Some viewers of the Fox sitcom “That ’70s Show” have wondered about the show’s theme and the music used to underline dramatic moments. In a program that seems to get most things right, period-wise, why are they playing tunes that no one who lived through the period remembers?
Contrary to the assumption of some, said songs were not specially commissioned for the show but are genuinely from the era. Specifically they are the work of the Memphis ensemble Big Star, which, despite making quality music, found success to be elusive.
Although a critical favorite, it wasn’t until the Bangles released a cover of the group’s “September Gurls” in 1986 that the music of Big Star was brought to the masses. The new Ryko release “Big Star Story,” a comprehensive best of, serves to illustrate why, for many, this is the greatest band of which you’ve never heard.
Big Star formed in 1971 with guitarist/vocalists Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, Andy Hummell on bass and Jody Stephens on drums. Chilton was already familiar to the general public as the voice of the Box Tops, the blue-eyed soul outfit who scored a Billboard chart-topper in 1967 with “The Letter.”
“Chris and I, when we were coming up, we were all about English music,” recalls Hummell. “We were all about the English invasion that had happened back in the ’60s: groups like the Yardbirds and the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, subsequently. With Alex joining the band, he added in some other influences including some non-mainline country & western such as Gram Parsons, some blues like Muddy Waters and some classical like Handel and a lot of folk — he was heavily into Loudon Wainwright III, for example.”
The group practiced at Memphis’ Ardent Studios, where Bell worked as an engineer and occasional session guitarist. It was a sight across the street from Ardent that gave the new group its name. And, like the title of its first album, “#1 Record,” in retrospect, seems to have tempted providence.
“The whole thing was sort of pretentious,” says Stephens. “I think it was Andy and Chris that were sitting outside the studio and there was a grocery store across the street called Big Star and the whole kind of pretension of ‘Big Star’ just struck them as being funny and something that might be a good thing. Then the title of the first record was ‘#1 Record,’ so it all had a pretentious bent to it.”
With Chilton and Bell co-writing most tracks, “#1 Record” was strong, featuring blissful pop like “The Ballad of El Goodo,” melodic rock like “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” acoustic ballads such as “Thirteen” and “Watch the Sunrise” and Hummell’s exotic “The India Song.” It also boasted the boredom anthem “In the Street,” the eventual theme to the aforementioned “That ’70s Show.”
Hopes were high for this release. Says Hummell, “Ardent had stood itself up as a new production company and had a contract with Stax Records to distribute the music. There was a great deal of fanfare and publicity surrounding it all and certainly I think we all had the expectation that we would sell some records. Unfortunately it didn’t pan out that way.”
The short career of Big Star would be dogged by the inability of distributors to meet the demand for their product that the band swears to this day existed. Recalls Stephens, “We discovered that there were no sales because there no records in the stores.”
Bitterly disappointed with the record’s failure, Hummell harbors no doubts that it contributed to Bell’s departure from the group in 1972. Stephens offers, “It just seemed that his leaving was to get out from under the shadow of Alex’s presence. The press caught onto Alex having been in the Box Tops and played that up. I think it just rubbed Chris the wrong way and Chris had ideas about music and the direction that he wanted to go.”
Big Star did, in fact, completely split for a period. “I don’t remember us saying, ‘Okay, let’s break up,’ but we just sort of drifted apart,” Stephens says. “Alex put together another band — Andy played bass — and was working with those guys and they did a couple of local gigs and they did some recordings that included ‘What’s Going Ahn’, ‘Mod Lang’ and ‘She’s a Mover.’ The recordings that Alex did with those two other guys were actually the recordings that are used on ‘Radio City’.”
That album was released as the second Big Star long-player in 1974. The reconstitution of the band — minus Bell — occurred after a pair of rapturously received Big Star performances at a rock critics’ convention made the group realize that — if exposed to it — people loved its music.
The highlight of that second record was “September Gurls.” A chiming, anthemic song about lost love, it was a track with “hit” written all over it. Unfortunately, the single was another victim of poor distribution.
Laments Stephens, “We started getting calls [from radio stations] about, ‘Hey, there are no records in the stores, it’s not selling, we can’t continue to play this single.’ It wasn’t the public who were rejecting us. The public didn’t have the opportunity. I was fairly shocked that ‘September Gurls’ didn’t grab the attention of the world in a bigger fashion.”
Hummell doesn’t recall having a particular expectation of the track making the charts, but he and Stephens both agree that they very much liked the version of the song released by the Bangles. Hummell adds, “There’s actually a mistake that I made in that song that they left in ‘cos they thought it was kind of a cool mistake in the bass line, and it was funny because [Vicki Peterson] actually plays my mistake intentionally.”
With great music still not translating into sales, Hummell elected to go back to college. Once again, the remnants of Big Star retreated to Ardent Studios. The third Big Star album — recorded in 1975 — became the stuff of legend. “It didn’t really feel like a Big Star record,” admits Stephens. “It was primarily Alex’s. My brother Jimmy played on a track. It was more like Alex and I were the nucleus of this little recording happening.”
Nor did it sound like a Big Star project. Though “Thank You Friends” retained a glimmer of Big Star’s pop smarts tradition, “Kanga Roo” and “Holocaust” were tracks of such desolation that it has even been suggested Chilton was deliberately sabotaging his own work.
Stephens: “My take was he wasn’t so much sabotaging his songs as he was steering them more in the direction of the lifestyle and the emotions that were sparked by a relationship that he’d been in. At the time the third album was being recorded, I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on. I still thought they were brilliant songs.”
The album has been called “Third,” “Femme Fatale” and “Sister Lovers,” but the world would not be able to buy a legal copy under any title until 1978 for, around the time of its recording, Stax was going under. That fact and a disastrous radio station gig caused Stephens to quit and Big Star to fold.
Subsequently, Chilton, who shuns interviews, embarked on an extremely erratic solo career. Stephens ultimately went back to school and got a marketing degree and is now working in that trade for John Fry, co-founder of Ardent. Hummell works for the Lockheed Corporation. Chris Bell died in a car crash in 1978, four years after recording an album from which only the single “I am the Cosmos” saw release at the time. Two tracks from that solo project appear on the Ryko set.
Posthumously, Big Star has become more well known, gradually acquired a legendary, cultish status. R.E.M., Jeff Buckley and the Replacements have all acknowledged its influence and all three albums are accepted in many quarters as neglected classics.
The continuing interest has allowed intermittent reunions of the band featuring Chilton and Stephens plus Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. This lineup released a live album in 1993. Hummell vaguely recalls being approached by Stephens about participating but losing his message. There is a chance Big Star may make a new studio album next year, with Hummell possibly participating in some way.
Though Hummell has no cause to be too angry about the dribbling away of Big Star’s potential (“I’m not hurting. I’ve got a nice office”), he does feel a certain disappointment over the way the industry failed to match Big Star’s effectiveness.
“I don’t know if one wants to cast blame or try to come up with a reason of why Big Star didn’t succeed first time ’round [but] I think that’s where you have to look: the business end of things,” he says. “The band, for all our problems and our interpersonal squabbling and whatever else there may have been, nevertheless produced what history has shown to be some wonderful, enduring music which apparently had a profound influence on the genre of rock’n’roll music. From a business standpoint, we did our job. We did what we were supposed to do.”