Just the fact that Rhino Records chose to issue a 4-CD compilation on a band like Big Star says more about the label and their ability to reach out to new converts as well as old fans, like me, who will buy anything with “not previously released” or the “definitive remaster” sticker on the cover. Rhino cares about their catalog and that is why they will be here long after the majors have been relegated to clearing houses.
Releasing the Big Star set in the same week as the long-awaited Beatles remasters was a bold move. It appealed to me, since the massive pre-press for the Beatles was driving me crazy. I love it – but I know those stories! While most went to Let It Be, I went to “Don’t Lie To Me” from Big Star’s #1 Record (Stax Records, 1972) — the title, not chart position.
“Don’t Lie To Me” is a Big Star classic, Led Zeppelinish in it’s use of pop music and perfect in it’s distorted backing track. It follows “In the Street” that you know as the theme of That 70’s Show as redone by Cheap Trick. Big Star is one of those bands where the cliche line that REM’s Pete Buck likes to use from time to time: “Only 1000 people bought the first Big Star record but every one of them went out and started a band. (…apologies to the Velvet Underground).
That was certainly true in my case. My 14 year-old opinion of music, before Big Star, had previously been influenced by only British bands plus the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Creedence Clearwaer Revival. Playing in cover bands in the early & mid seventies, we slid in the occasional Big Star number – and people danced. I am quite sure I bought the Big Star album because it was the lead singer of the Boxtops. What I heard was altogether different. It was pop music that actually spoke to me as a listener and fan.
When I heard there was going to be a box set of the band that literally changed my life, I was a bit skeptical. I have purchased every version of every one of their albums, singles, demos and bootlegs that are available, or were at one time.
Cheryl Pawelski, VP of A&R at Rhino (and compiler of the definitive boxset w/ book of The Band), was in charge of gathering material that would matter to the diehards but also appeal as a broad look at Big Star to younger people now searching out eclectic music of the 70s and 80s. Cheryl, along with director of A&R, Andrew Sandoval, sought out the assistance of John Fry, owner of Ardent Studio and the only person that may actually remember the events that produced the music in this box set. Instead of the usual presentation of LPs that were rereleased and in multiple remastered versions, Cheryl and her cohorts at Rhino chose to present the set as a series of demos, outtakes and issued tracks but in a focused and consistent order.
The early tracks from Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, before Big Star, are used sparingly, and only to set up the timeline in which they were written & recorded as the demos for the 3 officially released LPs. The rest follow through with presentations of the 3 Big Star confessionals – rare and unreleased. Most of these have been circulated but it is great to hear them in no hissy sound. It is almost like Alex was advising the compilers, though that could not have happened.
We all know that would never happen.
In the early 80s, I was one of the people who tried to revive Alex Chilton’s career at a time when he most needed it. He really was washing dishes at the Marie Antoinette Hotel…and refused any door back to the music business. As per usual, the timing was not right for Alex. Trying to talk to Alex then, and as well as these days, about his Boxtops and Big Star years and even his few albums that forayed between raw punk, pristine pop and deliberate fuck-ups, is difficult since he prefers to let sleeping dogs lie and his most recent released material pays homage to the jazz/torch song period of his parents days.
The 4th disc is the biggest surprise and will bring at least a few thousand to Amazon.com or their local record store – if one exists. Disc 4 is a compilation of several sets played by the trio of Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis shortly after Chris Bell left the band and before they finished “Radio City”, their most commercial LP.
Due to Stax, Ardent Records and management problems, Big Star never got proper distribution or got exposure to the public. The raw sound of Alex’s guitar with the solid bass and drums show how this band, if they had reached a larger audience could be the oft-predicted American Beatles, American Led Zeppelin, etc. This may have happened if Chris Bell had lived and stayed with the band. From the “CD extra” portion of Keep Your Eye On the Sky, you can see the band as they prepare to record and rehearse to the track of “Thirteen”. They look happy, not stoned, just glad to be making a record they actually heard in their heads.
OK, I may not be the best neutral judge of this set but the music on this collection is for the bases of Big Star/Chilton fans. While the real clinchers in this set are the 4th CD, the packaging and liner notes, the rare photos and in-depth interviews with almost everyone involved, except Alex or Chris, help true to piece together a story that is not just musical but personal – like the feelings Chris and Alex brought to their tracks.
In this day and age of throw away hits, autotune and the public ignoring radio in droves, this box set stands as a historical statement. That so many people offered comments – not Alex of course, but everyone else who could remember those days, says a lot. At least Alex is making the kind of money from film and commercial licenses to probably live a comfortable, not rich, life.
He deserves it.