This was the song that really got me into the band, even if “In The Streets” is the most well-known. Also, when I was writing out the title I wanted to share how listening to the band was a revelation to me but also how I thought it was a band the Elder J would love right from the start while thinking of the long convoluted title of Dr. Strangelove. I got out of breath just writing that sentence. I always thought the singer said after saying he didn’t have a license that “it didn’t matter because I’m a big star” but actually, he says “if I’m a big star” which really plays into the band’s story. Spoiler Alert: Their name comes from the supermarket chain around Memphis, Tennessee.
Between new reggae, sunny pop music and more hip hop, it’s been a good year for me discovering new music and old gems. One band I’ve been into a lot lately is Big Star out of Memphis, Tennessee (from the semi-famous record label Ardent). Basically, their studio was pretty state of the art for the time and was bought by the epic Stax record label with the hopes of releasing some rock and roll because Stax was known for funk/R &B. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I think the Elder will like this band because they have cool vocals/harmonies, limited but tasty instrumentation and very tight song structure. They are definitely not prog rock, are pretty obscure in general and were often covered by Elliot Smith.
Many will recognize this as the theme to That 70’s Show as covered by Cheap Trick. It’s a sweet song and my band actually covers it. It does surprisingly well in the dive bar scene. Lastly, I have liked this band for a while and recently found a movie about them on Netflix entitled Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. It’s a great flick and if you like this band at all from this post then you should check it out.
The major point of the movie is that although the band was incredibly talented both in musicianship and songwriting, they never attained large commercial appeal. It was a combination of poor distribution by the record company, changing band membership and no serious touring to drum up support for the group. The main songwriters of the group are Alex Chilton and Chris Bell who also both play guitar as well as other instruments. Chilton was the lead singer in a band called The Box Tops who had a pretty big hit in the late 60’s with a song called “The Letter” which you may recognize. I instantly knew it from the same source as some of the tunes from the other day which I heard often and loudly in various vehicles of my Father.
Chilton has a deep rasp in this song that you almost never hear on any Big Star Records. It seems like he just did it for that song and maybe he even chose to use his range in Big Star so no one thought he was trying to ride the coat tails of The Box Tops who were pretty popular for a short period of time. It’s also cool to learn that Chilton was in his teens when he gained this fame and it’s a surprise he kept producing music until his death in 2010.
After the break-up of the Box Tops, Chilton hooked up with Chris Bell who was a local studio musician of some renown, as well as Andy Hummel on bass and Jody Stephens on drums. They spent endless hours in the studio and produced #1 Record which was most likely a hopeful joke but ended up being ironic because even though it was adored by critics and fans who could actually find it alike, the record company did not market it or have any type of widespread distribution. This was pretty hard on the band dynamic and although one more album was produced, that is all the classic line-up did as a cohesive group. Chris Bell did his own thing for a while and also got into some issues with drugs/alcohol.
This is a song I think my brother will like for sure. It’s got simple and well constructed lyrics with limited instrumentation. The vocals are nice too. That basically sums up why I think he will like them and I hope he does.
After that, they released one more album which was largely the work of Alex Chilton and the semi-famous producer Jim Dickinson who is the father of Luther Dickinson of Black Crowes and North Mississippi All Stars fame. It was pretty weird. Even the studio shots from the aforementioned movie were strange. Some people say it was due to Chilton’s declining mental state, others say it was drug use, and more than likely it was a combination of both as well as other factors we don’t know about. It does have some pretty interesting production techniques and some cool songs like this one.
This song is great but very off center. I still really have little idea what it has to do with a kangaroo except that the lyric at the end is “I want you like a kanga roo”
After this album, Chris Bell was around for a few more years doing music and died way too young. Chilton had some wild years and got into punk rock, veering far from the heavily produced sound of Big Star. He had some success with it, but more importantly for this post, Big Star started to become a major influence on alternative bands from R.E.M. to The Replacements who actually recorded a song with Chilton’s name in the title. Even the use of the Cheap Trick cover of “In the Streets” for the That 70’s Show shows how wide the influence was of a band who never had mainstream success. The band modeled themselves after The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and they never will attain the popularity that those boys did. But when it comes to tight pop songs with a hint of weird towards the end, there’s nobody who beats Big Star, the ultimate hip obscure band. Give them a try.