Big Star + Rock Hall = An Inductee That Would Really Matter… or… Big Star – Complete Columbia: Live at University of Missouri

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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?

Soooooooo much to pick from… Record Store Day 2016 Preview

What a difference a few weeks makes. When the early Record Store Day (RSD) leaks started trickling in, there looked to be a bit of a “nothing to write about” syndrome. WELL – HOLY EMPTY THE FREAKIN’ WALLETS FOLKS… it’s gonna be a big one, particularly for those of you who enjoy classic, alternative or indie rock. Even pop music and jazz fans have a bit to cheer about here. That said, there are some discrepancies between the overall RSD preview list and the official RSD Canada list, so make sure you check both.

Ironically, the first difference between the official list and the Canadian version is the absence of this year’s RSD Ambassadors’ Metallica. For the annual physical medium celebration, the band are releasing a CD of their 2003 Bataclan performance entitled Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, Metallica, with proceeds going to the Give To France Charity for victims of the Paris attacks. Unfortunately, the CD set doesn’t make the list of Canadian releases. Other notable misses come in the form of Superchunk’s Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91) LP and a great looking Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention 7” for “My Guitar” and “Dog Breath.”

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However, absence from the list doesn’t mean you should give up hope. Like all RSD outings, the trick is to enjoy the experience of hanging out with a bunch of music geeks and going over the days’ spoils with like-minded friends. Sometimes things vary country to country and store to store; so as long as you don’t take any list as gospel, everything should be OK.

Here are a few of the days’ highlights.

For classic rock fans, there are releases coming to you from Bowie, Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, Cheap Trick, Joan Jett, The Monkees, CCR, and The Kinks.

As has usually been the case, several David Bowie collector items are being released for RSD as exclusives, including one 7” and two 12” records. The 7” continues Bowie’s 40th anniversary picture disc single series with “TVC15.” In addition, two of Bowie’s earlier works are getting special treatment. I Dig Everything – 1966: The Pye Singles is coming out as a 12” LP (limited to 7500 copies) and The Man Who Sold The World (limited to 5000 copies) is being released as a 12” picture disc featuring the rare German artwork.

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The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Smash Hits is getting a new lease on life from a rare cover. The original “cowboy cover” is being restored for this LP, which is numbered and limited to 5000 copies.

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Perhaps the coolest release of RSD will be Cheap Trick’s At Budokan: The Complete Concert. The original 1979 album contained 10 songs including the classic “I Want You to Want Me”, which sold over 3 million copies and peaked at number 4 on Billboard’s Top 200. The Complete Concert will contain those ten originals plus an additional nine songs played from the legendary show. It will be pressed onto two 150 gram LPs and limited to 5000 copies.

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If you want something unique, look no further than the Monkees. In addition to their complete Classic Album Collection box set, containing all 9 studio LPs plus a bonus B-sides grouping, they are releasing a 7”picture disc of “Saturday’s Child” shaped like a guitar.

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For ‘Spirit of Radio Fans’ there is much to look at. Early alt-rock pioneers The Sonics are checking in with Live On Easy Street, a live LP from their recent reunion tour.

Simple Minds, who also toured last year, are releasing a 2XLP red vinyl set entitled Big Music Tour 2015. Sex Pistols will have Never Mind The Bollocks… released on a 12” picture disc featuring artwork reversing the colours from the original North American release.

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90’s alt-rock kids are also getting quite a selection. Leading the charge is Matthew Sweet, with his alternate take on the classic Girlfriend LP – Goodfriend. This collection of home demos, live performances and session recordings will be split onto two 12” inch records and limited to 4000 copies.

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Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union is also getting the double LP treatment for RSD that includes one red translucent and one green translucent wax that is being numbered and again, limited to 4000 copies.

In addition, there will be releases from Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), a vinyl box from Lush, a 7” split single between Faith No More and the Bee Gees, and a 12” single from Manic Street Preachers.

For modern alt-rock and indie fans there is a great selection to enjoy. Ezra Furman is releasing a 12” EP – Songs By Other with covers of songs by Beck, Arcade Fire, The Replacements and more.

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Frank Turner has an acoustic version of his album Positive Songs For Negative People on 12”black wax limited to 3000 copies.

Florence & the Machine are putting out a 12” single of “Delilah” on 180 gram coloured vinyl. In addition, the B-side is a cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.”

There will also be 7” and 12” singles from Chvrches, Best Coast, Hozier, 21 Pilots, and Wolf Alice to round things out.

For those of you with more ‘pop’ sensibilities, Ed Sheeran has several EP’s coming out, Justin Beiber is releasing 7000 picture disc copies of Purpose, and The Weeknd has a 12” remix of “The Hills.”

Even aging pop fans can look forward to Madonna’s Like A Virgin & other hits on 180 gram pink vinyl and Alanis Morissette’s Demo’s 1994 -1998 on 180 gram translucent splatter wax.

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Check out the official lists and see if there is something worth lining up for.  Trust me, I’m saving my nickels and hoping to get Big Star’s Complete Columbia: Live at the University Of Missouri 4/25/93. You know… just sayin’, because we can all find something to look forward too.

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