It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, and you look like a star but you’re still on the dole: The true story of Big Star, Alex Chilton’s rematch with musical glory. By Corey duBrowa
Paul Westerberg once proudly proclaimed that he’d “never travel far without a little Big Star.” Teenage Fanclub owes any career momentum it was ever able to attain to the style codified on Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City, the first of which was released 30 years ago. The Fanclub’s fetishistic obsession was deep enough to inspire the naming of its third album in honor of a favorite Big Star track (“Thirteen”), a song upon which Elliott Smith would later put his own wounded imprint. Cheap Trick—a band that clearly cribbed a move or two from the Big Star playbook—recently resurrected its career from irrelevance by re-recording Big Star’s “In The Street” as “That ‘70s Song,” the opening theme to Fox’s retro sitcom That ‘70s Show. (The original’s “Wish we had/A joint so bad” couplet has, of course, been surgically removed for the TV version.)
Musicians from all over the alt-rock kingdom have chased down Big Star’s producers, John Fry and Jim Dickinson, in an attempt to tap into the vein of beautiful loserdom they so perfectly captured on tape—the Afghan Whigs, Replacements, Primal Scream and Mudhoney foremost among them. Despite Herculean efforts, none has really ever gotten it quite right.
The Memphians known as Big Star forged the template for the genre that would come to be known as power pop: a mash-note mélange of sweet and sour that would be emulated by nearly every band that ever attempted to write a love song for the radio. If you ever sat in your car transfixed as 3:35 of jingle-jangle guitars, wobbly harmonies and lyrics putting a face to teenage confusion poured out of your speakers and down your spine in a cascade of chills, you have Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel to thank for it.