One Hit Wonders With Dead Guys, Volume III: Big Star

This is the third installment of a series. Due to the subjective nature of what quantifies a One Hit Wonder, how much of the band must be dead to be a One Hit Wonder With Dead Guys, etc., etc., etc., there will be some shifting of the goal posts across these essays. Such is life and rock ‘n roll.

Goal Post Shift 1: Big Star never got anywhere near a hit. Big Star’s singer/guitarist Alex Chilton did have a #1 – “The Letter” – with his previous band, The Box Tops, for four weeks in the summer of 1967, when he was sixteen (with a much older voice). But the closest Big Star got to the charts during their existence from 1971 – 1974 was nowhere, and the closest they got to public acclaim was in 1998, when the song “In the Street” was appropriated as the theme song of “That 70s Show.”

But, as was said of The Velvet Underground, nobody bought their records, but everybody who did started a band. The shimmering British Invasion-meets-The Byrds jangle-pop sound of Big Star was a seminal and oft-cited influence on The Replacements, The Posies, Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M. and countless other bands who shaped the underground and mainstream landscape of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The legacy of Big Star is indirect, but it is incalculable.

Chilton (died of a heart attack on March 17, 2010, at age 59), guitarist Chris Bell (died in an auto accident on December 27, 1978, at age 27), Bassist Andy Hummel (died of cancer on July 19, 2010, at age 59) and drummer Jody Stephens (still alive!) gravitated toward each other around the axis of Ardent Studios in Memphis. While recording, the band often made snack runs at a Big Star Market near Ardent, and they co-opted the name.

The first record, hopefully titled #1 Record, was released on the legendary Memphis label Stax in June 1972, to rave reviews. Slight problem, though: Stax had major issues with promotion and distribution, thus the few people who actually heard the record had a hard time finding it. This would lead to major internal band frustrations, drug abuse, literal in-fighting and lineup changes.

The second record, again hopefully titled Radio City, was released on Stax, which was now controlled by Columbia Records, in January 1974, to rave reviews. Slight problem, though: Columbia refused to distribute the record, and it only sold around 20,000 copies. This would lead to major internal band frustrations, drug abuse, literal in-fighting and lineup changes.

The third record, unofficially titled Third/Sister Lovers was recorded by the only remaining members, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, in 1975. There was no record label interest, so the album was shelved and Big Star broke up. Alex Chilton moved around the country, played occasionally and worked as a dishwasher.

BUT. By 1978, things were happening. #1 Record/Radio City was released as a double album in the UK, and soon after Third/Sister Lovers was released in the UK and the US. More ears found their way to Big Star, setting the stage for the ‘80s and ‘90s, and allowing Big Star to spend those decades sharing stages with their progeny.

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck said in 1991, “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.” Big Star, mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles, Dylan and The Stones, by one of the hottest musicians in the country at the time.

Paul Westerberg literally sang their praises, on the track “Alex Chilton” on The Replacements 1987 album Pleased To Meet Me. “I never travel far without a little Big Star.”

Countless other examples can be cited, but really it’s about the breathtakingly beautiful music. Alex Chilton did have a hit once. But “September Gurls” should have been a hit. And now, thanks to the slow-to-develop legacy of Big Star, this pop gem is widely available, as it should have been all along.

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13 comments
  1. Very interesting Brian. I had no idea about most of that.

    • Glad to help! I swear, every time I listen to “September Gurls” or “The Ballad of El Godo” my head gets raw from scratching and wondering, “why was this not huge?”

  2. What a pretty song “September Girls” is. Never heard it before. I listened twice. Also, listened to “El Godo”.
    Thanks.

    • Awesome, Awesome, Awesome. So happy to read this!

  3. I’ve heard this song before. Thanks for the introduction, Brian.

    • Absolutely my pleasure.

  4. I am totally loving this series!

    • Me too! So glad to hear, thanks so much.

  5. Dejordy said:

    Nice wrap-up, and certainly an excellent choice, even if they did not literally have a hit. I don’t think there is anything comparable to Big Star–a band that nobody knew about when they existed and then came to be absolutely beloved by people who came to know their music. Their first two if not all three albums are considered masterpieces; Rolling Stone put all three in its top 500.

    A correction: Alex Chilton was 59 when he died.

    And it might be pointed out that in the decade before he died, he and Jody Stephens and two members of the Posies, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, made occasional appearances as Big Star, or at least performing Big Star music. Stephens still works for Ardent.

    As a fan, I am excited about this:
    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bigstarstory/big-star-nothing-can-hurt-me

    • You are correct on the Stringfellow/Auer/Stephens gigs! The Columbia record, with that band, was actually my Big Star intro. Good stuff.

      Great to have you here! C’mon back.

  6. Great post. I posted one on Big Star previously. They still sound so fresh today because they influenced everybody that came later. “September Gurls” is in my Top 20 of all time.

    • Right? Put aside the mix and those records could have been released this year.

      Great to have you here, thanks.

  7. Reblogged this on Pop That Goes Crunch! and commented:
    Today I am reblogging a piece from last month on Big Star. As Brian Westbye notes, they indeed put out “breathtakingly beautiful music.” My earlier post on the band, and “September Gurls” in particular, can be found here: http://popthatgoescrunch.com/2011/12/19/the-greatest-song-you-probably-never-heard/

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