December Boy's Got It Bad: The Brotherhood Of Big Star
There is no more perfect evocation of the guitar as a pop instrument than the singular songwriting of Big Star.
For a brief – all too brief – moment the melodic partnership of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell united in total harmony, driven forward by the muscular rhythm section of Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens.
Releasing a perfect debut album – the bold, ambitiously titled ‘#1 Record’ - the Memphis band then faltered, with Chris Bell departing before the release of the equally sublime follow up ‘Radio City’. The agonising sessions to produce a third album stuttered to a halt, later gathered on 1978’s fragmentary ‘Third’.
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Simply put: they’re the cult band’s cult band, a group who defined power pop and left a nigh-on perfect catalogue in their wake. It’s one the world hasn’t forgotten, either – eulogised in the press, Big Star are cited as an inspiration by everyone from R.E.M. to Primal Scream and The Lemon Twigs. Hell, even Dirty Hit’s indie pop troubadour Oscar Lang must surely have heard ‘September Gurls’ - arguably the codex of guitar pop – at least once in his life.
Drummer Jody Stephens helps manage the band’s legacy, and he does it pretty damn well, too. ‘#1 Record’ and ‘Radio City’ have just been totally remastered using analogue technology, with Big Star’s music available on vinyl once more for a fresh generation of fans.
Speaking to Clash on the phone from Big Star’s old HQ Ardent Studios, Jody Stephens beams with pride. “Regardless of what you think of the music, the way it’s recorded is just brilliant – it sparkles!” he exclaims. Then the drummer starts to laugh: “But of course, I am a big fan of the music too!”
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Within seconds the years are falling away, and he begins to recall the group’s first rehearsasl together. “I can remember the first day of working up ‘The Ballad Of El Goodo’ and how it came together and how exciting it was. Because I was a little nervous about it all: am I gonna be able to create drum parts for this? I’d just been really in a cover band before, and ‘...El Goodo’ is such an amazing song. But it came really easily because there was a real musical connection that we all had together.”
Big Star had a curious blend from the off. Infatuated with British Invasion pop music, they had also grown up in Memphis, the city that spawned the Stax label with icons such as Otis Redding, Booker T & The MGs, Carla Thomas, and Eddie Floyd right on their doorsteps.
“Y’know, my brother Jimmy and I had a band when we were kids. We got into it because of The Beatles and we just picked up our instruments – Jimmy on bass and me on drums – and we fielded a band from the neighbourhood. We were all into The Beatles and The Stones and then Led Zeppelin. Then B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum was a big favourite, but around about ‘68 I think we got swept away by soul music and we had a soul band.”
“I was playing songs that Al Jackson had played,” he reflects, citing the influence of the legendary Stax drummer. “So yeah, I think it was an influence on me, and I think Memphis music was an influence on us all, even though we may have got started with British invasion. They both had a big impact: there’s those melody lines and harmonies, but with a bit of the heart and soul from Stax and soul music.”
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Big Star was formerly a trio, until Alex Chilton entered the frame. Fresh from the nationwide success of the Box Tops, his previous experience didn’t intrude upon the group. “I think it was more about being equals,” the drummer recalls. “I was certainly well aware of the Box Tops, and ‘The Letter’ was a huge hit. I enjoyed that stuff and Alex’s vocals, but I never really saw them live or bought the records. So, Alex kind of came in as an equal”.
The glorious ‘#1 Record’ feels effortlessly free, the sound of a band pursuing their own dedicated vision. Looking back, it’s refreshingly void of label intrusion, with Big Star left to their own harmonic devices. “We pursued our own vision at our own pace,” Jody insists. “I think John Fry, the producer, never had any intentions of stepping in with regards to the musical direction. However, his influence was there – sonically, that part of the record just sparkled”.
Remarkably, ‘#1 Record’ failed to break out in the way it rightfully should have. A bona fide classic, it remains a thrilling, exhilarating experience, and it’s failure in a commercial sense stung the group. “After the first album, I think we all sort of drifted apart,” Jody recalls. For the drummer, he had university studies and a job to focus on, as well as a steady relationship.
The central songwriting partnership, too, was faltering, with Chris Bell and Alex Chilton increasingly disagreeing. That said, those fateful months would produce some of the band’s most dearly loved songs. “Apparently Alex and Chris had started writing some things together,” Jody says. “I think ‘(Sittin’ In The) Back Of A Car’ was one that Chris was a big part of”.
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Drawn back together to play a special music writer’s conference, the energy produced by this rare live set was enough to glue Big Star back together for a second bite at the apple. ‘Radio City’ found the band largely driven by Alex Chilton, and while it lacks the odd Chris Bell flourish from their debut, it stills contains songwriting of a startling vintage.
Appallingly, it once more failed to ignite the charts, a huge set back that curiously didn’t phase Jody Stephens – every bit the stalwart, he draw the most satisfaction from being involved in such fine studio sessions.
“Having been a part of the recording process and that creative process was kind of rewarding enough for me,” he muses. “I knew that a band making a career out of music was a bit pie in the sky, really. Just having been a part of the process was something that I was very proud of. I didn’t think too much about what happened or what didn’t happen.”
“It was incredible, and it still is. The best thing about being in a band and making music and making a record is that is a record of an event. The time we spent in the studio together has actually had this longevity!”
Indeed, it was Jody Stephens’ innate love for Big Star that kept him involved during the lengthy sessions for their aborted third album. Slated for release in 1974, it took another four years for ‘Third’ to emerge, only reaching its final form as ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ in 1985. A famously tough listen – song titles include ‘Holocaust’ - he still believes that the record includes some “absolutely beautiful pieces.” Jody recalls: “I mean there was a little bit of darkness and a little bit of beauty to what was going on.”
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Ironically, the drummer found himself in London during a rare visit to the UK when ‘Third’ was eventually released. “I’d go over to EMI sometimes, really hoping to run into Paul McCartney!” he laughs.
“I ran into Nick Kent on a street there in London, and he had a bootleg of a live show that we did in New York. That was my first real indication of the interest that people had in the music... because here’s a music writer talking about having bootlegs”.
Big Star went their separate ways as the decades drew on. Chris Bell tragically died around the same time ‘Third’ was released, while Alex Chilton meandered around a solo career before hitting the oldies circuit with The Box Tops. The mythology of Big Star just wouldn’t go away, however, with acolytes such as fellow Southern band R.E.M. and Creation Records in the UK citing them as a profound influence.
“It’s interesting… all that is just kind of mind blowing, really, that the music found its way across the waters. Now here I am talking to you! It really does kind of blow my mind.”
With ‘#1 Record’ and ‘Radio City’ given the deluxe vinyl treatment, it’s time for a fresh generation to uncover Big Star’s gilded guitar pop. For Jody Stephens, though, it all goes back to that fateful rehearsal, when he heard ‘The Ballad Of El Goodie’ unfold in front of him for the very first time.
“The melodies lines and the guitar lines the epitomise – to me at least – what I think of Big Star as. I was so excited when we were working it up, because I could hear the guitar parts, and the vocals, and the harmonies... and then I got excited about my drum part, so it was a good feeling,” he says. “I felt like I was fitting in.”
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One more thing...
Clash is able to present a brand new lyric video for Big Star's 'September Girls' - watch it first below.
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'#1 Record' and 'Radio City' are available on deluxe vinyl now.
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