Big Star and the True Meaning of a 'Cult' Band - Cult Week

By Matthew DeMello

Big Star, from left to right: Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel, and Alex Chilton in the early ’70s. Image courtesy of Ardent Studios.

What usually gets associated with anything both “pop” and “cult” — in terms of bands, films, or what have you — is art that sits on the sidelines of the bell curve, usually offering a harsh aesthetic only few can appreciate, ideas that are ahead of their time, or perhaps behind it. As such, that definition maintains a considerable common space in a Venn diagram with what’s considered ‘critically acclaimed,’ though not always.

For twentysomething listeners like me, and likely anyone younger, legendary groups like The Velvet Underground really can no longer be fully appreciated as the ‘cult’ acts they once were, because of their expansive reputation as such. Their status is so well documented that any remnants of their cults of yore are tied to the contrary appearance of establishment approval.

There are few achievements that feel less stolid and vain than a music critic’s praise. Though like critical acclaim, a rabidly devoted audience is fueled often by the perception of ‘cool’ and the intentional self-othering that comes with even a basic subculture. Yet, when an artist’s integrity is validated by public record, their cult-like appeal becomes less organic in translation for future generations, elevating their audience to just that: a recognized subculture.

In the case of Big Star — routinely pegged as one of America’s greatest cult acts, one whose influence certainly supersedes their commercial success — the distinction is even more dubious.

As their name implies, the band clearly had some vague ambition to be successful, at least with their first album – the even more pretentiously titled #1 Record. Though Big Star drummer Jody Stephens tells BTR that that wasn’t exactly a subject the band actively discussed in the beginning.

“I know that [guartist and founder] Chris [Bell] had an idea of being successful and seeing beyond just what we were accomplishing in the studio, but it’s not something I particularly focused on,” says Stephens, explaining their emphasis on quality their product, all while their means of distribution – the ill-fated, soul-oriented label, Staxx – crumbled beneath them. When things didn’t go their way (the end of Staxx, being wholly out of step with the wave of heavy metal sweeping through the early ’70s, and the bruising of egos within the group), emphatic record reviews became all they had to show for their labored songwriting and painstaking craftsmanship.

This is not the same as being worshiped by a salivating few in a niche community (something that would happen for Big Star much later), or the fashioning of your creative edge in a scene like Andy Warhol’s Factory. The ideals that innovators like the Velvets gave birth to have inspired many music critics to enter the occupation. With Big Star however, it was music critics, and later other ‘cult’ musicians like Elliott Smith, who actually breathed life into the band’s career over time.

Their admirers seemed to love the band not because they felt like Big Star was re-inventing the wheel, but rather because their music was so obviously good that it should have been gigantic; that they should have been the Beatles of the ’70s.

It’s hard not to believe them with songs that sound like this:

As one rock writer of the era tells the cameras in Nothing Can Hurt Me, a new documentary about the band that was released last month, “The prospects of helping someone get big was not really what we were hoping for. We wanted them to be a tiny band that everyone listened to.”

Sound familiar?

Rather than being a particularly dogmatic group superfans, Nothing Can Hurt Me depicts the ‘cult’ of Big Star as the first time anyone felt like a great band was their secret to keep from the world — something the majority of indie music listeners today can appreciate with nearly every artist they hold dear.

Yet, after the crushing commercial failure of #1 Record, songwriter and guitarist Chris Bell threw in the towel, disdainful that even their glowing reviews tended to focus more on his writing partner, Alex Chilton, who was already famous for grumbling a #1 hit song with the Box Tops in 1967’s “The Letter”.

As is shown in the very beginning of Nothing Can Hurt Me, what brought Big Star back from the debacle, now as a trio, was the overwhelming response they received from playing the first-ever Rock Writers of the World convention held in Memphis on Memorial Day weekend of 1973. It was depicted in the film as an event devised distinctly to have Big Star perform and let them know someone was listening, and it worked. The validation gave the band the creative fire to polish off their sophomore effort — the incendiary jangle-pop riff-machine of Radio City.

“The only real Big Star audience we had for #1 Record, for any of that stuff, were rock writers,” remembers Stephens. The rock writers’ convention was, for Stephens, “the one and only time I can remember playing to an audience that knew the songs, knew the lyrics, and went just absolutely crazy.”

“Of course, they had the help of a free open bar,” he chides after a pause.

Radio City was yet another record with a title that screamed with as much approachability as #1 Record did, and hit record stores with a similar, collective thud. In stark contrast to the Velvets, who began by making noise and, just before collapsing, decided to give writing radio-friendly hits a chance; Alex Chilton and company did everything they could (artistically speaking) to be successful.

So just before imploding, they decided to make a real noise.

1978’s Third/Sister Lovers is a brutal and beautiful piece of humanity. In many ways, it’s a little bit like the inverse of Loaded or Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. It’s the portrait of a broken band -– down to a duo from a quartet –- heartbroken by unending disappointment, who decide to drown their careers with a kamikaze sense of self-indulgence rather than make another desperate, albeit final, stab at stardom.

“We’d always had that freedom to do whatever we wanted to in the studio,” says Stephens. “So each one of those records kind of reflected in a pretty honest way -– or very honest way –- where Chris and Alex were in their lifestyles at the time.”

Which based on the sound and format of Third, must have been an enormously confused and borderline bi-polar place. The slash in its title derives from contrary titles the band had in mind and ultimately found difficulty deciding on. It is a total enigma of a record, sounding in many places wholly disjointed and practically sewn together by fraying thread. Made as the band and so many relationships surrounding Chilton were falling apart, Third is also perhaps the most beloved record by Big Star fans.

Regardless of the state in which it came into the world, the album is recognized as a whole and autonomous work. Stephens has performed the entire record – complete with it’s ominous string sections and searing guitar feedback – with a cast of alternative music heroes and declared champions of his band (Mike Mills of R.E.M., M. Ward, Matthew Sweet, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, and more) on multiple occasions.

Yet no one can find one single defined song sequence for the record. It’s various releases on vinyl, CD, and the Keep Your Eyes on The Sky box set all feature different track listings, even Stephens himself doesn’t know how set lists were chosen for those Third/Sister Lovers tribute shows.

Where it’s hard to imagine listening to records like Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon on shuffle, what makes Third unlike any other ‘Greatest Album Ever’ experience is that it exists as a grab bag, a choose-your-own-adventure using material ranging from maniacal to devastating.

For all intents and purposes, Third is where the beating heart of Big Star’s ‘cult’ lives today, designed as its own self-defined rite of passage since no one can tell you what order to play it in. An indefinite track listing for an album is the kind of musical device that takes a few listens to appreciate, especially considering how, as a listener, you can get attached to a sequence you may have made for yourself or to the jumbled order you caught from a bootleg.

“To me, Big Star was like some letter that was posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985 — like something that got lost in the mail,” songwriter Robyn Hitchcock says in Nothing Can Hurt Me, perhaps not coincidentally citing the year that Third was reissued on vinyl.

Others contend throughout the documentary that even the sound of Big Star, even at their most inviting, requires a particular amount of time and emotional investment to be fully appreciated. In a similar, organic fashion, their success only fully matured finally saw some success almost 20 years after Stephens and Chilton parted ways following the release of Third.

As the story goes, the pair teamed up with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies in 1993 performing on various occasions as Big Star until Chilton’s death in 2010. The larger, significantly younger, crowds that would follow them hit their apex just a days after Chilton died of a heart attack when the band was supposed to play that year’s SXSW festival.

The show, fittingly, transformed into an all-star tribute that sewed the seeds for future performances of Third in Chicago and Central Park.

It was this period that was ironically lasted longer and was more prosperous than the band’s celebrated ‘hey day,’ (though not even Stevens refers to their time in the ’70s by that name). As an extra cherry on top, their fellow ’70s power pop flagship act Cheap Trick recorded a version of “In the Street” from #1 Record for the theme to That 70s Show –- symbolizing the zeitgeist of a decade that pretty much ignored them completely. It’s still usually the best way to get anyone to recognize something written by the group.

Jody Stephens behind the kit with the reunited Big Star in 2006. Photo by Suzy Mills.

Yet from this strange, bittersweet time, Stephens looks back fondly of the band’s 2005 ‘reunion’ record with Auer and Stringfellow, In Space. He passionately describes marveling over how Chilton never lost his experimental edge, incorporating an orchestral approach to to rock band arrangements, never resting on laurels or what Big Star was ‘supposed to’ sound like, and openly collaborating with their new, younger members.

For a band that gets pegged over and over again as “forgotten,” there’s something sort of romantic about hearing so much about In Space, it being the least revered or talked about of Big Star’s releases among fans.

Given how their music wrote the book on how to age well, maybe it’s probably not the smartest idea to overlook dismiss the most overlooked album by the most overlooked band in music. Who knows? Perhaps twenty years from now, In Space may have a ‘cult’ of its own. In which case, I’m going to give it another listen right now.

Tune into Third Eye Weekly, BTR’s premier current events podcast, this coming Thursday to hear our interview with Stephens and a set of deep tracks from the soundtrack of Nothing Can Hurt Me. You can also rent the documentary on iTunes today.