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Big Star - Keep an Eye on the Sky

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Artist: Big Star

Album: Keep an Eye on the Sky

Label: Rhino

Review date: Nov. 17, 2009

Big Star grew out of a group of young musicians who hung around the Ardent recording studios in Memphis, Tennessee, in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The Ardent Records anthology Thank You Friends, released last year by Big Beat, paints a great picture of the post-British Invasion scene that was burgeoning in Memphis at the time (most of the tracks from that compilation that feature future Big Star members are included on this box set). Musicians and engineers who spent their days working with amazing soul artists like Al Green, Ann Peebles, and Booker T. and The MGs would come back into the studio in the evenings to work on their own projects, and in the process they developed a heavily Beatles-influenced but still indisputably American pop sound that would fully blossom with Big Star. The band was Ardent engineer John Fry’s pet project – he’s often described as their George Martin – and when the studio started its own record label, Big Star’s 1972 debut was one of its first releases.

The initial incarnation of the band – rooted in the songwriting team of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton – only lasted long enough to make one album. Chilton, a native of Memphis, had already had a taste of fame. He’d been an unhappy teen idol as the lead singer of the Box Tops, whose song “The Letter” had been a No. 1 in 1967. Chilton was trying to make it as a solo artist in New York when he met Bell, an immensely talented Memphis songwriter who’d been taken under Fry’s wing at Ardent and taught to engineer. At that point, he had already made a number of recordings with future Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and other Memphis studio musicians. By all accounts, Bell saw Chilton as the potential Paul McCartney to his John Lennon, and thought that partnering with the already famous Chilton would guarantee their music a wide audience. But things didn’t turn out as Bell hoped. Big Star was plagued with stroke after stroke of bad luck, including arrests on tour and major problems with the distribution of their LP. Even though the album was critically lauded and well advertised, it didn’t end up getting into very many record stores, so we’ll never know how the record-buying public might have responded to it. Bell ended up having a nervous breakdown and leaving the band after that bitterly disappointing commercial failure, and while the band continued on without him, his influence loomed large over what remained of Big Star. Bassist Andy Hummel left after their second album, Radio City, was finished. After that, Chilton and Stephens recorded a third and final album that sat unreleased for four years. By the time 3rd was finally released in 1978, the band had developed a cult following in the U.K. and there was apparently talk of a reunion of the original line-up, but any hope of that happening was crushed when Bell died in a car accident.

Just over 30 years later – thanks to their being championed and covered by bands like R.E.M., the Replacements, This Mortal Coil, Wilco, Elliott Smith, the dBs, and on and on – Big Star have finally earned the fairly widespread popularity that they always deserved. Rhino’s new Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky seems like it was put together as much to please Big Star fans as it was to introduce newcomers to the band. The box includes remastered editions of all three albums, in their original running order, with extensive liner notes, a small selection of pre-Big Star songs by Chilton and Bell, some alternate takes from the album sessions, a Quicktime video of a reel of Super8 film shot by the band during the recording of #1 Record, and both tracks from the Bell single that came out shortly before his death (Rhino Handmade also recently released a newly remastered edition of the Bell solo compilation I am the Cosmos with an entire disc of bonus tracks).

For long-time Big Star fans like myself, the main attraction on the box set is the sequence of 11 absolutely incredible Alex Chilton demos from early 1974, after the release of Radio City and the departure of Hummell. Among the demos are early versions of most of the songs that would be recorded later that year for 3rd, an album that’s much more chaotic album than #1 Record or Radio City. It does contain some of Chilton’s very best songs – like the jubilant “Thank You Friends” and “Jesus Christ” – but at the same time there’s a darkness to much of the album that made it somewhat inscrutable to me for a long time. It sounds very much like a great band falling apart, which is exactly what was happening over the course of the late-night recording sessions for the record. After barely four years as a band, and after releasing what would belatedly become considered two absolute classic albums, Chilton and Stephens were the only members of Big Star left. The experience must have been unbearably frustrating and disappointing. But the mostly acoustic 3rd demos have a totally different feeling than the finished album. They give a sense of what the record might have sounded like under happier circumstances, and the performances are much closer to what you’d expect from the band that made #1 Record and Radio City.

Keep an Eye on the Sky’s final disc is comprised of a live recording from a show the band did as a trio in 1973, shortly after Bell quit. The performances are great, but Bell’s absence is painfully obvious. Chilton is left to compensate for the missing second guitar and forced to sing all of Bell’s songs, with Stephens and Hummel valiantly attempting to replicate the vocal harmonies. The songs still work, but are nowhere near as amazing as they must have sounded when the whole band was still together. Sadly, no recordings of their few live performances exist. Or if they have, they haven’t been discovered yet.

By Rob Hatch-Miller

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