They could have been big stars. Hell, they should have been HUGE stars. Instead, their star barely burned before fading into the night and their records fell straight into record store bargain bins.
The band is Big Star. Ever heard of them? Maybe you have but it wouldn't be surprising if you haven't. Matt Berenson tells the story of Big Star in great detail in his book Secret Stars: The Greatest Underdogs of the Rock 'n' Roll Era but here's the abbreviated version:
Big Star formed in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1971 by Alex Chilton (vocals, guitar), Chris Bell (vocals, guitar), Jody Stephens (drums), and Andy Hummel (bass). The release of Big Star's debut album, 1972's #1 Record, was highly praised, yet due to ineffective marketing by Stax Records and poor distribution, it failed to make much of a commercial impact.
Listen To Big Star's "Thirteen"
The failure of #1 Record caused tension among the band members: Bell departed shortly after the album's underperformance and Hummel chose to focus on his studies after the second album Radio City was completed in December 1973. Although reviews for Radio City were fantastic, Columbia Records (who had acquired Stax) neglected to properly distribute the record. Unable to create a commercially viable third album during their fall of 1974 recording sessions, Big Star eventually disbanded in late 1974.
Listen To Big Star's "September Gurls"
After some delay, the band's third album, Third/Sister Lovers, was eventually released. Although it didn't do particularly well commercially, it has since become a beloved cult classic. Tragically, shortly after its release, the group's co-founder, Chris Bell, was killed in a car accident at the age of 27.
Listen To Big Star's "Jesus Christ"
Big Star returned in 1993 with a new lineup when guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow joined Chilton and Stephens. The band continued until 2010 when Chilton died of a heart attack.
Big Star's first act came to a close in 1974, but their popularity resurged in the 1980s as new artists came to recognize the worth of their early material. Along with R.E.M., several other musicians such as Teenage Fanclub, The Replacements, Primal Scream, the Posies, and Bill Lloyd and the dB's attribute their creativity to Big Star. Its effect on other artists such as Game Theory, Matthew Sweet, and Velvet Crush has also been recognized.
Below are just some quotes by those who have become big fans of Big Star:
Peter Buck of R.E.M.: "We've sort of flirted with greatness, but we've yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star's Third. I don't know what it'll take to push us on to that level, but I think we've got it in us."
Paul Stanley of KISS: "We've always been about verses, choruses, bridges...It's called a hook for a reason, because it grabs you. And that's my mentality. Give me the Raspberries. Give me Small Faces. Give me Big Star."
Rolling Stone: "[Big Star] created a seminal body of work that never stopped inspiring succeeding generations of rockers, from the power-pop revivalists of the late 1970s to alternative rockers at the end of the century to the indie rock nation in the new millennium. [They are the] quintessential American power pop band."
AllMusic's Jason Ankeny: "[Big Star is] one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll [whose] impact on subsequent generations of indie bands on both sides of the Atlantic is surpassed only by that of the Velvet Underground. [Big Star's second album, Radio City, is] their masterpiece—ragged and raw guitar-pop infused with remarkable intensity and spontaneity".
Big Star Rankings:
In his 2007 book Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide, John Borack ranks the #1 Record/Radio City double album at No. 2 in his chart "The 200 Greatest Power Pop Albums".
Rolling Stone includes #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers in The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and "September Gurls" and "Thirteen" in The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.