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Music: Big star burns brightly anew

Craven Lovelace
NOTES
Free Press Music Columnist
Big Star's lead singer, Alex Chilton,is shown before his 2010 death.
Marcelo Costa |

Are you a power pop fan? Nothing will answer that question better than your reaction to the news that Big Star’s first two albums are being re-released in September in newly packaged, remastered form.

If you have to ask, “Who’s Big Star?” then you’re not. If, on the other hand, you shoot your fist into the air so hard it lifts you off the ground, then you, my brother or sister, are indeed a power pop fan.

Big Star is one of those bands, like the Velvet Underground and Kraftwerk, who never set sales charts on fire in their time, but whose influence on popular music can still be felt to this day. In a hypothetical alternate universe, where the American pop scene never included Big Star, it’s doubtful there would be an R.E.M., a Fountains of Wayne, a Gigolo Aunts or even a Wilco, at least in the forms our world came to know those acts. Those are just some of the literally dozens and dozens of musical combos who have found inspiration in the works of Big Star’s classic line-up of frontman Alex Chilton, guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens.

Even if you were one of the (undoubtedly) many folks who never knew of Big Star before laying eyes here, there’s a good chance you’ve heard at least one of their songs. “September Gurls,” which made its first appearance in 1974 on Big Star’s second album, “Radio City,” has been covered by many artists, including a great version by ‘80s “gurl band,” the Bangles. (The title of Katy Perry’s hit, “California Gurls,” which came out shortly after Chilton passed away in 2010, was intended as a tribute to Big Star.)

Perhaps better-known nowadays is their song, “In the Street,” which from 1998 to 2006 was used as the theme song of the popular sitcom, “That ‘70s Show.” But these were just two of the delicious pop morsels Big Star offered up on their first two albums, “#1 Record” and the forementioned “Radio City.” Both albums sold poorly when they came out in the early 1970s, but their ubiquitous presence in the so-called “cutout bins” of record stores over the following decade made them a blueprint for a certain sort of guitar and harmony-based rock n’ roll — the sort that soon became known as “power pop.”

Stax Records will soon be reissuing both albums, on CD and remastered for 24-bit high-res download, from the original analog tapes in a process overseen by the albums’ original executive producer, John Fry, and with liner notes by R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills.

If you weren’t fist-pumping in the first paragraph, Sept. 2 is the date you can find out what R.E.M. and all the others who followed in their wake already know … that to see your dreams of sweet, melancholy pop rock come true, you need to wish upon a Big Star.

Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.


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