“I Never Travel Far Without A Little Big Star”
Keep An Eye On The Sky 4CD Box Set (Rhino)
First Published December 2009
It is 1978. The setting is an upstairs bedroom in the Surrey suburbs. Outside the punk wars are raging. Inside we have a twenty-one year old college drop out with a complicated personal life, reduced to once again living with his parents. He pulls out from his Virgin Records carrier bag a new double Stax LP re-release of some obscuro band that Max Bell and Nick Kent have been raving about in NME. One play of Side One, Track 2 is enough to create an instant fascination – angelic harmonies, a lead vocal of weary sincerity and guitars that sparkle. Nick Kent cried when he heard this song ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ on the radio as he thought it was from the Byrds re-union LP and that McGuinn had rekindled the magic. The Byrds hadn’t, but Big Star had.
Thirty-one years later I am still a fan. I now know a bit more about how Big Star came to record three extraordinary LP’s at Ardent Studios in Memphis between 1971 – 1975. If the record-buying public had actually heard theses records at the time of release the name of the band would have been factual rather than ironic. Instead the band’s reputation has grown steadily in the intervening period, fuelled by celebrity endorsement, record releases and three excellent books from Robert Gordon, Rob Jovanovic and Bruce Eaton. Inevitably some of the mystery has been dispersed, displaced by hard and rather sad facts – the total lack of sales, Chris Bell’s tragic death. Alex Chilton’s wayward solo career.
Why do Big Star still matter? It’s the songs, stupid. The partnership of Alex Chilton (guitar/vocals) and Chris Bell (ditto) produced harmonic, inventive tunes with heartfelt lyrics and economical arrangements underpinned by Andy Hummel on melodic bass and Jody Stephens on rock-steady drums. Big Star’s lack of commercial success means that these songs have not been played or anthologised to death and so still sound fresh today. Certainly having Bell as his song writing partner bought out the best in Chilton. Every track save ‘My Life is Right’ on debut LP Number One Record was credited to Chilton/Bell and some of the best songs on the follow-up Radio City were Bell/Chilton co-writes, whatever it said on the label credits. Album number three Sister Lovers was written by Alex on his own and it shows: some great songs, but lacking that extra melodic invention that Chris added. Chilton has subsequently written alone, with progressively diminishing results.
Now we have the career full stop that is the box set. John Fry, legendary audiophile ‘executive producer’ at Ardent, has ensured that all tracks are presented in phenomenal clarity so that greater sonic detail is revealed on familiar material. Ever the gentleman John is keen to share credit with Adam Hill at Ardent and Alec Palao. Says John Fry “Andrew Sandoval from Rhino actually supervised the mastering. I did have the opportunity to approve it, and I liked it very much. It seems to preserve the dynamic range of the music, avoiding all this ‘how loud and squashed can I make my CD’ stuff. If you want it loud, just turn up the knob.” Across the three studio CDs there are only a couple of previously unreleased out-takes – a heartfelt acoustic version of Loudon Wainwright’s ‘Motel Blues’ and the intro to ‘Thank You Friends’ which extended becomes a track in its own right as ‘Manana’. Instead we have numerous demos and alternate versions such as a raunchier live-in-the-studio, twin-drummer take of “In the Street”. Alec Paolo’s excellent track notes suggest that there were no further out-takes from these sessions.
CD1 contains Number One Record plus some associated tracks. Of these the demo of ‘I Got Kinda Lost” makes a strong case for inclusion on the original LP: such is the high level of quality control exercised by Ardent that even their demos sound good enough to release. ‘Country Morn’ is ‘Watch The Sunrise’ with new lyrics, a track first released as a flexi by Judith Beeman’s Back Of A Car fanzine. CD2 has a cache of Chilton acoustic demos for Radio City, all fully worked out in terms of melody and lyric – the sort of thing Townshend used to present to the Who. Had Bell stayed in the band then his ‘There Was A Light’ should have ended up on Radio City. Also on this CD is the extraordinary single version of Chris Bell’s ‘I Am The Cosmos’, together with its acoustic B-side ‘You and Your Sister’. The latter is particularly affecting as it was the last track that Chilton and Bell recorded together. ‘I Am the Cosmos’ is a desperate plea for help, sugared by a neo-psychedelic swirl of a backing track and swathed in gorgeous harmonies, ‘You and Your Sister’ a delicate acoustic lament framed by a sympathetic Bill Cunningham string arrangement. CD3 covers the Sister Lovers sessions and is the most haphazard, although solo acoustic demos of ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Holocaust’ show Chilton at his most delicate and devastating respectively.
CD4 was recorded live at Lafayette’s Music Room, Memphis over three nights in January 1973. This is the first legal release of live material featuring the line-up of Chilton, Stephens and Hummell and it completely refutes the suggestion that Big Star could not cut it live whilst outclassing all other previous live Big Star releases. These gigs were recorded by microphones placed in the crowd. Luckily as Big Star were supporting Texas soul-band Archie Bell and the Drells the apathy of the audience results in a remarkably clear recording, especially noticeable in the acoustic part of the. Of particular note is a Stephens-driven version of Gram Parson’s ‘Hot Burrito No 2’ and a completely re-arranged ‘ST 100/6’, which is followed by a rave-up on the Kinks ‘Come On Now’. The band make an extraordinary amount of noise for a three-piece and combine precision and passion, sounding like the Who live circa 1968. With a generous twenty tracks the release of this disc alone would have justified the box set.
In addition to all this great music the box set includes lengthy and well-informed essays from Robert Gordon and Bob Mehr plus a whole slew of cool photos. Whatever Rhino are asking for this release, it’s a steal – here is everything that made Big Star one of the handful of truly great rock’n’roll bands of our time.
A Short Chat with Alex Chilton
In July Big Star played a rare London gig, supporting Tindersticks at the ‘Serpentine Sessions’ three-night event held in Hyde Park. With only 55 minutes onstage the band were forced to play to their strengths with the result that the set-pacing problems exhibited at the August 2008 Shepherds Bush gig were absent and the band were in fine form. After the gig we chatted to John Fry about the box set and about the plans for Rhino Handmade to issue an expanded version of Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos CD. The ever-amenable Jody Stephens came over to say hello but then headed off for an early night since he had to be up at 430am for the plane back to Memphis. Part-time Big Stars Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow were nowhere to be seen but lo and behold Alex was hanging out in the outdoor bar, complete with Diet Coke and a cigarette holder – dry, wry, urbane – the James Stewart of Rock’n’Roll. Alex belied his reputation by being excellent company. He has no plans to write or record new material, feeling with the record industry in the state it‘s in at present there’s not much point, plus he only really writes songs to a deadline. A discussion on royalties revealed that Alex does now get money from sales of the three Big Star records, but that this is dwarfed by royalties earnt by the use of ”In The Street” and other tracks in That Seventies Show on US television. Alex confessed that what he is really into at present is baroque and that he would like to do some composing, possibly for a film soundtrack. Only when conversation turned to Bruce Eton’s new book on Radio City did Alex get narked on the basis that Bruce had included personal stuff in the book that they had agreed was off-limits.
Q&A with John Fry and Jody Stephens
If Stax had got its act together and No 1 Record had been a huge hit how would the band have reacted?
John: Stax had its act together far more than Columbia, their new distributor, did. If they had noticed the music and the band more, it could have been a different story. We got critical acclaim and FM airplay. Availability of the albums was spotty, at best. We never got the AM airplay that you needed to have for a single song to connect with a large audience. Also, the booking and touring component just was not there on the level need to combat some of the other deficiencies. Most folks are elated by success, as far as success can be defined. One might readily assume that the band would have been delighted by immediate commercial success. However, Alex had already had a good deal of experience with success, and it seemed to me that he was unimpressed by it.
Jody: Looking at the name of our band, Big Star, and album title #1 Record, a reference to an album chart position, I would say we were pretty optimistic and we would have been elated if #1 Record really would have been a #1 record. Big Star has been successful in many different ways, just no “hit” records. One of the successes for me is that it did lead to a great career in music here at Ardent Studios and some wonderful relationships.
What do you remember about the Lafayette gig on Disc 4?
Jody: The audience wasn’t there to see Big Star. They were there to see Archie Bell and The Drells. A little uncomfortable…one or two people might clap after we’d finish a song, but as a result of that I think we all played with a heightened sense of determination.
How does it feel seeing gigs full of people singing along after all these years?
John: It feels great to me. At the Hyde Park show, there were two young guys behind me who were just singing along with every song, going off on the music, and having a great time. That’s the outcome you want anytime you work on a record, even if you have to wait for it for a while.
Jody: Those people that come to our shows and sing along define our success. They always put a smile on my face. That energy from the audience is what drives me to keep practicing and playing live.
Alex says he wasn’t involved in putting together the box set at all. Is that right?
John: I informed him of the plans and sent him copies of all of the content, but he never commented on it, either positively or negatively.
If he were around today would Chris Bell be part of the Big Star line up?
John: I like to think he would have continued with his music, but he might well have chosen another direction professionally. That’s what happened with Andy, although he continues to play for his own enjoyment.
Jody: If Chris were around, I would love to think he would be a part of the Big Star line-up. Although, just as it was his decision to leave the band in 1973, it would have been up to him to decide whether or not to be a part of what we are doing now.
What was your favourite Big Star line-up?
John: The original 4-piece line up, and I’m not necessarily talking about the songs or the sound. I’m talking about the climate. We were all together, happy, and optimistic. I prefer to think about those days than some of the harder times.
Jody: Chris, Alex, Andy and me. There was always some sort of electricity in the air as we made that first record…first times are usually fraught with the most emotions. But there were many cool things about being in a three-piece band making our second record, Radio City.
What are your feelings about In Space, the 4th studio record released in 2005?
John: I had no role in it other than the fact that it was recorded at Ardent. I think has some very good material and performances. It probably missed some of the attention it deserved, as by the time it was being released, Ryko was in the process of being sold and many of the staff were leaving. The guys need a break from imploding record labels.
Jody: I am pretty proud of that record and would say that it is a great snapshot of where we were as a band in 2004. Ryko allowed us the opportunity to make a record the way we wanted to, which was pretty much just to walk into Ardent Studios and see what happens. There were no demos. We wrote and recorded a song a day and the outcome is a record that, while a challenge to make, is a pretty fun record to listen to.
Does anyone have a tape of the gig you played at the Rock Writers Convention in May 1973? Can you remember anything about the gig?
John: I am not aware of any recording. Richard Rosebrough and I were running the live sound, and we did not make one. It was quite a night – free booze and 100+ stoked rock writers.
Jody: The whole rock writers convention was a good time. I was 20…there were parties and free food and drink. I think it was the first time we played to an audience that actually knew our songs and were fans of the band. Everyone seemed to abandon themselves to drink, the music and the moment.
How about a DVD? Is there any video material in the vaults? Maybe the re-union show that made the ‘Columbia’ CD?
John: There is some professionally shot video from Columbia, some of which was edited into song clips by Marius Penczner, who worked in our video department at the time. There is also about 22 minutes of 16mm film, shot by Andy and Chris, probably in 1972. There will be a short clip from this footage, edited to 13 minutes on disc 4 of the box. The Oxford American magazine on their film issue DVD used another short clip from this footage recently. We’ll try to make as much of this material available as possible in some form, given rights and licensing issues to the Columbia audio. I doubt there is enough video to justify a commercial DVD, but we’ll see.
What tracks didn’t make the box set?
John: #1 Record and Radio City are not there in their entirety, as alternate mixes or versions have been substituted for certain songs. If it turns out that there is a sufficient body of worthy material remaining, we will come up with a way to issue it at a later date.
And finally…where did the title for the box set come from?
Jody: We were all trying to think of a title and John Fry suggested I look through song titles and lyrics. I got to ‘Stroke It Noel’ and what I initially thought was the line “Keep an eye on the sky.” I submitted it as a suggested title and everyone liked it and it stuck. Well, the line actually turned out to be “Keepin’ an eye on the sky.” Seems I wasn’t listening close enough. We all decided to stay with “Keep an eye on the sky.” The line just seems to work.