BIG STAR should have ruled the airwaves in the 1970s, notching up hit singles and albums across the USA, playing arenas, and being adored by the mainstream.
Instead, the band that created some of the greatest post-Beatles guitar-pop of the era languished in obscurity, their three albums failing to make any impact.
Their undeserved fate has led to the view that listeners were simply not ready, or able, to appreciate Big Star, or that they were out of step with prevailing contemporary tastes, hence only later generations of forward thinking American alternative rock bands could understand them.
This is romantic, myth-making nonsense. Big Star failed to impact as they never had a manager; the members were not inclined to hang out with each other; main songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell had different visions for what the group should be, eventually leading to Bell’s departure; they only played a couple of shows in and around the Southern states, and never toured.
Furthermore their records were distributed by soul label Stax, which had no idea of how to market and promote a pop-rock band (and had difficulty getting the albums into stores ); the band members’ early enthusiasm for the project dissipated after the debut, #1 Record, failed to sell; their final album Third/Sister Lovers languished in the vaults for four years before it was released and to this day does not have an agreed running order.
Yet Big Star’s commercial failure did not prevent them from influencing REM, Elliot Smith, Jeff Buckley, and Teenage Fanclub; Chilton’s classic ode to teenage boredom, ‘In The Street’ became the theme tune to That ‘70s Show; and the band’s three albums - #1 Record (1972 ), Radio City (1973 ), and Third/Sister Lovers (1974/78 ) are now rightly regarded as among the finest ever made.
The band’s turmoil filled story is now the subject of an award winning documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me, and this album is its accompanying soundtrack.
Nothing Can Hurt Me draws from all three Big Star albums, as well as Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos, interspersed with snippets of studio banter. What makes this collection attractive to the completist/die-hard fan, is that the versions here are demos and alternative mixes, noticeably rougher and looser than the more polished and pristine final versions heard on the albums. For the Big Star neophyte, it stands as a wonderful ‘best of’.
The picks come from the Chilton/Bell collaborations that produced #1 Record. Listen again to these takes of ‘Thirteen’, possibly pop’s finest portrayal of teenage/first love; ‘Don’t Lie To Me’s macho bar room boogie; the joyous, upbeat, pop-rock of ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me’; and ‘My Life Is Right’, a poignant, moving, ode to the transformative power of love, and be reminded that #1 Record stands comparison to With The Beatles as a pop-rock pinnacle.
The tracks from the Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers sessions show Chilton in control. The mighty ‘September Gurls’ set the template (and standard ) for countless indie guitar bands from the late 70s to today, while ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Kanga Roo’ have been described as “psychodramas set to music”, with good reason.
As Chilton was recording Third/Sister Lovers, Bell was making his own solo recordings, and the two included here - ‘Better Save Yourself’ and ‘I Am The Cosmos’ - show a brave talent producing deeply confessional, left-field, at times psychedelic, Christian rock.
Nothing can be done now to make Big Star the success they should have been in the 1970s, but with this compilation, and the three superb albums they made, there is enough of a legacy left to celebrate what they did achieve - the creation of magical, wonderful, melodic pop-rock that is as close to perfection as is humanly possible.