The Over/Under: Big Star

bigstar535With Big Star best-of/rarities box Keep An Eye On The Sky slated for a September release, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and the late Chris Bell are about to enter the mainstream rock pantheon at last. Of course, Big Star has been a key reference point for three generations of indie and underground rockers. The band’s brief, highly romanticized narrative arc—Anglophile Memphis rockers set the bar for genius power pop, begin deconstructing the genre, then self-destruct before they can finish their third record—guaranteed Big Star’s canonization by alt-rock misfits, as well as that odd strain of culture vulture obsessed with watching talent implode. MAGNET wants to reexamine Chilton and Co.’s work in part because, though this is one of those cases where the music frequently does live up to the hype, for 30 years Big Star has unavoidably colored the way we hear the music. And despite a few post-mortem live releases and a handful of bootlegs both sublime and godawful, it’s in the limited studio recordings that Big Star’s glory lives or dies. So for this installment of the Over/Under, it’s to the studio albums we go, to give the mix one final stir before it hardens. (For more on Big Star, as well as Cheap Trick, Matthew Sweet, the Posies and many more, check out our special 2002 American power-pop issue.)

:: The Five Most Overrated Big Star Songs
1. “In The Street” (1972)

We open with a gimme: Sometimes an OK song gets included on the soundtrack to an idiotic hit movie, thereby ruining it for the world. (Here on the smelting floor of the MAGNET foundry, this is known as the “Reality Bites effect.”) That’s only the most overt problem with “In The Street,” from Big Star’s cheekily titled debut #1 Record, which even the very clueless will know as the opening theme to That ’70s Show. “In The Street” is usually touted as the high-water mark of the band’s power-pop aesthetic, but only if you consider a straightforward riff and uncomplicated lyrics about not doing much of anything interesting to be an apex. Sure, it’s delivered in loud, pretty harmonies. But consider that one of those loud, pretty harmonies laments the fact that we don’t even have a lousy joint between us, and you start hearing the doop-de-doo, thumb-twiddling banality at the center of Big Star’s unfairly best-known song. Everything that’s done here, the band did better elsewhere.

2. “Kangaroo” (1978)
Oh, stop making that face. Yes, this is a difficult one to include. There’s a lot to admire about this fractured, surrealist love song from the legendary mess of Big Star’s terminal 1974/1975 sessions, finally collected (after a string of substandard releases, starting in 1978) on 1992’s Third/Sister Lovers compilation. But that’s primarily due to producer Jim Dickinson’s salvaging of it. According to Dickinson, Chilton brought in a single-track recording of himself singing “Kangaroo” while playing a sketchily tuned guitar (thereby welding voice to instrument) and gave it to Dickinson with a smirk. Dickinson took the tape and began adding atmospheric effects, different instruments and various tweaks and fiddles. Only after Dickinson turned the muddle into something better than its origin did Chilton get back on board. The end result is memorable, but in any profession other than being a tortured artist, that’s called tripping over your own joint and making the guy in the next cubicle cover for you. Dickinson never got the credit he deserved for this search-and-rescue operation.

3. “September Gurls” (1974)
Big Star doesn’t date, insist the band’s diehard supporters. While that’s mostly true, this inoffensive horoscope-influenced ditty about love gone wrong, from sophomore release Radio City, somehow never comes up in the conversation. One of Chilton’s most uneven solo records, A Man Called Destruction, includes a cover of Danny Pearson’s unfortunate 1978 astrological pickup song “What’s Your Sign, Girl?” Why that one gets laughed out of the room while the similarly themed “September Gurls” gets on multiple best-of lists is a mystery. Same bell bottoms, different platform heels, we say.

4. “Feel” (1972)
Co-founder Bell tempered Chilton’s jagged tendencies on Big Star’s first record with a precision ear for melodic sweetness. When the twain met, they often produced excellent music. But “Feel,” the album’s opener, is a misfire. Bell’s tendency to sing in his upper register makes what should be plaintive sound screechy and uncontrolled, the slick background vocals are a poor match with the strangled lead, and the repeated verse/chorus combination reveals nothing new on its second pass. Though it’s an explosive introduction to the canon, it doesn’t begin to approach the most rewarding blend of Big Star’s sweet and sour impulses.

5. “Holocaust” (1978)
A certain breed of hipster asshole loves Third/Sister Lovers for the dumbest reason of all—because he fetishizes, and claps his clammy little hands over, the sound of great talent burning out. The relentlessly miserable “Holocaust” is the litmus test for this sort of mope. Driven by a sad piano line lifted directly from Yoko Ono’s “Mrs. Lennon” (from her excellent 1971 album Fly), “Holocaust” is an exercise in droopy navel-gazing from opening note to rideout. Dead mothers, haunted mirrors, wasted faces, sad-eyed lies—nearly four minutes of weepy ego wallowing in misery for the sheer masturbatory hell of it, beginning in the void and arriving nowhere at all. No wonder This Mortal Coil and Placebo were, er, “moved” to cover it. And as long as we’re on our soapbox, “Mrs. Lennon” has a better lyric. Look it up.

:: The Five Most Underrated Big Star Songs
1. “O, Dana” (1978)

With numbers two and five above, “O, Dana” kicks off Third/Sister Lovers’ mondo-depresso hat trick, but “O, Dana” is a genuinely creepier affair, and a better song on the merits. “I rather shoot a woman than a man/I worry whether this is my last life … I’m sorry, I can’t help it,” Chilton sings in a spiritedly confessional manner, and it only gets weirder from there. Ringing D chords, spooky feedback and occasionally nonsensical but somehow menacing lyrics drive this deceptively light-sounding number, which, because it’s both crazed and tightly constructed, ranks with the very best work from the band’s final sessions.

2. “Try Again” (1972)
This is Bell’s finest hour: a humbly performed, gloriously arranged meditation on human frailty and determination. The repeated “Lord” that opens each line (“I’ve been trying to be understood,” “I’ve been trying to do what I could”) might be a direct prayer, or it might be a weary expletive prefacing the singer’s endless frustration with himself and the world. It works, in other words, as a prayer or a curse. If you’re wondering why Big Star often gets called American pop at its smartest and best, “Try Again” is a great place to start.

3. “Life Is White” (1974)
This kind of claim always reveals more about ourselves than the music, but for my money, this is the best song Big Star ever recorded, period, full stop. It boasts Chilton’s nastiest bad-love lyric, which incidentally is saying just a whole hell of a mouthful, and its arrangement is a tightly packed treasure, cramming dissonance, wonky chord changes, stomping percussion and a great final sustained-chord payoff into each verse. Also check the shrieking harmonica line—cleverly buried in the mix, and easy to ignore if you’re not listening for it—that reveals the Janovian primal-scream rage behind the singer’s deceptively cool, measured kiss-off. Brilliant.

4. “Lady Sweet” (2005)
If the overrated choices didn’t honk you off, how about schlepping in an underrated track from roundly dismissed “reunion” album In Space, and one that’s not even sung by an original member? Chilton and Stephens teamed with the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer for this next-gen Big Star release, and it’s got its issues. But “Lady Sweet” plays to what were always Big Star’s melodic strengths; it’s soulfully performed, it’s romantic without sounding sappy, and where some listeners hear a ripoff of #1 Record, we rather like the feedback loop created by a younger band collaborating with Chilton and Stephens on the kind of song Big Star’s music inspired them to perform in the first place. Call it meta-postmodern power pop. Or better yet, give it another listen.

5. “Morpha Too” (1974)
By any standards, “Morpha Too” is a slight number, running less than 90 seconds and shuffled into the next-to-last position on Radio City, between powerhouse tracks “September Gurls” and “I’m In Love With A Girl.” Its troubled lyrics (“I’m an old shoe/And I don’t know/What to do/I’m in love with you”) are simple, even sing-songy, and its icy piano and vocal arrangement is one of Big Star’s most minimal. And yet “Morpha Too” sounds like a band knowingly stretching its pop aesthetic past its boundaries, edging toward the dark terrain in which it would soon become mired during the Third/Sister Lovers sessions. This is the sound of Big Star tentatively experimenting before the endless frustrations, before the distribution fell through and before everything collapsed on tape. For that reason, it’s always made me imagine the Third album that might have been: a wistful, disquieting and (most of all) supremely confident balance of the light and dark urges in the human heart.

—Eric Waggoner

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