NEW YORK (Reuters) - It was supposed to be a celebration.
Big Star, mostly unheralded in the 1970s but now revered by generations of younger bands, was scheduled to perform in Austin, Texas in March, last year.
Three days before the show, Chris Stamey, founding member of the dB’s and Big Star acolyte, was planning to fly in and pitch a new project to the band: a series of performances of its legendary third album — alternately called “Third” or “Sister Lovers” — that included a full string ensemble.
That morning, before Stamey left, Big Star frontman Alex Chilton died of a heart attack at age 59. But instead of derailing the project, Chilton’s death gave it momentum.
“There was a greater sense of purpose for this now,” Big Star drummer Jody Stephens said of Stamey’s project.
So, Stamey has assembled a group that includes Stephens, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills from R.E.M., Mitch Easter from Let’s Active and Matthew Sweet, and they are slated to perform the album the way on Saturday at New York City’s Mason Hall.
If you don’t know Big Star, you are not alone, but you may have heard their work. Their song “In the Street” was the theme for TV’s “That ‘70s Show,” performed by Cheap Trick. And if that song is unfamiliar, many of rock’s biggest acts of the ‘80s and ‘90s performing alt-rock, grunge rock and even today’s power pop songs, owe some debt to the band.
“Literally everything about Big Star was what I was aiming at,” Mills said. “I don’t necessarily want to sound like Big Star. But when I make a record, I want it to be as good as a Big Star record.”
Chilton had been the 16-year-old singer in the Box Tops when they rose up U.S. charts in 1967 with the pop-soul confection “The Letter,” one of the biggest hits of that year. Two years later, he left the Box Tops and joined Big Star with Stephens, bassist Andy Hummel and guitarist Chris Bell.
The band combined Bell’s obsession with the Beatles with Chilton’s love of garage rock and folk. The result was a concoction of ringing jangling chords and teen angst distilled down to a perfect three-minute doses.
Critics lauded their first two albums, “#1 Record” and “Radio City,” but neither found a large audience. Members left the band, and by 1974, Chilton had descended into depression fueled by booze and drugs.
For “Third,” he made no effort to hide his state of mind. The singing is, at times, deranged, like it can crack at any minute. On one song, “Downs,” the percussion consists of a bouncing basketball instead of a snare drum. But mixed with the chaos come delicate string arrangements with simple, memorable melodies.
No record label would touch “Third,” and it collected dust for three years until PVC, a tiny independent label released it to few sales. Still, there were some young fans who couldn’t get enough of its desire to break musical rules.
Matthew Sweet remembers being turned on to Big Star when he was a kid working at a music store in Lincoln, Nebraska. “I could only listen to ‘Third’ on my Walkman, never out loud,” he said. “It was a private thing. I had that melancholy anxiety.”
Chris Stamey heard Big Star on the radio growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “It was a break from what we were listening to, which was, on one hand the Allman Brothers and on the other hand Genesis,” he said. “I was really drawn to the honesty of Big Star.”
Stamey, who wound up playing in Chilton’s backup band for a year in 1977, eventually formed the dB’s with two other Big Star fanatics, Peter Holsapple and Will Rigby.
Big Star reformed in 1993 with Chilton, Stephens and two members of the Posies, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer. The song “In The Street” and an occasional tour kept money in Chilton’s pocket, but he was always ambivalent about Big Star’s legacy.
Stephens said he never expected Stamey’s project to come to fruition while Chilton was alive, but after the frontman’s death, Stephens pushed Stamey to continue.
The project debuted in North Carolina in December 2010 and was so successful Stamey booked the New York show. He hopes to bring it to Nashville and Los Angeles, and Omnivore Records will reissue a limited edition of “Third” on vinyl, April 16.
Asked why the album continues to resonate, Stephens said, “The third record is the decline of civilization. It was very raw and very free spirited. It’s an honest emotional release of what Alex was experiencing.”