Big Star began as the musical vessel of young songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. Almost from the start the two didn't see eye to eye, Which was a foreshadowing detail about where the band was eventually headed. On the surface, they were a band of few hits and a brief period of modest success, but their musical evolution through the 70s provides a very deep and fascinating story. Despite their artistic differences, Chilton and Bell released a fantastic debut album, #1 Record, in 1972.
That record contained one of the most enjoyable pop songs ever recorded by a rock band, "The Ballad of El Goodo." It also included the lovable sing-a-long "In the Street," a track most people today would easily recognize as the theme song to the hit TV series That 70's Show. Ironically, it is probably one of the least impressive cuts in their laconic catalog.
Two years later, with almost no contributions from Bell, Big Star churned out Radio City, an equally impressive sophomore effort. The duo's two initial releases stand out for including some of the most wonderfully catchy, exuberant pop songs of the era, equal parts Beatles, Byrds and Badfinger.
But despite gleeful cuts like "I'm In Love With a Girl" and "September Gurls," Chilton's increased influence on the direction of the band resulted in a slight resonance of cynicism.
While those previous albums may have ultimately been the band's best works, their third release, 1978's Third/Sister Lovers, is definitely the most interesting. It truly is the sonic equivalent of a musical mastermind in the midst of a severe nervous breakdown. It is nothing less than heartbreaking to hear the sheer rapture of their previous albums all but completely erased by the misery found here. The album finds Chilton defacing all that made his music fun to listen to, to the point where he once snuck into the studio and recorded the vocals and guitar on the same track so producer Jim Dickinson had no way to separate the two and was forced to use the cut. But somehow, Chilton's attempted self-mutilation-through-song has the opposite effect, making Big Star's music, as hopeless as it sounds, that much more fascinating.
The record is every bit as disjointed and haphazard as the Beatles' White Album, but while that release was more adept musically, Big Star's is more emotionally poignant. Even through the schizophrenic genre switches, the album retains the same feeling of despair. The upbeat songs even come off sounding quietly sardonic. Their cover of the Kinks' "Till the End of the Day" twists the already-aggressive tune into a bullying blitzkrieg, and the bizarre "Downs" harbors a performance by Chilton that's so destructive it's the only track that's actually unpleasant to listen to. The seventh song, "Holocaust," gives new meaning to the term "swan song." Chilton, who was never a bad singer, seems to have even given up on his voice, letting the verses in some sections droop down into an almost inaudible whisper.
It's almost impossible to find another example of a band with so much potential that imploded so spectacularly and with such cinematic drama. What started as such a positive, jubilant project ended with abrupt and acute defeat. Chilton is still alive today, enjoying a relatively unknown solo career. But what he recorded with Big Star, especially on Third/Sister Lovers, could be one of the saddest stories of emotional desolation, and vulnerable honesty, in rock music's long and deep history.