Big Star, the Great Forgotten American Band, Is Bigger Than Ever
But in the digital age, how many reissues, repackagings and reunions are too many?Photo courtesy of Craft Recordings Music Features Big Star
If the fandom of Big Star—one of the great and greatly underappreciated American bands of the 20th century—was once merely a cult, it has grown into something closer to a full-blown religion in recent years. Interest in the work of the Memphis group has rippled steadily outward since the relatively quiet days when their two studio albums—1972’s #1 Record and 1974’s Radio City—were hailed by critics but bunged by labels and marketers, leading to a combined release in 1978 by a U.K. imprint to accede to the desires of hungry music fans overseas. In the decades since, word of the band’s genius has filtered its way through famous fans like R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and The Replacements, who loudly trumpeted the group.
A growing reissue market also embraced the band and its unique blend of British psych, Southern rock and radio pop, leading founding members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens to reunite under the Big Star name in 1993. Two decades later, the Big Star reissue market is something of a cottage industry, and it’s never had a better year than 2017. Fueled by the vinyl revival, the complexities of licensing deals and some buzz stirred up by the 2010 deaths of Chilton and founding member Andy Hummel, record store shelves are now groaning under the weight of fresh editions of this 45-year-old music.
This year alone we’ve seen the release of the second and third volumes of Omnivore Recordings’ comprehensive Complete Third series, which gathers all existing work surrounding the group’s aborted 1975 album, Third; a cassette boxed set of the group’s first three albums, issued by Burger Records; Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Third…Live, a three-CD set featuring a live recording of Big Star’s Third, Chris Stamey’s all-star tribute to the band, and a documentary about the project; Big Star’s Third Live at the Alex Theatre, Glendale, CA, a limited-edition vinyl release of the live material from that aforementioned set; The Best of Big Star, a single-disc compilation culled from their studio work; an expanded reissue of Chilton’s 1995 album A Man Called Destruction; Take Me Home and Make Me Like It, a vinyl release from Spanish label Munster Records pulling together solo sessions Chilton recorded in 1975; Looking Forward, a CD compilation of Chris Bell’s pre-Big Star work; a deluxe reissue of Bell’s abandoned solo album I Am the Cosmos; The Complete Chris Bell, a vinyl boxed set featuring Looking Forward and the expanded Cosmos material as well as a rare interview with the artist from 1975.
“For a long time, there wasn’t any Big Star at all, and now there is,” said Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings. “I believe strongly that the way you preserve music is to get it back out into the culture. Isn’ that good? Do you want it to be over?”
Incredibly, there’s more. On the docket for 2018 is a vinyl release of the 1973 live recording previously only available as part of the 2009 boxed set Keep Your Eye on the Sky, and there are rumors of a reissue of Chilton’s 1979 album, Like Flies on Sherbert.
It’s a head-spinning amount of music to keep up with, especially for fans who were only recently introduced to the band. It can feel like sticking your mouth underneath the never-ending flow of a chocolate fountain, where the delights can give way to bloat. Naturally, the folks behind many of the above releases beg to disagree, to the point that Cheryl Pawelski, co-founder of Omnivore Recordings, the label behind Complete Third, Destruction and all the Bell releases out this year, sounds downright incredulous at the suggestion that it’s too much of a good thing.
“For a long time, there wasn’t any Big Star at all, and now there is,” she said in a recent interview. “I believe strongly that the way you preserve music is to get it back out into the culture. Isn’t that good? Do you want it to be over?”
As a fan, I most certainly don’t. All of the above releases are the kind of deep dives that I adore amid the current reissue craze. It’s opening doors into Big Star’s working relationship and creativity that I could never get when I was a budding music obsessive poring over my copy of Third/Sister Lovers that Rykodisc first issued on CD in 1992. As a consumer, though, my feelings are different. The cycle of unnecessary repackagings has clogged the market for years, and while we’re not quite to the level of, say, the Beach Boys, who seem to put out a new greatest-hits package every calendar year, Big Star appears on the verge of an oversaturation that was unthinkable only a few years ago.
Take, for example, I Am the Cosmos. While the material on this album was recorded in the ‘70s, it wasn’t pulled together for commercial release until Rykodisc got the rights to do so in 1992. The album was brought out by Rhino Records again in 2009 with a bonus disc of material, but issued in limited numbers through their mail-order only imprint, Rhino Handmade. Five years later, the label put out a mass-market version of the same two-CD set. Three years later, after leaving Rhino, Pawelski brought the album to Omnivore to once again re-release it on CD and now in the boxed set.
“You can’t blame Omnivore for putting it back into circulation,” says Stephen Thomas Erlewine, music critic and Senior Pop Editor for TiVo. “I totally get and support keeping this in circulation. But there is that feeling of, ‘How many times do I have to buy this particular album again?’ When you have so many reissues of your beloved band’s work, it can get wearying.”
So how did the release dates for all of this music happen to land in one 12-month stretch? The process actually began about a decade ago, when Rhino started looking for the material that would make up Keep Your Eye on the Sky, much of it stored in the archives of the Memphis recording studio Ardent.
“Big Star literally had the keys to the studio,” says Bob Mehr, music critic for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. “For them, the studio was a laboratory and a playground and a place to experiment. Relative to their output, there’s actually a lot more material than meets the eye. So all the stuff that ended up on [Keep Your Eye on the Sky], all the unreleased material and alternate takes of Third and live recordings, that was what kicked things off. Now you’re seeing the results of that, but it’s been in the making for a long time.”
Another factor is that Pawelski, who helped shepherd Keep Your Eye on the Sky and the 2009 Bell reissue into existence, did all that work before leaving her post as Senior VP at Rhino. So when she started up Omnivore, she was able to strike new licensing deals with Ardent and its owners Stephens and producer John Fry. The wrinkle here is that those agreements didn’t include the material found on #1 Record and Radio City. The rights to those songs originally belonged to Stax Records, which helped release the first two Big Star albums, and were purchased—along with the catalog of famed R&B stars like King Curtis and Shirley Thomas—by Concord Music Group. That’s the label behind this year’s Best of Big Star compilation and the Big Star’s Third live set.
According to Concord head Sig Sigworth, their additions to the Big Star catalog are just a matter of happenstance and not wanting to step on Omnivore’s toes. “When I had heard that they had the Complete Third coming out at the end of last year,” he remembers, “I had already filmed the Big Star’s Third collective and was targeting a fourth-quarter release with that. I thought that rather than rush to get that out, I would push it into the first quarter of the next year and give them their own laneway. We don’t collaborate necessarily, but in a certain sense it helps to not be on top of each other so we can give the fans the greatest content.”
It’s an admirable goal to be sure, and one that should definitely be applauded more than scrutinized. While there may be a finite amount of material related to Big Star that can be presented to the world, there will likely always be a supply of new listeners ready to swoon over the band’s dark poetry, gritty guitar work and the winsome vocals of Chilton, Bell, Hummel and Stephens.
“The audience is not set in stone,” says Mehr. “Every year, there’s more teens and 20-somethings who get into Big Star because it has a certain level of hipness. This band isn’t a nostalgia act. While there’s a big romantic myth attached to it, the music doesn’t age. It stays hip and it stays valid for new audiences.”