Ahead of the release of new documentary 'Nothing Can Hurt Me', Oscar Rickett discovers the story of Memphis's answer to The Beatles.
Photo courtesy of Ardent Records
Like a lot of Big Star fans, I heard about them through another band. For me, it was The Replacements, but it could have been The Jesus and Mary Chain, Elliot Smith, Isaac Hayes, REM or any number of others. Big Star is a band for the true heads. They were, in the words of Robyn Hitchcock, “a letter posted in 1971 that didn’t arrive till 1985.” Crowned the inventors of power pop, they were, over the course of three critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums, much more than that. Nobody could turn pain into beauty like Big Star.
In 1971, the 20-year old Alex Chilton has already been a star. He was the front man of The Box Tops, a manufactured rock combo who had one the biggest hits of 1967 with “The Letter.” His teenage stardom meant that he’d already met Charles Manson, toured with the Beach Boys, and watched Hendrix from the side of the stage before he could legally drink. He was an “art brat” who’d been given peyote as a kid and was already living a remarkable life. But witnessing the guitar shredding, five-part harmonizing experimenters of rock had left him feeling uncomfortable. He was essentially in a boyband. He needed to step up and make his own music. So he quit The Box Tops and after a brief spell in New York, returned to his hometown of Memphis to make music he wanted to listen to.
Enter Chris Bell. He was from a well-off family and had once played in a covers band called Christmas Future. He was a sharp, funny, deeply introverted and sexually confused young man obsessed with creating perfect, multi-layered pop music. To do this, he had the studios of Ardent Records, run by whizz kid engineer John Fry, who let the local musical kids use it at night for their own sessions. Fry taught Bell how to multi-track and one night in early 1971, Alex Chilton came by the studio to see about recording something with Bell. Chilton played an acoustic number called “Watch the Sunrise” on a 12-string guitar. Bell added an intro and backing vocals. Though they didn't know it yet, Big Star had been born.
Photo courtesy of Michael O'Brien
Ardent had become a subsidiary of the legendary Stax Records, taking on some of its recording sessions and, in return, agreeing to be its pop/rock imprint. The studios and—bizarrely—TGI Fridays, were the twin pillars of a raucous Memphis counter-culture scene that was big on drinking, sexual experimentation and drugs, particularly ludes, Mandrax and related pills. The photographer William Eggleston, was a key presence, one who documented the time in his film “Stranded in Canton.”
This month, a new documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, tells this story of Memphis’ answer to The Beatles and the scene that surrounded them. For co-director and screenwriter Drew DeNicola, the story of Big Star had to be told through its community.
Courtesy of Eggleston Trust
“I realized that it was one big story all about the Ardent scene. Big Star’s success or failure was a part of all their lives. They were living out their British Invasion fantasy together,” he told me. “That pill culture is unique to Memphis”, he adds. “It’s what killed Elvis and it’s what those Big Star boys were doing too. Everyone knew a crooked doctor. Polite society would go to bed and then, in the margins, the alternative kids could do what they wanted, as long as they made it to Sunday lunch with Momma.”
It was out of this southern stew that Big Star’s first album, #1 Record, came. The band’s name had come out of desperation, taken from a chain of supermarkets, one of which sat across the street from Ardent. Chilton and Bell put their heart and soul into the album, with Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel on drums and bass respectively. It’s an album of perfect pop songs, suffused with pain and melancholy, up-tempo and down-tempo, beautifully layered, subtle and all over the place genre-wise. Just listen to “The Ballad of El Goodo” or the heart-breaking teen love letter “Thirteen” and you’ll know what I mean.
Photo courtesy of Ardent Records
By today's standards, the album is full of accessible, beautifully written pop music. But this was the early 70s, one-note dinosaur rock bands were dominating the charts and Big Star didn't fit in. More importantly, Stax had little experience marketing records to a white audience. They were focused on Isaac Hayes’ classic album Hot Buttered Soul and had a distribution policy that was stuck in the 1950s.
The Stax / Ardent relationship was a beautiful thing creatively—Anglophile white boys recording in Studio A while The Staple Singers recorded in Studio B, a musical scene that had room for all races – but neither side of the partnership could work out the commercial details. The critics loved the album but the public couldn’t get their hands on it. Press attention focused on former teen star Chilton. Chris Bell, the driving force behind the album, was relegated to the sidelines.
One of the strengths of Nothing Can Hurt Me is that it puts Bell back into the centre of the Big Star story. The band simply wouldn’t have existed without him, as anyone who’s heard his terribly titled but terribly good solo album I Am The Cosmos knows. The failure of #1 Record devastated him. He was tormented by his sexuality: he was probably gay but was unable, in Tennessee, to deal with it, and there were rumours in Memphis that he was in love with Chilton and that the latter’s lack of reciprocation hastened his departure from the band, which came not long after #1 Record.
Whatever Bell was going through, it sent him into a spiral of drink, drugs and depression that eventually landed him somewhere just as difficult: the church. Bell became a born-again Christian but, as DeNicola says, “the church was as insane as anything else in his life. He dipped into it like he dipped into drugs. He could never find a balm for what was ailing him”.
In 1978, Bell lost control of his car driving home from a late-night rehearsal, hit a pole and died instantly. He was 27, that fateful age. Today, most of his friends and collaborators are also born-again Christians. They don’t want to talk about his sexuality and they don’t want to talk about whether his car accident was in fact suicide because if it were, he wouldn’t go to heaven. What seems certain is that, at TGI Fridays, Ardent studios and beyond, there was plenty of homosexuality and bisexuality in the story of Big Star.
Photo courtesy of Ardent Records
After Bell left the band, following the failure of #1 Record, Alex Chilton took the reins. Big Star’s second album, Radio City, is another great piece of work loved by critics and un-purchased by the public, despite featuring “September Gurls,” as radio-friendly a piece of power pop as you’re ever likely to hear. By this point, Stax was on the verge of bankruptcy and a distribution deal with Columbia had combusted. It looked like Big Star was all over, but publicist John King had one last roll of the dice left in him. He organized a rock writers’ convention in Memphis, in 1973, flying over a hundred music hacks down south to talk shop and enjoy a live performance from Big Star. The band got Lester Bangs, Cameron Crowe, and some writers who didn’t feature in Almost Famous, up and dancing.
The First Annual National Association of Rock Writers' Convention, as it was billed, is one of the hooks used in Nothing Can Hurt Me. It brought music writers together in a way they’d never been before. The assembled critics’ love of Big Star got Radio City out the door and just about propelled the band on to make a third record, Third / Sister Lovers (Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens were going out with sisters at the time), which is essentially an Alex Chilton solo effort, one that deals particularly with the breakdown of his relationship with Lesa Aldridge and is fuelled, in Jody Stephens’ words, by “self-obsession, drugs and alcohol.”
The album was recorded in 1974, but because of a combination of Chilton and Stephens’ apathy, financial trouble, an even less commercially viable sound and the disintegration of the whole Ardent scene, it wasn’t released until 1978. It’s an album that embodies what the writer Ross Johnson says in Nothing Can Hurt Me, the standard equation in the Memphis scene was that “if something was somehow just wrong, it could become a thing of beauty.” Jim Dickinson, its producer, manages to put the creative, antic spirit of the time and place onto vinyl. For DeNicola, the Big Star boys “were too delicate and too sincere to ever make it big. They could never have lasted longer. They were too close to their art”.
And so they lasted no longer. Chilton, who had found success with a band that gave him little creative freedom, struggled to come to terms with the commercial failure of a band that gave him all the creative freedom in the world. He became part of the CBGB punk scene, producing The Cramps and turning up as Axel Chitlin in the forgettable psych rock experiment The Panther Burns, which is still going to this day. He released sloppy solo albums infrequently and knocked about town playing his own special version of “Volare” .
When the makers of Nothing Can Hurt Me met him to try and get him to appear in the film, over four years ago, DeNicola recalls that they “felt like the success or failure of this film would be dependent on this incredibly curmudgeonly and whimsical outsider dude deciding to do it”. He was still a special guy, of course, smoking fags out of cigarette holders, tossing his Big Star legacy to one side and hanging out with people he was interested in. Before he’d agreed to be filmed, he died aged 59 and, says DeNicola, “the degree of outpouring was surprising to me. People became reinvested in the story”.
This reinvestment may have been prompted by Chilton’s death, but it’s nothing less than he, Chris Bell and the rest of the band deserve. In a story of drink, drugs, sexuality, God, and the south, it’s the pain and the beauty of Big Star’s music that triumphs.
Oscar Rickett is on Twitter —
For screenings of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, visit here.
This story originally appeared on NoiseyUK's You Need to Hear This.