Salon des Refusés: Big Star

In 1863, the Salon des Refusés was launched to counter the conservative aesthetics enforced by the Academy of Fine Arts in the annual Paris Salon. That year, the “rejects” included such later revered painters as Manet, Courbet, Whistler, Pissarro and Cezanne. Perhaps it is now time to establish a Salon des Refusés for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame‘s rejects.

The rules of eligibility for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame include:

Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.

And yet many artists who have had huge impacts on the development and evolution of rock & roll have been snubbed over and over, including: Kraftwerk, Chic, Big Star, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, New York Dolls, T. Rex, Television, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Sonic Youth, Joy Division.

Big Star is pretty much the definition of a cult band, not very well known, but absolutely worshiped by its fans, including many much better known rockers such as The Replacements, The Bangles, and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees R.E.M.

If you are not (yet!) a fan you may still have heard at least one of their songs. “In the Streets” was the opening theme for That ’70s Show . . .

. . .  but it was performed by Todd Griffin in the first season and Cheap Trick in the other seven. Here is Big Star’s own, complete version of that Alex Chilton-Chris Bell composition:

As you can easily hear, Big Star kind of merged the sounds of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees The Beatles and The Byrds. However, since The Byrds were also influenced by The Beatles, Big Star tilted just a bit more towards the invading Brits. Alex Chilton and Chris Bell modeled themselves on the Lennon-McCartney partnership, but filtered the band’s music through their native Memphis sensibility, as can be heard in songs such as “The Ballad of El Goodo”:

Big Star quickly became critics’ darlings, but rave reviews never translated into sales (at least partially due to marketing and distribution problems which made the record very hard to find). Many remain befuddled as to why the album did not live up to its title, #1 Record, and turn the band’s name into fact instead of irony (by the way, the name was not purely hubris; they named themselves after a Memphis area supermarket chain).

Chris Bell left the band after the first album out of frustration. He struggled with depression the rest of his short life, but continued to record music. Just one single, “You and Your Sister,” . . .

. . . was released, and then only on an obscure indie label, shortly before a fatal car crash earned him entrance into the notorious 27 Club in 1978. Compiled from his solo recordings, Bell’s I Am the Cosmos album was hailed upon its release 14 years later.

Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens labored on. Some consider their next album, Radio City, even better than the first, possibly a perfect pop-rock album.

It opens with “Oh My Soul” . . .

. . . (does that riff make you want to “cut loose, footloose, kick off your Sunday shoes”?), continues with “Back of a Car” . . .

. . .  and ends with “I’m in Love with a Girl”:

And then there were two, when Andy Hummel left the band shortly before the album’s release.

In many ways, Big Star’s 3rd (later reissued as Sister Lovers, the band name Chilton and Stephens briefly adopted at this time) is actually an Alex Chilton solo album. It contains the beautiful chamber pop of “Stroke It Noel” . . .

. . .  and the amazing sound design of “Kanga Roo,” . . .

. . . but the album was never finished.

Although recorded in late 1974 and early 1975, 3rd was not officially released until 1978, by which time its creators had long since moved on. The album has been reissued a number of times since, each time with a slightly different title and a completely different track listing (most recently as the three disc Complete Third, which follows every track from its rough beginnings to its final masters).

Alex Chilton had already been a “big star” as the 16 year old singer for The Box Tops, whose first single, “The Letter,” was a #1 hit in 1967:

This brush with stardom left Chilton deeply ambivalent about success. Big Star’s lack of recognition (at least during its lifetime) led to an even deeper withdrawal from the “star-maker machinery behind the popular song.” Chilton would spend the rest of his life dodging fame, sometimes engaging in what others might consider self-sabotage. He followed his own idiosyncratic interests, producing records by outsiders such as The Cramps and Tav Falco‘s Panther Burns, even briefly joining the latter band as a lowly sideman, and releasing a string of increasingly eccentric solo records.

Of course, this just endeared him more to his cult followers, who congratulated themselves for recognizing their leader’s perverse genius. His fans can, and do, debate whether albums such as Like Flies on Sherbert (sic) or Live in London are masterpieces or disasters (or both), but only a devoted fan would ever care enough to sit through all of either one. For anyone else, a single compilation culling the worthy tracks scattered across his vast solo discography should suffice. But even as Chilton was digging himself deeper into obscurity, his Big Star was rising.

Brian Eno famously said of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees The Velvet Underground, “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. . . . I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself thinking that some things generate their rewards in a second-hand way.”

The same could be said of Big Star.

Big Star helped lay the foundation for a whole strain of indie power pop (along with The Velvet Underground, whose “Femme Fatale” Big Star covered). Chris Stamey played bass behind Alex Chilton in 1977. By the following year, he, Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby and Gene Holder would be spreading the gospel of Big Star in their new “jangle pop” band, The dB’s:

R.E.M. recorded in Memphis’s Ardent Studios because Big Star produced all of their records there, and released a cover of 3rd‘s “Jesus Christ” as a 2002 fan club single:

Big Star’s sound also resonated through L.A.’s “Paisley Underground” bands. The Bangles recorded Big Star’s “September Gurls”:

Apparently Katy Perry spelled “California Gurls” with a U in honor of Alex Chilton’s then-recent death.

The Replacements recorded the homage “Alex Chilton” while their hero was still alive:

As Paul Westerberg sings: “I never travel far, without a little Big Star.”

Big Star’s legacy certainly traveled far, though. In his essay “The Great Crusade: Birthing The Cult Of Big Star,” included in the book for the Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky, Bob Mehr wrote:

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, Scottish rockers Teenage Fanclub released their widely acclaimed masterpiece Bandwagonesque — an album so in thrall to Chilton, Bell, and company that some critics have taken to calling it ‘Big Star’s 4th.’

You can understand why when listening to such tributes as “Star Sign” and “Alcoholiday”:

Teenage Fanclub named its next album, their fourth album, Thirteen after the wistful Big Star song:

Big Star surely deserves to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, both for its “unquestionable musical excellence” and its “significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.”

Ain’t No Punk — addendum

In response to a recent post, indie filmmaker Jeff Krulik, co-creator of the legendary Heavy Metal Parking Lot, wrote:

“I interviewed Tex Rubinowitz for the documentary PUNK THE CAPITAL. It was a three and a half hour interview. . . .  Tex had a lot to say, including the fact that he was eating at Bethesda Tastee Diner with the Cramps after a Psyche Delly show and they were jawing back and forth and Tex claims to have pointed at Lux and said (which I believe): “You aint no punk you punk.”

“And however many months later, the rest is history.”

Check out Tex Rubinowitz’s “Hot Rod Man”:

And check out Heavy Metal Parking Lot and the Jeff Krulik Collection at the Special Collections and University Archives at his (and my) alma mater, University of Maryland.

Ain’t No Punk

Last week’s episode of Mr Robot featured The Cramps‘ “Garbageman” in the background of one scene (dealing with burning trash, how literal):

The song’s opening line — “you ain’t no punk, you punk” — captures the two contradictory contemporary usages of the word punk. Lux Interior at first implies it’s good to be a punk (as in punk rocker), but it’s also bad to be a punk (as in insignificant), thereby encapsulating the entire twisted history of the word.

The word can be traced back at least to Shakespeare, who used punk, even “taffety punk,”* as a synonym of prostitute. By the early 20th century, punk meant a worthless person, in particular referring to young boys taken under the wings of criminals and/or hobos. This is certainly the way the word was used by Jack Black, a turn of the century hobo and burglar (not the actor and member of Tenacious D), in his autobiography You Can’t Win (pictured here, a later reprint with a cover by Joe Coleman):


You Can’t Win was a favorite of William S. Burroughs‘s. In his introduction to the book’s reprints, Burroughs affirms the huge influence it had on his own early novels (which, in turn, had a huge influence on punk rock), particularly the semi-autobiographical Junkie, . .

. . . initially published under the name William Lee so as not to embarrass his family. Burroughs accentuated the earlier implied sexual connotation of the word when referring to punks in his own books.

The word’s negative valuation started to change in response to 1950s juvenile deliquency. Sure, adults still meant “juvenile delinquent” and “punk” as insults, but with the rising popularity of Marlon Brando in The Wild One . . .

. . . and, particularly James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, . . .

. . . along with a flood of cheap exploitation ’50s JD flicks, kids began embracing the leather jacketed punks in “black denim trousers and motorcycle boots” . . .

. . . that their parents rejected. And the labels along with them.

By the time West Side Story hit Broadway in 1957, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics had wrapped the word heavily in irony (clip is from the 1961 film):

It seems clear that the word was first applied to rock in the early 1970s in the pages of Creem, the irreverent rock mag alternative to the more staid Rolling Stone, even if it’s not entirely clear whether it was first used by Greg Shaw, Dave Marsh (in reference to Rudy Martinez of ? and the Mysterians), or Lester Bangs (in reference to Iggy Pop).

As Lester Bangs explained in 1981 (published posthumously in 1987):

“I invented punk. Everybody knows that. But I stole it from Greg Shaw, who also invented power pop. And he stole it from Dave Marsh, who actually saw Question Mark and the Mysterians live once. But he stole it from John Sinclair. Who stole it from Rob Tyner. Who stole it from Iggy. Who stole it from Lou Reed. Who stole it from Gene Vincent. Who stole it from James Dean. Who stole it from Marlon Brando. Who stole it from Robert Mitchum. The look on his face in the photo when he got busted for grass. And he stole it from Humphrey Bogart. Who stole it from James Crosby. Who stole it from Teddy Roosevelt. Who stole it from Billy the Kid. Who stole it from Mike Fink. Who stole it from Stonewall Jackson.”

The term punk rock spread much further when future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye used it in his liner notes to describe the trashy garage rock, many of them one hit (or non-hit) wonders, he compiled in Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968. Many of these songs would be covered by later punk rock bands as they fumbled to learn their three chords.

And in 1976, John Holmstrom launched Punk Magazine . . .


. . . using the traditional definition, . . .


. . . but clearly inverting it, just as ’50s juvenile delinquents had.

Hip hop culture seems to have reverted to the earlier, insulting, emasculating meaning of the word punk, often as part of a longer phrase like “punk ass” or “punk ass bitch.”

Clearly, a punk is not something good to be. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains, “I ain’t no punk” too often serves as a prelude to violence:

Funny how the same word can have such different meanings and such different valuations in two musical subcultures, or even within just one subculture, which brings us back to The Cramps.

* Shakespeare refers to a well dressed prostitute as a “taffety punk” in All’s Well That Ends Well; in return DC’s Taffety Punk Theatre Company has produced a series of “Bootleg Shakespeare” plays, which the Folger Shakespeare Library refers to (approvingly) as “Punk Rock Shakespeare.”