Craig McLean talks to Big Star drummer Jody Stephens about what most becomes a legend.
‘We didn‘t have an audience back then. The peculiar thing about the band is that the audience developed after we broke up.‘
And that about sums it up, this tale of legends lost and found. No grand words and hot praise and fevered enthusiasm. That would come later.
April 1972. an album is released. blandly but truly titled £1 Record. It is the ﬁrst, it is the tops. it is number one. Eventually. Big Star's debut album snuck out on Memphis-based Ardent Records. an imprint of Stax and an offshoot ofthe local recording studio ofthe satne name. A few good reviews, few useful sales. Bad distribution means the record is hardly even reaching the shops in the ﬁrst place. One of the founding members leaves the band. The remaining three record another album, Radio City. released in January 1974. Similar reviews, similar sales. Another of the band leaves. Another album is recorded. nominally a Big Star record even though it is primarily a solo effort from the singer. since the band has been. in effect, kaput since Radio City followed its predecessor into obscurity. This album (Sister Lmers/3rd/I-‘emme Fara/e. no real. ofﬁcial title) is not released until I978. the same year that the ﬁrst Big Star member to become an ex-member is killed in a car crash. It seems to set a morbidly ﬁtting seal on an ill-starred but star-bright episode in rock history. Hey ho. Life trots on.
Except it doesn’t, and what goes around comes around. Back in Memphis in the early 70s. Alex Chilton — teen pop idol turned songwriting sage — hooked up with Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens. Taking their name from a supermarket across the road from the studio they were demo-ing in. they called themselves Willie Low's. Sorry, BIG STAR. They loved The Beatles and Badﬁnger, standard-bearers in the Brit invasion that had swept the States over the previous few years. Big on ballads and ache and harmonies and plangent pop. they fashioned their own version ofthis Britsound. It sounded great, loaded with keening yearning, guitar- driven edginess. and a 810 pop knack.
Fast-forward twenty years and Big Star are the Right Stuff, the seminal stuff inspiring a whole raft of bands on both sides of the Atlantic. Big Star’s name and legacy drips from the lips of everyone from REM to Teenage Fanclub to The Replacements to Primal Scream. From being marginalised to being lionised. From (now)here to eternity. From obscurity to majesty. Et cetera, et cetera.. While you were out. you became the bedrock of modern rock.
‘That's really inspiring, if you put it in that perspective. Gee, it's awe-inspiring.‘ Jody Stephens, ' Big Star drummer and the musician who stuck by the ' errant. erratic genius of Alex Chilton the longest. is t 76 The List 27 August—9 September I993
mercifully untouched by the mania that attends his former group. So they're playing a handful of comeback gigs? So they only played about twenty gigs in the ﬁrst place. and. ‘l wasjust in a band with three other guys that I had a tremendous amount of respect for and I thought we were doing great songs. And it was inspirational to me.‘
Jody was nineteen then, 40 now, and is promotions manager at the same Ardent studios where Big Star ﬁrst recorded greatness. He gets big kicks from Big Star’s 90s kudos. not because he‘s an ageing rocker who can‘t grow up but because, ‘l‘m a big fan of Teenage Fanclub and Primal Scream. So in that respect I‘ve been really lucky having been in Big Star because I get to meet these bands that I‘m a fan of.’ And as luck would have it. Primal Scream are ensconced in Ardent right now. recording the follow- up to Screunmdeli(.'a. drawn there by the Big Star legend.
The laid-back and thoroughly amiable Stephens can’t have had an easy time of it, caught between the burning creative personae of Chilton and the late Chris Bell — a combination of characters that was too explosive to be contained within one group. yet was the very font of Big Star’s precarious magic. ‘Yeah.’ he recalls, ‘that's the emotional dynamic that surfaces within the songs.‘
And now they‘re back. Stephens and Chilton, reunited and reviviﬁed after a rapturously-received
1" (no surprise there) gig at the University of Missouri
; in April this year. 21 years since £1 Record came out. A live album ofthe gig is about to be released. Andy Hummel. meanwhile, works at an engineering plant in Texas — taking the place of him and Bell are Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of Seattle‘s Posies. Stephens ﬁrst encountered them doing an acoustic set in New York, then heard their tn'bute single to Bell, a version of his ‘I Am The Cosmos‘. ‘They’re a real kind of melody and harmony-orientated band with a pretty raw edge to it. And that's what I think Big Star was. The Posies write about relationships. and fairly honestly, which is kinda what we did.‘
lfthe dates go well. a new studio album may result. Like the recent Velvet Underground reunion, everyone else in the world is more uptight about such affairs than the bands themselves. As Lou Reed put it before treading the boards with his old band again, ‘Hey, it's afun thing to do.‘
Or as Jody Stephens puts it. ‘l'm thrilled to death, actually. It’s one of those things where you go along in life and you do something to shake things up every now and then. You get on the Coney Island rollercoaster or dive offthe high dive. You do something that‘s pretty unsettling . . .‘
Big Star play Queen Margaret Union. Glasgow on Wed 1.