While they never sold huge amounts of records or scored hit songs, ‘70s Memphis-based power pop band Big Star developed a considerable and devoted cult following and has influenced many subsequent bands from the Posies to Teenage Fan Club. The Big Star sound would provide template for power pop that would be later mined by Cheap Trick and others: rock and roll aggression combined with Beatles-inspired pop hooks. As for the songs themselves, Big Star’s lyrics betray their catchy melodies and commercial aspirations because they were sometimes dark and very introspective, not exactly Top 40 material back then.
Big Star’s brief but consistent body of work makes up this lovingly-assembled boxed set, Keep An Eye On the Sky, which spans their output in the ‘70s (It does not feature material from the latter-day reunions in the ‘90s and today). For fans that only had Big Star’s first three albums, this set features previously unreleased alternate versions and mixes along with some rarities and demos. For example, there are some pre-Big Star material, including early solo work from Alex Chilton (the baroque “Every Day As We Grow Closer”) and Chris Bell (“Psychedelic Stuff”). The set then delves into familiar and great territory with tracks from the albums #1 Record and Radio City—cornerstone records for any power pop fan— from rockers such as “Feel,” “Back of a Car” and “In The Street,” to tender material like the coming-of-age poignancy of “Thirteen” and the graceful “The Ballad of El Goodo.” And of course there’s the great “September Gurls.”
By the time Big Star recorded Third/Sister Lovers in the mid’70s, members Chris Bell and Andy Hummel already left the band. Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens carried on and the result is what most people considered their most somber and masterful work. Any shot at improving their commercial fortunes went down the drain with this album– there are some great songs from the haunting “Holocaust,” to the upbeat “Jesus Christ” and “Thank You Friends,” to the lovely Nighttime. The fourth disc on this set is a terrific, previously-unreleased live performance at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis in January 1973 focusing on #1 Record songs—it also features covers of T. Rex’s “Baby Strange” and Todd Rundgren’s “Slut.”
And while the box set is certainly an acknowlegement of the genius of singer/songwriter Alex Chilton and the musical contributions of Stephens and Hummel, it’s also a tribute to Chris Bell. He left the band after the first album and tragically died young in 1978 without getting any recognition. His most famous post-Big Star single, “I Am the Cosmos” is deservedly on the collection.
For fans of Big Star or great power pop music from that era, this set is an absolute must-listen. In some strange sense, the fact that Big Star never became huge during their lifetime ended up being a blessing in disguise.