What Made Big Star Shine

by Dan MacIntosh

Much like The Velvet Underground before them, Big Star had more of a positive impact on aspiring rock musicians than they ever had on the music charts. Any discussion of Power Pop music – sounds that combine the crunch of real rock & roll with hum-able melodies – navigates back to Big Star, who were pioneers of this genre. They have recorded just four album, but every note they ever laid down on tape is treasured by true fans.

Much like the best of the best rock bands, Big Star featured two skilled songwriters. The Lennon/McCartney, Richards/Jagger of Big Star was Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, who have since passed on (Bell is one of many musicians who met his demise at age 27 - he died in a car crash in 1978; Chilton was 59 when he died of a heart attack in 2010). When their original bass player Andy Hummel died in 2010, it left Jody Stephens, who was the group's drummer, as the only founding member still alive. A documentary about the band Big Star, called Nothing Can Hurt Me, has just been released, which makes this the perfect time to talk to Stephens about Big Star and its influence.
Courtesy of Jody StephensCourtesy of Jody Stephens
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I wanted to start by asking about this documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me. With everything that's been written about Big Star, was there anything that you learned from the documentary that you didn't know before?

Jody Stephens: That's a good question. It's interesting hearing different people's perspectives on the band. It's funny; one thing that sticks out is Richard Rosebrough and his comments about the band and the first record. That felt really good, knowing that he really liked the record. Richard is a drummer and I have a lot of respect for him. Richard was also an engineer and did the Cosmos record with Chris [Bell] and he actually played on three songs on Radio City: "What's Going Ahn," "She's a Mover" and "Mod Lang."

You know, we'd all drifted apart after the first record. Alex [Chilton] had a band with Richard and Danny Jones. They recorded those songs and they were just such great recordings that we just used those. But at any rate, hearing Richard Rosebrough's perspective and just everybody's perspective on the band made it pretty special because it never really had been verbalized. You never know what people's feelings are until they express 'em sometimes. So that was the big thing for me.

Richard Rosebrough started playing drums with The Jokers in the 60s. He went on to work with Big Star, and Alex Chilton as a solo artist, after that. In addition to being a drummer, he was a kind of house engineer at Ardent Studio where Big Star (and others) recorded a lot of music in Memphis, Tennessee.
Songfacts: Is it hard to be the last man standing?

Jody: It's pretty tragic that Chris, Andy and Alex are all gone. I share this experience with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow [both of The Posies] because they joined the band in '93. I'm a part of them, and they're a part of me. I still have them and we still do things together, so I don't feel like a last man. But do I miss Alex, Andy and Chris? Yes. Chris for a long, long time and Alex and Andy for a shorter period of time.

The Posies, from Bellingham, Washington, have been labeled a power pop band. Formed in 1987, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow are the driving force, and the primary songwriters, behind the influential band. Many listeners hear a lot of Big Star in The Posies music, which makes Auer and Stringfellow two appropriate musicians to keep Big Star music alive.
Songfacts: People talk about Alex like he was a musical genius, the same way people talk about Brian Wilson and John Lennon and some of the greats. When did you realize that he was something special? Was there a point where he wrote a song or did something creatively that triggered something in your mind where you realized that you're dealing with somebody that's not your average rock & roller?

Jody: For both Chris and Alex, sure. "Ballad for El Goodo," for one. "Watch the Sunrise," for another. "In The Street." There are a lot. "Thirteen." All of a sudden I'm playing with these guys that can write songs that are as engaging to me as the people I'd grown up listening to, so I felt incredibly lucky. I didn't think there was an average song in the bunch. It's always the songs. It's certainly the voice delivering the songs, too, but basically it's the song, so we were lucky to have those songs that they'd written together and separately.

Songfacts: I've read that one of Chris's problems was that his writing wasn't as well represented in the band as Alex'. That there was kind of a rivalry there. Is that true?

Jody: I don't know that it had to do with writing because there was shared writing with Chris and Alex. I think it was Chris that came up with the idea, "Why don't we do a Lennon/McCartney thing where everything we do, we share as co-writers?" It was really Chris's musical vision in terms of production approach and that sort of thing. Obviously, Alex was a major player as a writer and singer and god, his guitar parts were amazing! I think with Chris, the production was really his vision for the most part. When the record was released and we started getting press, the press would focus on Alex because Alex had been in The Box Tops. He had sung "The Letter" when he was 16. That was the #1 song in the nation in 1967, so it kind of made sense to say, "Here's this band called Big Star, and you haven't heard of them, but you've heard of Alex Chilton." It's a nice introduction to the band, I think. It wasn't really a rivalry, I don't think so much between Alex and Chris, as much as Chris just seeing that and not wanting to live in that shadow.

Alex Chilton and Chris Bell wrote "In the Street," but Big Star's version of the song was never heard on the show That '70s Show. Instead, a version sung by Todd Griffin was used in the first season, while a Cheap Trick cover of it was heard thereafter. The Cheap Trick take on it also quoted the act's own song, "Surrender," with the line "We're all alright."
Songfacts: For better or worse, the band is probably best known for having the theme song for That '70s Show. How do you feel about that, and how did that all come together?

Jody: There was someone that Alex knew who was working on that show in music supervision or something. And they thought that "In the Streets" would just embody the spirit of that show. I don't know if the general population even knows that Big Star had anything to do with it. As a matter of fact, it's funny, I played in Golden Smog with Jeff Tweedy and I'm a big fan of Wilco's. When they come to Memphis, I usually sit in with them. We played "In The Street" together - I sat in on drums and Glenn Kotche played the cowbell part and John Stirratt sang lead on "In The Street," and my wife was in the audience and she said, when we started playing "In The Street," somebody sitting in back of her said, 'Why are they playing That '70s Show song?' It never mentions Big Star. It does mention Alex and Chris in the credits. It's cool as far as press for introducing an audience. It's like, you know, maybe you've never heard of Big Star, but here's a song that Alex and Chris have written from the band.

Songfacts: I want to wind up by finding out from you what your favorite Big Star songs are, whenever you get a chance to play them. Which ones do you enjoy the most?

Jody: I enjoy a lot of 'em. "Back Of a Car" is fun to play. "Ballad of El Goodo" is fun. I always hearken back to how all those parts came together – the guitar parts and the drum parts. In '71, I may have been 18, so I'd come up with the drum part and just be ecstatic about it. I'd made this transition from basically being in a cover band; we'd do a lot of British Invasion and a lot of Stax stuff, so all of a sudden I'm in this band doing original material and you have to create your own drum parts. So I got excited as "Ballad of El Goodo" developed. I enjoyed playing that one a lot. They're all fun songs to play. I'm really glad to still be doing that.

Songfacts: Do you have any favorite Alex Chilton stories?

Jody: We played the House of Blues in 1994. We played one show, and we played a second show after that. And in between shows, the guys in Teenage Fanclub had shown up with some really good pot. So Alex and the band shared that. Then we got on stage, and I forget the song we were playing, but Alex hit this guitar run and had a sour note at the end of it. And when we came back around to that same guitar line, he again hit that sour note, but he did it intentionally and he looks back and smiles and he's got this great grin on his face. That's always stuck out to me.

June 17, 2013.
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Comments: 1

  • Dejordy from ChicagoRealistically, Big Star did three albums. People don't really count the fourth. Anyway, Jody is considered one of the nicest guys in music.As always, he has good things to say here, and as usual, he gives Chris Bell correct credit, especially for having the initial vision for the band.
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