March 18, 2010
Posted: 11:20 AM ET
This is how Alex Chilton, who died Wednesday, described the people who kept Big Star from being forgotten, before he re-formed the band with drummer Jody Stephens, before they put out another live recording as well as another album of new material. People like me, I suppose, who own all three of the original Big Star albums on both vinyl and CD.
Brian Eno is credited with the observation that just 5,000 people bought a Velvet Underground album, but every one of them started a band. The same could easily be said about Big Star, and with much greater validity. Their songs have been covered over the last 30 years by everyone from Elliott Smith to Wilco to the Bangles to a number of lesser-known artists.
The Replacements – also highly regarded, also with little commercial success – immortalized Chilton in a song called “Alex Chilton.” Sadly, this was the first introduction many people of my generation had to a man who should have been catapulted into rock stardom based on the infectious quality of the sound Big Star produced.
Perhaps the most famous song in their catalog is “In the Street,” which would become the theme song for “That ‘70s Show.” Two different versions of the song were served up over the opening credits, one in the first season, a second in the seasons that followed. True to the legacy of so-called-failure that unfairly hung over Big Star - and to some degree Chilton - neither of those versions was actually the version performed by Big Star.
Alex Chilton’s early success came as frontman for the Box Tops, a band that had a handful of Top 40 hits – none of which he wrote. It was his work with Big Star, creating and playing a style of music that most would eventually refer to as power pop, that defines his legacy.
The difficulties that transpired over the course of Big Star’s three-album career are well-documented and hardly require fully hashing out here. In short, it boiled down to a distribution nightmare hard to even imagine in today’s digital age. In places where they were being played on the radio none of their records could be found in stores, and in places where they were receiving little to no airplay the shelves were fully stocked. By the time their third album was released the toll of all this misfortune could be heard seeping out of the record grooves in nearly every song. Years later writer Erik Davis would refer to Big Star’s third album as “the kind of album they made Prozac to prevent.”
All this combined to create an almost mythical story. Listening to those albums in college, myself an aspiring musician of the same aesthetic mindset, it was like listening to a tragic novel being read in slow motion. How could this music have fallen through the cracks? Alex Chilton wrote about the pains of being young, the universal emotions we all go through, and somehow managed to make it earnest, heartfelt and achingly real without making it embarrassing.
The tragedy finally gave way to hope. In the 1990s there was finally a resurgence in interest. Bands credited Big Star as an influence. Rykodisc released their three studio albums and a live recording on CD. Alex Chilton even went back out on the road with a revived version of Big Star. That version continued until his death; it had a gig booked Saturday night at this year’s SXSW. Big Star became a symbol, unwittingly, of sticking to your artistic sensibilities, regardless.
In 1992 Chilton said, “People have been telling me I’ve been wrong every step of the way, and in retrospect it doesn’t look like I was so wrong after all.” The 18 years that followed would prove he was right.