Big Star Myths

Dispelling Big Star myths

Big Star Myths

Big Star is probably the most influential American band of the Seventies, despite releasing only three studio albums beginning in 1972. Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel, and the late Christopher Bell have inspired the likes of R.E.M., the Replacements, Primal Scream, Kurt Cobain, and Robyn Hitchcock. Millions have heard the Bell/Chilton composition "In the Street" as performed by Cheap Trick on That '70s Show.

Myth No. 1: Alex Chilton is responsible for the Big Star sound.

The reality is that it was more or less a band of equals, and it was a pre-existing band when Chilton, who had a No. 1 hit with "The Letter" in 1967, joined. Big Star's "sound" was always more Bell's than Chilton's. And in truth, if you listen to their three albums, it's almost as if it were three different bands (which they were). As Memphis legend Jim Dickinson has told me for years, a case could be made that the Big Star sound really came from producer Terry Manning, who served as mentor to both Bell and Chilton.

Myth No. 2: Big Star was the first power pop band.

Listen to Big Star's second album, 1974's Radio City: They were as influenced by early prog rock as by the Beatles. Often overlooked is the fact that Manning's production of Led Zeppelin III may well have influenced the electric/acoustic sounds on Big Star's debut, '72's #1 Record. Equally overlooked is that once Bell left and Big Star became Chilton's band, they became the direct progenitor of punk rock.

Think about it: They were loud, snotty, arrogant; wore rumpled street clothes and unkempt hair; and played short, catchy, loud-as-hell teen rock music. Drummer Jody Stephens, the only member of all three Big Star incarnations, sees the music as having elements of pop and rock, but also a soul music influence.

"The main thing about those songs were the lyrics, but more importantly the way those lyrics were delivered," he explains. "Alex and Chris were really soul singers."

Dickinson adds another note: "Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton were/are simply rock stars by any definition of the word."

end story

It's been 30 years this spring since I saw Big Star at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, one of the few shows they played. I was 20, and the show and their albums became all-time favorites. I know fans that weren't born when the band was together, yet have Big Star tattoos.

Big Star affects people like that. Very few have seen them play, and since once and future Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer joined the band in 1993, they're better live than ever. And about to record a new album, making them the biggest unsigned band playing SXSW 04.

Friday, March 19, 12:30am @ Austin Music Hall

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

Wednesday Interview
Wednesday Interview
Delta Spirit

Jim Caligiuri, March 20, 2015

Wednesday Picks & Sleepers
Wednesday Picks & Sleepers
First night SXSW Music recommendations and hints

March 20, 2015

More by Kent H. Benjamin
In Memoriam: Big Star Myths
In Memoriam: Big Star Myths

March 19, 2010

Phases and Stages
David Bowie
Aladdin Sane (Record Review)

Aug. 15, 2003


Big Star, Christopher Bell, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel, Jim Dickinson, Terry Manning, That '70s Show

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle