Big Star
Keep an Eye on the Sky

There are a number of ways a label can go about unearthing unreleased material in a boxset. On Rhino’s new Big Star collection, Keep an Eye on the Sky, the label thankfully handles this task with the same grace with which the band handled their less-than-ideal circumstances. The four-disc box uncovers literally dozens of unreleased demos, unused mixes and alternate versions alongside the remastered original album cuts, unveiled (what they think to be) chronologically, culminating in what they call “reimagined” documentations. If it sounds like a dissertation, it is, and the beautiful, full-color, 100-page booklet serves to reinforce that idea.

So let’s just lay it all out: if you own (and know and love) the albums, you’ll want these re-imagined versions, and if you don’t have them, all you’ll be missing is the exact running order of the originals. Either way, it is hard to argue against the subject matter presented here, even if the fourth disc, an under-documented live set from ’73, will be an afterthought to most. One could argue that the expanded version of Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos (coming soon on Rhino!) could have been used in its place, but that wouldn’t do this killer set justice and would wrongly place Bell’s masterpiece into Big Star’s context. So I will refrain from splitting these well-groomed hairs.

This set may feel like a dissertation, but truly would take a master’s thesis to fully expound upon the reasons behind Big Star’s initial failure. Some blame distribution problems with Ardent, the Memphis label, distributed by Stax, that would nurture former teen-star Alex Chilton and fragile, industry-newcomer Chris Bell. They met at Ardent’s studio, formed a pact with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, and were given keys to every tool needed to craft the studio masterpiece for which they hoped. Therein lies the biggest mistake of Big Star’s career: they never had to struggle, in an era when American bands, especially Southern American bands, were forced to cut their teeth on the road. Chilton and Bell also fancied a sophisticated, studio-produced style of rock & roll that was unpopular for a brief time in the early 1970s, at least in the world in which they were marketed. Too slick for soul fans, too smart for cock-rock teenagers, too ballsy for folk and pop fans, Big Star were at once ahead of and behind the times.

We all know the story today. As early as the late ’70s, once Cheap Trick and a thousand others pounded out smart, tough three-minute pop anthems, Big Star’s appeal and influence seemed obvious. But when released, Big Star’s record records failed with a capital F. It’s hard to blame Ardent when the band didn’t tour and the biggest bands in the world were Kiss and the Eagles. The industry latched onto Zeppelin-styled proto-metal or Californian AOR. British influences were out of fashion, and unfortunately Chris Bell couldn’t handle it, leaving the band before the first LP had a chance to flop.

The first disc lays out the two voices that would steer Big Star through the perfectly crafted #1 Record. You get two Bell demos and then two Chilton-penned tracks, leading into the meat of the debut. There aren’t a lot of demos from these days, proof that something was in the air once the band got going. The two didn’t need to bring any previously written material to the table, forming a partnership ala Lennon/McCartney and the Glitter Twins, and using just about everything they wrote. But soon after the album’s release, amidst the band’s first attempt at a tour, Bell was arrested for marijuana possession. This, coupled with meager sales, and in spite of some glowing reviews, rattled Bell’s psyche. He would quit the band, work a series of dull jobs around Memphis, return to songwriting and pen his own brilliant set of songs before tragically dying in a car accident in 1978, months after releasing a solo single.

Disc two’s gems reveal more than any other chunk of the set. These are the songs that would make up Radio City, home to some of Chilton’s most ambitious mid-tempo romps and breathy ballads, sometimes in the same song (see “Daisy Glaze”). Album opener and eventual single “O My Soul” would be considered lazy prog-rock if it weren’t loosened-up by booze. Chilton’s guitar leads were their most innovative in these recordings. It was as if he were pressured to make up for the loss of Bell all at once, playing a sort of chugging rhythm alongside out-there solos and bitter, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics about lost love and lost stardom. The underlying mood of these songs is tense (and drunk), even if flat-out gorgeous melodies, like the one in “What’s Going Ahn,” try to tell us otherwise. The alternate mix of “Mod Land” is downright spiteful, even the lover in “Back of a Car” sounds fractured and afraid.

By the time he got around to writing a follow-up to Radio City, Chilton had given up on the idea of the band breaking into the mainstream, his affinity for covering “Femme Fatale” the ultimate wink of acknowledgment to his destiny. The Chilton on Third is an extremely patient songwriter—some of these songs develop slower than paint dries—but this patience makes for an oddly spiritual, often genius work. The five demos presented at the front of this disc are the ones to which many who buy this box will return, especially the versions of “Jesus Christ” and “Holocaust.” All five are just Chilton and guitar/keys. Somehow, though, the sparse arrangements and dry recording of the demos lend an air of hope to the songs. In fact, the Third presented here is less of a bummer than I remembered. I’ve been told for years it was the ultimate downer statement, reflecting the generational comedown, the fall of Memphis soul, and Chilton’s own personal failures in one fell swoop of an LP. And while Third surely isn’t a spring picnic, but it is more soul-searching than soul-destroying.

Today, it is easy to understand Big Star’s charms. To many, they are more appealing than that other group getting its boxset-due this season. Chilton, Bell, Hummel and Stephens were ambitious, but their intentions were always pure. They were stylish, born in and of one of America’s holy cities, but never strayed from their simple pop vision throughout their six long years of activity. No more than a few weeks would pass at the Ardent Studios without some sort of Big Star recording session or another, which explains everything. Chilton, Bell and company never got sick of aiming for perfection. If only more bands were so diligent in their practice, and indifferent to popular styles and trends of the times, then we would have a few more like Big Star.
Doug Elliott