Big Star drummer Jody Stephens was simply looking for a way to give his
band a new voice by putting its influential power-pop tunes in the
hands of some modern artists.
He probably never realized how many responses he'd get.
Rising like a phoenix out of the humdrum slagheap of tribute albums is the
results of that call and response, the Big Star tribute album Big Star, Small
World, replete with some influential names in rock today such as
Whiskeytown, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills and the Afghan Whigs and including a new
tune from the latest lineup of the Memphis, Tenn.-based Big Star.
"[Band founder] Chris [Bell] and Alex [Chilton] are both emotive singers. There's
a lot more going on with the vocals than just a voice there," said Stephens, who
started gathering tracks for the tribute album in September 1995. "There's a lot
of emotion, there's more to be read underneath what they're singing. I just
thought it would be good to have singers that I thought would capture that in
their own way."
By most accounts, the '70s power-pop quartet has long been tribute-worthy.
Though never commercially successful, Big Star purveyed a trend-setting
mixture of hook-laden melody and rock-'n'-roll punch that made them near
patron saints to a broad range of later musical left-fielders. The Replacements,
R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and This Mortal Coil are among the many who have
openly acknowledged Big Star as a creative influence.
The new disc wedges a track of fresh Big Star music between contributions by a
diverse collection of Big Star acolytes that includes Juliana Hatfield, the Posies
and Mills. The new Big Star tune, "Hot Thing," was recorded by band figurehead
Chilton, 47; Stephens, 45; and Big Star's newest members, the Posies'
singer/guitarist Jon Auer and bassist/guitarist Ken Stringfellow.
The track packs a rootsy wallop, said Stephens. "It sounds like a cross between
Big Star and a Memphis R&B thing," he said. "In the past, Big Star was more of
a British pop invasion-inspired band. There are certain elements of Memphis in
there, too. But in this new thing, there are more Memphis music elements than
British music elements."
The tribute album evolved slowly, starting with Stephens' idea of giving some of
the quartet's songs new readings in new voices.
Among the bands contributing to the 12 tracks on the disc -- due out in
September -- are alt-country acts Wilco and Whiskeytown, country singer Kelly
Willis, white soul band the Afghan Whigs and a team comprising Matthew
Sweet, Stephens, Chris Stamey of the dB's and R.E.M. bassist Mills.
Joe "Bass" Howard, bassist for the Posies, said the band recorded the album
track "What's Going On" a couple years ago and were a fairly logical choice to
be among the album's contributors.
"Ken [Stringfellow] and Jon [Auer] are in Big Star; Jody [Stephens] and Alex
[Chilton] are big fans of the Posies," Howard said. "If there's any band in the
friggin' world that should do a Big Star cover, it's the Posies. If it's Big Star, tell
me when to be at the airport, what time do we record?"
Big Star frontman Chilton began singing at 17 with the Box Tops, whose 1967
single "The Letter" remains his only commercial hit to date. Singer/guitarist
Chris Bell recruited him for Big Star, and the band -- with other original
members Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel -- went on to issue three Big Star
albums that remain indelibly stamped as influential, even though they remain
virtually unknown to the mass public. Bell left the band in 1972 and later died in
a 1978 car accident. Hummel left as well, and the band remained largely
dormant until a 1993 reunion at Missouri University with the Posies' Stringfellow
and Auer subbing for Bell and Hummel.
John Mazzacco, president of Ignition Records, said there were several reasons
why the label jumped at the chance to release Big Star, Small World.
"Big Star, first of all, is a seminal pop band with active closeted fans we happen
to be a part of," Mazzacco said. "The artist participation in the record also
maneuvered us a little bit to do the deal with them, as well as our ongoing
relation with Jody [Stephens] at Ardent Studios."
Stephens said that the new version of Big Star will embark on a limited tour
around the time of the album's release.
The complete track and artist listing is: "Ballad of El Goodo," Sweet, Stephens,
Stamey, Mills; "Back of a Car," Gin Blossoms; "Nighttime," Afghan Whigs; "Jesus
Christ," Teenage Fanclub; "Give Me Another Chance," Whiskeytown; "Don't Lie
to Me," Juliana Hatfield; "When My Baby's Beside Me," Kelly Willis; "Get What
You Deserve," the Idle Wilds; "Hot Thing," Big Star; "Thirteen," Wilco; "What's
Going On," Posies; "September Gurls," Sister Hazel.