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The best band you've never heard of (with the most recognizable song)

So, during nopenotathing's "What are you listening to?" post earlier, I commented on my concern over her lack of knowledge regarding some basic music classics :)


I also shared what to me is one of my favorite bands that most people have never heard of, despite probably having heard one of their songs, perhaps on a weekly basis, without even knowing it. You may have heard it this way:

That is being sung by Cheap Trick, and a lot of people just think of it as the theme song to "That 70's Show." What it really is, however, is "In the Street" by an actual 1970's band, Big Star - the best band you've never heard of:

I'll be honest. Growing up, it never occurred to me that people didn't know Big Star. But there was a lot of music around me that it never occurred to me that people didn't know. A lot of eclectic musical sounds. And that's because I grew up in the home of Big Star. When you are in an area like Memphis from birth on, you don't realize how lucky you are to be simmering in this constant blend of music - live music of all genres is everywhere. And that environment influenced the boys in Big Star. The lead singer, Alex Chilton, was a bona fide national sensation while still in high school, at the age of 16. You might recognize this group and this song:

Yeah, yeah ... the lip syncing is HORRIBLE. But keep in mind ... the lead singer is SIXTEEN. (And if you read down in the You Tube comments, the guitarist actually chimes in and says they were exhausted and tired of lip syncing) Because they were all so young - high school! - the original Box Tops didn't stay together for long. Members began dropping out to do silly things like, oh, attend college, and by 1970, Alex Chilton was done with it. (The label kept putting out songs under the band name for a few years, even though no original members remained)


Alex went back to Memphis where he returned to Ardent Studios. Ardent was another Memphis-homegrown; some boys interested in radio and sound created their own recording studio in their parents' garage while in high school (one of their original partners left for college and followed his own interests - you may have heard of it, a little air cargo business with an orange and purple logo, also a Memphis start-up). Ardent had allowed local students to "intern" - aka, work during they day, do their own recordings at night, and that was how Alex Chilton ended up connecting with Chris Bell, who had his own band with Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel.

Big Star is named after a local grocery store chain - it wasn't ego, as some might think - and the logo on their debut album was easily recognizable by locals as a replica of the neon sign on the store. The album has been identified by Rolling Stone as one the top 500 albums of all time and one of the songs written by Chilton, influenced by the experience of seeing The Beatles perform in 1964, is listed as one of the 500 best songs of all time. You have to listen to this song and just let it wash over you - seriously, close your eyes and tell me this song doesn't just make you feel like you're a teenager again:

The reviews at the time were all, well, stellar. However, Big Star fell victim to the impending doom that was the collapse of another Memphis brand, Stax Records (the imprint on which they recorded), thanks to a distribution deal with Atlantic. Stax had gotten national attention after recording such artists as Issac Hayes, Booker T & the MGs, and Otis Redding. The Stax owner signed a deal with Atlantic and didn't read the fine print. Sellouts, buyouts, and bad deals followed, and Big Star had a great album that no one could get their hands on. Columbia Records ended up owning the rights, and they actually pulled the album from stores. You couldn't buy the thing even if you wanted to.


But Big Star kept recording. Their second album, Radio City, includes another song that I think is just amazingly haunting, and when you think that this is from 1973, it just doesn't sound like it. (Again, God bless the producers of That 70's Show, as they featured it - apparently more than once - in the series).

One of the other things that was memorable about this album was the cover art. They used a photograph by William Eggleston called "The Red Ceiling" or "Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973." A copy of this photograph is currently held by the Getty Museum and the Museum of Modern Art - these boys were way before their time.

Illustration for article titled The best band youve never heard of (with the most recognizable song)

This album was released in 1974; however, the dispute between Stax and Columbia was STILL ongoing and at the time it was released, the album only managed to sell around 20,000 copies, despite again receiving favorable reviews. All the stress took its toll; Chris Bell quit during recording, returned, quit again, and the band finished the album without him.


At this point, the band begin to dissolve. Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens returned to Ardent Studios, but by many accounts, the sessions were disorganized and Chilton was primarily interested in being a solo artist. There apparently wasn't even agreement on a band name at that point (the name they joked about, "Sister Lovers" because Chilton and Stephens were dating sisters at the time, became one of the names the album would be known by) and the album was never given a proper release. It has since been released over ten times with different tracks and is known as Third/Sister Lovers.

Sadly, shortly after the album was completed in 1978, Chris Bell died in a single car accident. He was only 27; one of the many musicians to have died at age 27. He had been recording music of his own and after his death, the songs were released as a posthumous album:

After musicians such as R.E.M., The Replacements, and the Posies were quoted as saying Big Star was one of their biggest influences, interest in the band grew in the late 1980s-early 1990s. The band reformed (minus Hummel) with members of the Posies filling in. The band toured and even recorded again, much to the delight of fans.


Big Star was scheduled to perform at the SXSW music festival in March 2010 when Alex Chilton suddenly died. The band went on and performed with special guests such as R.E.M.'s Mike Mills and original member Andy Hummel joining in. They also performed a scheduled hometown show in May at Memphis' Overton Park Shell; however by that show, Hummell, who had been diagnosed with cancer was too ill to attend and he died shortly after, leaving Jody Stephens as the only remaining original Big Star member.

In 2012, Big Star made one more performance - of sorts - at SXSW. A documentary about the band and the band members, "Nothing Can Hurt Me" premiered at the festival.

The full documentary is now available on Netflix, and if you like musical documentaries, it really is one of the best ones out there - not just because I like the music or the setting.

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