The feature-length documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me opens today at New York’s IFC Center and on Friday at Los Angeles’ Nuart Theatre. In conjunction with its release, Omnivore Recordings has recently unveiled a soundtrack album collecting 21 previously unissued songs from the legendary Memphis band.
Rare is the cult band that actually lives up to its legend. Yet, with each listen – time after time, year after year – Big Star not only meets the hype, but surpasses it. Chances are, if you know the music of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens, you remember the first time you heard it. You likely also remember the friend who first introduced you to the band, or how he or she told you about this great discovery with the hush-hush nature of a secret told in the deepest confidence. Though the group is today spoken of with reverence in certain circles, no commercial breakthrough ever allowed the band to make its name a reality. (In fact, the name Big Star derived from a supermarket!) Frontman Alex Chilton’s closest turn as a “big star” came in his youth, as he led The Box Tops through a series of hits including “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.” So, beyond the “cult” tag and the mystique, why are we still talking about Big Star, a band whose reputation is entirely based on three albums from 1972-1978 that almost nobody heard? The ample proof can be heard on Omnivore Recordings’ new release entitled Nothing Can Hurt Me. The 21-track anthology is, in actuality, the Original Soundtrack to Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s new documentary, but it’s also a concise and potent introduction to the band’s unforgettable music.
Hit the jump to dive in! Big Star aimed for the stars and reached them with 1972’s optimistically-titled # 1 Record, as perfect a record as any. Recorded in Memphis but also aglow with the sounds of Los Angeles and London, its bold power-pop – largely written by the team of Chilton and Bell – should have galvanized listeners. Yet it went all but unheard. From there, the troubled Chris Bell departed the band, and two more increasingly off-kilter albums were released, 1974’s Radio City and 1978’s delayed Third/Sister Lovers. Big Star had broken up some four years before the latter saw the light of day; by the end of ’78, Chris Bell was dead. Alex Chilton was off to wrestle with his own demons. The story might have been finished and the albums relegated to dusty record bins had it not been for younger musicians in bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements. They spoke of Chilton, Bell and Big Star in reverential tones, and in 1993, Chilton and Stephens even reformed the band. (A new album, In Space, arrived under the band moniker in 2005.) By then, all three albums had been reissued on CD, and the cult of Big Star grew. When “In the Street” was selected as the theme to Fox’s hit sitcom That ‘70s Show, the music of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell had finally gone mainstream. There’s been no shortage of Big Star material on CD. # 1 Record and Radio City remain available on a two-for-one CD. The dark Third/Sister Lovers is also in print, along with solo collections from Chris Bell (I Am the Cosmos) and Chilton (Omnivore’s 2012 Free Again: The 1970 Sessions). It would have been reasonable to consider 2009’s four-CD box set Keep an Eye on the Sky as the Final Word on Big Star. That remarkable box, produced by Cheryl Pawelski, John Fry, Alec Palao and Andrew Sandoval, included at least one version of every song released by Big Star on its three albums – whether an original version, a demo, an alternate take, an alternate mix, or similar. Tracks from Big Star precursors Icewater and Rock City also found a home there alongside solo tracks from Chilton and Bell.
Producers Pawelski and Fry (the original engineer of # 1 Record and Radio City and one of the engineers of Third) reteamed to produce the Nothing Can Hurt Me soundtrack, which consists of 21 previously unreleased tracks. Is that even possible, given the massive vault clearing-out on Keep an Eye on the Sky? Indeed it is – the new soundtrack unearths more demos, alternate mixes, rough mixes and snippets of studio banter, as well as six “Movie Mixes” created especially for the film from original elements. Truth to tell, in comparing these tracks to the original versions, the variations aren’t, on the whole, radical. But that’s also the soundtrack’s strength as a stand-alone release. It doesn’t play like a for-collectors-only rarities compilation. Instead, it’s a vibrant sampler of what made Big Star so special. New fans will immediately grasp the group’s inspired transformation of the usual sixties influences (The Beatles, The Byrds, The Beach Boys) into a sound all the band’s own. Longtime devotees will savor new emphasis on the vocal of “Way Out West” or the interplay on “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” or a different guitar part on Big Star forerunner Rock City’s “Try Again.”
Plenty is on offer for admirers of each member. There’s a freewheeling sense of the joy of making music on the opening salvo, a demo of Chilton’s Radio City single “O My Soul,” as tight drums sidle up to stinging guitar licks, groovy bass and a swaggering vocal: “I can’t get a license/To drive my car/But I don’t really need it/If I’m a big star!” That defiant spirit also surfaces on “The Ballad of El Goodo” (“There ain’t no one going to turn me ‘round”). The title might be obtuse, but the song is one of the group’s most impressively-crafted, with a gorgeous melody and sparkling harmonies. Bell and Chilton blended beautifully on the first album, thanks to their contrasting yet complementary voices. Bell could wail in the stratosphere like Robert Plant while Chilton remained down to earth with a deep, soulful rumble. It’s impossible to disbelieve Bell’s assertion that “My Life is Right” in his song of the same name: “Once I walked a lonely road, had no one to share my love/But then you came and showed the way/And now I hope you’re here to stay…” Bell’s high, punky “In the Street” voice is also heard to good effect on “Feel,” the opening track of # 1 Record heard here in an alternate mix. He’s less optimistic about his relationship in “Feel”: “Girlfriend, what are you doin’? You’re drivin’ me to ruin!” he exclaims. As with Big Star’s best, it’s somehow both earthy and transcendent. There’s tension and toughness in the shifting melody, enhanced by ethereal harmonies. (“Don’t Lie to Me” is another snarling riposte led by Bell.)
Much credit for the timelessness of these recordings goes to the layered, often immaculate productions overseen by Fry at Ardent Studios. The burst of sheer energy that is “In the Street” still explodes from the speaker, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, as do the Memphis guitar tones of the irresistible “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” It’s pure blue-eyed soul from one of the genre’s greatest singers. And the ballads are as poignant as the rockers are searing. The tender, aching “Give Me Another Chance” from the Bell/Chilton partnership is heard in its Control Room Monitor Mix. It has even more raw, unvarnished emotion, lacking the prominent Beatle-esque harmonies that so gorgeously adorn the original. There’s stark, melancholy beauty, too, in the Chilton-sung adolescent paean “Thirteen” (“Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay/Come inside where it’s okay…”) presented here in an alternate mix. The Nothing Can Hurt Me soundtrack illustrates the band’s arc, from the joyous and ebullient sounds of No. 1 Record to the moody and claustrophobic music of Third including “Kanga Roo,” “Holocaust,” and “Stroke It, Noel.” Two solo tracks from Bell (film mixes of “Better Save Yourself” and “I Am the Cosmos”) and one from Chilton (“All We Ever Got from Them Was Pain”) round out the set before the chiming guitars of the triumphant “September Gurls” bring it to an upbeat close.
Larry Nix has done a fine job remastering each track, and if there’s any disappointment associated with this release, it’s the no-frills packaging. You won’t find any recording or personnel information for the tracks, or any liner notes. Given the nature of the material on this sampler, the lack of any annotation is even more surprising. Will Nothing Can Hurt Me replace the original three albums as the ultimate introduction to Big Star? No. Is it a sparkling and vibrant complement to those essential titles? Yes! This opportunity to discover the music of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens in a new light is one well worth taking.