Revisiting the past and looking to the future
With a book about the band on the way, plus a new studio album in the works, 2004 is shaping up to be a big year for Big Star. It has the potential to become the band's most high-profile period since reforming in 1993, and maybe the biggest ever for the influential Memphis, Tenn.-based act often credited with helping establish the power-pop genre.
Big Star members past and present, plus others with inside knowledge about the band, gathered March 18 in Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest music festival to participate in a panel discussion, clarifying events from the past as well as shedding some light on recent activities.
In his opening comments, moderator Kent Benjamin, associate editor at Pop Culture Press magazine, made it clear that "a lot of what people think they know about Big Star and about the Big Star story is not really quite true. The true facts are a lot more interesting." He then briefly mentioned Rob Jovanovic's Big Star: The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band, the first of many references to the upcoming book.
From there, Benjamin talked about The Jynx, a little-known loose-knit Memphis group in the mid-to-late 1960s. The short-lived band was significant because at one point or another it involved or was supposed to involve future Big Star members Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. Around 1967, the teenage Chilton went on to become the lead singer for The Box Tops, while singer-guitarist Bell and his other musician friends honed their skills at Bell's "back house," located behind his family’s mansion in a rather secluded area of Memphis.
"We just made this our clubhouse, where we would do all the things we wanted to do there," said producer-engineer-musician Terry Manning, a key contributor to Big Star's first album, 1972’s #1 Record. "It just really helped to start off this whole musical endeavor, by giving us opportunities to try things out and not have people say, 'You shouldn't do that' or 'Turn it down.'"
Soft-spoken Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, who still looks 10 years younger than his actual age, recalled performing in a college production of the musical Hair circa 1970 that led to him reuniting with childhood friend Andy Hummel, who had been in the audience. Hummel, a bass player, later invited Stephens to a jam at Bell's place.
"I remember there was some sort of creative thing going on [at the house] that was different from what I'd done," said Stephens. "[My first time there], Chris immediately pulled Andy off to the side . . . maybe it was an assessment. Chris always kind of kept things close anyway. He was very focused on his music."
Manning spoke at length about two common bonds among the musicians who gathered at Bell's house. One was their appearance -- particularly their hair, which Manning said was considered long by conservative Memphis locals at the time but wouldn't cause a stir today.
"You could not go across the street without being honked at, yelled at, people swerving to hit you or throwing things at you, yelling, 'Hey Beatle, get out of town!' It was really a strange situation," he recalled. "So, we were all rebelling against what was around, as all people of teenage years do. But we were [also] rebelling against what everybody else and most other students at that time were doing."
And, of course, they bonded over music, but their true favorite acts were from another country, not the stars who recorded in their hometown.
"There weren't many people who were into the British Invasion music like we were," said Manning. "Most people at that time in Memphis were much more into the awesome . . . soul music -- Wilson Pickett's 'In the Midnight Hour,' that sort of thing that was very big at the time. You'd go to a school dance, and that's what bands played. They didn't want to hear Beatles songs -- the people wanted to hear 'In the Midnight Hour' and all the other songs like it. But we were all rebelling against that kind of thing. We all loved England and the English sound . . . a lot of the people either had ties to it or wished they did. We were so adamant about it. We were a little enclave just fighting against the world as we saw it."
After The Box Tops broke up, and following a brief stay in New York, Chilton returned to Memphis and became part of Bell's circle of musicians, who by the early 1970s were spending a lot of time at Ardent Studios, practicing and recording under various group names. Big Star's #1 Record, while credited solely to band members Bell, Chilton, Hummel and Stephens, featured some of the other players, including Manning.
"We made a conscious decision to emulate The Beatles once again," said Manning about the decision to not list everybody involved. "It worked for them; it worked for us."
The March 18 panel marked the first time in years that Manning (who works at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas), Stephens (studio manager at Ardent Studios) and Hummel (an engineer in Texas) were in the same room together. They all seemed to enjoy each other's company, sharing laughs over events they did and didn't remember. Hummel, who left the band around the time 1974's Radio City was released so he could finish college, talked about why Bell split following #1 Record.
"[The band] produced this wonderful piece of music," said Hummel. "He'd done his job. He'd done what was expected of him. It was now the turn of the people who go out and do the business at the label to go out and do their thing . . . they were abject failures."
Contrary to popular belief, Bell -- who died in 1978 -- didn't destroy the masters for #1 Record, said Manning.
"Chris definitely had a dark side, and I don't want to dwell on any of that," added Manning. "He did try to take the [original mixed] masters from #1 Record and destroy them. I got wind of it and sneaked into the tape vault just before he got there and put something else in the boxes. I have the original masters."
Posies leaders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, who became Big Star members in 1993 when Chilton and Stephens decided to revive the band, also were on the panel. Auer and Stringfellow were relatively quiet, asking nearly as many questions as they answered, but Auer did talk about being in the studio recently, recording songs in Memphis for a new Big Star studio album. Stephens added that the band is scheduled to resume recording new material in early April.
Not too much was said about Third/Sister Lovers, presumably because producer Jim Dickinson was a last-minute cancellation. Also absent from the panel -- but not surprisingly -- was Chilton, whom Benjamin said "doesn't do this kind of thing." But Chilton did join Auer, Stringfellow and Stephens the following night for Big Star's headlining gig at Austin Music Hall. Sporting a neat haircut, along with a tan jacket and pants, Chilton looked more like a salesman enjoying his weekend than a revered rocker, as he and the band kicked things off with "In the Street." Remakes of the song have served as the theme song to the Fox sitcom That '70s Show, perhaps making it the only Big Star tune that can actually be called a hit, and the audience response seemed to reflect that.
The only big surprise of the night came during the third song, "When My Baby's Beside Me." As Chilton switched to a light blue Fender Stratocaster, Manning walked out to the center of the stage and provided backing vocals. As a whole, though, it was a show where Big Star served up choice cuts from its limited catalog (such as "Don't Lie to Me," "Back of a Car" and "September Gurls") and some cover tunes (the Bell solo song "I Am the Cosmos," T. Rex's "Baby Strange" and Todd Rundgren's "Slut") in workmanlike fashion. With the exception of when "Way out West" was played and the addition of the Kinks cover "Till the End of the Day," the bulk of the set list essentially matched the running order of 1993's Columbia: Live at Missouri University, which marked the debut of the current lineup.
Near the end of the show, the band did offer a tiny glimpse into its future. Calling it "sort of our new direction," a smiling Chilton introduced "Hot Thing," a new-ish song that's been in the can for years but wasn't released until last year, as part of the Rykodisc retrospective collection Big Star Story. A one-song encore, a hastily chosen cover of no significance, proved to be anticlimactic.
And then, with a few waves and smiles, the band members left the stage to enthusiastic cheers. Despite selling relatively few copies of its three studio albums and scoring no national chart singles, Big Star is able to attract a pretty good size crowd. Word of mouth has served the band well since the early 1970s, and it’s not too radical to think that this particular Austin Music Hall crowd will impact Big Star's audience down the road.
-- By Chris M. Junior
Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow
SXSW photos by Chris M. Junior