Big Star are influential and then some. This mid price compilation forms their first two Ardent albums shows why Messeurs Chilton, Bell, Stephens and Hummel's angular, left-field pop has endured.
Memphis 1970s pop legends Big Star will need no introduction to discerning music fans- the twofer of their first two classic Ardent albums #1 Record and Radio City (Big Beat CDWIK 910) is one of Ace Records' all-time best sellers. For the uninitiated however, The Best Of Big Star is a great entr?©e to the fresh and timeless magic of the music made by Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel. Ardent Studios-founder and Big Star producer John Fry recently took time to share some recollections of the band with me.
What do you recall of the origins of Big Star?
The first time I met Alex was when he and Dan Penn were doing overdubs and mixing on the Box Tops' Cry Like A Baby. He would hang around the studio and got to know everybody like [engineer] Terry Manning, and later when Alex kinda finished with the Box Tops, Terry produced an unissued album on Alex as a solo in 1970. Then he hooked up with Chris and Jody and Andy, who had had some bands around Memphis, one of which was Ice Water, and another Christmas Future, which I always thought was a great name. Hanging out at the studio they started having the idea of the band, and in fact diagonally across from Ardent was the Big Star grocery store. The original studio building is of course still there, currently in use as a day-care centre, and I think, well that's not too far fetched from what it was!
Your production is very sympathetic to the group and their material.
I don't ever really tell anybody that I produced those records. My role was, I guess, a lot like what it is nowadays, where we have a lot of engineer-producers. But the musical production ideas were by and large theirs. They'd hang around the studio and that benefited the guys, I mean who wouldn't love to be in the studio and learn how to do all this stuff? For #1 Record and Radio City the typical pattern would be that I would do tracks with all four band members playing simultaneously, and I would do the overdubs and sometimes Chris or one of the other people would (engineer) them and I would do all the mixing. The third album [Sister Lovers/Big Star Third] was pretty much the same thing, except we hired Jim Dickinson as a producer to sort of try and control the chaos.
Did it seem odd to you that a Memphis group was so British sounding, and that Alex's voice was not in the blue-eyed soul style he'd employed in the Box Tops?
For all those Box Tops records he was basically coached by Dan Penn to sound like that, it certainly wasn't his natural or normal singing voice. But that's interesting, I think one reason why people have had a hard time defining Memphis music is that it's not homogenous or just one thing, it's always been this melting pot, the crossroads for unlikely stuff to come together. All of us in Memphis grew up listening to R&B and loving it, but as soon as we started hearing the first British records, everybody was just totally immediately struck by that, and it didn't seem like there was anything incongruous about it. From the mid-60s on we were Anglophiles, and I even had a subscription to the NME.
There's some incredible parts on those records, the guitar sounds, the mellotron etc. Any anecdotes from the sessions?
There was a lot of layering on September Gurls. Alex had a little thing called a mando guitar, which is all the highest register stuff you can hear. Though we had synthesisers at the time, the mellotron had that charming uncertain shaky quality you really couldn't get with synthesisers.
I remember mixing the song Don't Lie To Me, and it came to a place where the band kinda stops and you can't really understand what they're saying. They couldn't make up their minds as to what to say, so they had a whole bunch of different vocal tracks and I said how about we push them all up, to confound the listener? Those were fun records to make. My favourite is #1 Record, followed by Radio City, followed at a long distance by the third one! (laughter). There is something that's missing from Radio City, which is the interplay between Chris and Alex, their styles balanced off against each other.
Are you surprised by the posthumous cult status of Big Star, when the albums never sold at the time?
It's always a big disappointment when you work on something, you have a lot of energy in it and you know it's good-.-I didn't have any doubt of that in my mind at the time. We were just trying to do what seemed right, both musically and sound-wise, for the songs. There was not a lot of thought of, let's adjust this for the market. At that point in time innovation wasn't a bad word. But I never cease to be surprised by the interest in Big Star.
By Alec Palao