Monday, October 19, 2009

The Best Kept Secret In All of Rock and Roll

Big Star are, quite simply, the best kept secret in all of rock and roll. Others have espoused on the history of this great band in more detail than I have, but it seems prudent to run through the generalities. Big Star were a 4-piece from Memphis. They produced magnificent pop records (#1 Record, Radio City, Third / Sister Lovers). But they were entirely sabotaged by poor marketing and distribution (does this sound like the best TV show ever, Arrested Development, to anyone else?). Alas, it was not to be, but let us not mourn overmuch and rejoice in the legend that is Big Star.

Big Star was essentially a power-pop outfit (I mean that in the traditional sense, not in the current Hellscape that power-pop has become these days), with big guitars, great harmonies, and the like. The group, through the decidedly Lennon/McCartneyesque interactions of its core duo, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, respectively, created a unique identity that took the pop sensibilities of all the 1960s greats - the Beatles' penchant for melody, the Beach Boys' ear for harmony, among many other things and distilled it into one sound. This made Big Star the perfect band to represent the time they were in, but it obviously never came to be.

Though the Bell/Chilton dynamic only existed for the first release, it is hard to say that the departure of Bell severely weakened Big Star. In much the same way John Lennon thrived in a post-Beatles apocalypse, Alex Chilton's wanderings proved far too genius to be kept out of the game. Even as Bell still left his mark on Radio City, Chilton became the driving force behind Big Star. And though perhaps Radio City isn't the pop-perfect record that #1 Record was, Chilton's abilities are in full force.

And the last record. Big Star was mostly done, for one reason or another, but the last record produced, Third / Sister Lovers, can be considered as "ragged glory." It's a strange, hot mess, but there are too many good songs to discount the record and Alex Chilton. From the searing "Holocaust" to the airy "Femme Fatale," Chilton shows that power-pop in all its abilities can still be intensely creative and emotionally gripping. While it isn't necessarily the strongest of the bunch, the songs here still hold extremely well to previous efforts.

But enough about me waxing eloquent. Let the scores of artists who have looked up to Big Star speak for me. The Replacements (the leaders of American punk in the 1980s) idolized Big Star, even penning a track dedicated to Alex Chilton ("Alex Chilton"). Peter Buck, of R.E.M. fame, admitted this: "We've sort of flirted with greatness, but we've yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star's Third. I don't know what it'll take to push us on to that level, but I think we've got it in us." Countless covers of Big Star songs (check this personally intense cover of "Thirteen" by Elliot Smith here). There have been Big Star tribute albums. Big Star has gotten its due credits after its disunion. And rightly so, even if it Chilton has said this about his own group: "I'm constantly surprised that people fall for Big Star the way they do... People say Big Star made some of the best rock 'n roll albums ever. And I say they're wrong." I say that Alex Chilton is looking from the wrong side of the glass.

On a personal note, if I had to tell you my personal music tastes, it'd all center around Big Star. How? Big Star draws on all my 1960s pop loves such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, and has influenced all my favorite contemporary artists such as Wilco, the Replacements, among others. And it's strange to think that I did not discover them until a mere week ago. It appears that I'd been traveling around the center of the circle for the longest time...and I've finally reached center.

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