Saturday 20 January 2018

Discovering the joys of Big Star all over again

Big Star: their horse had bolted before the world took notice.
Big Star: their horse had bolted before the world took notice.

AS countless musicians and bands will tell you, the difference between success and failure can sometimes be measured in a heartbeat.

In most cases you can take this with a pinch of salt. The truth behind the vast majority of 'if only' stories is that the music just wasn't good enough.

There are exceptions of course, the ones who got away when they should have been household names.

Big Star are one of the most famous commercial failures in pop, their fame derived principally from the number of big names down the years who have cited them as a major influence - REM, Primal Scream and Teenage Fanclub among them.

I didn't discovered the joys of Big Star until the eighties, a good decade after they had burst forth with a bunch of superb pop songs that should have given them a string of hits.

The four-piece had formed in Memphis in 1971, with two young talented songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton at its core. Sadly, Bell would never see how history came to regard Big Star, as he died in a car crash in 1978 at the age of 27.

Chilton, who was 59 when he died of a heart attack in 2010, had tasted success prior to forming Big Star as lead singer of sixties band the Box Tops. He was just 16 when they scored their biggest hit The Letter.

Big Star released two albums - '#1 Record' and 'Radio City' - before breaking up in 1974. A third album, 'Third/Sister Lovers', was never really fully completed but eventually released in 1978.

All three albums received good reviews but did not sell. Poor marketing and distribution, as well as label issues, combined to scupper Big Star's chance of breaking into the big time, but they left behind three albums that cry out to be heard.

Songs such as the deceptively simple but achingly beautiful 'Thirteen' and power pop classic 'September Gurls' have stood the test of time and are the perfect introduction to one of the greatest bands who never were.

This month there's renewed interest in Big Star because of the release of 'Nothing Can Hurt Me', a companion album of 21 previously unreleased versions of some of their best songs, issued to coincide with an upcoming documentary film on the band.

For devoted fans 'Nothing Can Hurt Me' is a must-have but some of the versions are inferior to those on the original albums, so newcomers would probably be best served getting their hands on the three albums from the seventies to find out what all the fuss is about.

Gorey Guardian

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