Big Star, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the 70s

There are a few bands that surface over and over again in interviews with rock stars as serious influences on serious musicians. Others rattle the landscape even if they inhabit their own space, free of any imitators or hangers on. Usually they’re bands you’ve never heard, or even heard of. In the past I’ve been richly rewarded by seeking out some of these bands—like the Velvet Underground, Robert Johnson, Robert Cage, Gemma Hayes, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Gastr Del Sol, Dock Boggs, and others.

But I always put off listening to Big Star, despite hearing artists like REM, the Replacements, and the dBs claim them as touchstones. Why? No good reason, really, except that they were from the 70s (their song “In the Street” is the theme song of That 70s Show—in a cover version by Cheap Trick(!!)), and that one of their founding members was Alex Chilton, with whom I associated hundreds of bad a cappella covers of his classic song with the Box Tops, “The Letter.” But I kept wondering. Could they be as good as everyone said they were?

Nah. They were’t that good. They were better.

My first inkling of this was listening to “You and Your Sister,” a rare b-side by the co-founder of the band, Chris Bell (cut less than a year before his death in a car crash in 1977), on the most recent Oxford American Music Issue cd. The voice is haunting and high, the lyrics pained and honest (“Your sister says that I’m no good/I’d reassure her if I could/All I want to do/Is spend some time with you…friends fail every day…”), the melody gorgeous and simple. Okay, I thought, it’s time.

So I picked up Big Star’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, on a single disc budget compilation. And fell in love. The first song, “Feel” has high strained vocals that uncannily recall 70s scream rock (think Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin, or “Rock and Roll Coochie Coo”) coupled with a chorus that could have been on Pet Sounds. And then the instrumental break busts out an incredible brass line that reminds you that, yes, Big Star came from Memphis. (Most of the rest of the songs mercifully dispense with the scream rock vocals.) “In the Street,” while not as swaggering as the Cheap Trick cover version, is somehow more interesting in the places it goes, sounding a little Beach Boys and REM by turns. Other songs presage Uncle Tupelo and bring echoes of the Byrds. And those are just some of the songs from the first album; Radio City is even stronger. No wonder radio wasn’t ready for Big Star. It’s the sort of music that’s almost too good to share.