Big Star, the big forgotten American band, is bigger than ever
If the fandom of Big Star, one of the great American groups of the 20th century, the most underrated, was once a cult, it has in recent years become something closer to a religion apart. whole. Interest in the Memphis band’s work has grown steadily since the relatively calm days when their two studio albums – the 1972s # 1 Registration and 1974 Radio city– were critically acclaimed but pushed around by labels and marketers, leading to a combined release in 1978 with a British imprint to fulfill the desires of hungry music fans overseas. Over the decades that followed, the band’s genius filtered through famous fans like REM, Teenage Fanclub and The Replacements, who trumpeted the band aloud.
A growing reissue market also embraced the band and their unique blend of British psyche, Southern rock and radio pop, which led founding members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens to reunite as the Big Star in 1993. Two decades later, the Big Star reissue market is something of a cottage industry, and the year has never been better than 2017. Fueled by the vinyl renaissance, complexity of licensing and buzz Spurred on by the 2010 deaths of Chilton and founding member Andy Hummel, record store shelves are now groaning under the weight of fresh editions of the 45-year-old music.
This year alone we saw the release of the second and third volumes of Omnivore Recordings’ full set. Finish the third series, which brings together all the existing works around the group’s aborted album in 1975, Third; a cassette box set of the group’s first three albums, published by Burger Records; Thank you friends: the third… live from Big Star, a three-CD box set including a live recording of Big Star’s Third, Chris Stamey’s star tribute to the band, and a documentary about the project; Big Star’s Third Live at Alex Theater, Glendale, CA, a limited edition vinyl version of the live material from this aforementioned set; The best of Big Star, a one-disc compilation from their studio work; an expanded reissue of Chilton’s 1995 album A man called Destruction; Take me home and make me love it, a vinyl release by Spanish label Munster Records featuring solo sessions that Chilton recorded in 1975; Looking forward, a compilation on CD of the pre-Big Star work of Chris Bell; a deluxe reissue of Bell’s discontinued solo album I am the cosmos; The Complete Chris Bell, a vinyl box with Looking forward and enlargement Cosmos material as well as a rare interview with the artist from 1975.
“For a long time there was no Big Star at all, and now there is,” said Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings. “I firmly believe that the way you preserve music is to reintegrate it into the culture. Its good ? Do you want it to be over? “
Incredibly, there is more. On the program for 2018 is a vinyl version of the 1973 live recording, previously only available in the 2009 box set. Keep an eye on the sky, and there are rumors of a re-release of Chilton’s 1979 album, Like the flies on Sherbert.
It’s a dizzying amount of music to follow, especially for fans who have only recently been introduced to the group. You can have the impression of putting your mouth under the incessant flow of a chocolate fountain, where delicacies can give way to bloating. Understandably, the folks behind many of the above releases disagree, to the point that Cheryl Pawelski, co-founder of Omnivore Recordings, the label behind Finish the third, Destruction and all of Bell’s releases this year seem downright disbelieving that that’s too much of a good thing.
“For a long time there had been no Big Star at all, and now there is,” she said in a recent interview. “I firmly believe that the way you preserve music is to reintegrate it into the culture. Isn’t that good? Do you want it to be over? ”
As a fan, I definitely don’t. All of the above releases are the kind of deep dives that I love amid the current reissue craze. It opens doors to the working relationship and Big Star creativity that I was never able to get when I was a budding music junkie leaning over my copy of Lover of the third / sister that Rykodisc was first released on CD in 1992. As a consumer, however, my feelings are different. The cycle of needless repackaging has clogged the market for years, and while we’re not quite on par with, say, the Beach Boys, who seem to release a new package of top hits every calendar year, Big Star is appearing. on the verge of over-saturation unthinkable just a few years ago.
Take for example, I am the cosmos. While the material for this album was recorded in the 1970s, it was not put together for a commercial release until Rykodisc obtained the rights to do so in 1992. The album was again released by Rhino Records in 2009 with a bonus material disc, but issued in limited numbers via their mail order only imprint, Rhino Handmade. Five years later, the label released a consumer version of the same two-CD set. Three years later, after leaving Rhino, Pawelski brought the album to Omnivore to reissue it once again on CD and now in the box set.
“You can’t fault Omnivore for bringing it back into circulation,” says Stephen Thomas Erlewine, music critic and pop editor for TiVo. “I totally understand and support keeping this going. But there is this 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 boring. ”
So how did the release dates for all of this music come about over a 12 month period? The process actually started about ten years ago, when Rhino started looking for the material that would constitute Keep an eye on the sky, much of which is stored in the archives of the Memphis Ardent recording studio.
“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, a playground and a place of experimentation. Compared to their production, there is actually a lot more material than it seems. So all the stuff that ended up on [Keep Your Eye on the Sky], all unreleased material and alternative takes from Third and live recordings, that’s what got the ball rolling. Now you are seeing the results, but it has been in the works for a long time. ”
Another factor is that Pawelski, who helped the shepherd Keep an eye on the sky and the reissue of Bell in 2009, did all of that work before stepping down as senior vice president at Rhino. So when she launched Omnivore, she was able to enter into new licensing deals with Ardent and its owners Stephens and producer John Fry. The problem here is that these agreements did not include material found on # 1 Registration and Radio city. The rights to these songs originally belonged to Stax Records, which helped release Big Star’s first two albums, and were purchased, along with the catalog of famous R&B stars like King Curtis and Shirley Thomas, by Concord. Music Group. This is the label behind this year The best of the big star compilation and Big Star’s third live set.
According to Concord director Sig Sigworth, their additions to the Big Star catalog are just a matter of chance and don’t want to step on Omnivore’s feet. “When I heard that they had the Finish the third coming out late last year, ”he recalls,“ I had already filmed Big Star’s third collective and was aiming for a fourth quarter release with that. I thought that instead of rushing to get this out, I would push it back to the first quarter of next year and give them their own way. We don’t necessarily collaborate, but in a way it helps not to be on top of each other so that we can give fans the greatest content.
It’s an admirable goal, of course, and one that should certainly be applauded more than considered. While there may be a finite amount of Big Star-related material that can be presented to the world, there will likely always be a supply of new listeners ready to swoon over the group’s dark poetry, gritty guitar work and the alluring voices of Chilton, Bell, Hummel and Stephens.
“The public is not set in stone,” Mehr says. “Every year there are more teens and 20+ who come into Big Star because it has a certain level of hipness. This band is not an act of nostalgia. Although there is a great romantic myth attached to it, the music does not get old. It remains trendy and remains valid for new audiences. ”