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.”


Kelly Russ (1965-2015)

All of my previous death notices have been for popular musicians. This one is for my cousin Kelly who died yesterday after a long sickness.

Kelly Russ, Dwight and Mark Sullivan

Kelly Russ carrying Dwight and Mark Sullivan

Kelly was a really good guy, and a big music fan. He particularly liked the jangly guitar sound first associated with Chapel Hill, NC, and later Hoboken, NJ. As such, his holy grail was the self-titled 7″ EP by Sneakers, an early band featuring Chris Stamey and Will Rigby, who together went on to form the dB’s with Peter Holsapple, along with Mitch Easter, who later recorded as Let’s Active and produced REM’s early albums; the EP was engineered by Don Dixon, who co-produced those early REM albums with Easter, and later produced many of the Hoboken bands, along with many other power pop should-have-been-stars like Tommy Keene.

Kelly finally found the EP on one of the occasional record buying daytrips we took to New York in the ’90s during his visits to Maryland from his home in Louisville, KY. Unfortunately, the 7″ (among other things) was soon lost when my car was broken into just hours later. I was very happy when I later tracked down another copy for him several years later.

Kelly and I largely lost touch over the years, but I still remember his visits and our daytrips to New York as very good times.

Here’s to you, Kelly, the Sneakers covering the Grass Roots:

Maxwell’s, R.I.P.

I have been critical of nostalgia, but there is a difference between being stuck in the past and honoring it.

I just learned that legendary rock club Maxwell’s closed last week.  It was once home to the “Hoboken Sound.”

The Feelies pioneered the sound with their quickly strummed guitar sound that owed a whole lot to the Velvet Underground’s third album:

The dB’s grew out of the Winston-Salem group The Sneakers, but they found a home in the Hoboken scene that revolved around Maxwell’s, and the long gone affiliated record store, Pier Platters.  What the VU was to the Feelies, the Beatles and, especially, early Big Star were to the dB’s (group co-founder Chris Stamey even played with Alex Chilton shortly after he left Big Star):

The Bongos added muted T-Rex glam hooks (even covering “Mambo Sun”) to their strumming guitar:

And The Individuals followed Jonathan Richman’s model of personal stories set to post-VU rock:

The reformed Bongos and Individuals played the last shows at Maxwell’s.

Yo La Tengo carry on the Hoboken tradition:.

Many local rockers joined Yo La Tengo for their annual series of Hanukkah shows at Maxwell’s.

I saw all of these bands, but when they played DC.  I did, however, take one road trip to Maxwell’s (I also visited Pier Platters a number of times).  Bert Queiroz (photographer and onetime member of numerous harDCore punk bands) and I drove up to see Brit band Gallon Drunk on their first US tour.  Bert now lives just across the river from Hoboken (or maybe it’s two rivers, since he lives in Brooklyn).

While putting together this post, I learned that a 1985 TV news documentary of The Hoboken Sound has been dug up.  I’m looking forward to watching it: