Release Date: Sep 15, 2009
Record label: Rhino
Genre(s): Rock, Pop
Unsung cult heroes. Quintessential power pop icons. Rock and roll underachievers. Big Star were all of these things, yet in the grand scheme of popular culture, they remain all but unknown except in the most esoteric circles of music snobbery, despite the shadow they’ve cast over the alternative rock scene of the past three decades.
Overlooked in their ’70s prime, these Memphis natives have long since been recognized by critics and fellow musicians as power-pop pioneers. Anyone who still needs convincing will find the case for Big Star’s legendhood made beyond a reasonable doubt on Keep an Eye on the Sky, a four-disc retrospective. The ? spare demos, crystal-clear concert recordings, and handsomely produced liner notes are a fan’s delight, but it’s the three original albums included here — 38 haunting ballads and fist-pumping anthems, some in unreleased mixes, each one a gem — that still shine brightest.
Big Star aren't just rock's greatest cult band; they were arguably rock's first cult band. Like Magellan, they discovered a new route to iconic status, but theirs was more circuitous and didn't involve such niceties as sales, audience, tours, or really anything resembling actual success. Instead, they maintained a slow, dim burn throughout the 1970s and 80s, their memory kept alive by critics, collectors, record store clerks, and younger generations of musicians such as R.E.M.
In a way, all of Big Star's career is a testament to the recording process. They were a creature of the studio, not stage, having free rein at Ardent Studios, where they stayed up into the next morning tinkering at the same set of songs. This resulted in the crisp, sterling sound of #1 Record and the deliberately looser Radio City, as well as the sliding, sprawling mess of 3rd, but it didn't result in outtakes -- it resulted in alternate mixes and instrumental scraps, the stuff that enthralls fetishists, sometimes justifiably so.
If you read my Big Star interview that coincides with this review, you might notice, in some small, funny way, a slight sense of pride on the part of the musicians. How ironic that in 2009, 37 years after the band’s debut album came and went to the notice of, well, pretty much no one, they can finally sit back and smile on their not-so-modest achievements. Yes, gentlemen.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, bands began fusing Beatles melodies, Who guitars, and the Byrds' harmonies. Power-pop was born. Although never rising above cult status due to internal tensions, label distribution problems, and lack of radio play, Big Star remains preeminent among these acts. Authoritatively illustrating why, the 4-CD Keep an Eye on the Sky might be considered compilation overload on this admittedly obscure Memphis quartet for the newcomer, but cultists and anyone interested in some of the purest guitar pop ever made will find lots and lots to love.