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Supermarket of Pop

By John Brodeur

Big Star

Keep 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 shelf life.

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 sounds.

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.

Eye 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.


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