Wednesday, 8 December, 2021 in Culture, Music

Part One: Big Star – I Kinda Got Lost

2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of the release of Big Star’s first record. They have been cited for decades as being one of the most influential ‘cult bands’ across that period. They tick all the necessary boxes for attaining that rare accolade of cult superstardom: produced fantastic records which were extremely difficult to obtain, had little public interest during their lifetime, incorporated a heart-breathtakingly unfair story of missed opportunities and much like their cult bedfellows, The Velvet Underground, spawned a huge amount of bands which formed via their influence. The fact that one cult band which they inspired, REM, would later find huge international fame and consistently cite Big Star in mainstream press only adds to their story.

Many people have claimed to know who first ‘got everyone into’ Big Star and some have even themselves claimed to be that person. A recent newspaper article humorously dismissed one of the most well-known arbiters of musical taste by citing their contempt for anyone who had not heard of Big Star before them. This is not to take a negative view of someone making such a claim because I think this one-upmanship in music is actually an often unrecognised and useful dynamic within a band’s creative DNA. It did make me wonder though, ‘who was into Big Star before them?’. Surely lots of people? After a few minutes of thinking and not coming up with any immediate answers, I became determined to find out.

Through spending a couple of weeks reading biographies, a huge pile of magazines and weekly music press from the 1970s, the amazing ‘Rock’s Back Pages’ and Glasgow University’s Library resources, and of course speaking to key journalists from the period, I had an interesting surprise. No, it wasn’t that Bobby Gillespie solely discovered a Big Star record in 1985 and presented it to the world; it was a pleasant consequence from my searching that revealed the nature of a fan’s relationship with the music press during an age before the arrival of the internet and how we shared our love of music then. I hope this will be seen by you too because it really is quite lovely and I think being reminded of it reinforces why music is so important to all of us.

BIG STAR and Methodology

As with other hugely influential bands much has been written about Big Star, including biographies of the band themselves and also of its co-leaders, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, individually. Hundreds of ‘The Greatest Band You’ve Never Heard’ style articles and reissue reviews have appeared over the years and Mojo Magazine recently ran a wonderfully illuminating piece which uncovered how much high-calibre contemporary press existed for Big Star’s first album, despite the extreme difficulty in being able to buy a copy of it. Really, there’s enough written material already available to be able to give a fairly accurate chronology of almost all aspects of the band: almost every gig and set-list Alex Chilton performed in his solo career is probably written about somewhere by someone. What is not ‘there’ and what interested me was the story of Big Star from a fan’s perspective. Sure, the biographies all touch upon press and the public failure but they mostly focus on this in relation to specific biographical details relating to their own relatively recent interviews. There appeared to be no chronological press overview anywhere. The newer biographies and retrospectives mostly all agree that despite the lack of the band’s commercial success, they had an element of early press interest. I thought investigating this press would seem a sensible area to focus on. As I mentioned, there is an interesting relationship between critic and fan in the story.

Of course, when setting a methodology it quickly becomes clear that discovering a band’s first fan is far too subjective: any worthwhile investigation that specific quickly becomes futile. To not stray too far and still maintain something close to the original intent (that can be backed up with evidence), I tweaked the fact-finding to something a little more serious and simply tried to uncover Big Star’s public rise in becoming a Cult-Band, which along the way will introduce us to some of their very first public fans.

I thought I’d take a look at who was writing about Big Star within their lifetime, what they were actually saying and attempt a chronological timeline for the band’s rise to cult-status. At the very least it would be a nice way to spend a couple of weeks – reading about one of my favourite bands and maybe discovering something new.

If you’ve read this far you probably don’t need any further introduction to the band so I’ll keep the more obvious details to a minimum unless necessary. I’ll also try and stick to a strict chronology unless it helps with the narrative. Whilst they are obviously an American band, they do have a hugely important part to play in the UK’s alternative music scene, and the UK likewise has an important part to play in Big Star’s story. Consequently, I principally stuck to researching press from these two countries. Oh, and of course, as this is primarily for fans I allowed some of the reviews or interview extracts to run a little longer whenever I found something I thought interesting.

Big Star and the Press.

Big Star’s two anachronistic Jangle Pop-Rock albums from 1972 and ’74 when added alongside their dark, messy and, quite possibly, druggy masterpiece, Third/Sister Lovers album (recorded 1974/5 released ’78) form part of a blueprint for much of the UK and US’s 1980s guitar-based ‘Alternative bands’. From the late 70’s onwards bands and entire scenes have formed under the shadow of Big Star. Amongst many others, we have America’s Paisley Underground, the earlier-mentioned REM, The Posies, Replacements and in the UK, C86, Primal Scream and Teenage Fanclub (who despite the lazy ‘Big Star copyists’ tag have really only made two albums in a thirty-year career which share an element of that Big Star sound).

Big Star’s co-singer and co-songwriter, Alex Chilton, was a Pop-Star at the age of 16, scoring a 1967 US No.1 single, The Letter with his band The Box Tops. The Letter also reached No.5 in the UK so despite only having moderate UK chart success thereafter- a No.15 , and finally a No.22, the roots of Alex Chilton and Big Star were in the public eye from the very beginning. Or were they?

By not being one of the more progressive of late 60s bands very little was actually written about The Box Tops by the emerging serious rock press in the US. Most US and Canadian articles that I’ve managed to find are of the ‘what’s your favourite sport?’ variety (if you are interested, Alex’s was ‘chasing other bands’). Surprisingly, especially in light of what we will read later, very little actually seems to have been written to single out Alex himself as the star of the group other than the obvious mentions in Billboard Magazine, and some equally brief television and radio press that backed The Letter.

Big Star in NME – Barney Sellers report from Memphis c/o Bruno Ceriotti

Unsurprisingly, there was also very little written about The Box Tops in the UK during that same period either. Mostly, what small references allowed were printed in magazines such as Rave or slightly bizarrely, Jackie, which suggests they were very firmly seen then as a teen-band. The first reference I could find which appeared to contain any depth was from a January 1968 NME article by Keith Altham, ironically, speaking to Plastic Penny about that bands cover of the Box Tops song ‘Everything I Am’. Plastic Penny were not too complimentary of Alex’s original version actually – “I like it,” said Brian from the band “but the vocalist seems to sing it too smoothly — it’s back to ‘scratch’ again. He doesn’t seem to have it on that number!”. Poor Alex was not even named in the article despite the harsh criticism. However, as history usually finds its way of distilling talent, it should be noted that not much has been written about Plastic Penny since that article and certainly no Pitchfork vindication seems to be on the horizon anytime soon.

Other than one other small mainstream UK reference during a much later Joe Cocker album review (he was covering The Letter) little else was written about The Box Tops. While brief, this rare mention was surprisingly pointed but prescient for us here; it said ‘Whatever happened to the Box Tops?’

Ironically, for the band that actually had the hits – The Box Tops – they were written about far more in relation to the band which didn’t – Big Star. This is where the press story starts to become more interesting and a little strange. Unlike other cult bands whose history has retrospectively been painstakingly researched and uncovered, Big Star were written about extensively from virtually day one of their releasing records – and not just in the local Memphis paper either.

Almost from ‘the off’, Big Star had their entire current history made readily available to the public. The opening paragraphs of Budd Scoppa’s 1st February 1973 Rolling Stone review for #1 Record, actually gives us a fairly in-depth history lesson on The Box Tops and Alex’s subsequent pre-Big Star career. Almost certainly, more history was given in this article to Alex and The Box Tops than they received during their entire pre 1971 lifetime. It’s quite unusual really:

In the late Sixties, a Memphis teenager named Alex Chilton won moderate fame and fortune as the lead singer for a sometimes inspired, sometimes insipid recording unit known as the Box Tops.

The group was a vehicle for the ideas of the producer-writer, Dan Penn, and Chilton’s raspy, young punk voice was the focal point. After several erratic albums and a couple of downright classic singles, (…) He cleared his throat, packed his guitar, and headed for New York City. When he came to realize that picking and starving in New York wasn’t necessarily on a higher karmic level than cutting slick singles in Memphis, Alex headed back home to reconcile his two musical stages and to see what he could get together.

What he got together was Big Star, and Big Star is really something. The group was built around Chilton and-fellow writer-singer Christopher Bell. Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens got on bass and drums, respectively, and Big Star found a gracious and competent local producer named John Fry, who, conveniently, had both a studio and a label of his own.

This almost seems like a recounting of an old-time myth about a mysterious folk troubadour such as Woody Guthrie rather than a review for a brand new band. Such an in-depth history lesson is quite an unexpected way to begin a piece for the first album by any fledgling band. Other than it being the early days of literate music journalism, and the author clearly being a huge fan of the music, I have a theory as to why it starts with such a strange historical introduction– which I’ll explain later.

The above extract was merely a short excerpt from a far larger review which pretty much lays down every important detail of the band that is now widely thought to have been revealed over decades of latter day research, even down to mentioning the now equally mythical label owner and engineer, John Fry. George Martin and Hamburg were certainly not mentioned in the first mainstream Beatles review.

What is even more surprising is that a mere few months later these similar press history lessons and new angles would continue and the Alex Chilton cult, even at this early stage was seemingly beginning in full swing.

Shortly after the Rolling Stone review, in July 1973 Mike Saunders at Phonograph Record gave this very gushing live review:

THIS REVIEW is primarily about Alex Chilton, formerly of the Box Tops and presently with Big Star. The occasions are few and far between that one gets the chance to observe, or merely realize the existence of, a living legend while said legend is still a vibrant, productive figure (and forget the English chauvinists, because post-1964 American rock has definitely had its share: Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, even the Sonics and many others). There are relatively obscure ones too. I had the chance this spring to see Rocky Erickson a half dozen times live with the reformed 13th Floor Elevators, and Rocky is still every bit the incredible stylist his old Texas fans have long claimed him to be. And now yet another one, in Alex Chilton, only months later. Amazing, amazing.

It is amazing. This takes the earlier history from the Rolling Stone review, abandons the Box Tops variable career references and pushes a seemingly growing myth surrounding this band to an entirely new level. It must also surely also be the first instance where Alex Chilton is referred to in print as ‘a living legend’. Quite amazing for a band who had only just released their first album and the only group member of note is best known for having a near one-hit-wonder around six years previously. More surprising is that a 1978 Jodie Stephens interview claimed that album had only sold 2,000 copies.

Mike Saunders was no hack, he’s one of the most highly-regarded US rock journalists and is famed for coining the term ‘Heavy Metal’. We have, at the release of the first Big Star album some heavyweight writers clearly imparting their love for this band but also, and I can’t express again how odd it seems in retrospect, writing what feels like a myth for them. While Alex Chilton had a pretty wild mid-late ’70s, the decades later biographies suggest that 1972/3 was a pretty content and calm period for him. It then seems bizarre – or weirdly prescient – that at this juncture he was then being compared to the ‘crazed’ wild-man rock royalty of Lou, Iggy, Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson.

I aimed to keep this as chronological as possible but I think it’s important to briefly fast forward to a much later interview. That earlier mentioned Jodie Stephen’s interview gives some important backstory to what I think was happening with the press at this point. Not giving too much away yet, this interview was with Steve Burgess for the UK’s Dark Star fanzine in 1978, while Chris Bell was still alive:

We got a lot of really good press and it all centred around Alex; writers need a reference point of some sort, they needed to relate to something the public already knew. So Alex was the focal point and Chris was really pissed off about that ‘cause the first album was really Chris’ project (…) so Chris left the band out of jealousy for Alex and the band went dormant for a while’.

There’s likely a good reason why all this deep history was so often mentioned in these early reviews and articles. in May 1973, Mike Saunders and almost all of the other well-known rock journalists of the day had been invited to Memphis by Big Star’s label, Ardent, under the guise of a ‘Rock Writers Convention’ but effectively they were brought there to hopefully review the closing party: a Big Star concert.

This convention was an idea schemed up by journalist Jon Tiven and Ardent’s own publicist, John King, to be known as ‘The First Annual National Association of Rock Writers’ Convention’. Every journalist from Rolling Stone to Creem to Fusion had been given a free weekend pass, flights and accommodation to this event. While the event itself was less successful it did result in Big Star receiving some very strong press, as noted by Mike’s review and, in some respects, it was their true audience – a room full of music critics.

I mentioned earlier that I had a theory as to why so much of their history felt as though it was being written around them at this point.

The Rolling Stone review was written before the convention took place but I think it can be deduced that the band history and the similarities in those slightly later articles were all derived from the same source – Ardent’s press releases. This would have been sent with all review copies of the album, and obviously personally given to the Memphis attendees. As we’ve seen, although The Box Tops were certainly a chart-topping band there was not too much written about them compared with the likes of Led Zeppelin or The Eagles. It seems that Ardent were emphasising the only real marketable asset they had – Alex and his former band having had a No.1 US single. It seemed to work for Ardent and the critics, and it’s no surprise that the post-conference reviews were amped up due to the physical presence of the critics in Memphis. I’ve not been able to source a Press Release for #1 Record but Ardent’s Radio City release has remarkably similar content to what appeared in those 1973 articles. It seems logical to assume this was how and why the majority of Big Star’s detailed history first appeared in their early press.

From Ardent’s Radio City Press Release:

Alex Chilton’s career began as the voice of the Box Tops. They were originally “Ronnie and the DeVilles”, but Ronnie left and 16 year old Alex had been with the band for about three weeks when their manager, local DJ Roy Mack, booked them some time at American Studios. They cut a song called ‘The Letter’. “I didn’t even know the other guys very well when we cut that tune, “ he explains.

The key to the Box Tops sound was producer Dan Penn who got Alex to put on his most soulful voice and imitate Penn himself. Listen to Penn’s album on Bell sometimes. He’s still using the same old Box Tops formula.

Alex lasted three years with the Box Tops. “We were terrible, “ he admits. “We were always terrible. We never could get ourselves together. Nobody had any desire to. Nobody liked what we were doing so there wasn’t much spirit. The people who played on the road weren’t the people who played on the records, and it was very demoralizing for them.” Nevertheless, Alex sang his way to two gold records, ‘The Letter’ and ‘Cry Like A Baby’, plus several additional hits like ‘Neon Rainbow’, ‘Choo Choo Train’, ‘Soul Deep’, ‘I Met Her In Church’, and ‘Sweet Cream Ladies’. By 1969 he was writing “B” sides and cutting much hipper material like The Band’s ‘I Shall Be Released’.

After leaving the Box Tops, Alex got together with Terry Manning of Ardent Studios in Memphis and cut a solo album which sits to this day unused and containing at least one potential hit called ‘Free Again’.

Alex soon soured on Memphis and in the spring of 1970 moved to New York for a year or so. He was writing songs for Dan Penn’s publishing company and living on Box Tops royalties. He had occasion to jam with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds plus assorted folkies hanging out in New York at the time. He concentrated on playing guitar which he had picked up toward the end of his Box Tops career, and played a few obscure clubs as a solo act.

After returning to Memphis in 1971 he reaffirmed his friendship with Chris Bell, whose guitar style he admired and who was looking for someone to complete his band. They approached Ardent Studios, which was in the process of forming its own record label. According to Alex, “It was the only place in town that wasn’t already locked up with a bunch of tin pan alley writers and these sterile musicians playing all the sessions.”

After months of rehearsals they recorded #1 Record and christened the band, “Big Star”, with tongue in cheek. Alex’s writing on the album at times reflected the influences of other songwriters whom he admired, such as Loudon Wainwright, Todd Rundgren, Gram Parsons, and the Kinks. He also had an extensive blues background partly as a result of his Memphis childhood. Combined with Bell’s high energy anglo approach (his mother is British), the songs were first rate punk ravers, at times yielding completely to Alex’s super simplistic ballads like ‘Thirteen’, ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ (written after his paranoic bout with the Memphis draft board), and ‘Give Me Another Chance’.

Most Record Labels will offer the history of new bands in a Press Release but they are rarely relied upon heavily. I think the sheer surprise and quality of the Big Star album (and the live experience for the Memphis attendees) shocked the journalists and they, just like Ardent, had used what commodity they had to appeal to the public– Alex – to help push the album.

Due to Mojo’s recent article on Chris Bell and the recent documentary, I had known that Big Star had been written about very positively in the mainstream press at the time. However, I was unaware of how much of their story was then readily available to the public. From the release of their first album, almost the entire then history of Big Star, including almost every obscure detail surrounding Alex Chilton, was presented in the world’s largest music magazines.

Although a few copies of #1 Record had amazingly slipped through the net to the public, those records, the band’s history and the increasingly embellished narrative surrounding Big Star were seemingly and firmly in the hands of music journalists. While much of that story has the makings of a cult-band, just good reviews and a difficult to obtain album were still not the full set of building blocks required to obtain legendary status. If they had never released anything else after #1 Record then I’m sure Big Star would surely have still been rediscovered later. But they thankfully did release more music and as we are about to see, with seemingly a lot of love and assistance from the adoring music press, their story would evolve and take some steps towards them becoming genuine cult-legends.

Despite being high profile, #1 Record’s press was relatively slow to appear. But their next album, Radio City’s was far more immediate and more positively received, with even more excessive hyperbole:

ONLY JANUARY, and already the Album of the Year is upon us. Big Star’s Radio City is most assuredly the finest American record since Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.

Jon Tiven, Zoo World, 28 February 1974

BIG STAR IS America’s premier rock band, hands down (…) Max’s Kansas City on a Tuesday night isn’t exactly the most crowded place in the world, but the diehard Big Star fans are there to see them live. A few Max’s regulars, a bunch of kids who liked the album, and a handful of rock critics don’t even fill half of the club but Big Star comes out on stage to a friendly greeting from every pair of hands in the joint.

Jon Tiven, Fusion, March 1974

In the Fusion article, Jon Tiven appears to be describing an emerging cult-band in real time: Max’s (famously the latter residency of The Velvet Underground) and ‘a bunch of kids who liked the album’, who presumably were the few members of the public who managed to actually get copies of the albums.

What I find interesting here though is the mention of ‘a handful of rock critics’. The writer of the article, Jon Tiven was himself one of the organisers of the ‘The First Annual National Association of Rock Writers’ Convention’. Jon and the rock critics who were present for the New York launch of Radio City were simply those from the previous year’s Convention that happened to live in New York City.

Don’t forget Jon – his name will pop up again later in our story.

In an age where research meant a little more work than ‘Googling’, there is a sense that the story surrounding the first album was simply being reflected back at the critics from Ardent’s Press Release (and in the case of Jon Tiven, from Big Star’s Press Officer himself). The quality of the first two albums, however, is undeniable. While we’ve heard of modern-day press hyping, especially surrounding bands from the Brit-Pop era, I believe that the bands earliest critics adored them as fans and simply wanted to help them succeed.

Jon’s article contained an incredibly positive review of Radio City, as well as admittedly, another regurgitation of that same Ardent history but importantly he now moves the story forward with his own thoughts on the future of the band. As a side note, it truly is a piece of the times when music changed so quickly that a mere single year’s history is covered in what seems like decades…

Once upon a time, Big Star were well-liked because they soaked up their roots (Beatles, Zeppelin, Flying Burrito Brothers, Byrds, Kinks, et al) and spewed them back in an original record of high quality. Since Chris Bell’s departure, Big Star has become more of an entity unto itself (everybody’s got roots, but some groups can surpass their predecessors). And just as the Beatles soaked up rhythm & blues and came up with something better, and as Led Zeppelin has travelled beyond mere heavy blues, Big Star has at last gotten past the point of being simply another rock ‘n’ roll band. Big Star has done what no other American group has dared to do in years: they have transcended imitation and are now full-fledged innovators.

This night, the magic is there; the group is loosened up, yet tightened. Alex reaches al the high notes, Andy is able to play on despite equipment problems, and Jody’s voice comes out loud and clear on ‘Way Out West’. They run through various numbers from the two albums during the first set, and break for drinks. Zoo World’s Toby Mamis is smiling; Billboard’s Sam Sutherland is wearing his happy face; ex-Record Worlder Bob Feiden (RCA Victor A&R man) wants to sign them up on the spot. Needless to say, John King, Ardent Lord of Publicity and promotion, is running around in a tizzy asking everybody “Did you like ‘em? I can never tell if groups are any good live.(…)When assured by the writers that it was indeed a fine set, King is most pleased. (…)

(Jon Tiven:)“I don’t have to hype the group, because Stax, Ardent and Columbia have plenty of bucks to do just that. But as a reporter who likes to call ‘em as he sees ‘em, and who likes to keep his readers well informed, I’d like to see all of you be able to get the scoop on your friends who read those other papers and maybe make a few million dollahs for yourself on the side.”

It’s important to understand that when reading this, readers would not have been aware that the albums were not selling. The public perception would have been, as noted in Jon’s piece, that RCA were wishing to sign them and that their future looked rosy. Everything seemed to be incredibly positive for Big Star then which is not part of the makings of a cult band. It’s obviously understandable for a journalist such as Tiven, who wants the band to succeed, to not promote any negativity – such as a previous lack of sales. Cult bands don’t sell millions of records.

As we outlined near the start, cult-bands have to have, in addition to the qualities of fantastic music some sense of tragedy or unfulfilled promise to elevate them beyond simply having great songs. This is what critics love to write about and it would soon come to pass for Big Star. As we hear retrospectively in the Big Star documentary ‘Nothing Can Hurt Me’, no copies of Radio City would even leave the warehouse due to the 1974 collapse of Stax.

After a series of further highly-praised reviews for Radio City in early 1974 there appears to be a 6 month gap in their US chronology. What came after was a major development in the Big Star press story. It was the re-release of the September Gurls single and it offered the public a little insight of what had been happening behind the scenes during those ‘missing’ 6 months. Their story was dramatically changing.

Big Star: ‘September Gurls’ single review by Marty Cerf, Phonograph Record, November 1974

Alex Chilton & Big Star: Innocent, But Deadly

ALEX COULD have had little hope for this particular recording ever reaching its true reward, as he must be well aware by now of the irony of Radio City, the album from which this track was singled out. For the fact that this record is Memphis’ most superior contribution to the pop cause was no guarantee that it would grace the airwaves — quite the contrary, in fact.

(…) The story of Alex Chilton and Big Star is one of supreme accomplishment and even greater frustration. From the start it was a cloudy existence at best. Shortly after the release of the group’s first album No. I Record in early 1973, co-writer/singer Chris Bell stormed out of the band in a fit of Memphis fury and torment. The group carried on with three members, playing local gigs in Overton Square and settling for Kansas City Stardom.

But there were more complications ahead for this one-time leader of the Box Tops (‘The Letter’, ‘Neon Rainbow’, etc.). Their label, Ardent, was the Anglo offshoot of the all-black Stax organization, and got about as much promotion and distribution support as you might expect. The final blow came when the label (and the studio out of which it grew) sold out earlier this year. But now the Ardent people have resurfaced in a second phase, under the monicker of Privilege Records, to try again with Big Star.
‘September Gurls’ was originally released in August on Ardent (ADA 2912) during the final stages of the label’s ownership transfer, and what minor efforts were applied on its behalf had little result. But there appears to be cause for hope, for here it comes again, with a new lease on life.

(…) Alex Chilton is the star he’s always been suspected of being. His talents have, like Roy Wood’s, been in the sound studio’s closet for too long. It’s time Alex got out and spread his wears around, calling on us from door to door on a John Fogerty level; Monday night at Lafayette’s is not enough for an American pop hero of the ‘70s.

It’s not often that greatness, once rejected, gives us a second chance. Our only hope now is to hear this single. You may find it a taste difficult to locate, but the time spent will be worth it. Remember this man, Alex Chilton; I have the distinct premonition that he has barely begun to offer up what will be his ultimate contribution.

This is not the jubilant future predicted in Jon Tiven’s review. In addition to the earlier high praise afforded to the band, as well as the ‘legend’ moniker bestowed upon Alex Chilton, we now finally have some important additions to their story that would impact upon their public status: the allure of unfulfilled success, albums not being sold and a sense of unfairness. Not being able to buy something is alluring. When you are not able to buy something that you are being told is great it is even more alluring. Word of mouth begins, recommendations are given and even lies about having heard their records start.

This was not a great time for the band and it was during this period that Alex would begin to write Big Star’s Third album.

It should be stressed at this juncture that Ardent were very, very much a small organisation run by a very close-knit group of friends and acquaintances. Friends with a huge, huge belief in Big Star. This was not EMI. Fate is a big part of the band’s history.

After the September Gurls review appeared, the Big Star story in America seems to have begun to go very cold, ironic as in many ways it was perhaps the true beginning of the band’s cult success. Over in the UK however there were real new beginnings.

Big Star in the UK

By the early ’70s The Box Tops were mostly forgotten about in the UK, one of many one hit wonders of the 1960s. While it would seem unlikely for anyone in the UK at that time to suddenly show an interest in Alex Chilton’s new band based on him previously being in The Box Tops, there was an important and concurrent rerelease from that previous band. American Graffiti had shown a huge market for nostalgia, and in the UK that same nostalgia was also in full swing in the form of That’ll Be The Day with its hugely successful soundtrack album. That film spawned a sequel – Stardust – which too had a huge selling soundtrack, featuring The Box Tops ‘The Letter’.

While Alex Chilton’s name would not be associated publicly with this release, his music had reached the public consciousness again. Moreover, the UK ‘s music fans were about to be informally introduced to Big Star themselves for the first time.

Two UK journalists had actually been flown to the ‘The First Annual National Association of Rock Writers’ Convention’, Simon Frith and Peter Frame. I spoke to Simon, who then wrote for Creem to ask if he had written anything on Big Star after the convention but he told me he hadn’t. Interestingly, unlike much of what has since been written about the event, he is of the view that Big Star were merely a footnote to it.

The music writer, Peter Stanfield sent me a copy of Zig Zag 33 from July 1973 which does have a brief mention by Pete Frame of Big Star’s appearance there. “They were great, I really enjoyed them – only to be informed that this was only a reunion gig because they’d broken up a few weeks earlier. Too bad”

Peter also kindly sent me two further interesting Big Star references. One was from a January 1974 issue of Let it Rock in which Nick Kent proclaims ‘Big Star’ as one of his favourite albums of 1973.

Far more curiouser though is a sadly uncredited review of “#1 Record” from all places, 1973’s Penthouse Vol7, No.10. Possibly the first UK Big Star review. “Altogether, Big Star have produced an album that is unusual both for its competent understatement and exploitation of some of the best work that pop has produced over the last 8 years”.

Another unusual piece of Big Star history from this period was sent to me by Irish documentary producer, Paul McDermott. Paul’s oral history of Microdisney reveals a very unusual part of the story. Sean O’Hagan recounts seeing his own music history with this tantalisingly unexplored and bizarre detail “The first band I ever saw live was Horslips. (…) The weirs thing about Eamon Carr (Horslips drummer) is he is the connection to Big Star. He introduced Big Star to possibly Bill Graham and that’s how everybody heard of them. The weirdest thing is Horslips toured with Big Star”.

One of the first mentions of Big Star in the UK appeared in the NME on 22nd February 1975. It was a review of The Raspberries ‘Starting Over’ album by an 18 year old Max Bell. The final words of this review were as follows – ‘As inheritors of the early Who bravura they reside second only to Big Star and there’s no much higher compliment than that.’.

Before being sent the strangeness of the Penthouse review, I was surprised to note such an early reference to the band here as the Big Star albums had then only been released in the United States. Imports of US magazines – and thus band information – were very difficult to obtain so I was interested in how Max Bell came to hear of the band. As Max will form an important chapter in the next part of the story I asked him.

I first heard Big Star when I bought both their albums on the same day in 1974 (on import of course) at Harlequin on Dean Street in Soho. They were the only copies in the racks. It was a very small and brilliant shop, like One Stop. I hadn’t heard them or read anything about them but I liked the covers and they just screamed “Buy Me!” Particularly the in-your-face mania of Chilton’s face on Radio City. Neither were cut-outs.”
From when I bought the albums: I found out absolutely nothing until I wrote my own articles. Box Tops features weren’t exactly a drug on the market. No internet, so no research tools. For interviews you went in relatively blind. You started from a position of total ignorance and naivety. I had no press releases, no American source material, no contact with a Memphis link. There was no London-based intermediary. Nada. It was ground zero and hope for the best”
the seventies rock press was like a pro-am, seat of the pants operation. Many wrote their articles in long hand. I know because one of my first jobs as a 17-year old on NME in 1974 was being given Nick Kent’s articles, written in scrawl on what looked like bog paper and transcribing them to an ancient Olivetti typewriter at NME’s old Long Acre office
Chances of Big Star being played on mainstream UK radio must have been very slim. I listened to a lot of John Peel and Johnny Walker and don’t recall going ‘oh wow they just played them’.

While avid US music readers may have been able to piece together the 4 year saga of Big Star through their Press, in the UK it appeared that readers (and writers) on these shores would have to start from scratch.

The second important part of the UK’s introduction to Big Star came from Max’s article. Like much of the Big Star story, this chapter’s importance would not be built upon fully until much later.

In late 1974, Chris Bell briefly relocated to Europe in an unsuccessful bid to help restart his career, and 1975 he came to London. As Max had been the only person in the UK to write about Big Star he was the obvious choice for Chris to ask for help.

Chris Bell and his brother turned up at my doorstep in Holborn and we spent an afternoon discussing Big Star. The antipathy between Bell and Alex, and what could be done to get people to listen to Chris’s own solo work. After that we exchanged a few letters and he sent me a signed copy of Radio City. I took Chris to Columbia (CBS) Records. They loved his music but considered him too left-field for public consumption.

As recounted in the terrific Chris Bell biography, ‘There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and Big Star’ by Rich Tupica, Max not only introduced Chris to John Tobler at CBS (ex journalist for Zig Zag) but also arranged for an afternoon of interviews with fanzines Fat Angel and Omaha Rainbow, and his own for Dark Star.

The problem Chris was facing was really that nobody in the UK rock Press was interested in what he was doing at this time, especially as he was mostly playing in folk clubs. The huge irony facing Chris then was previously being in a band as anachronistic as Big Star in 1972 (far too late for the 1960s) and now making music that was too early for the late 70s Power Pop revival. A typical Big Star story.

1975 heralded a UK introduction to Chris Bell in the Press, which solidified the cult appeal through the Big Star name drops. However, it would not be until years later that the world caught up. Although the UK press was writing about Big Star, and specifically Chris Bell it was unfortunately confined to smaller, more fanzine style publications and sadly did not reach a wider audience.

Alex would spend this same period – late 1974 and 1975 recording what would be released much later as the Third/Sister Lovers Big Star album. These recordings would be shortly followed by further 1975 solo recordings that would be made available to the public before the eventual release of Third and involve a now familiar fan.

Publicly, the Big Star story had gone quiet worldwide but the music around them was changing. Just as importantly the press and the public were very quickly adapting to that change.

In the next and final part, the Big Star story takes a surprising twist : Back Again into the mainstream with a new chapter in a new era and unprecedented press attention – Big Star 1975-1980.


Grant McPhee

Thanks and Bibliography:
Max Bell
Allan Glen
Helen Whiteley-McPhee
Paul McDermott
Peter Stanfield
John Rockwell
Todd L Burns
Robert Christgau
Barry Miles
Simon Frith
Rock’s Back Pages
Glasgow School of Art
Rolling Stone
Dark Star
Melody Maker
Big Star Facebook Page
Duglas T Stewart
Andy Beavers
‘There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and Big Star’ by Rich Tupica
‘A Man Called Destruction’ by Holly George-Warren
‘Big Star’ by Rob Jovanovic
‘Nothing Can Hurt Me’ – Drew DeNicola, Olivia Mori

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