Big Star: The Ultimate American Pop Band

A re-listening leads to a new appreciation of the tragically short-lived rock band

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Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Big Star (from left: Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton) pose for a portrait circa 1972.

Over the past few weeks, the Big Star back catalog has been in permanent rotation in my home. It was the Record Store Day release of Nothing Can Hurt Us — a collection of alternate mixes and unreleased material that acts as a soundtrack for the upcoming documentary of the same name — that put me in the mood to revisit the (far too few) songs the band released in their (far too brief) time together. With each listen, I become a little more convinced: Big Star may be the best pop band that America has ever produced.

It’s not just that their music is great, though it undoubtedly is; in the space of three albums and as many years, the band released not one unlistenable track (Okay, “Downs” on Third/Sister Lovers is pretty bad, but it was made that way; listen to the original version on the Keep An Eye on The Sky box set and you’ll be shocked to discover that there was once a melody in there). It’s something more than just how catchy the songs are, though; for me, it’s hard to separate the music from Big Star from the story of Big Star — in no small way, part of their great appeal.

To listen to their albums in the order of release — #1 Record to Radio City to Third/Sister Lovers — is to hear a loss of innocence, not only in the subject matter of the songs. Compare the optimism of “The Ballad of El Goodo” from the first album, with Alex Chilton singing “I’ve been trying hard against unbelievable odds” surrounded by chiming guitars and harmony vocals swooning all around him to the stark depression of “Holocaust” from the final album, with what sounds like a nearly comatose Chilton telling the listener “Everybody goes/As far as they can/They just don’t care,” amid instrumentation that’s less melodic than atmospheric, as if the band has become as broken as Chilton’s spirit.

Big Star

Of course, that was true, in a sense. Big Star fell apart between albums, shedding members with each new release. On #1 Record, it was a four-piece, but by Radio City, founder Chris Bell was gone. By the time Third/Sister Lovers was recorded with only two members of the original limeup; by the time it eventually was released, the band was no more.

Listening to Big Star’s music is to hear some metaphorical disillusionment of pop music, to hear the perfect pop in such songs as “Thirteen” — with the sweet innocence of lines like “Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of/Would you be an outlaw for my love?” bearing a knowing (but never sarcastic) smirk — turn into something more raucous, like Radio City‘s “Mod Lang” (which starts with Chilton sneering at the listener, “I can’t be satisfied/with what you want me to do”), before finally ending at the fractured, fragile Third, where songs offer either the self-loathing of “Holocaust” or the scared beauty of “Nighttime,” in which Chilton practically whispers “Get me out of here/Get me out of here/I hate it here/Get me out of here” to whoever’s listening.

And again, to get back to the way the songs sound: Third/Sister Lovers is, at times, utterly harrowing to listen to in a way that pop music just wasn’t, back then — and Big Star was always intended to be a pop band, as opposed to something coming from the more progressive singer/songwriter field or other genres (There is, however, a lot of rhythm-and -blues in their DNA; let’s chalk that up to their Tennessee roots). I’ve often linked Radiohead’s OK Computer to Third; not in the sense that the two sound similar — Big Star was never as inorganic as Radiohead — but the way that the two records feel. Big Star were decades ahead of their time, in some way, even if they got there thanks to nervous breakdowns and bad luck rather than solely relying on genius and foresight.

It’s that expanse of sound, and that expanse of feeling, that is the second half of the Big Star appeal for me. It’s not enough that they lived the ultimate pop band cautionary tale (Founded with big hopes and hearts, both of which wither in the face of commercial indifference; there was even the prerequisite tragedy when founder Bell died at the age of 27 in a car accident). The fact that their music was fed by so many greats, and in turn predicted even more, that makes them America’s ultimate pop group for me. In Big Star, you have everything you could ever want to know about pop music, both inside the music and out.