations that have burrowed their way deep into the fertile topsoil out in left field, Big Star’s albums have been reissued more times than anyone need know about. The last, variously titled 3rd, Sister Lovers and a combination of the two, has been repeatedly resequenced, all the while picking up tracks like passengers on a commuter train. The 1992 edition — the original fourteen songs plus five outtakes, including covers of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day” — seems definitive enough to last for a while.

Concurrent with that re-release, Rykodisc arranged for the posthumous issue of I Am the Cosmos, a beautiful and disturbing Syd Barrett-by-way-of-Badfinger album of erratic, haunted pop music by Big Star co-founder Chris Bell. (The dope-and-depression-troubled guitarist, singer and songwriter quit after #1 Record and was killed in a 1978 car crash.) The label also fished out a 1974 Long Island radio broadcast — a pretty but uninspired and thin-sounding set by Chilton (performing solo acoustic for a third of the program), stalwart drummer/singer Jody Stephens and stand-in bassist John Lightman — complete with an interview segment and issued it as Live.

The appearance of a vintage Big Star concert album proved surprisingly portentous when an invitation extended to Stephens and Chilton to reform their old group — 20 years after — for a spring festival date at Missouri University was unexpectedly accepted. Drafting Jon Auer (guitar/vocals) and Ken Stringfellow (bass/vocals) from Seattle’s Posies — whose employment application was their PopLlama single of Big Star’s “Feel” b/w Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” — to complete the intergenerational lineup, Stephens and Chilton did the gig in April ’93, preserving the remarkable one-off for posterity on Columbia. (Confounding expectations further, the quartet has since actually toured.) Using all four vocalists to do loose-limbed justice to Big Star’s best memories, this enthusiastic live greatest-hits is as good as it could possibly be. The under-rehearsed playing, if hardly airtight, is free of preciousness and nostalgia and vibrantly on the emotional money; the sloppy singing is hearty and tuneful. Most incredibly, the bubbling energy level totally belies the age of these artifacts. (The songs, that is.) With the thoughtful inclusion of “I Am the Cosmos” as a tribute to their late bandmate, Big Star achieves a seamless time warp that reflects brilliantly on the past, the present and all concerned.

[Ira Robbins]

See also: Alex Chilton, Posies