15 Bands That Owe Big Star a Round
Big Star is like a crumpled $50 bill you find in your jorts pocket after a long winter of underuse. They may be the most influential band you’ve never heard of — and that’s part of their mystique. Perhaps best known as the group behind the (slightly altered) theme song for Fox’s ‘That ‘70s Show,’ Big Star are generally credited with inventing power-pop, but their influence extends far beyond. Their existence was brief (’71-74) and their discography is small (three albums, none of which sold), but Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and lone surviving member Jody Stephens laid the groundwork for much of what we now call indie rock. The following list highlights some of their most famous disciples: 15 Bands That Owe Big Star a Round (and probably a whole lot more).
On the album Pete Yorn recorded with mega-hot actress/upstart singer Scarlett Johansson, the pair covered early Big Star member Chris Bell’s woefully underrated ‘I Am the Cosmos.’ They handled the delicate track with grace -- and got us thinking about the Big Star influence on Yorn’s own work. Critics love to namedrop Springsteen when they talk Yorn, because he’s a Jersey guy, but his masterful layering of power-pop chords, acoustic guitars and virile lyrics smack of Big Star lead singer Alex Chilton. See albums ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ and ‘Day I Forgot’ for what we’re talking about.
Fastball are one of those bands that didn’t make it much past the ‘90s, but they did a damned good job of squeezing the era for all it was worth, thanks to their flare for above-average power-pop and hooky, radio-friendly tunes like ‘The Way’ and ‘Fire Escape.’ Spin their best-known album, 1998’s ‘All the Pain Money Can Buy,’ to hear that great updated retro sound, which is a direct Big Star reference.
While Nada Surf may be best known for their ‘90s hit ‘Popular,’ their underground/cult popularity has grown exponentially since the band decided to veer down the wormhole of power-pop -- specifically the French noir-core and Big Star-inflected types. Albums like ‘Let Go’ and ‘The Weight Is a Gift’ would not exist had forefathers like Big Star not blazed the trail.
The Gin Blossoms -- one of the most enduring examples of what we define as "‘90s alternative-rock" -- owe a lot of their sound to Big Star. Listen to GBs’ cascading, jangling guitar lines; twinkling guitar effects juxtaposed with hefty helpings of distortion; and the reverence-for-the-past lyrical content. Big Star did it all first; the Blossoms treat the template like a holy temple.
Evan Dando, steadfast Lemonheads leader, was one of the artists that immediately came out to pay tribute to Chilton when he died just before SXSW in 2010. And it’s easy to see why. Over the years, the Lemonheads have harnessed the power of pop in a very similar way to the great Big Star. Dando, like Chilton, maintains an immense slacker sneer throughout the hardest rocking and quietest acoustic moments.
Alt-country power players Son Volt may have produced the single best Big Star cover of all time -- a devastatingly beautiful take on the drunken piano ballad ‘Holocaust,’ which appeared on Big Star’s ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ album. A non-album b-side from Son Volt’s ‘Wide Swing Tremolo’ era, the tune is a perfect fit for lead singer Jay Farrar’s low range -- and a reverb-heavy lead guitar subs in perfectly for the piano. Side note: ‘Sister Lovers’ is more than likely a reference to a lyric from the last verse of David Crosby/Byrds song ‘Triad,’ which was supposed to appear on the ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’ album in 1968. It didn’t, because the Croz was fired prior to the release of the album. (Apropos of absolutely nothing, we figured you’d be interested.)
Definitely not the first band you’d think of as carrying the Big Star banner, the all-girl Bangles did a rousing cover of the Alex Chilton-penned ‘September Gurls' back in '86. Naturally, they tweaked the tune to be a little to be more girl-friendly, singing "September girls / do so much / and for so long / until we touched" instead of "I was your Butch / and you were touched." Their version appears on the same album that spawned the radio smashes ‘Manic Monday’ (ghostwritten by Prince) and ‘Walk Like an Egyptian.’
Matthew Sweet belongs on all these lists we keep putting him on because he’s actually worth your while. The influence of Big Star -- like that of the Byrds -- has long been apparent in Sweet's music, and he even covered ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ on ‘Big Star, Small World,’ a fabulous 2006 Big Star tribute album. Sweet was also part of a staging of the album ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ that marked the one-year anniversary of Alex Chilton’s death back in 2011.
Elliott Smith may be one of the finest songwriters of the modern era, with his deliciously complex indie-folk songs. And on his first few non-major-label albums, you can hear nods to Big Star’s softer-sounding tunes. See classics ‘Nighttime’ and ‘I’m in Love With a Girl.’ Smith’s intensely personal lyrics, Baroque song structures and soaring melodies have Big Star written all over them, and who can forget Smith’s fragile cover of ‘Thirteen,’ the best love song nobody’s ever heard?
Speaking of the tune ‘Thirteen,’ Wilco covered it ‘Big Star, Small World.' Take a gander. But we’d trace the Big Star influence directly back to Wilco’s two best albums -- ‘Being There’ (1996) and ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2002). Both feature acoustic folk and power-pop, dosed with a lysergic experimental flavor. Big Star’s ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ was one of the first of the great power-pop albums to add that progressive element.
Scottish outfit Teenage Fanclub, who have appeared on a few of our other lists, is a prime example of what happens if you do Big Star’s sound with a ‘90s alt-rock sensibility. Like list-mates the Gin Blossoms and Matthew Sweet, the Fanclub took that tried-and-true formula -- chiming guitars, ooh-ahh choruses, introspective lyrics -- and ran naked through the streets of Glasgow with it. In a simple, if not unfair, twist of fate, TF would, like Big Star, live in semi-obscurity after their one ‘hit’ record, 1991’s ‘Bandwagonesque.’
The dB’s are one of those great discoveries you’ll make when you start following the noodle back from Big Star. They date from the early ‘80s, but dB Chris Stamey played and recorded with Chilton in the late ‘70s, so there’s a direct bloodline. Stamey’s production house also helped release Chris Bell’s underrated single ‘I Am The Cosmos/You And Your Sister,' which you can now buy as its own standalone album, with a bunch of other great "solo" tracks. Or, you can just listen to a dB’s song like ‘Big Brown Eyes,’ which is basically their best Big Star impression.
We put R.E.M. on our Byrds list, too, but they reappear here for good reason. Singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills have made no secret of their Big Star-worship, and it's obvious that R.E.M.’s power-pop leanings derive from blueprints that Chilton and company drew up back in the day. Just listen to albums like ‘Life’s Rich Pageant,' ‘Green’ and ‘Monster’ for proof.
The Posies are one of those ‘90s bands that never got their fair shake, and two of its members in particular -- the aptly named bassist Ken Stringfellow and guitarist Jon Auer -- were major Big Star disciples. In fact, their Chilton worship was such that they joined a re-formed touring version of Big Star (featuring Chilton and Jody Stephens) and recorded a new album with the band in 2005. We had a chance to see Big Star’s final show in Brooklyn shortly before Chilton’s death in 2010, and we can attest to the flower power Stringfellow and Auer added to the band.
The Replacements top our list for obvious reasons. On their classic tune 'Alex Chilton,' leader Paul Westerberg imagines a mythical land where Big Star actually reached amazing commercial heights and garnered the love of children everywhere. The reality, of course, was far different, but the tune predicted the renewed attention Big Star have received in recent years. You might even call ‘Alex Chilton’ (the song) the only Big Star song not written by the band. It has an infectious lead guitar riff and awesomely cheeky lyrics, and Westerberg even uses the words "big star," just like Chilton did on the track ‘O My Soul.'