Music

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Big Star

The greatest band you’ve never heard.

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It’s a rare and special thing when a record knocks you out and fills a deep crack in your heart that you didn’t even know existed; with every song that plays, you feel more whole, validated and understood by a group of total strangers, like maybe the way you see the universe isn’t so crazy after all. For me, that album was—and still is—Big Star’s #1 Record, which was released in 1972. It is so sad, so hopeful, and so lovely; it’s the rarest of records, made by people who seemingly understand what it’s like to feel simultaneously broken and optimistic. It’s been almost 15 years since I first heard it, and it still makes me cry. It’s like listening to your own journals sung back to you. It’s, dare I say, literally the best thing ever.

Sometimes treasures sink, and when this record was released, it went nowhere despite much critical acclaim. I recently watched the new documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which covers the band’s history, including their formation and the creation of #1 Record with founding member Chris Bell, and well as the band’s two post-Bell releases, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers. It’s a great documentary, in that it shows how weird, cruel, and strangely redeeming the music world can be. I don’t want to give too much away, but for those who don’t know the basic Big Star story, the band becomes a cult success but not a financial one, and the result is both tragic and fascinating. Most of the general public had never heard of them, but artists like R.E.M., the Replacements, the Flaming Lips, Belle and Sebastian, Elliott Smith, Cheap Trick, and Teenage Fanclub kept Big Star on the margins of the radar, paving the way for weird kids like me to find them and fall in love with songs that had seemingly gotten lost somehow years before we were born.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me showed me how long it actually took for these beautiful works of art to reach a wide audience. There were the lucky few who got their hands on Big Star records and understood their importance right away, but for most of us, they were hidden gems that needed to be unearthed by others, passed along through word of mouth and song-based shout-outs. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the kids who had originally found and loved it were old enough to form bands of their own and mention #1 Record as an important influence, and another decade would go by before Big Star’s three albums were reissued by Rykodisc. It seems like an impossible thing today, when things go viral eight seconds after they’re posted, and if you’re two days late to a song/video/book you’re completely out of the loop. The movie speaks to an idea of success that we don’t seem to focus on as much anymore—the mere fact that these records were created is a triumph in and of itself. The legacy they’ve left is a reminder that immediate recognition isn’t always the best way when it comes to great art; when you’re so far ahead of your time, sometimes it takes the rest of the world years to catch up.

Singer and songwriter Alex Chilton had already found success at the age of 16 with his first band, the Box Tops, who sold 4 million copies of their first single and were nominated for a Grammy Award alongside the Beatles, but he didn’t let that define the rest of his life. Instead he chose to spend the rest of his career challenging people’s assumptions of him by hopping from genre to genre, experimenting with new sounds and styles, refusing to be locked into something safe or expected. His success isn’t necessarily related to money or fame, but in finding a way to be true to yourself in spite of the pressures of the world. (Chris Bell, Chilton’s original songwriting partner in Big Star, met a more tortured fate, dealing with depression and heroin addiction before dying in a car accident at the age of 27 and never getting to witness the lasting influence of his music.)

The Big Star story, like their records, is sad, but there’s more than a touch of beauty there. Any band that can make you think about how you approach your own life, your own art, and your way of communicating with the world deserves to be celebrated, even if it’s 30 years later. The reason we’re still listening to Big Star today is because the music is so good, particularly in capturing the teenage experience, with angst and heartache and that feeling of just figuring out who you are. That comes from Bell and Chilton’s songwriting, which is timeless and true. They are both gone, sadly (Chilton died of a heart attack in 2010), but their work is as relevant and gorgeous as ever.

I often see people in the Rookie comments (and elsewhere) bemoaning the fact that they are X years old and haven’t accomplished the things they want yet, which makes them feel like a failure. I’ve done this myself—setting specific age goals for when X has to be reached or when Y is no longer an option, but I think in doing so we all forget the importance of just creating things for the sake of creating them. It doesn’t matter if nobody reads your story, or visits your blog, or hears your song, as long as you know you’ve made something you love, something that means the world to you. Don’t let the idea of commercial success or mass recognition stop you from making the things your heart needs to make. Even if only one person is moved by your work, you’ve done something important in the world; you’ve put a tiny piece of putty into the crack in someone’s heart and reminded them that they aren’t alone. And that is something that can’t be bought or calculated in record sales. It may take forever for people to understand you or to feel understood themselves, but all you need to do is keep finding your own way, regardless of how much pressure to “succeed” in traditional terms (money, fame, acclaim) society seems to throw out at you.

And if you need a soundtrack to help you through it, #1 Record should do the trick.

We are thrilled to be able to premiere two songs from the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me with you as you discover or rediscover this iconic band.

20 Comments

  • caro nation July 15th, 2013 11:27 PM

    I’ve listened to Big Star my entire life; they were my dad’s band, the reason he entered the music industry. No band or post has ever made me happier.

    • caro nation July 16th, 2013 7:15 AM

      He even has the Red Ceiling (the Eggleston photograph/Radio City cover) and a Big Star grocery bag framed. Also also CHRIS BELL’S I AM THE COSMOS IS JUST LOVELY I could talk about Big Star forever

  • miserythug July 15th, 2013 11:43 PM

    one of my favorite songs is a big star song as covered by this mortal coil. it’s called kangaroo. check it out yall!

  • surahsurah July 15th, 2013 11:48 PM

    I was first introduced to Big Star on Gilmore Girls. Whenever I hear the song “Thirteen” (which was on an episode and on the soundtrack) I get super nostalgic and I cry and I remember spending time with my mom watching Lorelai & Rory on The CW.

  • spatergator July 16th, 2013 12:57 AM

    I remember the day Alex Chilton died really vividly. My coworker and I (from the record store we worked at) felt that deep for some reason, even though we were constantly looking at the bulletin board full of dead musicians clipped from the newspaper behind our register. We put a picture of him on the bulletin board that afternoon and I can’t describe it, but I will always feel it listening to Big Star.

  • Tavi July 16th, 2013 1:40 AM

    when i was a freshman i learned Thirteen on guitar and practiced it in my room imagining myself serenading boys. gah

    • caro nation July 16th, 2013 7:08 AM

      I actually managed to lure a boy into my clutches with Thirteen via a mixtape. He was like “THIS IS TOO BEAUTIFUL FOR WORDS” and I was like, “I know.”

  • Emily July 16th, 2013 4:49 AM

    So great! Can’t wait to see the film :)

  • RhiaSnape July 16th, 2013 5:32 AM

    I love big star, my ex-boyfriend (as of last night) loved them and got me into them. I love thirteen, september gurls, i’m in love with a girl, the ballad of el goodoo and kangaroo the most.

  • Sophie ❤ July 16th, 2013 6:08 AM

    I completely love the band- and I adore the way you described it!

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • garrison July 16th, 2013 9:53 AM

    I grew up with Big Star playing and they’re my mom’s favorite, so this piece made my day! And I definitely learned Thirteen so I could serenade boys and dazzle them with my finger-picking skillz

  • tellyawhat July 16th, 2013 12:43 PM

    Big Star is so wonderful. Thank you friends is a particular favorite of mine. The death of Alex Chilton is particularly heartbreaking because he didn’t have health insurance and access to affordable medical care leading up to the heart attack that killed him. UGHH He was so young when he died! I wish the US would start supporting our artists financially (especially if your art exists in relative obscurity) and everyone had free access to medical care.

  • CariStereo July 16th, 2013 1:17 PM

    Thank you for (hopefully) introducing Big Star to a new generation of fans. Their music is timeless, important, beautiful… I really hope it becomes a part of all of your lives the way it did mine.

  • cccaitlin July 16th, 2013 1:50 PM

    this band is soothinggg

  • MeBeKi July 16th, 2013 5:11 PM

    I got so excited when I saw this! “Thirteen” is my favorite song in the world!

    http://theoriesabound.wordpress.com/

  • Hecticglow July 16th, 2013 5:43 PM

    Big star is amazing I think I’m in love thank you rookie:)

  • hellocat July 16th, 2013 10:53 PM

    Thank you for this. I love it when you guys get down to the heart of the matter and tell us amazing inspirational stuff. It’s really unbelievable and you guys manage to do it again and again and again.

  • Manda July 17th, 2013 1:17 AM

    The Wikipedia pages on Big Star always lists them as “power pop,” which makes me simultaneously cringe and loathe myself for cringing

  • Cactus Woman July 17th, 2013 11:33 PM

    I got the double album, #1 Record and Radio City, on CD for $2 at Amoeba! It’s great.

    I got offended when my dad, who i know loves their kind of music, said he didn’t like it and that they were “just another band”. Like, what? Maybe a few more listens will convince him.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this. I’m glad they’ve been making a comeback recently with the younger generations.

  • kimmi_kimz July 18th, 2013 9:52 PM

    this is such a beautiful and touching article. i am seriously moved to tears. thank you so much rookie, you never fail to satisfy. <3
    i love you all. xoxox