BIG STAR-KEEP AN EYE ON THE SKY.
BIG STAR-KEEP AN EYE ON THE SKY.
Sadly, in music, talent doesn’t equate to commercial success. If it did, Big Star would’ve been the biggest bands in musical history. That wasn’t the case. Lady luck failed to smile on Big Star when they released a trio of albums between 1972 and 1978. Despite this, nowadays, Big Star are regarded as one of the most influential bands in musical history. That’s why Big Star have gone to influence two generations of bands. Their story is told on the recently released box set Keep An Eye On The Sky, which was recently reissued by Rhino. The Big Star story began in 1971, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis was twenty-one year old Alex Chilton’s hometown. It’s where his career began five years earlier, when he recorded a solo album. Then when Alex was seventeen, he became lead singer with The Box Tops.
Alex Chilton was The Box Top’s lead singer between 1967 and 1970. During that period, The Box Tops enjoyed a number one single with The Letter. However, by 1970, Alex’s time with The Box Tops was over. Aged twenty, he was offered the chance to join one of the biggest bands of the time.
This was Blood, Sweat and Tears. They approached Alex, asking if he would consider joining as their lead singer. That wasn’t going to happen. Alex rejected the idea out of hand, saying Blood, Sweat and Tears were “too commercial.” Not long after this, Alex Chilton met Chris Bell.
Alex Chilton and Chris Bell had known each other for a while. Both spent time at Ardent Recording Studios, Memphis. That’s where Alex Chilton first asked Chris Bell to collaborate with him. Originally, Alex Chilton’s idea was that he and Chris Bell would become a duo like Simon and Garfunkel. Chris Bell however, rejected the idea, and instead, asked Alex Chilton to join his band IceWater.
IceWater’s lineup featured guitarist Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel. Alex having heard the group’s music liked it. However, Alex felt he could improve IceWater. So, Alex brought along a new song he’d written Watch The Sunrise. The other members of IceWater liked what they hear. Soon, IceWater’s had a new addition, Alex Chilton, who compared to the rest of Icewater, seemed a musical veteran. Unsurprisingly, before long, Alex was making his presence felt.
This included suggesting Icewater changed their name to Big Star. This came about during a recording session.Alex headed out to the local Big Star Markets for some food. The Big Star Markets were a chain of stores across Memphis. Their logo was a five pointed star. Within the five pointed star was Big Star Markets. Seeing this logo was a eureka moment for Alex Chilton.
Once in the store, he realised that Big Star was a name that matched his ambitions for his new band. The five pointed star would make the perfect logo for the band. That was, as long as he didn’t infringe the copyright. They wouldn’t, as long as they didn’t put Big Star within the five pointed star. With these ideas flying around his head, Alex returned to the studio to convince the rest of IceWater to change their name to Big Star.
Not long after this, IceWater became Big Star. By now, the band had written several songs, of which two, Thirteen and Watch the Sunrise, would appear on their debut album, Number One Record.
Number One Record.
By April 1972, Big Star were ready to release their debut album, Number One Record. They’d signed to Ardent Records, and the company founder John Fry would record Number One Record.
Initially, all four band members of Big Star were going to contribute songs for Number One Record. It didn’t pan out that way. Instead, Alex and Chris wrote eleven of the twelve tracks. The exception was The India Song, penned by Andy Hummel. These twelve tracks would become Number One Record.
Recording of Number One Record took place at Ardent Studios Memphis. The rhythm section of drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel were joined by the twin guitars of Alex and Chris. Augmented by Terry Manning’s piano, Number One Record, which was produced by Jon Fry began to take shape.
During the Number One Record sessions at Ardent Studios, Big Star became one of the first groups to use a sixteen track tape recorder. This allowed Big Star to experiment and learn how best to best use the new technology to their advantage. The result was a polished album of power pop, featuring elegiac harmonies.
By the time Number One Record was due for release in June 1972, critics already loved Big Star’s music. The release of Number One Record further enhanced critics love affair with Big Star. Released to critical acclaim, many, critics including Billboard and Cash Box thought that Big Star were on their way to becoming music’s next big thing. Record World Magazine went as far to say that Number One Record “was one of the albums of 1972.” Surely, Big Star were on the verge of greatness when they released Number One Record?
Sadly, when Number One Record was released in June 1972, there were problems with distribution. Stax Records couldn’t get copies of Number One Record into record shops. For Big Star, this was hugely frustrating. Especially, after such critically acclaimed reviews. This resulted in plenty of demand for Number One Record. Big Star watched on feeling helpless, as Number One Record sold less than ten thousand copies. For Big Star, this was a disaster. Things would get even worse.
Eventually, Stax signed a deal with Columbia Records to distribute their whole catalogue. However, Columbia didn’t seem interested is using the independent distributors previously used by Stax. This resulted in Number One Record being removed from the stores who previously sold Stax releases. After this tensions arose within Big Star.
Following the problems regarding the distribution of Number One Record, tensions arose within the band. Fights erupted between band members, instruments were destroyed and Chris Bell left the group, to record his own solo album. Not long after this, Big Star split-up, for the first time.
After a few months, they decided to reform the group who by now, were down but not deterred or defeated. Problems galore occurred. There was drug abuse, instruments destroyed, band members became ill and a master tape went missing. Again the band spilt up.
Eventually, Big Star reconvened and Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel decided to record an album as a three piece band. This would become Radio City.
For Radio City, Alex Chilton wrote six tracks and cowrote four others, including three with Andy Hummel, who contributed Way Out West. Alex and Andy wrote Daisy Glaze with Jody Stephens. One name was missing though, Chris Bell. It later emerged that Chris Bell did help write some songs on Radio City, but wasn’t credited. This includes O My Soul, and the Big Star classic Back of a Car. Chris’ omission would prove an expensive one. However, during the period Radio City was written and recorded, Chris was no longer a member of Big Star.
Recording of Radio City took place at Ardent Studios, Memphis in the autumn of 1973. John Fry and Big Star co-producer Radio City, which was Big Star’s first album as a trio. This being Big Star, things didn’t go to plan.
Alex, Jody and Andy only recorded part of Radio City. With nine tracks completed, Alex was left without a rhythm section. So, to complete Radio City, Alex brought in the rhythm section of drummer Richard Rosebrough and occasionally, bassist Danny Jones. Together, they finished recording Mod Lang, She’s A Mover and What’s Going Ahn. Eventually, Radio City was released in February 1974.
Just like Number One Record, Radio City was released to widespread critical acclaim. Radio City was seen as Big Star’s breakthrough album. It was described as commercial, polished and even brilliant and addictive. Surely, Big Star were about to make a breakthrough with Radio City?
Sadly, not. History repeated itself when Stax Records failed to get Radio City into record shops. Stax Records’ disagreement with Columbia Records made a bad situation worse. What many regarded as a future classic, and the definitive power pop album was stuck in a distributor’s warehouse. Eventually, when Stax Records counted sales of Radio City, the sales amounted to just twenty thousand. For Alex Chilton and co. this was a huge body blow.
So, when Big Star returned to the recording studios in September 1974 to record what would eventually become Third/Sister Lovers, Big Star’s numbers were reduced. Andy Hummel had left the band. It was a case of and then there were two.
For Third/Sister Lovers, Alex contributed twelve of the fourteen tracks. Jody Stephens penned For You. The other track was a cover of The Velvet Underground classic Femme Fatale, penned by Lou Reed. These tracks would become Third/Sister Lovers, which was produced by Jim Dickinson.
With just Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens remaining, Big Star entered the recording studio for what would proved to be the last time. Given their numbers were reduced, the two members of Big Star had to bring onboard various session musicians and a few friends.
This included drummer Richard Rosebrough, Alex’s girlfriend, vocalist Lesa Aldridge and guitarist Steve Cropper. With Jim Dickinson producing Third/Sister Lovers, Big Star proceeded to produce music that was variously beautiful, ethereal, experimental, haunting and innovative. That’s not surprising. Many of the songs were Alex had written were deeply personal. Many onlookers thought that Third/Sister Lovers wasn’t going to be a Big Star album.
At the time, Third/Sister Lovers looked more like an Alex Chilton solo album. Other onlookers remember seeing the session sheets naming the band as Sister Lovers. However, this was a reference to Alex and Jody dating sisters Lesa and Holliday Aldredge. Eventually, however, Third/Sister Lovers was completed on 13th February 1975, when Larry Nix completed the mastering. However, it would be another three years before Third/Sister Lovers was released.
Following the completion of Third/Sister Lovers, producer Jim Dickinson and John Fry headed to New York looking for a record label willing to release Big Star’s third album. By then, Big Star were history. Despite this, 250 copies had been pressed for promotional purpose. Sadly, nobody expressed an interest in releasing Third/Sister Lovers. Record company executives didn’t understand Third/Sister Lovers. The music seemed too stark, emotive and occasionally, disturbing. In a way, that’s not surprising.
Alex Chilton wasn’t in a good place during the recording of Third/Sister Lovers. Third/Sister Lovers was a cathartic album, where he unburdened himself. This made Third/Sister Lovers a very personal album. However, within Third/Sister Lovers there was beauty. It wasn’t until 1978, that Third/Sister Lovers’ beauty was heard.
Eventually, three years after Third/Sister Lovers was completed, the album was released. Previously, Third/Sister Lovers was perceived as uncommercial by record companies. Neither Alex nor Jody had shown any interest in releasing Third/Sister Lovers. Then there were the continuing financial problems. That’s why three years passed before the release of Third/Sister Lovers.
Prior to the release of Third/Sister Lovers, the critics had their say. Critics recognised the Third/Sister Lovers’ potential when the group were promoting it. Many wrote paeans exalting the Third/Sister Lovers’ beauty. However, it was only in later years that many critics realised the importance of Third/Sister Lovers. By then, it was being hailed as a minor classic. So were Number One Record and Radio City. Big Star were by then, one of the most influential bands in musical history. Not in 1978.
On the release of Third/Sister Lovers commercial success eluded what became Big Star’s third album. While many saw this a disaster for Big Star, much worse was around the corner.
Not long after Third/Sister Lovers was eventually released, tragedy struck, and Chris Bell died in a car crash. It was a tragedy for music and Big Star. That was the last anyone heard of them for fifteen years.
Interest in Big Star grew and in 1993, the group reformed. Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, were joined by guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow. Their first concert was at the University of Missouri Music Festival. This concert was recorded, and released as an album entitled Columbia: Live At Missouri. The new line up toured extensively, and a new album was released in 2005.
In Space consists mostly of new songs, songs written by Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. When it was released, it was well received by critics, who welcomed the return of Big Star. Sadly after over ten years of belated success and recognition, Alex Chilton died of cancer on 19 July 2010. That day, music lost one of its most creative and greatest musicians. His genius is celebrated on the Big Star box set Keep An Eye On The Sky, which was recently reissued by Rhino.
Keep An Eye On The Sky is a four disc box set, which features ninety-nine songs. This is the perfect companion for Big Star’s first three albums, Number One Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers. Keep An Eye On The Sky is a treasure trove of Big Star’s music. There’s demos, alternate mixes, singles, rehearsals and live tracks spread over the four tracks. It marks the development of Big Star, from their early days, right through till they split-up.
On disc one of Keep An Eye On The Sky, there’s twenty-six tracks. The opening track is Chris Bell’s Psychedelic Stuff, which is followed by IceWater’s All I See Is You. These two tracks are welcome additions. So are Alex Chilton’s Every Day As We Grow Closer and two tracks from Rock City. There’s an early version of Try Again and an excerpt of The Preacher. The rest of disc one is Big Star.
There’s everything from singles, alternate mixes, completed tracks and demos on disc one. Singles include Watch The Sunrise and an alternate mix of In The Street. Just like other alternate mixes, including Thirteen, The India Song, When My Baby’s Beside Me, Give Me Another Chance and The Ballad Of El Goodo, they show how a song develops. Especially when you compare it to the completed version. Among the completed songs on disc one are The Ballad Of El Goodo and Country Morn. There’s also demos of I Got Kinda Lost, Back Of A Car and Motel Blues. For fans of Big Star, it’s the start of a musical treasure trove.
Having unearthed Big Star gold on disc one, this continues on disc two. Just like disc one, alternate mixes, completed tracks and demos feature on disc two. Demos include There Was A Light, Life Is White, What’s Going On?, Blue Moon, Femme Fatale, Night Time, Take Care and You Get What You Deserve. While these tracks are work in progress, comparing them to what they became. The completed tracks include Oh My Soul, Life Is White, Way Out West, What’s Going On?, You Get What You Deserve, Daisy Glazer, She’s A Mover, I Am the Cosmos and You and Your Sister. That’s not forgetting the classics September Girls, and I’m In Love With a Girl two minutes of pop perfection. By comparing the demos and completed tracks, you get an insight into how Big Star worked. That’s also the case with the alternate mixes.
Among the alternate mixes are an explosive versions of Mod Lang and power pop classic Back of a Car. It shows another side of a Big Star classic. The other alternate mixes include Morpha, Too, Oh, My Soul and She’s A Mover. Then there’s a rehearsal version of Daisy Glazer. With its mixture of rarities, hidden gems, firm favourites and power pop classics, is a welcome addition to Big Star’s discography. So is disc three.
Just like the first two discs, alternate mixes, completed tracks and demos rub shoulders on disc three. Demos include Lovely Day, Downs, Jesus Christ, Holocaust and Big Black Car. Alternate mixes include Till The End Of The Day and Nature Boy. Then there’s completed versions of Mañana, Jesus Christ, Femme Fatale, Nighttime, Dream Lover, Big Black Car, Blue Moon, For You, Downs, Thank You Friends and Lovely Day. Each and every one of these tracks are a fascinating insight into Big Star.
With either demo or alternate versions sitting side by side with completed versions, this allows the listener to compare and contrast the track. You’re able to see how a track evolves. Often, the completed version is very different from the demos and alternate versions. That’s the case through the first three discs on Keep An Eye On The Sky. Disc four however, features Big Star live.
What better way to close Keep An Eye On The Sky than with Big Star playing a hometown show. At Lafayette’s Music Room Memphis, Big Star produce a barnstorming performance. They make their way through twenty tracks. Opening with When My Baby’s Beside Me, Big Star run through She’s A Mover, The Ballad Of El Goodo, Back Of A Car, Thirteen, The India Song, Watch The Sunrise and Lie To Me. It’s a breathtaking performance. Big Star aren’t finished yet though.
There’s still eight more songs. I Got Kinda Lost, Baby Strange, There Was A Light, Come On Now and the closing track O My Soul, see Big Star return to their hometown as conquering heroes, winning the day with their unique brand of power pop.
Disc four, the live disc is the perfect way to complete Keep An Eye On The Sky. The three previous discs have concentrated on Big Star in the studio. However, as disc four shows, Big Star on their day, could be one of the finest live bands of their day. Sadly, the original lineup of Big Star never got the opportunity to tour often, never mind record a live album. Four became three after Chris Bell left following Number One Record. Then three became two after Radio City. Andy Hummel left Big Star following the disappointing sales of Radio City. Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens were the last men standing.
Looking back, things could’ve been very different if Stax Records hadn’t been responsible for distributing Big Star’s first two albums. With another record company distributing Number One Record and Radio City, Big Star could’ve and should’ve been one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Sadly, while their first two albums enjoyed critical acclaim, commercial success eluded them. By 1975, Big Star were history.
Big Star third album, Third/Sister Lovers, was completed forty years ago, in February 1975. Sadly, Third/Sister Lovers, which was eventually released in 1978, proved to be Big Star’s final album for four decades.
After a resurgence in interest in Big Star Alex and Jody reformed the band and released their fourth and final album, In Space, in 2005. By now, Big Star’s trio of albums were considered minor classics, which feature in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Meanwhile, Big Star were being hailed as one of the most influential, innovative and inventive bands in musical history. That’s apparent when you listen to their trio of albums Number One Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers, plus Keep An Eye On The Sky, the four disc box set, which celebrates the music of Big Star.
Keep An Eye On The Sky, which has been reissued by Rhino, celebrates the music of power pop pioneers, Big Star, whose three albums belatedly, have been recognised as the classics they were.
BIG STAR-KEEP AN EYE ON THE SKY.