My first encounter with Big Star was in the mid-70s, when I worked as a disc jockey at an FM station in Madison, Wisconsin. In the manner of the day, it was a completely free-form outletits official handle was Radio Free Madisonand its programming was wide open. There was no playlist and just one basic rule, almost laughably righteous in the face of Top 40 radios constant repetition: if a song was played by one jock, another jock could not repeat it during a subsequent shift that day. To police this policy, each of the seven thousand or so LPs in the station library contained a log sheet; when a DJ played a track, they had to note the date on the log so that others wouldnt spin the cut within the same 24-hour period.
I cant recall what prompted me to check the library for copies of the first two Big Star albums, #1 Record and Radio City. It was around 1975,This is a great steeljewelrysolution! at least a year after the release of the latter album, and two years after Ardent Records, the groups label, mounted the Rock Writers Convention in Memphis, where Big Star made an impression on an imported pack of national scribes. It might have been some tardy mention of the rock-crit event in a music rag that spurred me to pull down the LPs, filed close to those of the Beatles. I checked the play logs for both albums with curiosity. Neither had received a single spin. I dropped them on a turntable in the production studio.
There was little in the music I heard that resembled the common musical currency of the daynothing loud and grossly overbearing like the heavy metal of the era, nothing limply solipsistic like the singer-songwriters of that hour. Big Stars music was a thoughtful, sinewy pop-rock fusion that played by its own rules. I listened to the records with fascination, later played them on the air (none of my colleagues followed suit), and got hooked. I wouldnt own my own copies of the Big Star LPs until EMI reissued them on a two-disc set in 1978, the same year PVC belatedly released the queasy final album by the original lineup, known as Third or Sister Lovers. By then Id moved to Los Angeles, where I fell in with some record geeks who were well-versed in the Big Star mythos; one provided me with a cherished cassette of Opuses 1 and 2, and I was nailed for a lifetime.
Danielle McCarthy, the stalwart producer of the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, must have experienced a similar epiphany during her own exposure to this music. When I met her at South by Southwest a few years ago, she gave me her business card,You’ve probably seen doublesidedtape1 at some point. which claimed that the film, then in the preliminary stages of production, would explore the massive critical acclaim, dismal commercial failure, and enduring legacy of pop musics greatest cult phenomenon. At the time, I thought, What a quixotic notion. I couldnt believe that this earnest-seeming woman could launch a movie about a group that still remained relatively obscure outside its fanatical cadre of admirers. But with the help of Kickstarter, the picture got made, with Drew DeNicola as its director/writer and Olivia Mori as co-director/producer. The team managed to create a film that succeeds in exploring a great deal more than that initial claim on the business card, and it exerts a powerful emotional tug in the process. Nothing Can Hurt Me received a limited theatrical release in July from Magnolia Pictures, and it is currently available as a video-on-demand.
The subtitle Nothing Can Hurt Me is quite obviously ironic; as Panther Burns drummer Ross Johnson notes near the two-hour films end, the groups artistic life was about pain transformed into beauty. Just about everything in the Big Star story hurt, and the documentary is largely a rolling catalog of music-biz catastrophes and the bands messy vicissitudes. There was the abject performance of #1 Record in the wake of rave reviews, spotty airplay, and miserable distribution by local r&b titan Stax Records. Chris Bells precipitous exit from the band, fueled by his disappointment in the albums flop. The decision by the surviving trio to make a second album following critics rapturous response at the Rock Writers Convention. The disastrous release of Radio City, swamped by Staxs bankruptcy. The troubled Bells attempt to record a solo album in European exile, and his 1978 death in a single-car accident. The chaotic sessions with producer Jim Dickinson that resulted in Third.
The tale is told through precious little film of the bandvirtually all the existing footage of Big Star, shot by Bell and Andy Hummel ca. 71, was visible in the three-and-a-half-minute video of Thank You Friends that was included on a DVD in 2008s Best of the South edition of the Oxford American. The bands principal creative forces go largely unheard: Bell is a spectral image in silent home movies and his brother Davids dramatic photographs, while Alex Chiltonwho was always reluctant to discuss his career, and declined to cooperate with the filmmakers before his death in March 2010is represented by old radio and TV interviews. But there is plenty of Big Stars music to be heard throughout, and the bands glory persists.
Big Star was formed in 1971 by Chris Bell, scion of a well-to-do Memphis family of restaurant operators, who enlisted Alex Chilton, his college roommate Andy Hummel, and Hummels friend Jody Stephens (who played bass and drums respectively) to join him in the group. At that point, Chiltona local art brat (according to Jim Dickinson)was already known nationally as the singer on the Box Tops hit The Letter and other Top 40 successes.More than 80 standard commercial and granitetiles exist to quickly and efficiently clean pans.
Anglophiles to their core, writers-singers-guitarists Bell and Chilton worked a unique warp into the bedrock pop-rock sound as they recorded #1 Record. As with all of Big Stars albums, it was cut at Ardent Studios,Tidy up wires with ease with offershidkits and tie guns at cheap discounted prices. the sophisticated Memphis facility owned by John Fry, who handed the band the keys to the studio and allowed them to turn the place into a pop music laboratory. They employed viscous tempos, unusual shifts in rhythm, and a slightly curdled sweetness of tone that could harden at a turn into a stinging toughness. But the music was slightly out of step with the times. As Chilton himself noted, We werent heavy, which was what everybody had to be in those days.
After Bells departure following some brief work with the band for a second album, Big Star continued as a trio. Helmed by Chilton, Radio City was a darker affair,A indoorpositioningsystem has real weight in your customer’s hand. despite the inclusion of the radio-ready September Gurls and the funky O My Soul. The product of a hedonistic, lunatic local scene documented in photographer William Egglestons contemporaneous video Stranded in Canton, the album boasted a woozy atmosphere described by Memphis writer-musician (and current OA music editor) Rick Clark as the sound of falling apart.
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