Take 5: Big Star

Across the landscape of pop music, there have been certain artists whose influence far outpaced their popularity. There’s an old saying that while, for example, the Velvet Underground didn’t sell a lot of records in their day, many who bought those LPs were inspired to form bands of their own. Memphis-based Big Star is another group to which that idea applies.

While neither of the albums they released during their short time together in the ‘70s found its way onto the charts, their brand of proto-power pop made an indelible impression on those lucky enough to hear them. The music of Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M., Game Theory and the Posies all owe a debt to the band featuring Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel. Big Star’s second album, the sublime Radio City was released 50 years ago this month. Here are five songs that hint at the greatness of the influential band from Memphis, Tennessee.

“In the Street” from #1 Record (1972)
Co-written by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, this brilliant rocker distills all of the energy and joy of being young into less than four minutes. There’s nary a weak track on Big Star’s debut album; it’s so consistently strong. In fact, that “In the Street” would be relegated to the b-side of one of the three (non-charting) singles released from the LP. The tune found a new life 26 years later when it was used as the opening theme for That ‘70s Show, in a new version recorded by Cheap Trick.

“September Gurls” from Radio City (1974)
Bell left Big Star shortly after the release of #1 Record, though he had a hand in the writing and recording of some tracks included on Radio City. “September Gurls,” however, is a Chilton tune, a lovely if lyrically oblique classic released as the second of two singles from the LP. Modern-day listeners might be more familiar with the faithful and loving cover of “September Gurls” released on The Bangles’ 1986 LP Different Light.

“Thank You Friends” from Third/Sister Lovers (1978)
Reduced to a duo, Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens made a third album with the help of Memphis friends and musical associates. In turns dissolute, introspective and transcendent, Third/Sister Lovers features both viscerally emotional songs, spooky, inward-looking tunes and catchy pop-rockers. The sardonic “Thank You Friends” falls into the last category, and is part of the reason the album has since achieved mythical status, with all-star tribute concert tours bringing its music to 21st century audiences.

“I am the Cosmos,” Chris Bell single (1978)
Chris Bell worked on and off over the course of two years to make his only solo album. Though it wouldn’t be released until years after his fatal car crash at age 27, I am the Cosmos has gone on to well-earned status as a classic. The achingly beautiful title track was released as a single shortly before Bell’s death. The track could almost be considered a Big Star recording, as both Chilton and Stephens play on the sessions.

“Dony” from In Space (2005)
After Big Star’s initial run, Alex Chilton seemed to eschew the band’s legacy; his solo released explored very different musical styles. But to the surprise of almost everyone, he re-formed Big Star in 1993 with Stephens and the two songwriting members of The Posies (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow). The reactivated band toured to great – if belated – acclaim, and eventually convened in the studio for a new album. While In Space received mixed reviews – recapturing the brilliance of the ‘70s records would be an near-impossible feat – the album’s leadoff track does conjure the spirit of classic-era Big Star.