Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Big Star: Keep An Eye on the Sky

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 3/7/10 w/ Additional Edits.

From 1971-1974 and two studio albums with a third album released a few years later, Big Star is a band, despite their lack of commercial success, that proved to be very influential to bands that would follow later on in the 1980s alternative music scene. Often considered the greatest cult band next to the Velvet Underground, Big Star’s blend of catchy pop with crunching power chords would be the formation for the sub-genre known as power-pop. Led by former Box Tops vocalist/guitarist Alex Chilton along with vocalist/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist/vocalist Andy Hummel, and drummer/vocalist Jody Stephens. Big Star is a band that had the pop craftsmanship of the Beatles but also the raucous sound of the Kinks with an American sensibility.

Though Chris Bell would leave the band following of the release of their 1972 debut #1 Record to forge a brief solo career that tragically ended in 1978 following his death from a car accident. The band forged on for their 1974 album Radio City that didn’t sold well just like the first album as Andy Hummel leave the band just before its release leaving Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens to work on their third album with producer Jim Dickinson. The sessions proved to be troubling as the band broke up and the album was eventually released in 1978. By the 1980s as Chilton forged a solo career with a degree of cult success, Big Star became a big inspiration as bands like R.E.M., the Replacements, the Bangles, and other bands acknowledged Big Star’s influence.

By the 1990s, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens reformed the band with Posies members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow for occasional tours and an album in 2005 called In Space to mixed reviews. Big Star’s music was suddenly appearing in films and TV, notably That 70’s Show as the song In the Street was the theme to the show performed by Cheap Trick. In 2009 with Big Star still considered to be widely influential by indie bands and a new wave of power-pop acts, Rhino released a four-disc box set featuring demos, outtakes, and a live performance recording from 1973 that also coincides with a deluxe reissue of Chris Bell’s posthumous 1992 album I Am the Cosmos called Keep An Eye on the Sky.

Keep an Eye on the Sky is a four-disc box set that chronicles Big Star’s recordings from 1968 to 1975 including some solo material from Chris Bell. Featuring early material from the band including Chris Bell’s pre-Big Star projects that is featured in the first disc. With the first three discs chronicling each of the band’s three albums, the fourth disc features a live recording from a January 1973 performance in Memphis, Tennessee. The box set is widely considered to be one of the greatest examinations of one of rock’s most influential and overlooked bands of the 1970s as the box set truly lives up to the legendary status of Big Star.

Disc 1

The first disc begins with two tracks from Chris Bell’s early work including a solo track and from a band Bell was in before Big Star. First is Psychedelic Stuff, an upbeat rock with a snarling riff and bopping rhythms led by Chris Bell’s low, hollowed vocals with crazy lyrics that features tempo changes and weird lyrics. Next is All I See Is You by one of Bell’s early bands in Icewater. The song is a mid-tempo love ballad with a somber piano and Bell’s trademark, high-pitch wailing vocals as it is a dreamy track that features some of the early elements of power-pop. An early mix of Alex Chilton’s Every Day As We Grow Closer appears as the mid-tempo ballad with Chilton’s soothing vocals as the song has a smooth rhythm and a flourishing piano track and a wailing synthesizer track. An early version of the ballad Try Again performed by another of Bell’s early bands in Rock City is presented in a country-style ballad with soothing lap steel slides and Bell’s somber vocals.

The next ten tracks feature a large portion of material from #1 Record as songs like the rocking Feel and Don’t Lie To Me are presented in the same version like in the album as is the mid-tempo ballad The Ballad Of El Goodo and the acoustic ballad Try Again. Yet, the rest of the material from that album are presented in alternate mixes with extended studio chatter as songs like the upbeat In The Street and When My Baby’s Beside Me along with acoustic ballads Thirteen and Give Me Another Chance, the mid-tempo romp of My Life Is Right, and the exotic The India Song. The differences between the versions in the studio track and these mixes are some of vocal presentation while My Life Is Right has an acoustic intro in that mix. Gone With The Light is an acoustic ballad sung by Chris Bell with washy riffs and Bell’s dreamy vocals that is complemented with melancholic lyrics as it is an amazing rarity from Bell and the band which includes fast-paced riffs of the next song Watch The Sunrise. That song appears in a different version from the album as a single which is thirty-four seconds shorter than the album version.

The next six tracks are more alternate versions and rarities from the #1 Record sessions. Alternate versions of St 100/6, The India Song, Feel, The Ballad Of El Goodo, and a singles mix of In The Street appear as they feature different vocal mixes. Particularly In The Street that is presented in a slower rhythm and a rougher mix while The India Song is presented in an acoustic presentation with the keyboards still prominent in the recording. Feel doesn’t feature a brass section to complement more of the vocal harmonies in the band. The section also includes an excerpt of a Rock City song called The Preacher which is a swooning mid-tempo ballad performed by Bell and the band that includes a soothing string orchestra. Country Morn is an alternate version of Watch The Sunrise with different lyrics though retaining many of its acoustic melodies all sung by Chris Bell.

The next three tracks are demos, two of which would appear in their final versions for different releases. First is a band performance demo of Chris Bell’s I Got Kinda Lost with a more rollicking performance from the band. Next is a demo of Back Of A Car, that would later appear in Radio City, that appears in a rough form with the vocals not as polished in its final version. The last track to close the first disc is a demo cover of Loudon & London Wainwright’s Motel Blues which is presented in a soothing, acoustic form with arpeggio-laden riffs and melodies with Chilton’s somber vocals.

Disc 2

The second disc is filled with demos and alternate versions of material largely from Radio City plus the single release of Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos/You And Your Sister and early demos of songs for Third/Sister Lovers. Opening the second disc is a demo of Chris Bell’s There Was A Light performed by the band that has a slower yet rougher sound than the final version Bell made as a solo artist. The next two demos for Life Is White and What’s Going Ahn are both presented in acoustic forms with Alex Chilton performing them in their rough incarnations. The next twelve tracks is Radio City in its entirety though some tracks like Mod Lang, Back Of A Car, and the piano ballad Morpha Too appear in alternate mixes that featured studio chatter and different vocal mixes. The rest of the material in that section are the mastered tracks of the album that includes standouts like the raucous O My Soul and the mid-tempo love song September Gurls.

Following that album in its entirety are two alternate versions of O My Soul and She’s A Mover with the former sounding much more raucous with a slower yet swooning intro while the latter is also raucous with an echoed vocal mix. A rehearsal version of Daisy Glaze with the band performing the song with an unpolished mix and performance that is still lively than its final version. The next two tracks are from Chris Bell’s lone 1978 release in the single I Am The Cosmos and You And Your Sister. The latter of which features Alex Chilton singing back-up in what is the highlight of Bell’s tragic yet stellar musical career. The next five tracks are acoustic demos for material that would be part of the band’s next album Third/Sister Lovers. Songs like Blue Moon, Thank You Friends, Take Care, Nighttime, and a cover of the Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale are performed with such richness that it must’ve been impossible to make them into the songs they turned out for the band’s third album. Closing the second disc is an acoustic demo of You Get What You Deserve that is much richer than its mastered version from Radio City.

Disc 3

The third disc features material all recorded or made for the band’s third album entitled Third/Sister Lovers with famed Memphis producer Jim Dickinson. Opening the third disc are four demos for that album which includes an unreleased track of a song that didn’t make it into the album called Lovely Day. A song that is a wonderful ballad that expresses Chilton’s somber voice to describe a day with imagery-laden lyrics as its presented in a rich, acoustic form. Demos for Downs, Jesus Christ, and Holocaust are all different with Downs is being accompanied by an electric guitar while Jesus Christ becomes a rich, acoustic ballad. The demo for Holocaust is true to its original yet stark piano ballad but without the haunting production textures that Jim Dickinson provided for the mastered version. An alternate version demo of Big Black Car which is performed with a soft, electric guitar accompaniment and a backing vocalist for some parts of the song.

The next 18 tracks are the 17 of the 19 songs mastered for the 1992 Rykodisc reissue of Third/Sister Lovers but without the track listing order that Chilton wanted for the album as each song represent the material that appears in the band’s third studio album. Opening that section is an extended intro to Jesus Christ called Manana with its circus-like loops and playful flavor which then segues into Jesus Christ. Even as the material ranges from a country-style ballad take on the Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale plus haunting ballads like Kanga Roo, Holocaust, Big Black Car, and Take Care plus raucous numbers like Kizza Me, You Can’t Have Me, and a cover of Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Goin’ On.

The last three tracks of the album feature an unreleased track plus two alternate mixes of songs from Third/Sister Lovers. First is the recorded version of Lovely Day that becomes a mid-tempo ballad of sorts that features a similar melody and rhythm to Stroke It Noel. The alternate mixes for the cover of the Kinks’ Till The End Of The Day and a cover of the standard Nature Boy feature some polished mixes in the former while the latter has a clearer vocal mix to close the third disc.

Disc 4: Live at Lafayette’s Music Room, Memphis, TN, January 1973

The fourth and final disc of the box set is a live performance from the band where it was just a trio featuring Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens as they’re playing to a small crowd opening for another band. Opening with the raucous When My Baby’s Beside Me, songs like that one along with She’s A Mover, Don’t Lie To Me, and a take on former bandmate Chris Bell’s I Got Kinda Lost that showed the band’s more energetic yet raucous sound. Yet, mid-tempo tracks like Way Out West, My Life Is Right, The Ballad Of El Goodo, Bell’s There Was A Light, Back Of A Car, and In The Street show a balance between the band’s raw sound and their knack for pop sensibilities.

Even ballads like Thirteen, Try Again, St 100/6, and Watch The Sunrise have a sense of richness in its performance along with amazing vocal harmonies from Chilton and Hummel. The India Song is given an acoustic treatment where it’s one of the highlights of the performance. Yet, the surprise of the 20-song set is the choice of covers the band has chosen to do including a ragged take of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Hot Burrito #2, a bopping take on Marc Bolan/T. Rex’s Baby Strange with driving guitar riffs, a raucous yet charging approach on Todd Rundgren’s Slut, and a blazing cover of the Kinks’ Come On Now with rousing riffs and pummeling drums. Closing the fourth disc and performance is a rousing yet energetic performance of O My Soul. Presented as a bonus in the fourth disc is a video clip of the band rehearsing circa 1972 with an alternate mix of Thirteen playing in the background.

Keep An Eye on the Sky is a glorious box set from Big Star and certainly one of the best reissues of 2009. While it’s a set that is really targeted towards hardcore fans of the band as well as rock and power-pop enthusiasts. It’s a box set that has something to offer what other half-hearted compilations about the band failed to do. Those new to the band should stick to getting the band’s three studio albums made in the 1970s. Though they’re not easily available through retail, they can be found in the Internet as the box set does succeed in how important Big Star is to popular music. In the end, Keep An Eye on the Sky is a marvelous box set that chronicles the amazing work made by one of rock’s most overlooked legends in Big Star.

Big Star Reviews: (#1 Record) - (Radio City) - Third/Sister Lovers - (In Space) - Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

© thevoid99 2013


  1. Big Star is a blind spot for me, that I hope to explore at some point.
    Thirteen is a timeless classic, the cover by Elliott Smith is pretty memorable as well.

    1. Well, I'm about to release my review of the documentary that Courtney of Big Thoughts from a Small Mind sent me through a private link. There is no band that is more important to me than Big Star as I think they belong up there with Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, the Who, the Clash, R.E.M., and Nirvana.