A Great Hash of Demonic Sound

Has any band ever put out less music and yet been discussed and dissected more than Big Star? The endless discussion over the years about Alex Chilton, Big Star and the supposed magic that lies in those 50 or so hallowed tracks has sent more than one Stereophile Contributing Music Editor into sputtering denunciations of how ridiculous it is that rock critics of a certain generation—those who came of age in the infancy of indie rock—fawn and coo over Big Star with seemingly bottomless adoration. And how, of course, their supposed influence on everything that came after is all pretentious fanboy bullshit. So what if their brand of anglophilic pop rock (from Memphis, TN) inspired a strata of sensitive southern boys like Michael Stipe and later more adventurous travelers (The Replacements, The Posies, Wilco) to follow and expand on a melodic yet edgy stream of indie rock that eventually contributed to that 90’s mother of the waters known as Alternative Rock?

A slow motion musical equivalent of politics or religion, the charged topic of Big Star’s influence should not be broached with fanatics of either stripe. If I have to judge, the numbers tell the story for me. Jody Stephens, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton made #1 Record in 1972 and Radio City two years later. Among the top albums of 1972 were Deep Purple’s Machine Head, The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street and Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, all of which were about four solar systems over from what the unwieldy, fracitious quartet named after a grocery store chain were doing in Bluff City.

While the first two records, both of which had distribution problems, were eventually cut out and today command vaguely insane prices on eBay (especially Radio City), it’s always been the third record, cut at Ardent Studios in late 1974 and variously known as Third, Sister Lovers and Beale Street Green, that’s far and away the band’s masterpiece. Intimate, disturbing, full of amazing songs and what Ken Stringfellow in one of this package’s liner notes calls “lust, love, anger, sorrow, irony (correctly deployed),” Third is ultimately what Pete Holsapple in his own liner note calls, “pure and undeniable” and what Bud Scoppa in his note calls “a cul-de-sac of devastation.” In a later interview Scoppa quotes, Chilton himself calls it “a great hash of demonic sound.”

Much about this project remains murky. The band was by then just Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens. With most of the original songs written by Chilton, it’s always been more like a Chilton solo record than anything else. Or perhaps a duo effort by Chilton and storied Memphis producer Jim Dickinson who tried to ride heard over it. A project of extremes, the artistic canvas of Third is incredibly broad and yet at times you feel like you’re alone in a room with Chilton. Experimental, dark and incredibly influential today, the music and the production, swings from the Beatlesque strings on “For You,” to Steve Cropper’s guitar on the cover of Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale.” Most of all, Chilton’s songwriting is indelibly terrific throughout. The most chilling song in the entire pop music canon may be the desolate “Holocaust.” The steel drums on “Downs,” a tune about barbiturates are wonderfully weird. Chilton’s angolphilia was never better than in “Thank You Friends” where you can almost detect a hint of a British accent. Memphis musical history gets a proper nod in the delightfully out of control stagger through “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” What other songwriter could turn the loaded moniker “Jesus Christ,” into the album’s hooky pop tune. And “Kango Roo” is just transcendent pop rock songwriting genius that’s so far ahead of it’s time…again at least two solar systems beyond. Like Wilco? “Kango Roo” is where Jeff Tweedy clearly gleaned a few moves.

Predictably, Third which was also called Beale Street Green after a locale in Memphis and Sister Lovers because Chilton and Stephens were for a time dating sisters, had no chance of a wide release. Labels large and small heard one of the 200-300 test pressings and passed. Even forward thinkers like Lenny Waronker (Warner Bros) and Jerry Wexler (Atlantic) were unnerved by listening, Wexler going so far as to say it made him “uncomfortable.” Those test pressings now routinely fetch two grand when they occasionally appear for sale online. Eventually, released in 1978 on the PVC label in the U.S. and the Aura label in the UK with completely different track sequences, the record was never quite “finished” in the usual sense. In 1992, Rykodisc issued a CD, Third/Sister Lovers that gave a semi-finalized version of the record its first wide distribution. But it’s taken until this Omnivore reissue, Big Star Third Complete for the mass of music that was recorded, from demos through rough takes to finished masters, to finally be assembled in a semi-intelligible form. Omnivore, a Los Angeles-based reissue label owned and run by a group of record biz veterans headed by Cheryl Pawelski, who spent time at Rhino, Concord and EMI-Capitol, has since it’s founding in 2010 become a force in the world of reissues taking great care with digging out quality source material, assembling detailed, informative packaging and going to great lengths with audio transfers, restoration and remastering. With the obvious bias of being a huge fan of a record with a holy grail aura about it, I have to say this, so far, is Omnivore’s finest hour.

The 18 liner note essays–printed in type that is entirely too small for anyone over 15 years old–are wonderful. The data in the package on the tortured path this music has taken since 1974, the use of the sequencing order from the test pressings and the decades long quest to uncover the original reels of Scotch 206 tape from these sessions all make this the last word (until the next discovery!) on Third. Best of all considering the age of the tapes, the sound is better than what's on the original 1978 LPs and the Ryko CD reissue. Every reissue proclaims itself a discovery. While most of the tunes here have been known for some time, this set is genuinely important and for fans, a stone treat. Listen below to the opener, Stroke it Noel.”

AaronGarrett's picture

Listening to the new material it's really striking how strong the unadorned songs are and (of course) how beautiful Chilton's voice is. The importance of "Lesa" to the making of this music is even more apparent and not just as a "sister lover".