"Casual music listeners have no idea who Big Star is," says the group's drummer, Jody Stephens.
Formed in the post-Beatles, tie-dyed swirl of the early '70s and hastily named after a grocery-store chain, Big Star is a record geek's dream band. It's a cherished and lovingly protected possession, stored in a place of honor in an acid-free plastic bag of rabid devotion.
To the average Top 40 fan, or most people under 30, the band might as well be from another galaxy. "Big Star is for music fans, musicians, people who dig a little deeper," Stephens continues. "It's not mainstream; never has been, and it's a pretty safe bet to say that it never will be."
In the now-distant past of 1971, even on the fringes of Memphis' melting-pot scene where the rowdy country rock of Sun Records and the sweet soul music of Stax frequently collided, a quirky soul-pop outfit like Big Star was still an abnormality. Stephens and singer/songwriter Alex Chilton (fresh from his late '60s stint as leader of the Box Tops), with Chris Bell and Andy Hummel, gelled into a tenuous partnership and released the modest-selling LP, #1 Record. Like the Velvet Underground before it, Big Star is one of those oft-cited cult bands, hailed as an influence by aficionados and critics while maintaining a shadowy presence in the general music conscience.
Yet those "casual listeners" have probably heard the band, even if they can't name the artist. Cheap Trick's version of "In the Street" from Big Star's first album is heard daily as the theme to TV's "That '70s Show" and numerous bands have covered songs from the band's catalog. Currently, a Heineken TV ad features Chilton's performance of "I'm in Love With a Girl." Stephens also points out that the series "Lost" recently featured a Big Star poster in a background shot and actor Johnny Depp mentions the group in the current issue of Interview. "We sort of creep our way into different places," he says.
After 1974's Radio City and a final batch of material (released as Third/Sister Lovers), the group remained dormant until the early 1990s. In the interim, Bell died in an auto accident in '78, Hummel retired to civilian life, and Chilton went on to an erratic solo career and occasional Box Tops reunions. Stephens carried on with music, playing in all-star side projects like Golden Smog. He eventually became studio manager at Ardent Records in Memphis, the same spot where Big Star recorded the bulk of its work.
The group's collective presence endured and its iconic stature grew with every glowing mention from followers such as the Replacements, the dB's, the Bangles, R.E.M. and nearly any other act who professed a love of bittersweet jangle pop. Big Star certainly didn't invent the genre, but its albums are concise how-to guides for fragile pop perfection.
The line between admirers and musicians blurred when longtime fans Ken Stringfellow (who also moonlights with R.E.M.) and Jon Auer of the Posies were recruited to back Stephens and Chilton for a one-off reunion gig in '93. "The thing I remember most about our first show as Big Star was thinking, 'Just don't fuck up,'" says Auer. Evidently Stringfellow and Auer passed the audition, because their part-time gig continues with sporadic tours. Big Star's leisurely 2006 schedule includes widely spaced stops in Memphis, Atlanta, Spain and St. Louis, in that order (now how's that for creative routing?).
Late last year, the band finally released an all-new collection of music. In Space (Ryko) was met with three decades of anticipation and, as a result, nearly every reviewer slavishly compared it to their original releases.
"To some extent, there's a natural inclination to do that," says Stephens. "But it's 30 years later, and our lineup has changed. Everybody's perception of life has changed. You have new influences, so it's going to be a different record."
In Space wasn't "worried over" like some revisited band projects, he adds, because there wasn't time to overcook it. "I'm still fascinated with the fact that we wrote and recorded a song a day. We'd go in to work and there'd be the suspense of 'Well, what are we gonna do today?'"
The enjoyable result is a revealingly raw, wildly uneven adventure with distinct contributions from all four members. "The pitfall with some bands is that when they go back in the studio [after a long hiatus], they are way too careful, and come out with a record that sounds way too careful," says Stephens. "We certainly didn't do that."
When asked how he compares the new disc to Big Star's previous works, Stephens points out that the first album was "a pretty innocent record," the second was "gaining sophistication and leading toward the brink," and the nightmarish Third, produced as the band disintegrated, "just fell apart at the seams." This one, he says, brings the band back full circle with an update on a very democratic, '70s-sounding release.
"Most bands don't reveal that much musical turmoil, especially when spread out over that many years," he says. "All music doesn't have to be the true reflection of its creators, but it sure helps when you listen to something. It helps you to connect to the performers," he says. "It can be the difference between, 'Wow, that's a nice little ditty,' and 'I've got to go buy that to experience that feeling again and again.'"
"People who are really into music either really like us or hate us," Stephens says. "And you know, I'd much rather have that reaction than, 'Oh yeah, they're a mediocre band.' At least we made them feel something."
"We are happy to come in and help fill the void left by Music Midtown," says Jeff Stum, creator of the SoCo Music Festival. "Atlanta is a great place for this and Centennial Park is a proven location for music." The debut of the New Orleans-flavored fest stands to be a cross between Louisiana's Jazz and Heritage Festival and Atlanta's now-defunct fests, Music Midtown and On the Bricks. "We did our best to select a variety of acts that would appeal to a cross section of people who love music and music history. When you have acts like Cowboy Mouth, Big Star and the Flaming Lips on the same event, you know there's a good variety." Day one is like a trip to the Crescent City and day two is more like a multi-act European rock festival.
The SoCo Music Festival is free, but the hitch is all patrons must be 21 or older to attend, due to the sponsorship of adult beverage company Southern Comfort. "We stress responsible consumption at all times," he adds. In addition to the music, he promises there'll be DJs, interactive activities and an acoustic stage (lineup TBA at press time).
· MAINSTAGE SCHEDULE
· Sat., May 20
· 12-1 p.m. Beatinpath -- New Orleans-centric acts are featured today including these organic jammers.
· 1:30-2:30 p.m. Bonerama -- Get a bone on! A trombone, that is! Jazzy, horny fun for the early afternoon.
· 3-4 p.m. Theresa Andersson -- Evocative singer/songwriter with a sassy attitude and an electric violin.
· 4:30-5:30 p.m. Hot 8 Brass Band -- This ain't no funeral march, brother. March on up and celebrate life.
· 6-7 p.m. Family Force 5 -- Spiky-haired alternative rockers with prerequisite hip-hop inflections.
· 7:30-9 p.m. Ozomatli -- Spicy, L.A.-based Afro-Latin combo of social activists and multicultural artists. The group's funky hip-hop elements should have the crowd movin', groovin' and thinkin' if listening closely.
· 9:30-11 p.m. Cowboy Mouth -- Life-affirming vets of many Music Midtowns, with muscular skin-beater Fred LeBlanc and Atlanta-based bassist Sonia Tetlow.
· Sun. May 21
· 1-1:45 p.m. The Moaners -- Sensual, garage-rockin' female duo from North Carolina.
· 2:15-3 p.m. American Princes -- Not Princess, it's Princes, and we don't mean that little guy from Minneapolis, these boys are rootsy rockers from Arkansas.
· 3:30-4:30 p.m. The Gourds -- Rock, country, folk and rabid mosquito blues, stashed in a burlap sack.
· 5-6 p.m. De La Soul -- Fun, good-humored rap with layers of psychedelia and funk. Come find your D.A.I.S.Y. (Da Inner Soul, Y'all).
· 6:30-7:45 p.m. Big Star -- Legendary '70s pop masters are back. Featuring original members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, plus Ken Stringfellow and the Posies' Jon Auer.
· 8:15-10 p.m. The Flaming Lips -- Wayne Coyne and the gang's newest album, At War With the Mystics, continues the psychedelic pranksters' tradition of literate freak outs. Truly alternative "alternative" to close out the festival. Expect a spectacle.
come on man you know you got a bromance. you probably still rock that OutKast…
Yes, 14 is the correct answer. I'll pass your info along to the group's manager,…
That was January of 2007, and they are 21 now, so I'm guessing 14?