Back in ’93 I was handed a copy of Big Star’s – Columbia: Live at the University of Missouri. It was my entrance into the world of Big Star. Previous to this I had heard the odd track on my campus radio station as well as seeing numerous references as influences by many of my favorite artists, but I had yet to hear a whole album. One song caught me right away.
Perhaps the greatest song the rock masses never heard is Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos.” Even for those lucky enough to have heard Big Star back in the 70’s, “Cosmos” was a single that saw only limited release in Memphis in 1978 and certainly never attained (like Big Star itself) national attention. Bell himself would be killed in a car accident later the same year.
Still, like a few other legendary acts (The Velvet Underground, Flying Burrito Brothers) it seems that those that did listen became musicians themselves. By the early 90’s, power-pop was becoming ‘a thing’ and Big Star started showing up as influences for a plethora of alt-rock acts. So as “alternative-mania” was in full 1992 swing Fantasy Records released Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City as a single CD, and Rycodisc released Third/Sister Lovers. In was at this point that the Posies covered “I Am The Cosmos” and “Feel.” Around the same time Rycodisc also released a compilation of Chris Bell solo material entitled I Am The Cosmos.
Now, what makes this single of the Posies an important part of music history is what happened the following year. Two students at the University of Missouri asked Alex Chilton if he would be interested in performing some Big Star songs for a concert. With Chilton in Jody Stephens (drums, vocals) also agreed but Andy Hummell refused(bass), which left a hole to be filled on bass, and second guitar for this to be pulled off. Names got tossed out like Mike Mills (REM), Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and Paul Westerberg, but nothing really stuck until Ardent Records (where Big Star had recorded) founder John Fry pulled a translucent blue single he had tacked to the wall down and gave it another listen.
That single led to the Posies being asked to fill in for Andy Hummell and the late Chris Bell. Not only was the concert a huge success, but it was also released as the live album already mentioned. Suddenly there was “new” music to be talked about with the old material, and word was getting out. A new generation were looking for Big Star records and finding them… something that didn’t happen when the band was originally together.
Of course this is total conjecture, but that single in combination with the re-release of Big Star’s three studio records, led us to todays Big Star revival. All three records have been re-released on audiophile vinyl with a great special edition of Third/Sisters Lovers being put out by Omnivore Records. Had Chilton not passed away in 2010 it is likely Big Star would have done an extensive tour.
“Cosmos” itself has been covered live by Big Star, the Posies, Beck, Wilco, This Mortal Coil and The Jayhawks to name but a very few. If only I could get my hands on that original single.
Of course that is one Chris Bell song. As for Alex Chilton and Big Star… well, it’ll take a few more posts to cover that.