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?

A cabbage rolls across the stage and the band played on… or Teenage Fanclub – Thirteen

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(True story – an over enthusiastic fan once rolled a cabbage across the stage as Teenage Fanclub played “The Cabbage” during a tour of Japan. Guess they didn’t get the heartbreaking translation of that particular tune.)

On the heels of a very successful Bandwagonesqe and a huge Saturday Night Live appearance Teenage Fanclub released Thirteen. It was rich with harmonies, had awesome songs, and Kurt Cobain was quoted as calling the Fannies the “Best Band in the World.” So with all that is it any surprise that in October 1993 the band that took in the award for Spin’s #1 Record of 1991 faced a backlash from critics. Thirteen wasn’t just disliked by rock writers, it was destroyed.

It didn’t make sense to me then, and in retrospect most critics have turned their opinion around to treat it more like a classic; one that I have always thought wasn’t just a great record, but ultimately stands of one of my favourite all time albums. It has the pop sensibilities of Big Star, the guitar effects of the “shoegaze” era and the driving bass of the 90’s alt rock period. It was a full package record that could be comical (“Commercial Alternative”) one moment and heartbreaking (“The Cabbage”) another.

So what are the vinyl options?

Limited…

The original 1993 pressing was only done for audiences in the UK and Europe on standard black vinyl. Used copies can be found for around $30.00 dollars and up. Actually I saw an autographed copy for about a $100, but once you add shipping… well… it’s a little more than most of us would spend.

On the other hand, Thirteen was remastered and reissued in 2011 for US fans by Org Music. The first batch was 180 gram white vinyl while everything after was 180 gram black wax. So far I have yet to see any complaints about sound while trolling the internet audiophile sights. Prices start around $30 but some resellers are jacking prices up as availability has begun to dwindle.

Really, Teenage Fanclub created a body of work that is power-pop bliss and Thirteen is a perfect example of a genre defining record that really deserves more respect than it received. You really should give it a listen.

The Breakfast Club stuck in a VCR at the cabin or Yukon Blonde – On Blonde

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Shooting for the sound of Joy Division and hitting the Psychedelic Furs instead means only one thing to a fan of Yukon Blonde; the sound was overhauled in a total ‘WTF’ way. Confusion can be forgiven when a leap from R.E.M. mixed with Teenage Fanclub becomes an analog synth driven kaleidoscope of the 80’s New Wave movement. The opening track “Confusion” may not have been written as a message to fans, but the coincidence certainly matches the sound I’m hearing.

That said – I’m digging it!

Gone are guitar fronted loose ‘extenda jams’ that were present in Yukon Blonde’s eponymous 2010 debut and in is the more atmospheric layered production of a far more evolved unit. The change shouldn’t be entirely shocking as synth-pop has always been an element of the Yukon Blonde sound. “Make U Mine” with its playful flirt has a slight Prince feel and single “Saturday Night” lays out that “Safety Dance” vibe that has weird haircuts and pastel clothing running for the dance floor.

The whole Yukon Blonde experience is built around fun and On Blonde is no different from Tiger Talk in terms of lyrical themes. Still, to have so completely transformed from one record to the next makes one wonder if they had The Breakfast Club stuck in a VCR at some old woodsy locale. You know, a few friends, some odd flavoured cider and that guy who says every line a step out of cue until you all start yelling.

Good Times…

For vinyl lovers, go to the Kings Road site where they are offering On Blonde in a pretty cool looking gatefold cover with orange/black splatter wax. Only 300 are available so move quickly.

#1 in so many damn ways… Big Star – #1 Record

History is fluid and changes with interpretation and the times that follow. So, something that was once dismissed or missed can be re-examined and pulled into the light in a way that perhaps it wasn’t before. Such was, is and may forever be the story of how Big Star and their debut #1 Record are considered.

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It is one of the planets greatest rock ‘n’ roll records, and still almost no one beyond critics and hipsters has truly given it the time of day. Sure Rolling Stone has it in their 500 Greatest Records of All-Time, but that doesn’t really result in the kind of record sales and recognition that should be afforded this band.

Obviously, the information is out there, in different formats and many stories told; so I’m just going to point out a few in hopes that you see an opportunity to get yourself some great music.

First, if you have access to Netflix than you can catch the Big Star biography Nothing Can Hurt Me. It is a great examination into the history of Big Star, and also offers an awesome soundtrack of alternate takes from Big Star and their principle songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton.

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Next there is a new biography on Alex Chilton named A Man Called Destruction. It is pretty eye opening and well worth the read.

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Finally, the one album I was here to tell you about on this day, #1 Record. While it would be easy for me to sit here heaping praise, it is easier to just point out its influence. Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, The Posies, Lemonheads, Wilco and much of the 90’s alt rock pantheon were influenced by #1 Record.

Some of the songs you may recognize from are:

“In The Street” – It became the theme song to That 70’s Show.

“The Ballad of El Goodo” – Has been covered numerous times by acts such as Evan Dando, Mathew Sweet, Counting Crows, Zeus, Wellspring and Wilco.

“Thirteen” – Picked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time, and I’ll just add, one of the most amazing songs ever.

Anyway, your opportunity is that as vinyl goes, there have been some recently released re-masters that are available. First a little company called 4 Men with Beards was given permission to re-release #1 Record on 180 gram black vinyl. I haven’t found an exact number printed, but it must be at least sizable enough to fill demand.

The second release is a little more exclusive, Newbury Comics with permission of Big Star’s record label Ardent have released 1000 copies of #1 Record on translucent gold vinyl. Trust me when I say, it is awesome!

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In fact, that is kind of my point; #1 Record is one of the greatest albums one can have in their collection. If I printed my version of the top 10 records of all time it would be among them. More importantly, if I was to take off my critic hat and just list my favourite 10 records, again it would sit amongst the top. In fact, it just might be a contender for number one.

Playlist March 22/15

Here is this weeks playlist. I will update the song stuff as I go.

March 22/15 Playlist

1. “Bottle Of Fur” – Urge Overkill

Saturation is one of my all time favorite records, which I am really wanting to find on vinyl, at a reasonable price…

2. “Three Women” – Jack White

Yeah yeah, Lazaretto, great record… not much more you can say.

3. “Freak Scene” – Dinosaur Jr.

From Bug, because Spotify doesn’t have Bug Live, “Freak Scene would kinda be considered the hit, if such a thing really existed for a cult classic. You can pick this up at some of the better record stores out and about, but the special purple splatter vinyl is sold out.

4. “In The Clear” – Foo Fighters

Great record that keeps finding its way onto my turntable.

5. “Born To Run (Live) – Bruce Springsteen

Did a write up on this a while back. Still think “Born to Run” is the perfect classic rock tune.

6. “20th Century Man” – The Kinks

7. “Everybody Makes A Mistake” – Otis Redding

8. “Little Wing” – Jimi Hendrix

This arrived from Newbury Comics last week. Sounds frickin great and is still available here.

9. “Witchy Woman” – Eagles

10. “Can’t Feel My Soul” – Teenage Fanclub

11. “Do You” – Spoon

12. “Crestfallen” – Pernice Brothers

13. “Neither Here Nor There” – Sloan

14. “A Very Sorry Christmas” – The New Medicants

15. “Things” – Paul Westerberg

16. “Crazy For You” – The Dirtbombs

Such an awesome sound on this band, just had to get a couple of their records. Listen and you might agree. If you do click here.

17. “Wild Eyes” – Vivian Girls

Couple years ago I was listening to these guys and thinking how great they were. Finally picked some up on vinyl.

18. “I’m Shy” – The Juliana Hatfield Three

What I said just a few days ago.

19. “Willow” – Said The Whale

20. “Kitsch Trick” – The Seasons

 

Another Frickin’ Hospital Story… no, wait it’s The New Mendicants

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A lifetime ago I sat in a hospital bed and listened to the Pernice Brothers Over Come With Happiness. It was my introduction to all things Joe Pernice – Scud Mountain Boys, Chappaquiddick Skyline, and the already mentioned Pernice Brothers. Possessed with one of the most extraordinary voices since Matthew Sweet, he can move you into different emotional levels in just a few notes.

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Sitting on the table beside it was Songs From Northern Britain by one of my favorite bands, Teenage Fanclub. Of course Teenage Fanclub could boast having several great voices in the same band, but the one that always stood out to me was Norman Blake. “Can’t Feel My Soul” takes on a whole new meaning when the lights of your eyes flicker with the synergy created by multiple prescription pain killers.

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Of course, at that time I had no idea that both would end up living in my fair city and start creating music together. Talk about synergy, while both had been putting out really good records within the context of their own careers, the combination is stellar. Into the Lime is at times folksy, and others full of power pop bliss, yet overall it creates an atmosphere of perfect harmonized glory.

Sometimes it can be hard to find music that speaks not to the person you were in decades past, but the person in the now. The hardships of everyday living as a regular dept paying adult in relationships long past the honeymoon stage of life, but Pernice and Blake pull it off in dark heartbreaking details. Take “A Very Sorry Christmas” with lines like “I’ve hurt so many people along the way” and instead of going into Beatles-esqe sentimentality, crush you with “some are dead, and some they really hate me.” All the more fascinating is the fact that the music feels so damn light with subjects that are so damn heavy.

Finding this on vinyl is going to be a little work if that is your format. They only printed a 1000, and their website sold out… but if enough people ask, I’m sure they’ll re-print.

I’m just hoping this record will be followed by others, lots of others. This is a combination that works.

Holding history in my hand – The Posies: “I Am The Cosmos”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.