Big Star, the fabled forefathers of indie-pop, embark on another one of their occasional, and brief, reunion tours this week.
Though it's been 25 years since the reclusive Memphis band recorded its
last studio album, Big Star have a new live album, Nobody Can Dance, which was
culled from tapes of two 1974 performances.
They'll play Minneapolis on Wednesday and Chicago on Thursday before ending the three-day trip with a homecoming appearance Friday at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, Tenn.
The band's roster is the same today as in 1993, when original members Alex Chilton (lead guitar and vocals), now 49, and Jody Stephens (drums), 46, recruited guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow of Seattle power-poppers the Posies to round out the lineup.
"They're part of the band now," Stephens said of Auer and Stringfellow. "It just makes perfect sense -- they're such amazingly talented people, and I'm a huge fan of theirs."
The admiration is mutual. Auer and Stringfellow got the gig mostly on the strength of the Posies' covers of Big Star's "Feel" and "I Am the Cosmos," a solo tune by late Big Star founder Chris Bell.
"Their versions were so close to the originals it was scary," Stephens said.
The brief 1993 reunion tour started in Columbia, Mo., with a show issued later that year by Zoo Records as Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93. It continued with shows in the Netherlands and the UK.
Then, as now, the shows provided an opportunity for a new generation of fans to hear material that was rarely performed live, even by the original group. Stephens said the band played fewer than 10 gigs before Bell quit in late 1972, and it toured only sporadically after that as a trio.
Since the 1993 reunion, the new Big Star lineup has picked up that sporadic pace. The band played a handful of dates in spring 1994, another handful that fall and, most recently, shows in New York and Seattle in November 1996.
The current incarnation is better-rehearsed than the loose outfit that those who saw the band in the early '70s recall.
"Stephens was brilliant -- like Ringo Starr if he had grown up in Memphis -- but [bassist Andy] Hummel could barely play at all," said Jim Dickinson, who produced Big Star's last studio album, Third/Sister Lovers. "But that was key to the chemistry. Rock 'n' roll is the music of inspired amateurs."
"They were very different live than on record," said John King, then the head of marketing for Big Star's label, Ardent Records. "There was an edginess or jaggedness to the live show."
Big Star's three studio albums, recorded between 1972 and '74, filtered British-invasion pop through a Memphis homebrew of blues, R&B and garage rock. They included such songs as
"In the Street" (RealAudio excerpt), now the theme song to "That '70s Show."
"I always thought of Big Star as a soul band," Stephens said. "[Musically,] Big Star was a power-pop band, but the things Alex and Chris were singing about were so reflective of what they were going through emotionally. I think that's what soul music is all about, so to me we were a soul band."
"It reminded me of Lennon and McCartney," King said. "Alex was Lennon and Chris Bell was McCartney -- one of them had an edge and one of them softened things up -- and I thought that was a wonderful combination."
Twenty-five years later, the three albums stand with such albums as the Beatles' Revolver, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and the Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground and Nico as indie-rock's founding texts.
Teenage Fanclub and the Afghan Whigs are among the bands that acknowledge Big Star's influence. Additionally, Wilco's new Summer Teeth owes a clear debt to Third/Sister Lovers.
"I hear its artistic influence every day," said Dickinson, who also produced the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me (1987), which includes the song "Alex Chilton." "I don't see that influence dying anytime soon, because it keeps coming, in new ways, all obviously ... driven by those three little records."
A tribute album, Big Star, Small World, is slated for a summer
release on Ignition Records. It will feature Big Star covers by the
Afghan Whigs ("Nightime"), Whiskeytown ("Give Me Another Chance"), Wilco
("Thirteen"), Matthew Sweet ("The Ballad of El Goodo") and others, along
with a new song, "Hot Thing," written and performed by Chilton, Stephens,
Auer and Stringfellow.
Despite the group's tour and new song, the prospect of any other new Big Star material is in doubt.
"It's something Jon and Ken and I would like to do," Stephens said. "I don't know that Alex is really interested in stepping back into those shoes."