A friend asked me “Why, of all the albums being released on Record Store Day 2016, are you waiting in line for a 90’s live album from a 70’s band?” The tone and nature of the question was meant to be mocking, as he loves to have lively music debates, particularly ones that push my buttons. However, instead of just reacting, I took a deep breath and thought about it. Then, just to be annoying I told him I would ‘write the answer.’ (hehehe…)
The reasons are three-fold.
Like many people, the album I first attach to a band tends to have the greatest impact. While I heard songs by Big Star from time to time, it wasn’t until the release of Columbia that I had a complete work in front of me which represented the band as a whole. A world opened up. Here was a collection of songs that didn’t need to be ‘epic’ stories of human struggle (ie. Bruce Springsteen) or carry images of Mordor (ie. Led Zeppelin) to have powerful depth. They also didn’t include anthem-like clichés to get people fist pumping in the air (pick your own example, as there are so many). “In The Street”, “Back Of A Car” and “September Gurls” leapt out of my speakers and made my own angst seem to matter. These songs were simple coming-of-age tales detailing everyday experiences without the ‘syrup’ provided by many of the ‘so-called’ classic rock bands of the day. Instead, Big Star gave us the kind of tunes that made you want to pick up a guitar and learn to play. Furthermore, you found yourself singing, not in some vain attempt to impress or attract anyone, but as an outlet to express yourself. Which is perhaps why I had been hearing covers of their songs by other artists as time went on; The Lemonheads, Matthew Sweet, The Bangles, The Posies, Teenage Fanclub and later Beck were all doing renditions of the songs of Alex Chilton or Chris Bell. The Replacements even wrote a song entitled “Alex Chilton”, dropping the line “never go far, without a little Big Star.” All of it was packed into this one album.
Next, this wasn’t an example of a band cashing in on fame. Big Star never had the kind of fame you could cash in on. Columbia was quite literally a concert put together by fans for fans and later released in a similar fashion. Two campus radio staffers at the University of Missouri quite literally asked Big Star alumni Jody Stephens if he would be willing to do a reunion show, and got a yes if Alex Chilton was up for it. Surprisingly, Chilton agreed and, with the addition of the Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow to cover for Chris Bell (deceased) and Andy Hummel (left the music business), the band played an amazing set to (merely) an estimated 200 people. Yet even with a small venue, they managed to attract much of the music world. That show got glowing write-ups in all the major music magazines of the day. It was pretty unanimous amongst the press that those not lucky enough to be in attendance had missed something special. Fortunately, this record gives us a glimpse of a show that has attained somewhat legendary status.
Finally, Columbia solidifies my absolute belief that Big Star should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. All three of their initial studio releases (#1 Record, Radio City, Sister Lovers/Third) land consistently on various magazines’ Top Albums of all-time lists; all three are referenced by multiple generations of artists as being influential in their music; and all three are revered by fans lucky enough to have heard them as being close to their hearts. More importantly, their music has endured through the most insanely bad luck of any band in rock history. Their 1971 debut #1 Record was hailed as triumphant by music critics, but due to poor distribution and marketing by Stax, no one could find a copy to purchase, even when songs were played on the radio. Follow up Radio City suffered a similar fate, with Columbia records refusing to distribute the record because of a disagreement with their newly acquired Stax label. By the time Big Star released the gorgeous yet challenging Sister Lovers/Third, the band had completely disintegrated with only Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens remaining. They went their separate ways and that should have ended the story… but it didn’t.
Fans exchanged cassettes with Big Star tunes. Those in the know kept talking and searching until a market was created for re-releases. More than two decades removed from their first record and people were seeking them out based on little more than conversations and scratchy recordings emanating from a tape deck. By the early 90’s, Ryko had reissued Sister Lovers/Third and a put out a compilation of Chris Bell’s solo material, I Am The Cosmos. Then Columbia was released in 1993. A tribute album was recorded by a virtual who’s who of 90’s alt-rock artists (ironically, it also suffered from bad luck and wasn’t released until years afterward). When Columbia was released, it may still have been hard to find the first two Big Star records in stores, but here were the songs; live, rough and glorious in their presentations. All members were taking on vocal duties, with Jon Auer doing an incredible job on the solo Chris Bell single “I Am The Cosmos.” As the 90’s continued, That 70’s Show used “In The Street” as their theme song and a new generation started to discover the band. Finally, their albums could be found in record stores.
Somehow, without radio backing or touring, people were seeking out this music.
Which brings me to the Rock Hall…
If, as I believe, rock ‘n’ roll is about more than money or popularity, then Big Star should be inducted and Columbia is a perfect example of why. Here is a band whose art transcended obscurity by nothing more than word of mouth and shared recordings. Without the help of corporate money and radio exposure, their music found a way to not only be heard, but in fact influence generations of future musicians. Hell, the entire sub-genre of “power-pop” can’t even be considered without Big Star being mentioned as its greatest practitioners. It is hard to picture the sounds of the 90’s alternative music scene without the influence of songs that Alex Chilton and Chris Bell provided. Then, you add the Big Star reunion to the mix.
Complete Columbia: Live at the University of Missouri 4/25/93 exemplifies the very idea that great music will find fans and that record sales are not as important as the art itself. On-stage that day in ’93 were two musicians who had created some music playing with two other musicians that had been directly inspired by it. Twenty years separating their careers, yet you could hear just how much Big Star had meant to the future of rock music. They weren’t just another band that you hummed along to distractedly on a transistor radio; they were the band you sought out and told anyone and everyone willing to listen that Big Star were “FUCKING AWESOME!!!”
So my friend… you ask me why I’m arriving early on RSD 2016 to line up for a copy of Columbia… or even, why they should be in the Rock Hall… well, it’s because Big Star created music that really matters… what other reason is there?