Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky

Repackaged 2009 box set from The Beatles of alt.rock illuminates their pop-rock genius.

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The original version of this four-CD treasure trove was the size of a seven-inch single, whereas this edition is CD-sized. The contents, though, are as monumental as ever.

There’s a lavish 100-page booklet featuring essays with rare and unseen photos of the Big Star four in all their gorgeous glory: the quintessential sloppy-smart collegiate rockers. Plus, of course, the music: 98 tracks that start with Chris Bell’s pre-Big Star bands Icewater and Rock City, and Alex Chilton’s lush folk forays as the former Box Tops teen idol.

We then proceed through Big Star’s three albums: #1 Record, Radio City and Sister Lovers/Third, one of the greatest three-album runs in rock history. Together, they tell the story of America’s premier cult band, from hopeful naivety, to electrifying maturity, to disillusion, collapse and decay. There are, too, considerable digressions – demos, early versions and alternate mixes – and a live CD, the latter a revelation, considering Big Star’s reputation as the unrivalled studio band of the 70s, give or take 10cc and Kraftwerk.

There are other surprises in store. The prototypes of the tracks show the extent to which they were polished and often warped by producer John Fry on the first two albums, but especially by fellow Memphis boy and extreme eccentric Jim Dickinson on the third. The “alternate demo” iteration of Big Black Car, for example, is a dark acoustic ballad that allows Chilton’s scummier come-ons (‘Maybe we’ll fuck in a Holiday Inn’) to be heard, but it’s on the spookily atmospheric finished product – noir space-country, anyone? – that his narcotics-numbed mantra (‘Nothing can hurt me, nothing can touch me’) and the sense of bone-chilling dread truly seep into the listener’s skull.

For a band that sold fewer than 10,000 albums in their lifetime, Big Star did well to accrue the status of myth. But, as the sleeve notes point out, the legend of Chilton degenerating over the course of their brief lifetime to the point that he’s a drool-fanged druggie barely able to bare his twisted soul on Holocaust, Kangaroo, Downs, et al, has been overplayed. Compositions of such baroque intricacy, no matter how harrowingly bleak, don’t just write themselves.

The genius of Chilton and Bell – the conflicted intellectual and the tormented homosexual – was that they managed to turn emotional crises into addictive, brilliant, three-minute would-be hits. The pop-rock cosmos, in compact form./o:p

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