Cheap Trick. REM. The Replacements. Teenage Fanclub.
All of the above bands have openly professed their love for cult power pop band Big Star. And it’s about time the rest of the world found out about the biggest band that few have had the pleasure of knowing.
Formed in 1971 in Memphis, the band released three records prior to originally splitting up. From the beginning though, it seemed as though the odds were stacked against them: their records were poorly distributed, suffered from a lack of promotion and ultimately sold little. It’s a recipe for disaster for almost any band.
Things have turned around in a positive fashion for the band over the past two decades, however. Helping turn the tide around for the group is a new four CD box set which will serve to show the non-believers the impact of their music on today’s world.
Keep An Eye On The Sky is a 98 track set that not only includes material from their previously issued albums but also includes a fair share of unreleased nuggets including demos, alternate versions and mixes of songs as well as a 1973 concert from Memphis.
The continued interest in Big Star today flatters drummer Jody Stephens who recalls having received little attention when they made their first go at it:
“Essentially, the band released three records in the early ’70s and then broke up. But it turned into an inadvertent marketing effort; we sat back and waited for word to spread,” Stephens admits from his job at Ardent Studios in Memphis.
“John King was our press guy at Ardent; he made sure that music writers got a copy of the record. Journalists in turn wrote good things about the band so people who were into music and had a curiosity about who Big Star was wound up having to do a little digging through store cut-out bins to find our records because our records suffered from poor distribution.”
Support would start coming in from other bands though who weren’t shy about professing their love of Big Star, albeit long after the band had gone their separate ways:
“Peter Buck and Mike Mills from REM would mention the band in interviews; The Replacements had a song called ‘Alex Chilton’ (named in honor of Big Star’s vocalist) so some people got turned onto Big Star via these other bands, which is great.”
Helping round out Big Star’s current lineup are two band members who were huge fans of the group prior to joining:
Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow have found fame with power-pop legends The Posies and aren’t shy to admit the influence that Big Star played on their own band:
“When I finished high school, I moved to Seattle to be closer to venues to play and got a job in a record store,” Auer recalls. “One of the managers at the store heard some of my music with The Posies and walked me over to the vinyl section one day and handed me a copy of Big Star’s reissued Radio City LP. He told me to go straight home after work and drop the needle on ‘September Gurls’, which I did. The song was undeniable to me; it was such a perfect pop song and a superlative performance and recording. It still is today.”
“In terms of the music business, their career trajectory illustrated that it was indeed possible to make truly great music and never have it be heard on a massive scale,” Auer continues. “That kind of scared me.”
Stephens was introduced to Auer and Stringfellow at the CMJ Music Conference in New York City in 1992. The duo passed a copy of their covers of Big Star’s “Feel” as well as former Big Star member Chris Bell’s track “I Am The Cosmos” to the drummer, who thought the songs were very well interpreted.
When Big Star reformed in 1993, it was Stephens who recommended that the Posies members join the newest incarnation of the group, positions they maintain to this day.
“I can’t imagine Big Star without Ken and Jon at this point,” Stephens admits.
During the course of our conversation together, Stephens is talkative, gracious and grateful for all that he has been able to accomplish to this very day.
Even though Big Star still remain on the outer cusp of mainstream greatness, the accolades afforded to the group so far are good enough as far as he is concerned.
“At the time, I thought the first two records were great,” Stephens says. “And our third record was a brilliant expression of where Alex (Chilton) was at during that time. I’m really proud of those records; so many positive things have happened subsequent to those releases. We are very lucky to have done what we did.”
In the meantime, Stephens is more than happy to be holding down the A&R position / consultant role for the newly re-launched Ardent Records label and has had a part in signing two new acts to the label “” Star & Micey and Jump Back Jake.
“As a label, we are trying to find our way in this crazy new music world that is unfolding before us.”
But as for what the future holds for Big Star is anyone’s guess – including Stephens. The group has a show in New York City coming up in November but from there, their future “unfolds one day at a time,” he says.
“The future is always a surprise.”