Rock music fans have always rather easily slipped into two major subsets: those who love Big Star, and those who have never heard of them. The former tend to be evangelical in their devotion—many of them either make music, write about it, or talk about it way too much at parties. At Trunkworthy we fall safely—ardently—in the first category. In fact, if you were to ask us why we’re doing the site at all, this band would be at the very top of our list.
Once, Big Star were the province of a few record collectors, but through the advocacy of REM; the immortalization of Alex Chilton via The Replacements’ song “Alex Chilton” (which the newly re-formed Replacements’ chose to play for their recent Tonight Show appearance); cover versions by the next generation of bands, and radio play on college radio stations, they were made the Velvet Underground of indie rock. And that’s Trunkworthy’s mission too: to take the unjustly overlooked, the forgotten-by-time records, movies, TV shows and make sure they’re given their due.
But even with all the critical praise and reverence this Memphis foursome has received from musicians and diehard fans, there are still too many people who don’t know who they are. And that’s something we can’t allow to continue, because Big Star’s music will not only break your heart, they will also make you want to live in a way few others have.
Don’t believe us? Just sample “September Gurls,” a tender-yet-barbed shoulda-been-a-hit-single off their second record, 1974’s Radio City. It’s the kind of shimmery, chunky sound every person who has ever plugged in a guitar has searched for.
And if that was your first step in the discovery of Big Star—a wondrous crawl from their almost too-perfect first record through to their spacious, sonic heartbreaker of a third and last—then congratulations. You have just started the most rewarding explorations any rock fan can ever embark on. We can’t help but wonder what it might be like to hear a song like “Thirteen” for the very first time. Nix that: there are no songs like “Thirteen,” pop culture’s ultimate first kiss, a song that captures the exact moment when the love of both rock ’n’ roll and another human being first blossom in a human heart, with all the chaos and unknown those events inevitably entail. It is no wonder that after being a staple of his live shows for many years, many people mistakenly believe “Thirteen” to be an Elliott Smith original.
But this wasn’t a band built to simply sit in attics and write lovestruck poems. “In the Street,” their suburban anti-party party anthem, was made for arenas. (Just ask Cheap Trick, who covered the song for the theme for That ’70s Show, Big Star’s mainstream high-water mark). And what to say about “The Ballad of El Goodo,” a song that takes the harmonic challenge thrown down by The Beatles and The Byrds, and instead of looking back, presages the future of bands like Gin Blossoms and Teenage Fanclub.
No Big Star song is ever one thing. Triumphant riffs are filled with regret and doubt; defeated moments with hope and glory. Maybe it was those polarities that were always pulling this band apart. Their guiding forces—American rock hero Alex Chilton and lost genius Chris Bell—were, as their late bass player Andy Hummel put it in the 2012 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, “a couple of comets, or shooting stars, or something like that.” That something was likely a spaceship from the future: this was music at least a full generation ahead of its time. Perhaps the cult psychedelic folkie Robyn Hitchcock said it best when he called the band’s music “a letter posted in 1971 that arrived in 1995.”
As wonderful as it is to be the favorite of Hitchcock or every goateed fellow who ever had a college radio show, it’s high time Big Star be freed from the cognoscenti. This is a band for the people, as accessible to those whose favorite album is Def Leopard’s Paranoia as they are to the ones who prefer VU’s Loaded. The one thing that loving them requires? Just listen. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, you don’t need to be Peter Buck—REM’s signature guitar sound owes so much to the Memphis foursome—to know which way the wind blows.
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