an Eye on the Sky (Rhino/Ardent)
There’s a famous saying about the Velvet Underground: Few
people actually bought their records, but everyone who did
started a band. This may actually be true about Big Star.
Their first album, the boldly and, sadly, ironically titled
#1 Record, is said to have sold only around 10,000
copies on its release in 1972. But between that album and
its follow-up, the leaner and meaner Radio City, Big
Star basically wrote the book on American power pop. Bands
from Cheap Trick to the Replacements to R.E.M. cited them,
both verbally and musically, as influences. Their songs have
quietly become regarded as classics: the charming innocence
of “Thirteen,” covered in concert in recent years by folks
like Elliott Smith and Wilco; quintessential power-pop anthem
“September Gurls”; “In the Street,” a song about smoking pot
and hanging out, later popularized as the theme song for a
television show about smoking pot and hanging out. The band’s
mix of Anglophilic pop smarts, courtesy of singer-guitarists
Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, with the soul and R&B grooves
of their home region and hammered into form by bassist Andy
Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, has proved to have a long
Still, Big Star will always be, to the majority of music listeners,
just some obscure band from the ’70s. It’s not like they’re
about to sneak onto classic-rock radio playlists; they’re
a band whose music still elicits nods between those in the
know. So Keep an Eye on the Sky, the new four-CD set
from Rhino, tries to play the interesting dual role of being
both an experience for longtime fans, and a definitive look
at the band’s story. It succeeds, to an extent, in both regards.
If nothing else, it makes the case for the box set as a format.
The band’s short history—two proper albums in their day, plus
a messy third act that was released later—is covered here
over three discs, with original album tracks packaged amid
a selection of alternate mixes, demos, and unreleased material.
A fourth disc features a full, previously unreleased live
set. Some might argue that the inclusion of album tracks is
spurred by a lack of new material, and they’d be part right.
Also, who wants to listen to 200 minutes of crappy demos?
(I’m looking at you, Nirvana box set.) Completists will already
own some of these tracks—anyone who bought last year’s Thank
You Friends: The Ardent Records Story compilation might
wince at the amount of overlap—but there’s enough new here
to bring them back around, and those looking for a close-cropped
walk through the group’s catalog will enjoy soaking in the
Disc one starts pre-Big Star, with the tentative Bell solo
recording “Psychedelic Stuff” and “All I See Is You,” a Beatlesque
(its hook bites “Dig a Pony,” hard) track from Bell’s Icewater
band. Both sides of the late, great songwriter’s hand are
quickly shown, the hard rocker and the balladeer; this was,
after all, the same guy who would sing the plaintive “Try
Again” and the roiling, petulant “Don’t Lie to Me” on #1
Record. If Bell was McCartney, Chilton’s Lennon is on
fine display in the smooth early solo track “Every Day as
We Grow Closer,” as Beatlesque a song as the guy ever produced.
A few tracks from the Bell-Stephens band Rock City are also
included, for historical context. Alternate mixes of first-album
tracks abound on this first disc, though they are far from
essential. Big Star being first and foremost a studio band,
it’s to be assumed the album was the proper document of this
time period. These new looks make no argument against that.
One interesting indication of the band’s great foresight,
whether intentional or not, is a version of “The Ballad of
El Goodo” that sports an alternate bridge lyric, a topical
bit about “presidents and draft boards.” It’s hard to imagine
“Ain’t no one goin’ to turn me ’round” as protest anthem.
The highlights begin with a demo of the Bell-penned, Chilton
co-sung “I Got Kinda Lost” that gives a good indication to
what a second “true” Big Star record might have sounded like.
Another highlight, the spiritual Bell number “There Was a
Light,” opens disc two. By now in the timeline, Bell had decided
to leave the band, so now we get Chilton solo demos of “Life
Is White” and “What’s Going Ahn.” Again, there’s a mix of
new and old album mixes to cover the Radio City period;
this time, the changes are more subtle. Bell’s sole solo single,
“I Am the Cosmos,” is also revisited here, with B-side “You
and Your Sister” sounding as much like a Big Star record as
anything else thanks, partially, to Chilton’s backing vocals.
on the Sky’s long peak comes with the string of demos
that bridges discs two and three: Chilton’s 12-string-acoustic
versions of Third/Sister Lovers tracks (“Thank You
Friends,” “Nighttime”) and covers (the Velvet Underground’s
“Femme Fatale”). Also here, demo versions of tracks “Downs”
and “Holocaust” that reveal the great craft at the core of
the wickedly fucked-up studio recordings. The latter, in particular,
takes on a new light, with Chilton delivering the macabre
lyric in a decidedly less-pained manner than on the proper
album. There’s little scrap from the Third studio period,
so disc three simply compiles the ill-fated album with a new
mastering sheen, in a running order different from both the
original PVC Records release and the 1992 Rykodisc reissue.
For my money, Eye on the Sky’s fourth disc is the real
treasure. This January 1973 concert found the band in one
of their first performances following Bell’s departure, warming
up for regional favorites Archie Bell and the Drells. The
apathetic crowd is heard offering what could only be called
a smattering of applause. As a result, this is one of the
cleanest live recordings of the band you’ll hear—with the
exception of some muffled vocals, it’s studio-clear. And it’s
an excellent set: The trio thump through the #1
Record tracks—“El Goodo” stomps like you never thought
it should, Hummel’s soaring backing vocals pushing it skyward—and
Radio City’s “She’s a Mover” sounds almost desperate.
A bundle of acoustic tracks, including a backbeat-driven “ST
100/6,” and a killer group of covers round it out.