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?

Playlist #2 March 8, 2015

Another week and another playlist. Hope you enjoy! https://open.spotify.com/user/12178865004/playlist/6JqhrQW7eP0LJ4CLuEx0vX

  1. “Story of My Life” – Social Distortion

Legendary punk bands best known song, just because I was playing Guitar Hero the other day and it reminded me how frickin’ cool they are. I’ll be starting to write about some past Record Store Day finds and Social Distortion will definitely be a part of it. (And rumour is, their first record will be coming out on vinyl for RSD)

  1. “Redemption Song” – Joe Strummer

There is so much more to Strummer than the Clash. Damn I miss him. Streetcore was re-mastered for vinyl back in 2012, and comes highly recommended from this reviewer and many others.

  1. “Help” – The Damned

I love punk covers of classic songs. Either you love the Damned or you never got into punk at any point in your life.

  1. “Secret Agent Man” – Dwight Twilley

Singer / Songwriter almost no one has heard of, yet captures my attention with some great songs… and of course, I love this cover – so there! Actually comes from an album full of covers.

  1. “Blood and Roses” – The Smithereens

Something about the Smithereens and their brand of 80’s power-pop catches me every time I listen. They are just so damned easy to sing along with.

  1. “Get Up” – Bleu

Then you take that power-pop thing into the 2000’s and give it to a guy who loves the studio and with a bit of blending you end up with Bleu. Sure it’s another rock song about staying strong in the face of adversity, but we can all use one of those from time to time.

  1. “I Think We’re Alone Now” – The Rubinoos

Shift back down a gear and we end up with cult fixtures the Rubinoos who are famous for providing the theme for Revenge of the Nerds and taking Avril Lavigne to court for plagiarism.

  1. “September Gurls” – The Bangles

Awesome cover of Big Star, who are the originators of the power-pop genre, the Bangles are just a lot of fun to hear at any time.

  1. “The Great Salt Lake” – Band of Horses

Was gifted to me when I was doing all that “driving.” Was a great companion during hard times. Sometimes a few songs can make all the difference.

  1. “Better Man” – Beth Hart

Another of those ‘musicians musician,’ Beth Hart is well known amongst her peers, but hasn’t found a door big enough to get her past the small venue life. Weird, because every time I hear her I wonder why she isn’t bigger than many stadium playing bands.

  1. “When The Stars Go Blue” – Ryan Adams

One of my favorite tracks off Gold (which I kinda talked about a week or so ago), this is one of those songs that just gets covered a lot. The Coors w/Bono did a pretty good cover… although I’ll still take the original.

  1. “Rocket Man” – Elton John

Or should I say “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time).” I couldn’t resist putting it on here right after Adams seeing as the post from last week featured them both.

  1. “Burnin’ For You” – Blue Oyster Cult

Sometimes when you put on one classic 70’s track, you feel like hearing another. What I always loved about these guys is that they never seemed to fit into a genre proper. They weren’t metal, or prog, or … they were just a band that put out some songs I really liked.

  1. “Second Option” – Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell

I’ve always loved this song, but also found it strange that Cary would collaborate with a vocalist who sounds so similar to what she already had in Whiskeytown. I hear this and I pretty much picture Ryan Adams singing it.

  1. “The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon” – Camper Van Beethoven

This was really my introduction to Camper, who I discovered after Cracker (go figure). Right away I just fell for the quirky characters found in Camper songs and have remained a fan ever since. I was lucky enough to see them together a month back.

  1. “A Long December” – Counting Crows

I don’t know why I consider these guys a guilty pleasure, but I’m a fan. For some very odd reason, every time I hear this song I picture Kermit the Frog singing it. Really, I just think the green muppet himself would do an awesome version.

  1. “Deadwood” – Dirty Pretty Things

I was rather bummed when the Libertines called it a day after only two records… I was cheered up when I heard “Deadwood” blast out my speakers. Good to hear that the Libertines have gotten back together, but I’m not holding my breath over the quality of work that will come out of it. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

  1. “Horses” – Gemma Hayes

Something about this song just frickin’ caught me and has never let me go. It was just the kind of song that gets you to buy the record and then the whole back catalogue.

  1. “Need Your Loving Tonight” – Queen

Just because I have been spending a bit of time listening to them recently, I think I’m just about over this phase.

  1. “I’m A Little Airplane” – Jonathan Richman

Just like on that Sesame Street bit, my kids and I would spread are arms out, sing and pretend to fly.