Next story: Boom Round 2 Week 3: Fire Red vs. The Frontline
I Want A Witness. I Want To Testify.
by Donny Kutzbach
How a local writer and music aficionado uncovered the story of rock's foremost cult band and their masterpiece album
It’s as if all of the music coming out of all the little transistor radio speakers—Beatles, Stones, Byrds, Beach Boys, Sam and Dave, Fifth Dimension, Lovin’ Spoonful, Question Mark and the Mysterians, Supremes, Young Rascals, Sonny and Cher, Four Tops, Sam the Sham, Napoleon the XIV—had somehow been beamed into outer space to some distant planet and then transformed by a band of musical alchemists into something both fresh yet familiar and sent back to earth in stream of glowing super-charged electrical particles by a wizard of sound.”
—Bruce Eaton, 33+1/3: Big Star—Radio City
Somewhere tangled in the intricate web of rock music’s history—halfway between the legacies and lineages of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys and then Cheap Trick, R.E.M., and Wilco—there was this little band from Memphis, Tennesse that rarely played gigs more than a few miles from the Mississippi River and released just three dismally selling records.
More than 35 years later, they’ve become legendary. Among critics, cognoscenti, and collectors, they are celebrated as one of the greatest rock bands ever.
Enter the cult of Big Star.
One cultist is Western New Yorker Bruce Eaton. These days, Eaton is a dutiful suburban dad and husband who makes his living as a freelance writer and producer of the noted jazz concert series at the Albright-Knox.
In 1976, however, he spent his nights as denizen of local rock clubs like McVan’s and his days digging through record bins, which was where he happened upon a copy of Big Star’s Radio City.
In 1971 Alex Chilton—previously a 1960s teen sensation fronting blue-eyed R&B outfit the Box Tops—hooked up with another Memphis guitarist/songwriter named Chris Bell. With the addition of a rhythm section comprising ace local drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel, Big Star was born.
Mixing British invasion raveups, folk rock, soul, and R&B—but sounding not quite like any of the above—the band was onto something special, and things progressed quickly. In a year they had a deal with locally based Ardent Records and were the buzz of Memphis. They managed to produce three magnificently recorded but poorly distributed and marketed records.
Big Star had disbanded by 1975. Still, the records and the legend lived on, and their reputation has continued to grow to epic proportions. The band that nobody really knew became one of most influential of its era.
And every Big Star fan has a favorite among those three albums. Some prefer the harmony-laden power pop primer, #1 Record. Others will give it to the off-kilter, late-night tinge of the band’s long “lost” final recording, Third/Sister Lovers.
But there’s no denying the magic and sonic majesty of Radio City—a sophomore album that is anything but sophomoric from the thrilling pop-boogie and Southern soul amalgam of “O My Soul” to the lusty and guttural drive of “Mod Lang” and the consistently spine-tingling chiming guitar that starts off and continues through the heart of the anthemic “September Gurls.”
“On ‘September Gurls’ that whole sound was Stratocaster with an overdubbed mando-guitar,” Eaton explains. “It’s mindboggling that that was how they got to that!”
This is but one small nugget mined in Eaton’s 33+1/3 book Big Star—Radio City. The 33+1/3 series has issued more than 60 pocket-sized paperbacks, each book musing over one particular record album. Authors have included critics and writers like John Niven and Miles Marshall Lewis and musicians like Joe Pernice and the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy. The books are detailed and often deeply personal reflections on the power of each record.
Keep an Eye on the Sky(Rhino)
I sometimes wish I could go back to the first time I ever listened to a Big Star record. Like so many who found Big Star five, 10, 20, 30 or however many years after the fact, I had often “heard of them” but never actually heard them.
My chance was finally had in a twofer #1 Record/Radio City CD from a used bin. I popped it right into the player and was immediately awash in the euphoria of “Feel”: the chugging guitar, Chris Bell singing “Woman what are you doing?/You’re driving me to ruin,” the bridge with the sax and the whole odd mix of hard rock muscle and melodic purity.
Listening to Keep an Eye on the Sky has been like the first time for the second time. It’s a thorough retelling of Big Star’s musical story, putting all the key original cuts along newly unearthed demos and alternate and rarely heard tracks—all of it pristinely remastered, with a lavish, 100-page book of liner notes.
The highlights are too many to name. Running in chronological order, each of the first three discs essentially encapsulates the band’s three albums. Disc one includes pre-Big Star recordings like Rock City’s “Try Again.” Disc two bursts at the seams with unheard versions of songs from the fruitful Radio City period. The delight of disc three are Third/Sister Lovers demos like “Holocaust” and “Big Black Car.” Disc four captures a 1973 live set—long a bootleg of note—from Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis. It includes a cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Hot Burrito #2,” which is far from virtuosic but nonetheless thrilling as Chilton, a Gram Parsons fan, gives a sweetly twisted vocal delivery.
Long-time Big Star fanatics can rejoice at the wealth of new material and the stellar quality, while new ears get it all in one place. Keep an Eye on the Sky delivers. There is nothing like that first time.
“I was shocked that no one had done any of the Big Star albums,” Eaton says. “It’s an open process where [the publisher] Continuum puts a call out for proposals. Within a few days I heard back from the editor and from there it started rolling.”
Eaton’s Radio City entry proves one of the most compelling and balanced in the series to date. Working from detailed research and firsthand accounts from interviews with the band, Eaton gets to the heart of everything that went into Radio City and the drama of Big Star in Memphis, while painting a picture of his own ongoing love affair with music, his moment as a “Big Star” rock star, and the Queen City in its 1970s rock heyday.
He’s quick to deflate his own part in the story, however. “People would rather read Alex Chilton than Bruce Eaton,” he says.
There have been a lot of words used to describe Alex Chilton over the years: mercurial, reticent, elusive, wayward, temperamental, difficult, and genius all among them. Getting the man to come out and actually say anything about himself or his musical legacy has proven difficult, to say the least.
Noted rock scribe Barney Hoskins had a brief, abortive interview with Chilton for a feature piece in Mojo magazine in the 1990s. Chilton refused to cooperate at all when writer Rob Jovanic requested his help for an exhaustive 2004 Big Star biography.
Eaton—whose personal history with Chilton adds to the book’s rich story and appeal—managed not only to get multiple interviews from the guarded artist but was able to get Chilton to reveal more about Big Star and his own history than ever before.
The book unravels details of the complicated work relationship between Chilton and the mysterious and withdrawn Bell, who exited the band just before the recording of Radio City and died in a 1978 car crash.
“Alex talked about how much he enjoyed working with Chris but that he never really knew where he was coming from,” Eaton says. “He described it as though Bell was always in some chess game.”
Eaton journeyed to Memphis to pore over recording notes and session details, and to interview principals including Jody Stephens, engineer/producer John Fry, and Chris Bell’s brother, David. Eaton took the simple approach to demystificating a band whose story has been more myth than truth.
“There’s so much that has been out there about the band and said over the years,” Eaton says. “I just tried to stick to talking about Radio City but let everyone know if they wanted to rebut anything, they had the chance to do so on the record. In some cases they did and it’s in there.”
As much as the book is a love letter to Big Star and the power of Radio City, Eaton equally lets loose on his passion for Buffalo and its music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“If the book were longer, I would have written more about all the Buffalo stuff,” he says. “There were some great stories about people like Bill Poczik, Bernie Kugel, and Terry Sullivan and the Jumpers.”
Big Star’s musical legacy is ever ascendant. Since the mid-1990s, Chilton and Stephens have joined with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies to play occasional shows and to record the 2005 full-length In Space. That lineup plays a one-off show in Brooklyn later this month.
This has been a great year for Big Star, and not just because of Eaton’s book. All three of the band’s albums were re-issued on vinyl in 2009. Rhino Handmade put out an expanded special edition of Chris Bell’s sole solo release, I Am the Cosmos and a stellar four-disc Big Star box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky, which collects a mass of varied tracks encompassing the band’s original lifespan.
“The box set sounds fantastic, and with the alternate versions it’s something the fans can really enjoy,” says Eaton. “People who already know the music will love it, and many more will continue to discover them.”
Like Eaton pulling the vinyl from the “B” section of the record store bin on that fateful day in June 1976, there will be others. The Big Star cult continues.
blog comments powered by Disqus
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v8n45 (week of Thursday, November 5) > I Want A Witness. I Want To Testify.
This Week's Issue • Artvoice Daily • Artvoice TV • Events Calendar • Classifieds