More than a decade into the internet age, it's hard to imagine a time when music and the artists who created it carried an aura of mystery. Before information about any topic under the sun was just a few computer keystrokes away, word of mouth was an absolutely vital part of expanding one's musical vocabulary on bands flying below the mainstream radar. It was an era when discovering and sharing underground music brought friends closer together and sometimes made you new ones.
If you ever listened to music on vinyl BEFORE doing so was retro, you know what I'm talking about (and you whippersnappers can just shake your heads and indulge your elders for a few moments here). If you were born before 1975, it's likely that you can not only remember when and with which album you got turned onto a favorite artist, but also fondly recall who turned you onto them.
Apart from the Velvet Underground, there's probably no band who came to more ears through word of mouth than power pop cult heroes Big Star. The Memphis quartet led by songwriters Alex Chilton - who'd been a bonafide pop star as a teenager fronting The Box Tops and singing other writers' songs, including the No. 1 hit "The Letter" - and Chris Bell, never enjoyed much success during their brief initial run in the 1970s, which saw the release of just two albums. Post breakup, however, the band's music was shared and converts were made who, in turn, shared the music and the band's legend grew exponentially. Proof? How many other obscure '70s bands are being given the loving four-disc box set treatment by archivist label nonpareil Rhino?
As noted in former New Times' music editor Bob Mehr's excellent liner notes essay for the Keep An Eye On The Sky compilation, eventually, some of the Big Star converts started paying musical homage: the Bangles covered "September Gurls" on their multi-platinum Different Light album; on The Replacements' tune "Alex Chilton," Mats leader Paul Westerberg sang "I never travel far / Without a little Big Star" and R.E.M. made a pilgrimage to Memphis to record their major label debut in Ardent Studios, where Big Star had made their albums.
By the early '90s, Big Star's profile had been raised to the point that their first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, were released on a single CD, while their unreleased third long-player Third/Sister Lovers and a live album were also issued. Even Chris Bell -- who quit Big Star after the first album and was killed in a car crash not long after -- was treated to a posthumous release of a collection of solo material, I Am The Cosmos.
All the attention led to what was supposed to be a one-off Big Star reunion show in 1993, with Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens joined by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, whose own band, The Posies, had covered both Big Star and Chris Bell songs on recordings. A live album of that show was issued and the reconstituted band has continued to perform since, also releasing a well-received studio album, In Space, in 2005.
So what do the Keep An Eye On The Sky box and a two-CD deluxe reissue of Bell's I Am The Cosmos bring to the table in 2009? Answer: Plenty.
The Big Star box boasts 98 tracks with its first three discs covering the band's three studio recordings of the 1970s and more. Disc one starts off with some pre-Big Star songs and, from there, every album track is represented, though many appear in alternate or demo form. These versions differ only slightly in lyrical content or musical feel from the released takes of the songs, but will certainly appeal to longtime fans. This also works for beginners who may want to understand what the cult of Big Star was built upon, because each album track is here in some form.
The best part of Keep An Eye On The Sky is the fourth disc, a previously unreleased 20-track live set culled from three sets recorded in the band's hometown in 1973. By then a trio with Bell's departure, it's fascinating to hear Chilton take the lead on his former partner's songs as well as his own. The band sounds fantastic, so its surprising to hear the merely polite response of the audience. It finally becomes clear at the end when Chilton says that headliners Archie Bell & The Drells are up next. Man, if ever there was a case of prophets having no honor in their homeland, this is it.
Stung by the commercial failure of the first Big Star record he'd poured his heart and soul into, Chris Bell left the band and music altogether for a time. Only the solo single, "I Am The Cosmos," was released before he died in late 1978. Eventually, as Big Star's cult legend grew, a posthumous Bell solo album, titled after the single, was released in 1992.
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The 2009 deluxe reissue includes the I Am The Cosmos album and adds a second disc of alternate versions and three pre-Big Star tracks. Like those on the Big Star box, these alternate versions do not differ greatly from the released versions, but are still well-worth hearing, especially for longtime fans. Unsung in his lifetime, Bell has since taken a privileged position in the power pop pantheon and rightfully so.
Keep An Eye On The Sky and I Am The Cosmos are both available now.
And, finally, I must give credit where it's due to Kim Reynolds, whom I've neither seen nor heard from in more than 20 years, but whom I still fondly recall introducing me to Big Star. In the 1980s. On vinyl. Here's to you, Kim!