More than four decades after their debut, Big Star’s commercial failures seem like a triumph now, something which this four CD boxed set clearly demonstrates. But Rhino’s Keep Your Eye On The Sky isn’t just any box set, padded out with third rate demos and whatever scraps off the cutting room floor as a way of convincing the believers to fork out their hard earned cash. From the packaging to the remastering, this was obviously put together by those who probably love the band’s music more than the members of Big Star themselves.
For anyone who may not be familiar with the group, this is perhaps not the best place to start. However for someone whom Big Star is a household name, this is about the closest to nirvana as you’re ever likely to get.
First CD begins appropriately enough with several solo tracks by principle members Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, before unleashing a reordered #1 Record, many of which are alternative mixes, where throughout one cannot help but recognise the influence of Brian Wilson on the young and vulnerable sounding Chris Bell. Likewise Alex Chilton, who wrote a handful of tunes concerned with teenage longing and adolescent frustration, most notably on songs such as “Thirteen”, “In The Street” and “Don’t Lie To Me”. And like Lennon and McCartney, so were Bell and Chilton to one other, if not inventing “power-pop”, then certainly pushing it further along, with “Feel” and “The Ballad Of El Goodo”.
There are two versions of the deliciously painful and George Harrison influenced “Try Again”, the first recorded by Bell and Chilton’s early group Rock City, and the other off 1972’s #1 Record, an LP, which despite rave reviews, failed to find all that much of an audience (largely due to record company incompetence). Bell, disappointed and disillusioned, stumbled into a ditch of drink and drug abuse, quitting the band soon after.
Follow up, Radio City, fared little better, even if it did boast some of Big Star’s most FM friendly moments, in “September Gurls” and “O My Soul”. Since Bell’s departure, Chilton had taken over the majority of song writing duties, and as a consequence churned out some of his finest work ever. CD two includes some alternate takes and previously unheard demos which actually add rather than detract from the experience, including an early version of Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos”, the title song of the album recorded by the singer and eventually released posthumously in 1992.
However what became known as Third/Sister Lovers (covered on CD3) is another animal entirely, seeing the band plunge ever deeper into a dysfunctional pop miasma. Recorded over 1974/75, it would take three years before the album would be issued, and little wonder. Chilton and his cohorts had managed to produce a work of art full of deep Profundis and overwhelming despair. Obviously the product of a man on the edge, one of the LP’s most haunting songs, “Kanga Roo”, would regularly be given an impassioned reading many years later by Jeff Buckley, revealing a certain beauty its creator perhaps could never have dreamed of.
Yet Third was also doomed to the same fate as each previous Big Star effort, not surprising when much of the public were more interested in Kiss and ABBA, than some disjointed, self-conscious masterpiece almost guaranteed to have the listener reaching for the razor blade at any moment. By now the sunny splendour of adolescence had given way to world weary nihilism.
Since the late ‘70s, the story of Big Star has grown in both stature as well as fable. That many of these songs have endured as refreshing reminders of the time in which they were made is testament to their quality and strength. The fourth CD, taken from a live gig captured at a club in Memphis in 1973, may not be the best recorded performance, but it does reveal to the listener much of what the band were all about – bright, bold pop-rock perfectionism at its best, including covers of The Kinks, T-Rex, and even Todd Rundgren.
Although The Beatles and The Byrds might have beaten them to it, Big Star had a sound all of their own, and therefore deserve their own place in the heavens.