Thursday, July 18, 2013

Big Star, Or How I Will No Doubt Piss Off Some Of You

Finally saw the Big Star documentary "Nothing Can Hurt Me." The reviews and kudos from critics and friends wound me up, so to say I was amped is an understatement. When it was over, I was not so amped.

• It was 30 minutes too long

• It featured some of the most obnoxious, music-snob, douche-bag talking heads I have ever seen.

• Jim Dickinson is God

• Alex Chilton is not.

• The film became twice as interesting when it focused on Chris Bell.

• I love Chris Bell's brother and sister.


I'd like to borrow a bit from Louis C.K., which he calls "Of course...but maybe."

OF COURSE Big Star's three records include some of the best power pop, rock, folk and R&B produced in the seventies. Of COURSE!

BUT MAAAAYBE...MAYBE...those records and that band aren't quite what the cognescenti have been proclaiming for the last 40 years.

Big Star was all about potential. They were first, and that is no doubt a very important fact.

Maybe I'm saying what everyone already knows, but it seems to me there were plenty of other bands in the 70s who put out as many records or more, who were as good or better. Unfortunately, it's not as cool to love or mythologize those artists.

Thanks to William Repsher and his comments about NRBQ on yesterday's post for saying what I've been thinking  for years.



I'm glad I saw the movie.

Most of all it left me with a profound sadness. I don't know if it was sadness about Chris Bell, sadness for unfulfilled potential, sadness that people in bands are people (for better or worse), sadness that the movie wasn't better crafted, sadness for a lost time, ...

The movie isn't perfect but is certainly worth a viewing; the music is closer to (but not) perfect and definitely worth another listen.

Sal Nunziato said...


"The music is closer to (but not) perfect and definitely worth another listen."

Not sure I get that. I hope what I wrote didn't seem like I haven't listened enough. I know those Big Star records inside and out. I love them. LOVE them.



It was you that introduced me to Big Star and I'll always be grateful. If I seemed to be dissing the music or suggesting that if only one had super sophisticated ears like I ... then I certainly misspoke.

My comment was more a general post to the Burning Wood world. See the movie -- warts and all. Listen to the music!

Sal Nunziato said...


No worries. There was no misspeaking. I read your comment as if you thought I personally needed to give the music a chance.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I saw Mr. Repsher's comment late last night in reference to NRBQ.

The difference between Big Star and NRBQ is tragedy. NRBQ always seem to be having fun. Big Star not so much. Their (and Alex's career spanning) mixture of potential and tragedy makes for a better legend, if not reality.

I love the Big Star records and know them inside and out too, the music resonates for me because it's almost as sensitive as Bread, but retains balls. Beatlesque, but with Memphis soul just below the surface.
I think the records hold up even if the band didn't.

Most movies are at least 30 minutes too long.

Sal Nunziato said...

"...almost as sensitive as Bread, but retains balls. Beatlesque, but with Memphis soul just below the surface."

Man, that really nails it, BBJ. I'm just a tad skeptical about the "legend." We'll never know what Chris Bell might have turned into. But we heard what Alex Chilton delivered, a mostly crap solo career.

Anonymous said...

Sal - Have you seen "A Band Called Death" yet? Wonderful story, and a really well-made film. (I knew those guys slightly when they had a reggae band in VT in the 80s, but had NO IDEA as to their backstory.) Joe Bob sez check it out... -bill buckner

Anonymous said...

Alex Chilton and the fanboy/girl rock & roll fantasy of Big Star ain't nothing but circle jerk for Peter Pan clones.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to separate the legend from the band, but I fell in love with the music before I knew any of the band's history. In fact, the first time I heard their music I had just purchased the first two albums because it was a cheap download from Amazon that day- maybe $3. Once I hit play on my I-pod, it was all over. I don't think I listened to anything else for a good month after that. I still consider the first two albums pretty much perfect.

steve simels said...

Anonymous said...

Alex Chilton and the fanboy/girl rock & roll fantasy of Big Star ain't nothing but circle jerk for Peter Pan clones.

Strong words, anonymous, and courageously monikered.

Seriously -- I liked the movie more than Sal did, but I respect his opinions. You, on the other hand, are obviously just a putz.

steve simels said...


I won't argue your point about it being too long, and yes, some of my critical confreres were disappointing. Particularly Lenny Kaye, who I was a fan of before he became a rock star, who dispenses essential bromides and cliches in the film.

That said, yes -- Jim Dickinson IS God. And Bell's family are genuinely loveable.

cmealha said...

I never fell for Big Star. For Power Pop, the Raspberries were my boys. Not quite sure who came first, but in my memory they seemed to have started out at around the same time. I know the Raspeberries are not seen in the same light but Eric and the boys were far superior in my humble opinion.

ASH On The Beat said...

Nodding along to Steve.

The Big Star albums are great, but they are becoming legendary in year after year bits added on that makes them a whole load of stuff they are not.

No one knows what Chris Bell might have become, I Am The Cosmos is a fantastic album, but it's one album.

The bowing and scraping afforded to Alex Chilton forever on from Big Star is unwarranted.

Many you talk to had him down as an arse, was there really anything that was any good after Big Star and any new Power Pop Band had to be compared to Big Star.

Incidentally Jellyfish and XTC are other examples of a fascination with knocking decent later bands. Lazy journalism and living in the past.

I just wish The Posies, a band I have a lot of time for, spent more time working on their own stuff than pretending they are Big Star.

The film was a half hour too long, I wanted to know more about Chris Bell and it did that for me.

Those Big Star albums are fine, they'll always be played in my house, but the band has been built into something much bigger and much more important than they are.

I'm not dissing the music, I never could, but the aura around them is largely bollocks.

William Repsher said...

I’d say Badfinger was first. When I think “70s Power Pop” they’re the ones who were anointed by The Beatles themselves, and in the case of songs like “No Matter What” functioning on that high a level of talent. The Raspberries were second, and got a small taste of rock-star glory before coming apart.

Big Star … you would have to ask someone slightly older than I was(a prepubescent kid when they were a functioning band). But I have no recollection of them as a band in the 70s – and by the late 70s, I was paying close attention to anything that happened in that decade musically. If you were a Big Star fan in the 70s, boy, you and a four- or lower-five-digit number of select others were way ahead of the curve!

I usually put them in the same class as The Velvet Underground: severely under-appreciated in its time. The VU broke through a bit on the last VU album with Lou Reed, or at least I recall routinely hearing “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” on AOR stations throughout the 70s.

Interesting that both bands had resurgences in the mid-80s, deep in the heart of the indie-band boom. (With VU, I simply recall all their albums being reissued along with a rarities album ... I lived for the band in college.)

Chilton and the Big Star reappraisal were tailor-made for that time and those younger bands. Most of those bands assumed they were never going to get that big, driving around in vans and playing clubs/college towns. It’s easy to understand how someone like Paul Westerberg could have gotten copies of those albums and immediately became not just a fan, but a kindred spirit.

I don’t want to take anything away from Big Star – they deserve to be recognized. But as we both know, there’s a LONG list of bands from the 70s who haven’t been lucky enough to be re-discovered like this. You could easily throw together a mix …

And I'm OK with a lot of Chilton's solo work. Flies on Sherbert strikes me as a berserk form of genius and always had a soft spot for High Priest. Too many covers and too much filler, but every now and then, he'd lock in.

Sal Nunziato said...

I can almost forgive Peter Tomlinson. Think Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons. But Rick Price was unforgivable.

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh, c'mon you guys. I cherish my three Big Star albums, two of which I purchased for 99 cents in a cut-out bin in a drug store. LOVE the Raspberries and Badfinger, but Big Star is magical, mysterious and somewhat challenging. Four guys who created music together and which endured tragedy (as did Badfinger). They made music. Anything "legendary" surrounding them was fabricated by fans and critics. Not by the band, well not intentionally. A movie intending to explain that "notoriety " is disingenuous. And, for me would tarnish whatever fascination I have for just the music. Big Star for me is gorgeous sorrow from a very young heart. Classic and beautiful and if I appreciate Alex and Chris based solely on that, then they are genius. Hahahahaha. Wow. That was deep. THANKS as always for the thoughtful conversation about great music.!!


ge said...

Me & Big *~

Year where first heard: RADIO CITY in Denver circa late 1974. Source of my turn-onto: the great late PHONOGRAPH RECORD Magazine's writers' many mentions and championing of the genre of US-Brit power-pop [I never heard the less-appealing/more-'cushy'/less-crunchy first album til later having moved to the Apple] The rawness and vulnerability of Alex's voice...the chiming clean razor-riffs of Alex's [& Jim's] Fender stylings...the hookiness bred into the words & harmonies, the hopeful-meets-autumn-tinged jangle & teary-anthemic magic of Sept Girls!, which I picked up as part of my postmod. folksinger repertoire....the raw raunch & lusty leer of some songs & romantic ruin transmitted by the vocals, sure suited these ears to a T.

Now I happened to travel to the east village --my soon adoptive home-- in the fall of '75, and staying a block from CB's chanced to meet & hang out with the burgeoning T. Heads trio. We hit it off hi & hopeful and they put me on their guest list for a series of weekend shows, bought me drinks, went above-beyond call of duty to make me feel welcome... I wrote a long poem in their honor and gave it to them the morn I left; and when I returned to Denver picked out a special gift for sending them to their loft on Chrystie Street: My beloved Big * album!-- After all they were a hooky pop Fender-dominated trio as well, and I'm pretty sure they hadnt been turned on to the guys yet.

...then came Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque, which i saw DB had described to a reporter's ? how he dug it?---'Nothing i haven't heard before' though he didn't mention where he had [my gift obviously! :)]

~yet to see the flick, not real anxious to rock-crit it up!~

ge said...

Me & Big * cont., sil vous plait---

Well one has to mention 'Sister Lovers' which was a worthy #3, even more of the beauty fragile the lust unsublimated the sorrow palpable the non-commersh chances taken and finessed---Blue Moon, Holocaust, Jesus Christ, O Dana---this was the format I learned to listen & love it on, would rec. to newbies~
PVC Vinyl LP, 1978 (first issue)
Side A:

Stroke It Noel
For You
Kizza Me
You Can't Have Me
Blue Moon
Take Care

Side B:

Jesus Christ
Femme Fatale
O, Dana
Big Black Car
Kanga Roo
Thank You Friends

LIKE FLIES ON SHERBERT: I happened to get a slightly off-center hole-punched lp, whcih is one album that such is NOT a Problem! what a rare drunken-sleepy-sloppy vibe is workingly-present on those cuts! which can't be faked nor reduplicated, a true gem of weird production rule-breaking....then Alex's following solo stuff, quite spotty/too-clean prod., but still intriguing for their POV/choice of cover material bordering on racial profiling-spoofing! :)

["#1 Record" as i mentioned i heard only later and it seems a less-impressive listen than RADIO CITY, a bit scattered-diluted-unfocussed in comparison?]

So, Losers can be Winners, sometimes if not always in the Pantheon of my antiHeros, seems a sine qua non dontcha know?

Jerry Lee said...

I love the first two Big Star albums. The third is difficult, but still a good listen.

Jim Dickinson, who definitely is a God, used to say that Alex Chilton coasted a lot, and I have to agree. His solo work is wildly uneven. The first time I saw him, he opened for Jon Spencer (meh), and his latest album was "Cliches", a collection of standards. I thought it was horrible shlock, he and his band could have been a casino lounge act. Fortunately, he came back a few years later and played a fine set of non-Cliches songs. Took me a few years to track down one song, "Turn Your Money Green".

buzzbabyjesus said...

I rode the C train with Alex once.

stivseed said...

Loved the band. The 1st cut on my new album is called Big Star. That being said, what ran through my mind watching the movie was "poor Jody Stephens"...

ge said...

a classical interp:

ronh said...

Just had the thought that in comparison, Marshall Crenshaw gets treated like chopped liver. Maybe not fair to compare, but the man has had some stellar though frequently overlooked output.

billy budapest said...

The sound of Big Star was the sound of Chris Bell, and the spell it cast was so powerful that it handed Chilton a long and mostly undeserved career. And how did Chilton repay Bell for this kindness? Apparently, that's the REAL, untold story of the Big Star breakup which wasn't going to make it into the movie as long as John Fry was footing the bill!

Rob-in-Brevard said...

billy b - dya mean Alex's ocoasionally public, tacky comments about Chris' homosexuality? I recommend reading Holly George Warren's new Alex bio for a more even-handed appraisal of what Alex really thought of Chris and his music...