Artist: Big Star
Album: Complete Third
Release Date: 10/14/2016
Big Star holds an almost mythical status in the world of underground rock. Beloved for the songwriting brilliance of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the group’s sound was rooted in the jangly pop of the Beatles and the Byrds, but would break new ground and had a tremendous influence on R.E.M., Wilco, the Replacements, the Jayhawks and many others. Though they never gained the radio play or recognition they deserved, Big Star garnered a cult status that has only grown with time.
Drew DeNicola’s 2012 documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me, brought their underdog story to the masses via Netflix. Now, Omnivore Recordings’ Big Star Complete Third provides another piece of the puzzle. With 69 tracks and 28 previously unheard session recordings, the listener gets the total picture. Expertly produced by Jim Dickinson, this collection shines a light on the creative process by including demos, roughs and final masters. Extensive liner notes illuminate the inner workings of Chilton’s fraying mind during the making of the record, while fans like Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and sometimes band member Ken Stringfellow (the Posies) provide insight into Big Star’s lasting impact.
With vocal and acoustic guitar stylings that recall George Harrison, “Stroke It Noel” has a loose rhythmic swagger offset by a tight, classical string section. Apparently a reference to Chilton’s drug of choice, “Downs” begins with steel drums, Stonesy guitar twang, and plonking piano that is almost avant-garde. Chilton effectively captures all of Nico’s vocal fragility on the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” Again channeling Harrison, “Thank You Friends” is a lovely pop tune augmented by female background singers that takes a turn for the weird with warbling vocal trills towards the end after which Chilton can be heard remarking, “I did something wrong.”
Throughout the album, there is a sense of things becoming increasingly unhinged. The mood becomes even darker with the chronically depressing “Holocaust.” Chilton sings “Your eyes are almost dead, can’t get out of bed, and you can’t sleep. You’re sitting down to dress, and you’re a mess. You look in the mirror.”
The band picks up the pace with “Jesus Christ,” perhaps the best Christian Rock song ever, though it’s hard to know Chilton’s true intent given his state of mind. Excessive drink and drugs were beginning to take their toll. Of the tunes he says, “I don’t remember much about writing any of them. I think the whole process was just kind of automatic, free association. If you take enough bad drugs and drink enough, you’re gonna be writing some pretty strange music.”
Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” receives a proto-punk treatment that threatens to tear it apart at the seams. “Kangaroo” is a standout track that staggers like a drunk about to fall face first. Of all this madness, writer Bud Scoppa recalls,
“Alex reacted to the commercial failure of the first two LPs by jettisoning much of what had made them so beloved by those few who’d been exposed to their musical alchemy.”
Chilton’s deliberate decision to incorporate controlled chaos into pop song structures opened up new musical possibilities and paved the way for countless bands to come. While at times a challenging listen, Complete Third further explains what made Big Star so innovative and influential.