2009: Big Star - Keep an Eye on the Sky

It’s best to strip away the legends, the nearly four decades of rock-writer mythologizing, the unabashed evangelism of the fervent cult of Big Star. Discard it all. Just press play on “Back of a Car” and wonder with the rest of them how the song escaped being a massive hit, one of those tunes that ends up on thousands of mass market “Best of the Seventies” compilations, its creators immortalized on yellowing covers of Rolling Stone. It’s just that good, a pitch-perfect encapsulation of everything primal about youth and reckless, burgeoning independence: you sat in the back of a car, “the music so loud you can’t hear a thing.” Maybe it was The Beatles thundering out of your buddy’s mom-lent sedan. Maybe it was The Replacements, turned up so loud the speakers crackled and shuddered. Maybe it was goddam Blink 182. Whichever the case, the song fills you with memories of that moment, as Jody Stephens cranks out that sublime drum fill. It’s as universal as how wet your first french kiss felt, never to feel that sloppy wet again.

Pardon the hyperbole. It’s near impossible to resist when discussing Big Star. Keep An Eye On the Sky, the new boxed set from Rhino/Ardent Records rewards this enthusiasm. Over 98 tracks, Big Star’s three studio albums -- the cheekily titled #1 Record, it’s sharper-edged follow-up Radio City, and the group’s fractured and brilliantly disjointed Third/Sister Lovers -- are represented with album tracks, alternate takes, and demos. Pre- and post-Big Star recordings of principal songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton are included, as well as assorted covers and a live set that finds Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens -- following Bell's departure -- opening for Archie Bell & The Drells at Lafayette’s Music Room.

The roots of Big Star lie in the early careers of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton. Bell, a Memphis Anglophile began refining the band’s sound with Stephens, Hummel, and other Tennessee teens under various names like Icewater and Rock City, hanging and recording at Ardent Studious under the tutelage of John Frye, a man who would greatly shape Big Star’s trajectory. While Bell was learning the ins and outs of crafting albums, Chilton was already knee-deep in the music business. At 16 he was fronting The Box Tops, a pre-packaged soul combo that yielded the giant hit that Big Star never delivered, “The Letter.” Frustrated with a lack of input, Chilton left the group and spent some time busking around New York, toying with the idea of becoming a 12-string wielding folk singer.

Bell’s early experiments are represented on the new box set by “Psychedelic Stuff,” which finds the young musician toying with quaint psychedelia. Rock City’s “All I See Is You” and “The Preacher” showcases the band approaching the crystalline sheen of #1 Record. None of Chilton’s Box Tops songs are included, but given his animosity toward the experience (“Pretty scummy,” he remarked during a radio interview promoting Big Star’s second album), it seems fitting. “Every Day As We Grow Closer,” recorded during his time in New York, appears instead -- a bit cotton candy, but his gift for melody is unquestionable. In light of these songs, the alchemy of #1 Record becomes apparent. Big Star was already in existence when Bell asked Chilton to join, and #1 Record is clearly Bell’s record. Chilton’s contributions, however, can’t be understated. While the anthemic, Christian undertones of “The Ballad Of El Goodo” and “Try Again” exhibit Bell’s rounded, melodic sturdiness, Chilton’s lead on songs like “In the Street” demonstrate a wilder, looser Big Star, while his ballad, “Thirteen,” and his demo of Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues” offer a complex mix of sentimentality and sexuality.

#1 Record should have been the band’s breakthrough. But shoddy distribution by Stax and lack of promotion ensured that, despite the ravings of rock writers (always the band's most affirming and useless allies), the record was stillborn. Dismayed by the commercial failure of the album, Bell left the band.

Keep An Eye on Sky includes a live set by the Chilton-led power trio, finding the group opening paradoxically for the aforementioned Archie Bell & The Drells. The crowd couldn’t care less, but the set is hot. Bell’s presence looms over the band, with Chilton and company performing two of his unreleased songs, the stellar “I Got Kinda Lost” and “There Was a Light,” as well as covers of songs by T.Rex, Todd Rundgren, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. The quality is impressive, with room mics yielding a fuller and more complex sound than previous soundboard recordings. That the audience seems uninterested in the band actually improves the recording, in typical Big Star fashion.

The set also features performances of songs from Radio City, which found Alex Chilton fronting the band as head songwriter. The record was even more brilliant that its precursor. In Chilton’s hands, Big Star became a sharper unit. Bell’s concepts are hardly discarded -- he even sat in on some early songwriting sessions -- though the extent of his contribution isn’t entirely clear. Tracks like “September Gurls,” “O My Soul,” and “Life is White” combine the melodious aspects of the band with more disjointed ideas; the wailing harmonica of “Life is White” borders on intrusive but achieves a greater good, and “She’s a Mover” rattles with nervous, soulful energy. The record was greeted with even more glowing reviews, but met the same fate as the band’s debut, disappearing off record store racks and fading into obscurity.

Third/Sister Lovers, represented on Keep An Eye On The Sky by album tracks and surprisingly interesting demos, found the band at the end of their creative rope. While Chilton would go farther off the deep end during his solo career (see the careening Like Flies on Sherbert), the record finds him swinging alternately between studious pop like “Jesus Christ,” a bafflingly sincere Christmas song, and the harrowing folk of “Holocaust.” Third/Sister Lovers perhaps makes the best case for Big Star’s continued influence over “alternative rock” and all its mutant strains. The record doesn’t achieve the solid statements of the band’s first albums, but instead lays out the template for a “difficult album,” one in which a band’s strengths are met by a willingness to challenge themselves. The record is hardly cohesive, and Keep An Eye On The Sky’s inclusion of Chilton’s takes on “Nature Boy” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” reveal an even more fractured mind state than the record proved -- an aggressively divergent take on classic pop. The music world didn’t seem to care about Big Star, and Chilton played like a man with nothing to loose.

Two of Bell’s post-Big Star songs are presented as well, the A- and B-side of his lone solo release, a single on Chris Stamey’s Car Records. Both tracks showcase a markedly different approach than Chilton’s ramshackle one. “You And Your Sister,” featuring back up vocals from Chilton, perfects the sweet folk pop of #1 Record, even one-upping “Thirteen” from that album. “I Am the Cosmos” follows, displaying Bell’s attention to craft; the song is perfect, with intricate guitar parts layering one epic theme -- a breakup jam delivered as existential crisis. The track demonstrates what Bell was capable of with full control. Sadly, a car accident robbed fans of any follow up until Rykodisc issued the posthumously released I Am the Cosmos, which combined the single with Bell’s other demo work. Rhino Handmade is reissuing the collection in a deluxe, two-disc format to accompany Keep An Eye On The Sky.

Peter Buck of R.E.M. states in the collection’s resplendent liner notes: “They were like this weird myth of America: These guys who did brilliant work, were ignored and disappeared. It probably would have been better for the myth if no one had ever seen those guys again.” Of course, we did see them again. Chilton and a reconfigured group, including John Auer and Kevin Stringfellow of The Posies, have done limited touring, and even issued a new record in 2005, In Space. It wasn’t all that great, despite containing a few killer cuts. Keep An Eye on the Sky ignores this record, and it’s for the best. The songs here represent more than just a band; they represent the myth, the sound of “beautiful losers,” as Buck describes them, making good on the promise their sound always presented.

Disc 1:

1. Chris Bell: "Psychedelic Stuff"
2. Icewater: "All I See Is You"
3. Alex Chilton: "Every Day as We Grow Closer" (Original Mix)
3. Rock City: "Try Again" (Early Version)
4. Rock City: "The Preacher"
5. Feel
6. The Ballad of El Goodo (Alternate Mix) *
7. In the Street
8. Thirteen (Alternate Mix) *
9. Don't Lie to Me
10. The India Song
11. When My Baby's Beside Me (Alternate Mix) *
12. My Life Is Right (Alternate Mix) *
13. Give Me Another Chance (Alternate Mix) *
14. Try Again
15. Chris Bell: "Gone With the Light" *
16. Watch the Sunrise
17. ST 100/6 (Alternate Mix) *
18. In the Street (Second Recorded Version)
19. Feel (Early Mix) *
20. The Ballad of El Goodo (Alternate Lyrics)
21. The India Song (Alternate Version) *
22. Country Morn
23. I Got Kinda Lost (Demo)
24. Motel Blues (Demo) *

Disc 2:

1. There Was a Light (Demo) *
2. Life Is White (Demo) *
3. What's Going Ahn (Demo) *
4. O My Soul
5. Life Is White
6. Way Out West (Alternate Mix) *
7. What's Going Ahn
8. You Get What You Deserve (Alternate Mix) *
9. Mod Lang (Alternate Mix)
10. Back of a Car (Alternate Mix) *
11. Daisy Glaze
12. She's A Mover
13. September Gurls
14. Morpha Too (Alternate Mix) *
15. I'm in Love With a Girl
16. O My Soul (Alternate Version) *
17. Back of a Car (Demo)
18. Daisy Glaze (Alternate Take) *
19. She's a Mover (Alternate Version)
20. Chris Bell: "I Am the Cosmos"
21. Chris Bell: "You and Your Sister"
22. Alex Chilton: "Blue Moon" (Demo) *
23. Alex Chilton: "Femme Fatale" (Demo) *
24. Alex Chilton: Thank You Friends" (Demo) *
25. Alex Chilton: "You Get What You Deserve" (Demo) *

Disc 3:

1. Alex Chilton: "Lovely Day (aka Stroke It Noel)" (Demo)
2. Alex Chilton: "Downs" (Demo)
3. Alex Chilton: "Nightime" (Demo) *
4. Alex Chilton: "Jesus Christ" (Demo) *
5. Alex Chilton: "Holocaust" (Demo) *
6. Alex Chilton: "Take Care" (Demo) *
7. Alex Chilton: "Big Black Car" (Alternate Demo) *
8. Manana *
9. Jesus Christ
10. Femme Fatale
11. O, Dana
12. Kizza Me
14. You Can't Have Me
15. Nightime
16. Dream Lover
17. Blue Moon
18. Take Care
19. Stroke It Noel
20. For You
21. Downs
22. Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On
23. Big Black Car
24. Holocaust
25. Kanga Roo
26. Thank You Friends
27. Till The End of the Day
28. Lovely Day *
29. Nature Boy

Disc 4 (Live at Lafayette's Music Room, Memphis, TN):

1. When My Baby's Beside Me *
2. My Life Is Right *
3. She's a Mover *
4. Way Out West *
5. The Ballad of El Goodo *
6. In the Street *
7. Back of a Car *
8. Thirteen *
9. The India Song *
10. Try Again *
11. Watch the Sunrise *
12. Don't Lie to Me *
13. Hot Burrito #2 *
14. I Got Kinda Lost *
15. Baby Strange *
16. Slut *
17. There Was a Light *
18. ST 100/6 *
19. Come On Now *
20. O My Soul *

* previously unreleased

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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