I’ve been listening to Big Star. In fact I’ve been learning to play some Big Star tunes – they can have that effect on you. And Big Star are one of those early 1970s bands that time forgot (for a while). You know there are heaps and heaps of neglected bands – releasing songs of beauty and warmth – songs that bring you to your knees. Yet no one at the time had the time – do you get me? I mean the Velvet Underground hardly sold a record back in the 60s heyday – too New Yoooorrrrkkk man. But Big Star – signed to Stax – having No.1 hit maker Box Tops Alex Chilton in the fold – really never sold any records.
No one wanted to listen to them.
They couldn’t give them away. Oh they had the reviews. Those who write about pop liked them. But not the regular (hey) Joe. It’s probably safe to say that Manson or Heavy Stereo sold more of their tunes in their day then Alex, Jody, Chris and Andy sold in theirs. Which is criminal – there is no other way to put it. This is a band formed in Memphis and in love with the simplicity of The Beatles and the power of pop that released three beautiful long players of honesty, integrity and invention. If you don’t own ‘em – then you should do.
And you will do when you’ve had a listen.
So where does it start. Once again with pale saints and late nights in Leeds. Graeme Naysmith taped Dinosaur’s first album on one side of a cassette and ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ on side b and sent it winging it's way from Harold Avenue. This hallucinatory and untidy masterpiece of Chilton and Stephens recorded at Ardent Studies – was just tucked away on tape. This must have been 1988. Before Teenage Fanclub had begun to mine that beautiful swamp rock and chime of Chilton’s gang and bring Big Star to the masses – to all us lads and lasses. Well I’m sure Teenage Fanclub were regular listeners up in the concrete jungle of Glasgow. But I’d never heard such fragility and beauty in Scunthorpe – it was all furnaces and smoke – heavy. Do you get me? It was the utter desolation in Chilton’s voice – notes stretched and broken – enquiring and imploring over guitars that break and howl and collapse in on themselves. Yet there’s a brooding rock n roll inherent throughout.
A menace in the misery.
I mean they had a rock n roll number called ‘Holocaust’. It wasn’t for the faint hearted – yet theres wonderful baroque like chiming guitars on songs like Kizza Me or Stroke it Noel and ‘Thank your friends’ sitting next to the desolation of Kangaroo. You know this a story blighted by mistrust, wrong moves, failing friendships, paranoia and drug abuse. It was always going to be.
Actually – now I’m beginning to write about this discovery – this chance encounter with Big Star - it starts earlier. A seven inch single – bought from Record Village – This Mortal Coil – 4AD super group singing super songs – Kangaroo. Possible heard on John Peel but bought by Paul and played in back bedrooms on Scunthorpe streets. Tapping into adolescent hopefulness and that feeling of falling in love. I first saw you , You had on blue jeans , Your eyes couldn't hide anything , I saw you breathing, oh. What seems just a surface emotion running ever deeper. Alex Chilton is the master of all that. He captures love as it emerges and flourishes and ends and breaks – in car parks and diners. Or if you were growing up in a steeltown in bus shelters and school corridors.
Big Star always manage to find a way into the car. I don’t mean they’ve got a spare set of keys – or I find them on the back seat – but they feature on many compilations – CDs to drive away to. From On the street and the high glam of No1 Record, to I’m in love with a girl, September Gurls and currently Thirteen.
Thirteen is simply beautiful.
A guitar and harmonies. There’s a post out there beyond these walls that Thirteen refers to when Alex first saw The Beatles. It captures that innocence and defiance of the time with his reference to Paint it Black and parents on his back, it’s both free and tense at the same time – like a child just shooting off their mouth. This pretty tune and it is pretty - is imbued with tension and beneath lurks the energy of a young man. There’s something doomed lurking in the spaces on the track.
There was something doomed about Big Star. They reformed for a while – but it didn’t last. Their music will though. I’m just passing it on. Like Graeme did on that tape.
Thank you friends.