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Big Star

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The quintessential American power pop band, Big Star remains one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll. Originally led by the singing and songwriting duo of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the Memphis-based group fused the strongest elements of the British Invasion era -- the melodic invention of the Beatles, the whiplash guitars of the Who, and the radiant harmonies of the Byrds -- into a ramshackle but poignantly beautiful sound which recaptured the spirit of pop's past even as it pointed the way toward the music's future. Although creative tensions, haphazard distribution, and marketplace indifference conspired to ensure Big Star's brief existence and commercial failure, the group's three studio albums nevertheless remain unqualified classics, and their impact on subsequent generations of indie bands on both sides of the Atlantic is surpassed only by that of the Velvet Underground. The roots of Big Star lie in the group Icewater (also known as Rock City), formed in 1971 by singer/guitarist Bell in association with guitarist Steve Ray, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. Ray left the group a short time after its inception and was soon replaced by Chilton, the one-time Box Tops vocalist who was just 16 years old when the group topped the pop charts with their 1967 classic, "The Letter." Chilton had recently returned to Memphis after attempting to mount a solo career in New York City; he first played with Bell years earlier in a high school cover band, and with his arrival, Icewater rechristened itself Big Star, borrowing the name from a local supermarket chain. Recording soon commenced at the local Ardent Studios, where Bell occasionally worked as an engineer and session guitarist; despite solid critical notice and some radio airplay, their brilliant 1972 debut, #1 Record, nevertheless fell prey to the distribution problems of the newly formed Ardent label's parent company Stax -- more often than not, the album simply never made its way to retailers. In the meantime, Bell and Chilton continued to butt heads over Big Star's direction -- the former envisioned a primarily studio-oriented project, while the latter preferred performing live; moreover, Chilton's past success in the Box Tops guaranteed him the lion's share of attention from listeners and critics, minimizing Bell's own contributions in the process. In late 1972, Bell finally left the band -- his subsequent attempts to mount a solo career proved largely fruitless, with only a spectacular solo single, "I Am the Cosmos," receiving official release prior to his untimely death in a 1978 car crash. (A posthumous solo compilation, also titled I Am the Cosmos, was finally issued to unanimous critical acclaim in 1992.) Following Bell's exit, Big Star briefly struggled on as a three-piece before disbanding, with Chilton returning to his stalled solo career; months later, he reteamed with Hummel and Stephens to play a local music writers' convention, and the performance was so well-received that they decided to make the reunion permanent. Big Star's second album, 1974's Radio City, remains their masterpiece -- ragged and raw guitar pop infused with remarkable intensity and spontaneity. It also contained perhaps their best-known song, the oft-covered cult classic "September Gurls." (Another highlight, "Back of a Car," bears the unmistakable input of Chris Bell, although the duration and extent of his return to duty is unknown.) Distribution difficulties again undermined whatever hopes of commercial success existed, however, and Hummel soon announced his resignation; Chilton and Stephens recruited bassist John Lightman for a handful of East Coast live dates, including a WLIR radio broadcast later issued as Big Star Live. Work on a planned third album soon began, but the sessions proved disastrous as Chilton, reeling from years of music industry exploitation and frustration, effectively sabotaged his own music -- where Radio City teetered on the brink of collapse, the new songs tumbled over completely, culminating in one of the most harrowingly bleak pop records ever made. An album's worth of material was completed and shelved, and then Big Star was no more. The story might have ended there, but in 1978, the third Big Star album was finally issued overseas -- variously titled Third and/or Sister Lovers, it appeared for years in essentially unauthorized versions containing neither the complete session nor the proper sequencing. Still, the record earned a significant cult following, and with the emergence of the nascent power pop movement, it became increasingly clear just how prescient Big Star's music had been. Countless alternative rock bands -- R.E.M., the Replacements, the dB's, and Teenage Fanclub, to name just four -- cited the band's enormous influence in the years to follow, and in 1993, the Posies' Jonathan Auer and Ken Stringfellow backed Chilton and Stephens for a reunion gig at the University of Missouri, a performance captured on the Columbia live disc. To the surprise of many, the Big Star reunion continued with tours of Europe and Japan, and -- most shocking of all -- even an appearance on television's The Tonight Show, although no new studio recordings were forthcoming. Sporadic reunions continued, and a new track ("Hot Thing") was recorded for a compilation released in 2003. Chilton, Stephens, Stringfellow, and Auer then entered the recording studio to complete a new Big Star album, In Space, released in 2005. The band also played high-profile gigs in England and America, while in 2009, Rhino issued a definitive box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky. One year later, however, on the eve of 2010's SXSW festival, Chilton died in New Orleans of heart failure. ~ Jason Ankeny
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Albums by
Big Star

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    15 songs

    On Air

    Live on WLIR

    18 songs

    On Air

    Third

    21 songs

    On Air

    Complete Columbia: Live at University of Missouri 4/25/93

    20 songs

    On Air

    Live In Memphis

    14 songs

    On Air

    Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star

    99 songs

    On Air

    Keep an Eye on the Sky

    12 songs

    On Air

    #1 Record

    12 songs

    On Air

    Radio City

    21 songs

    On Air

    Nothing Can Hurt Me

    14 songs

    On Air

    Columbia: Live at Missouri University, 4/25/93

    15 songs

    On Air

    Nobody Can Dance

    12 songs

    On Air

    In Space

    19 songs

    On Air

    Third/Sister Lovers

    3 songs

    On Air

    Okwagala

    15 songs

    On Air

    Big Star Live

    11 songs

    On Air

    #1 Record

    12 songs

    On Air

    Radio City [40th Anniversary] [LP]

    12 songs

    On Air

    Radio City [LP]

    19 songs

    On Air

    3rd

    14 songs

    On Air

    3rd

    14 songs

    On Air

    3rd

    12 songs

    On Air

    Radio City

    12 songs

    On Air

    #1 Record

    13 songs

    On Air

    Radio City

See All Albums

Top Songs by
Big Star

  1.   Song
    Popularity
  2.   September Gurls
  3.   Thirteen
  4.   The Ballad of el Goodo
  5.   I'm in Love with a Girl
  6.   Watch the Sunrise by Belle And Sebastian
  7.   O My Soul
  8.   In the Street
  9.   You Get What You Deserve
  10.   Jesus Christ
  11.   My Life Is Right
  12.   Try Again
  13.   Don't Lie to Me
  14.   When My Baby's Beside Me
  15.   Back of a Car
  16.   Feel
  17.   Fireplace
  18.   Morpha Too
  19.   She's a Mover
  20.   Lovely Day
  21.   Hot Burrito
  22.   Slut
  23.   The Preacher by Rock City
  24.   The India Song
  25.   Pre-Downs
  26. See All Songs

Stations & Shows Featuring
Big Star

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    Dylan's Offspring

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    Adult Chill

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    Cheap Trick: DNA

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    Post-Holiday Chill

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    Alt. Country

    On Air

    Music To Watch the Grass Grow

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    Indie 500

    On Air

    Eclectic Holiday

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    Hipster Holiday

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    Coffee House

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    The Current

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    Beatles: DNA

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    Paul McCartney: DNA

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    Grateful Dead: DNA

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    Metropolitan Mood

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    Eclectic Rock


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