Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Ballad Of El Goodo

Big Star

I initially started listening to Big Star because of Teenage Fanclub when I bought their Bandwagonesque album, which was loudly proclaimed as having strong Big Star influences ... or perhaps it could be considered more of a reworking or a tribute to the power pop of the early seventies. Either way, it was enough to spark my interest.

So who were Big Star, you ask? The original and current line-up included:-
Chris Bell - (1971-1972)
Alex Chilton - (1971-74 / 1993- )
Andy Hummel - (1971-73)
Jody Stephens - (1971-74 / 1993- )
John Lightman (1974)
Jonathan Auer - (1993- )
Ken Stringfellow - (1993- )

You might recognise the last two names as members of The Posies, who were included in my compilation of Big Star covers last week.

The quintessential American power pop band, Big Star remains one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll. Originally led by the singing and songwriting duo of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the Memphis-based group fused the strongest elements of the British Invasion era -- the melodic invention of the Beatles, the whiplash guitars of the Who, and the radiant harmonies of the Byrds -- into a ramshackle but poignantly beautiful sound which recaptured the spirit of pop's past even as it pointed the way toward the music's future. Although creative tensions, haphazard distribution, and marketplace indifference conspired to ensure Big Star's brief existence and commercial failure, the group's three studio albums nevertheless remain unqualified classics, and their impact on subsequent generations of indie bands on both sides of the Atlantic is surpassed only by that of the Velvet Underground.

The roots of Big Star lie in the group Ice Water (also known as Rock City), formed in 1971 by singer/guitarist Bell in association with guitarist Steve Ray, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. Ray left the group a short time after its inception and was soon replaced by Chilton, the onetime Box Tops vocalist who was just 16 years old when the group topped the pop charts with their 1967 classic, "The Letter." Chilton had recently returned to Memphis after attempting to mount a solo career in New York City; he first played with Bell years earlier in a high school cover band, and with his arrival Ice Water rechristened itself Big Star, borrowing the name from a local supermarket chain. Recording soon commenced at the local Ardent Studios, where Bell occasionally worked as an engineer and session guitarist; despite solid critical notice and some radio airplay, their brilliant 1972 debut, #1 Record, nevertheless fell prey to the distribution problems of the newly-formed Ardent label's parent company Stax -- more often than not, the album simply never made its way to retailers.

In the meantime, Bell and Chilton continued to butt heads over Big Star's direction -- the former envisioned a primarily studio-oriented project, while the latter preferred performing live; moreover, Chilton's past success in the Box Tops guaranteed him the lion's share of attention from listeners and critics, minimizing Bell's own contributions in the process. In late 1972 Bell finally left the band -- his subsequent attempts to mount a solo career proved largely fruitless, with only a spectacular solo single, "I Am the Cosmos," receiving official release prior to his untimely death in a 1978 car crash. (A posthumous solo compilation, also titled I Am the Cosmos, was finally issued to unanimous critical acclaim in 1992.) Following Bell's exit, Big Star briefly struggled on as a three-piece before disbanding, with Chilton returning to his stalled solo career; months later, he reteamed with Hummel and Stephens to play a local music writers' convention, and the performance was so well-received that they decided to make the reunion permanent.

Big Star's second album, 1974's Radio City, remains their masterpiece -- ragged and raw guitar-pop infused with remarkable intensity and spontaneity. It also contained perhaps their best-known song, the oft-covered cult classic "September Gurls." (Another highlight, "Back of a Car," bears the unmistakable input of Chris Bell, although the duration and extent of his return to duty is unknown.) Distribution difficulties again undermined whatever hopes of commercial success existed, however, and Hummel soon announced his resignation; Chilton and Stephens recruited bassist John Lightman for a handful of East Coast live dates, including a WLIR radio broadcast later issued as Big Star Live. Work on a planned third album soon began, but the sessions proved disastrous as Chilton, reeling from years of music industry exploitation and frustration, effectively sabotaged his own music -- where Radio City teetered on the brink of collapse, the new songs tumbled over completely, culminating in one of the most harrowingly bleak pop records ever made. An album's worth of material was completed and shelved, and then Big Star was no more.

The story might have ended there, but in 1978 the third Big Star album was finally issued overseas -- variously titled Third and/or Sister Lovers, it appeared for years in essentially unauthorized versions containing neither the complete session nor the proper sequencing. Still, the record earned a significant cult following, and with the emergence of the nascent power-pop movement, it became increasingly clear just how prescient Big Star's music had been. Countless alternative rock bands -- R.E.M., the Replacements, the dB's, and Teenage Fanclub, to name just four -- cited the band's enormous influence in the years to follow.

Chilton and Stephens reunited in 1993 with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the American pop band The Posies taking the place of Bell (who had died in a car crash in 1978) and Hummel (who had left music for an engineering career) at the University of Missouri. For an encore, the band performed Gene Chandler's "Duke of Earl," reflecting Chilton's marked, post-Big Star interest in early rock and roll. This appearance was followed by tours of Europe and Japan, as well as an appearance on The Tonight Show. Other Big Star releases include Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93, a recording of the first reunion show; Big Star Live, a 1974 radio broadcast from Long Island; and Nobody Can Dance, a recording of the last Big Star show as a trio, performed at Overton Park in Memphis.

The reunited Big Star returned to Ardent Studios in early 2004 to work on a new album, called In Space. With songs cowritten by Chilton, Stephens, Auer, and Stringfellow, the album was released on September 27, 2005 on Rykodisc.

Currently, there are rumours around a film on Big Star's history, based on Rob Jovanovic's book Big Star: The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band.

While compiling the tracks for my last post, I was struck by how many covers there are of the "Thirteen" and "The Ballad Of El Goodo".

As a follow up to the last post, I have decided to also put up my favourite of these cover versions for your extra added listening pleasure. This time around it's "The Ballad Of El Goodo".

The Lemonheads - The Ballad Of El Goodo

Matthew Sweet - The Ballad Of El Goodo

Colin Meloy (The Decemberists) - The Ballad Of El Goodo

Ted Leo - The Ballad Of El Goodo

Big Star - The Ballad Of El Goodo

As an extra special treat for all of my lurkers, here's a live recording of Big Star playing The Ballad Of El Goodo in Missouri in 1993:-

Do you like these tunes? Then why not support the artists (and my blogging habit) by buying some music. Check out the links above or for some good compilation albums check out these links:-


Blogger jon manyjars said...

I once saw Chilton perform "Duke of Earl" backed by the members of the Replacements. Another great post!

Wed. Mar. 14, 05:20:00 am  
Blogger MAB said...

Hi Jon

How Cool!

Now to see Alex Chilton with the Replacements singing "Alex Chilton"

Fri. Mar. 16, 02:59:00 pm  
Blogger Chad said...

Great song, great post! :)

Sat. Mar. 31, 11:18:00 am  

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