It’s been said that Big Star may be “the most influential band you’ve never heard of,” and that, too, is part of their mystique. The Memphis power pop quartet led by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell recorded a total of just three albums, none being the slightest bit successful and the third of which, entitled Third, getting shelved for several years upon its completion as it was not considered commercial enough to even be released. Yet years, even decades, later, they were “discovered,” having laid the groundwork for what we now know mainly as indie rock, and resurfacing to become what Rolling Stone called “the quintessential American power pop band, and one of the most mythic cult acts in all of rock and roll.”
You might recall the name of Alex Chilton, who between 1967-1970 was the lead singer for blue-eyed soul group The Box Tops, scoring a chart-topping #1 hit with ‘The Letter’1 at the age of just 16. He was subsequently offered the role of lead vocalist for Blood, Sweat & Tears, but turned it down deeming it as “too commercial”2 (something clearly not an issue with his ensuing Big Star offerings). Perhaps the audacity of Alex, Chris and band to designate themselves as “Big Star”3 then seemingly double down by naming their debut album #1 Record was an inescapable fate-tempting curse. Yet, despite their series of unmitigated commercial flops, it turned out that Big Star had somehow created, again according to Rolling Stone, “a seminal body of work that never stopped inspiring succeeding generations of rockers, from the power-pop revivalists of the late 1970s to alternative rockers at the end of the century to the indie rock nation in the new millennium.”
The list of admiring artists and bands whose jangle-pop sound Big Star assuredly helped shape would include The Lemonheads, The Bangles, Matthew Sweet, Elliott Smith, The Replacements, and perhaps most of all, R.E.M. Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, in fact, have all made no secret of their Big Star worship. Quite oddly, however, one who still could never understand the later-life adulation the band enjoyed was none other than Alex Chilton himself. In a 1992 interview, Chilton, who died of a heart attack in 2010 at age 59, said, “I’m constantly surprised that people fall for Big Star the way they do. People say Big Star made some of the best rock ‘n roll albums ever. And I say they’re wrong.”
The closest Big Star ever had to an actual big hit was the Beatlesque ‘September Gurls,’ off their second album, Radio City, a song thought of as a tribute to the Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls,’ and though obviously never a big-seller, described as “a power pop classic” by Rolling Stone who ranked it at #180 on their Top 500 Songs of All Time list. But here, instead, I’m going to select another jangly gem called ‘Thank You Friends,’ this one from their final (delayed) release and hopefully more apropos to the moment. In doing so, I’d like to say “thank you” to two friends, Art and David, who both recommended to me, separately and many years apart, the 2012 Big Star documentary “Nothing Can Hurt Me” (“the definitive story of the greatest band that never made it”) which I finally watched this week. And more broadly, to offer thanks to all friends of So Much Great Music, and of course all friends IRL (as the kids like to say). Though I’m not always good at remembering it, at this Thanksgiving there is certainly still much for which to be thankful. And I suppose, at the very least, we can be thankful that this indescribably weird and painful year is nearly over, and look ahead to what surely must await as a better 2021, filled with friends, health, happiness, and for god sakes, live music!
Happy Thanksgiving, all.
1you know the one, “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane / Ain’t got time to take a fast train…”
2Blood, Sweat & Tears was actually quite a big deal at that time; did you know that they were the second-highest paid act at Woodstock – behind only Hendrix but in front of a number of history’s slightly higher-regarded names like Joplin, Creedence, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, The Dead, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young?
3though in truth, the name merely referred to that of a local grocery store chain