Big Star’s name is kind of a misnomer. The Memphis band released three albums of introspective, melancholic power pop in the Seventies to widespread critical acclaim – but barely anyone bought them. Their 1972 debut – the equally ironically named ‘#1 Record’ – sold fewer than 10,000 copies, in part because of their label’s distribution issues.
“It was frustrating and depressing,” says their producer John Fry, of former Stax subsidiary Ardent Music. “We could see the very favourable reviews for both ‘#1 Record’ and ‘Radio City’, but in 1972 Stax had an ill-fated transition to distribution by Columbia, which never worked for Stax or for us. ‘Radio City’ came out in 1974 and Stax officially declared bankruptcy in 1975. It was a pretty quick series of events, and yes, it was discouraging.”
However, there was something about those records that wouldn’t let them die. By the 80s and 90s those three albums, plus the solo material of songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, were being name-dropped by everyone from The Flaming Lips to Elliott Smith and the entire Creation Records roster. Primal Scream flew to Memphis so they could record ‘Rocks’ at the Ardent Music studios. “It was like a pilgrimage to go there and record in the same studio that Alex Chilton and Big Star had [used]” said Bobby Gillespie later. “[They were] a huge inspiration to Primal Scream when we started.”
Now a new documentary, ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’, delves into the story of rock’n’roll’s original cult band. Despite their initial lack of commercial success, director Drew DeNicola says it’s a mistake to think of Big Star as having squandered their potential. “People usually want to know why it didn’t happen. What was the problem?” he says. “I feel like the seeds of their own destruction were in the making of that band. I don’t feel like they were ever intended to be a road band. I don’t even think Chris Bell and Alex Chilton could have spent more than six months together. That’s what I like about this story. The story of this band is really just the story of the artefacts, which are the records. Moments and feelings can be captured in the studio, and that’s what happened with Big Star.”
Drummer Jody Stephens is the only member of the original Big Star line-up still alive, and he says he has no regrets that the band didn’t sell more albums first time around. “The most gratifying thing was the creative process of making those records. That was an end in itself,” he says. “I was really thrilled to be a part of that. All these years later I’m still getting to play the music, so no, it wasn’t frustrating.”
The band finally enjoyed a resurgence as their reputation grew among musicians – particularly in the UK. The band reformed in the 90s for occasional shows, including headlining a stage at Reading Festival in 1993. Stephens says it’s gratifying when bands as diverse as Primal Scream, The Flaming Lips and Hot Chip pay tribute to their records. “They are all people I have a tremendous amount of respect for. I’m grateful that the music took the path it did and got to them, and that they enjoy it. Being in Big Star has built a lot of bridges for me. It’s been pretty cool.”
Originally published in NME, 2 August 2014.