Lucky For Some: 13 Artists Beholden to Big Star

In typically contrary fashion, founding chief Alex Chilton once expressed his distrust of the posthumous popularity of Big Star: “People say we made some of the best rock‘n’roll albums ever. And I say they’re wrong.” Ahead of a UK cinema release for Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, we salute those who begged to differ.

Teenage Fanclub: Third album Bandwagonesque owed much to No.1 Record and Radio City. Aside from a couple of Alex Chilton singles covers (Free Again and Jesus Christ), the Fannies’ furthered the connection by naming 1993’s Thirteen after a favourite Big Star tune. Doubtless sick of the comparisons, Norman Blake said later: “Without question they were an influence, but we weren’t into Big Star to the obsessive extent that people imagine.”

Wilco: It’s a fair bet that at least two early Wilco albums, Summerteeth and Being There, would never have arrived were in not for Big Star. Avowed fan Jeff Tweedy also led the band through a terrific version of Thirteen on the 2006 tribute LP, Big Star Small World.

**The dB’s: **The jangling buoyancy and aching harmonies of North Carolina’s dB’s, led by Peter Holsapple and Alex Chilton’s onetime bandmate Chris Stamey, was a natural product of hours spent in the company of No.1 Record and Radio City. “You really cannot better Big Star,” Holsapple once offered. “I still can’t understand why they weren’t enormous.”

The Replacements: “I never travel far without a little Big Star” sang Paul Westerberg on The Replacements’ Alex Chilton, a tribute song from 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me. “We were sort of young and dumb and I was certainly trying to hip the outside world on who this guy might be,” Westerberg explained later. Chilton, who featured on another album highlight, Can’t Hardly Wait, had already guested on the Mats’ previous LP, Tim. The band also covered September Gurls.

**REM: **As REM began to soar in the latter half of the ‘80s, guitarist and mega fan Peter Buck was quick to admit that “we’ve yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star’s Third.” On another occasion, referring to the resurrection of hook-heavy guitar-pop, he stated that “Big Star served as a Rosetta Stone for a whole generation of musicians.”

**This Mortal Coil: **Granted, Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD charges were eclectic types with a whole raft of influences. But there’s little doubt that Big Star loomed large. 1984’s debut LP It’ll End in Tears included two standout covers in Kangaroo and Holocaust, the latter featuring a guest vocal spot from post-punk icon, Howard Devoto.

Primal Scream: Label boss Alan McGee made no secret of the fact that Big Star were Creation’s pet band in the late ‘80s. Taking liberal helpings of Big Star (alongside The Byrds and Love), Primal Scream were clearly big fans too, especially Third / Sister Lovers. So much so that they followed up Screamadelica by decamping to Chilton & Co.’s former stronghold, Ardent Studios in Memphis, to record the Dixie Marco EP.

The Posies: The Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow felt the love so deeply that the Seattle power-poppers joined originals Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens in a new configuration of Big Star in 2003. They were still aboard two years later for In Space, Big Star’s first studio album since Third / Sister Lovers. “Listening to Big Star for the first time was a pretty profound eureka moment,” Stringfellow has said. “I wondered how this music could be languishing outside of the consciousness of the mainstream. It had everything in place.”

The Cramps: Alex Chilton was so smitten with The Cramps’ live shows in ‘70s New York that he declared them “the best rock‘n’roll band in the world”. He swiftly took them to Ardent Studios in Memphis, where he produced debut EP, Gravest Hits. A year later he took the helm for their first full-lengther, Songs The Lord Taught Us.

Jeff Buckley: Despite his formidable chops as a writer, the legacy of Jeff Buckley largely rests on his astonishing capacity for interpreting the work of others. Hallelujah and Lilac Wine were prime examples, as was Big Star’s Kangaroo, a regular in his mid-‘90s setlist. The definitive take, over ten minutes of existential beauty, fetched up on posthumous live album, Mystery White Boy.

Counting Crows: Counting Crows sang Baby, I’m A Big Star Now on the soundtrack of John Dahl’s 1998 crime caper, Rounders. But the debt to Alex Chilton and Chris Bell was made far more explicit when they covered The Ballad of El Goodo and Thirteen on live LP, 2001-04-29: Shim Sham Club, New Orleans, USA. The studio version of The Battle of El Goodo finally appeared on 2012 covers album, Underwater Sunshine.

Evan Dando: The Lemonheads displayed a rare talent for bundling adolescent angst into classic pop melodies on ‘90s peaks It’s A Shame About Ray and Come On Feel The Lemonheads. The Big Star influence (they covered Mod Lang in the ‘80s) carried on into Evan Dando’s solo career by way of fresh versions of Thirteen and The Ballad of El Goodo.

Nada Surf: New York combo Nada Surf are one of the newer breed of alt.rockers with an ear for big harmonies and Chiltonesque white-boy soul. The band wear their influences proudly, not least on a cover of Third / Sister Lovers nugget, Blue Moon from the Chilton tribute album.

UK Screenings of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

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  • Cambridge: Arts Picturehouse, 1,2,3,6 August

  • Norwich: Cinema City, 11 August

  • Exeter: Playhouse, 11,13 August

  • London: Greenwich Picturehouse, 18 August

  • Edinburgh: Cameo Picturehouse, 18 August

  • Southampton: Harbour Lights Picturehouse, 18 August

  • London: Arthouse Crouch End, 18,24 August

  • Brighton: Duke’s at Komedia, 24 August

  • Liverpool: FACT, 25 August

  • London: Hackney Picturehouse, 31 August

  • London: Stratford East Picturehouse, 1 September

  • Manchester: Moston Small Cinema, 5,6,7 September

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.