Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky

BigStar_KeepAnEyeOnTheSkyThe essential second (or third) Big Star purchase

It’s hard to imagine anyone issuing a Big Star release that’s a more perfect introduction to the band than the two-fer of #1 Record and Radio City. You could include their third album, dig in the archives for alternate versions and live tracks, stretch through their reunion music, add pre- and post-Big Star releases, and solo work for context, and you could write lavish liner notes to explain and contextualize their ill-fated story. But as an introduction, every bit of it would simply distract from the perfection that is that first perfect couplet of albums. If you want to turn someone on to Big Star, the stepping stones are #1 Record and Radio City.

But once they’re hooked they’ll want to know more; they’ll want to know everything. Where did the players come from and what did they do before and after Big Star? What else did the band record? What’s Ardent Records and what else was the label doing at the time? How did Memphis influence the band’s sound? Are there alternate versions or unreleased tracks? What were they like as a live unit? And of course: why haven’t I heard of this band before? The latter question is less likely to be asked these days, since obsessive fans have dug up many of the other answers, and many well-known bands have cited Big Star as a seminal influence. But until this box set was released, the full picture of Big Star’s career had to be pieced together from a shelf-full of CDs [1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9], a pair of books [1 2] and assorted fan web sites.

With this 4-CD set, Rhino has reduced all of the purchases that normally follow the two-fer into a rich and convenient box. This is not a substitute for the original albums, nor does it replace the full-length live albums, lead-ins and follow-ups, or the detailed written histories of the band; but for many, this consolidated view of Big Star will be the perfect follow-up to the initial infatuation. For those who’ve already collected everything that’s been legitimately released, the box still provides something extra in previously unreleased live and studio items from the archives. Some of the alternate material is subtle, but some, like “Country Morn” fronts the well-known backing track of “Sunrise” with entirely different lyrics. The B-side mix of “In the Street” has a noticeably different feel to the album track, and the alternate version of “The Ballad of El Goodo” sports a different lead vocal take.

There are early versions of “I Got Kinda Lost,” “There Was a Light” and Loudon Wainwright III’s “Motel Blues” that never made it to final form, and revealing demos for songs that made each of the group’s first three albums. Perhaps the biggest treat of all, however, is the live show featured on disc four. This disc is a distillation of three sets performed by the three-piece (Chris Bell-less) Big Star in Memphis in January 1973. Recorded from microphones set in front of the stage, it’s not the crisp line recording of the band’s previously released shows, but it’s a superb performance whose room sound offers a bit of you-are-there ambiance. It’s a shame the audience mostly ignore the greatness in front of them as they await the headliner, Archie Bell & the Drells.

The physical presentation, a folder containing the four discs and a hundred-page book housed in a slipcase, is superb. An introductory note from Ardent Records founder John Fry shows the emotional connection the insiders still carry with them. Robert Gordon’s historical notes are informative, but Bob Mehr’s essay brilliantly captures the slowly-built cult of Big Star, replaying the clandestine mystery and wonderful discovery the band’s fans felt in the years before the Internet and this  box set put the story at everyone’s fingertips. The book closes with song notes from Alec Palao that gather the scattered details that could be reassembled from tape box labels and participants memories. The 7.5-inch square book includes superb full-panel pictures, most of which have never been seen by even Big Star’s biggest fans.

Could the set include more? Yes. Would that make it better as a box set? Not really. The purpose of these four discs is to tell a story, to provide substance and dimension to a band whose story was revealed ever so slowly over the course of three decades. By intermixing standard and alternate versions of key recordings this set offers new angles on the well-known corpus. By including a full disc of live music the collection fleshes out Big Star from a studio incarnation into a band populated by flesh-and-blood musicians. Start with the band’s first two albums, but once you’ve been bitten, continue here. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Big Star’s Home Page
Big Star’s MySpace Page

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.