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What’s So Great About Big Star?

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For most who’ve never heard of the highly influential 70s Memphis quartet, nothing. That’s the way it works, right? Besides creating catchy and accessible songs that appeal to a wide range of music fans, popular bands are usually popular for another reason, whether it be clever marketing a la Kiss or masterful engineering and production like Boston. Big Star had neither. They also didn’t have a hit or sell many records.

A victim of poor marketing and distribution, Big Star is one of those “lost” bands of the 70s that is both a darling of music critics everywhere and revered as a major influence of some of the most popular college rock artists of the 80s and 90s (see R.E.M., The Replacements and Matthew Sweet).

Influenced heavily by The Beatles, The Kinks and The Byrds, Big Star took pop-rock in a direction that nobody else seemed to be interested in going in the early to mid 70s. They made great power pop with an emphasis on loud guitars and catchy melodies.

And though I wasn’t listening to Big Star in the first half of the 70s (I unfortunately preferred Kiss), I wonder how the band’s leader Alex Chilton was perceived. Chilton, as you may know, was previously the lead singer for The Box Tops, who scored big hits in the 60s with “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.” The Box Tops had an R&B/folk sound, completely unlike the guitar driven power pop Big Star was creating. I think it’s certainly possible that many Box Tops/Chilton fans were not sold on his new direction.

But enough history. The best thing about Big Star in 2005 is that their sound is still fresh. You could play most any track off of their first two albums on any college radio station in America, and it would fit right in. The “dated” quality of a lot of 30+ year old pop isn’t terribly evident here. It feels new and raw.

Songs like “Back of a Car,” “September Gurls,” “Daisy Glaze,” and “I’m in Love with a Girl” are all prime examples of a style of music more common today than it was in 1974.

I’d like to think that you’ll read this, go out and buy a Big Star record (I recommend #1 Record/Radio City by the way) and become an instant fan for life. But then again, I doubt it. Music is too subjective. What sounds great to me probably won’t to the next person. Just try it out. If you’re the least bit interested in power pop, I think you’ll find something of value in a Big Star record.

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About Joe Battista

  • FYI: The Boston Globe reported today that Chilton contacted some family members Sunday night and is safe.

  • Jackie

    I hope Alex Chilton is found. He opted to stay in New Orleans and hasn’t been heard from since the Katrina.

  • Vern Halen

    Well, I’ll have to give them another try sometime. I think also the problem for me was I heard the Chris Bell (was that his name?) album before I actually heard Big Star, adn I didn’t care for it, coloring my listening of #1 Record.

    Green Day better than Ramones? As you suggest, there’s a time & place factor that skews comparisons between the influencer & influencee. I guess we’ll see how Green Day is remembered 10 years from now.

  • Vern, I totally understand your comment. It was certainly a time and place thing. While I do believe Big Star’s sound is still relevant, their timing is what set them apart from the bands you mentioned. As a comparison, what Green Day did wasn’t nearly as impressive as the contribution The Ramones made, but it doesn’t mean Green Day doesn’t do it better (though that’s an agruement for someone else to make because I don’t believe it to be true).

  • Vern Halen

    Y’know, I like to think I have a basic appreciation of “power pop” (for lack of a better term) – the dB’s, Velvet Crush, Crowded House, etc., but I never did get the buzz on Big Star. What am I missing? They just never struck me as being as good as some of those other bands I mentioned. Was it just a time & place thing?

  • Might be helpful to mention that they wrote and originally performed “On the Street,” now the theme song from That ’70s Show. Which is to say that people know their work even if they haven’t heard the name Big Star.

  • I’m looking forward to the new album. I believe it’s being released September 27.

  • For another take on Big Star, see my Blogcritics article from 2003.

  • Evan

    The new album is fantastic too.