Saturday, October 24, 2009

Big Star - #1 Record (1972)

big star #1 Drummer Jody Stephens looks back at the first Big Star album.

By Robin Platts



The album title and the name of the band are as ironic as you can get. They weren’t stars and the album didn’t chart at all. In the early ‘70s, Big Star crafted some of the best recordings of the decade and then gradually disintegrated in the face of mass disinterest.

It’s easy to draw comparisons to bands like Badfinger and the Raspberries, whose Beatle-esque records tended to seem out of place in the early ‘70s musical landscape. And Big Star certainly had something of a Beatles complex, with Alex Chilton and Chris Bell in the Lennon and McCartney roles.

Chris Bell, surely one of the most underrated talents in the history of rock and roll, led a succession of groups in Memphis at the end of the ‘60s. As the ‘70s began, Bell was fronting a trio, variously known as Icewater and Rock City, which featured: Bell (vocals and guitar), Andy Hummel (bass) and Jody Stephens (drums and the occasional lead vocal).

big star photo 2

If Big Star had a star, it was Alex Chilton, a Memphis native who had achieved some fame as the lead singer of the Box Tops and actually sang on a #1 record (“The Letter”). Post-Box Tops, Chilton had made some solo recordings and spent time in New York. Chilton knew Bell from his pre-Box Tops days and, when he returned to Memphis in 1971, Chilton saw Bell, Stephens and Hummel performing at a local hall.

“When Alex came to see us, we were a three-piece,” Stephens recalls. “He came to see us at the VFW Hall, close to downtown. And he liked what he saw. He was looking to move back to Memphis, to join a band.”

Chilton joined the Bell/Stephens/Hummel trio, adding a rawer edge to the group’s sound. “We went from a pretty poppy band to something with a little grit as well,” says Stephens.

big star photo

Inspired by the name of a local supermarket chain, the quartet optimistically dubbed themselves Big Star.

They recorded their first LP, #1 Record, at Ardent Studios in Memphis, between April and June 1971. #1 Record remains, to these ears, Big Star’s finest work. Although some prefer the rougher-edged follow-up Radio City or the completely unhinged Third/Sister Lovers, #1 Record benefits from the short-lived dynamic between Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. Like Lennon and McCartney, Bell and Chilton shared the songwriting credit on their contributions to #1 Record and each seemed to bring out the best in the other’s work.

“Chris added a real pop aspect to the band,” recalls Jody Stephens. “Chris provided the production direction for the first album and Alex was the production direction for the second, and you can see how the two contrast.”

big star no 1 back

Beyond Bell’s significant role as a singer/songwriter, it’s probably his studio craftsmanship that sets #1 Record apart from Big Star’s subsequent work.

“Chris was pretty studio-oriented,” Stephens recalls. “To the point that I thought it really did get in the way of performing live and rehearsing.”

Bell’s studio perfectionism gives #1 Record a polish that works to great effect against the rawer stylings that Alex Chilton appeared to favour. Chilton’s Thirteen, for instance, would have been a thing of beauty under almost any circumstance, but the track’s sweet, layered backing vocals (one of Bell’s specialties) lift it to another level.

Although Bell and Chilton worked on the album in partnership, tension resulted from a subsequent focus on Chilton.

“We released the record, the reviews started coming in, and the reviews focused on Alex,” Stephens remembers. “I think they focused on Alex because it was more of a writer’s way of introducing the band via someone they’d heard of rather than them crediting Alex with the creation of what Big Star was all about.”

Whatever the writers’ motivations, the focus on Chilton seemed like a slight to Bell, who played such a pivotal role in the conception of #1 Record.

“Chris brought so much to the project that he didn’t feel he got credit for,” says Stephens. “I think Chris was pretty disappointed in the lack of attention that he was paid. That’s probably the primary reason he split. I think he thought he’d have to live under Alex’s shadow.”

Bell quit Big Star before the group got around to making a second album and the group temporarily disbanded after #1 Record failed to make an impression on the record-buying public – most likely as a result of poor distribution.

big star in the street 45 copy The album spawned a couple of singles – Don’t Lie to Me and When My Baby′s Beside Me – neither of which made the charts.

However, the flipside of the latter, In the Street, got some mainstream exposure 17 years later when a cover version was used as the theme to TV’s That ‘70s Show.

Some versions of the Big Star story have Chris Bell playing on some of the group’s second LP, Radio City.

Big-Star photo 3 What is certain is that a few Bell/Chilton compositions found their way onto Radio City but didn’t credit Bell for his contribution.

“I know that there were songs that he and Alex wrote together – probably Back of a Car was one of them – and when Chris separated from the band, it was like Chris didn’t want to have his name on those songs,” Stephens recalls. “So I think he and Alex kind of divided up the songs they had co-written – Alex took a couple and Chris took a couple – and put their own names on them.”

Beyond the band’s considerable abilities as performers and songwriters, the pairing of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell tapped Big Star into a vein of melancholy that defines their best work and sets them apart from their imitators. Chilton and Jody Stephens followed it for two more albums until Big Star finally collapsed, but the undercurrent of pure sadness was at its most perfect with Chris Bell on hand for #1 Record.


  1. I'd be very interested to find out the full extent of Bell's contribution to Radio City. "O My Soul" always struck me as one of his... The arrangements if not the production, that is. A Bell-produced/co-written Radio City is one of the great What If's in rock n roll (as far as I'm concerned).

    Would love to read your take on the new deluxe reissue of I Am The Cosmos.

  2. Thanks again, DZ. There is a degree of mystery about Chris Bell's involvement on the second album. I think you're right about O My Soul. When I interviewed Ken Stringfellow about Big Star years ago, he said he thought O My Soul had Bell's fingerprints on it, especially the melody of the "You're really a nice girl..." part.

    I haven't heard the new Cosmos yet, but I'm sure I'll get to it soon. So sad that he put so much effort into recoordings that went largely unnoticed until years after he passed.