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When You Wish upon Big Star 

Thirty years on, seminal Southern power-pop kings get their close-up

In the early 70s, a misfit crew of Anglophile Memphians hooked up with Alex Chilton, the once-and-future lead singer of the Box Tops, a blue-eyed soul-pop band whose biggest hit was "The Letter." The new outfit was called Big Star, after a grocery store chain. As described in rock journalist Rob Jovanovic's new band biography, the name was ironic and bold, impulsive and calculated. So what the heck -- the guys in Big Star named their first album #1 Record.

More or less "released" in 1972, #1 Record mainly existed as promotional copies sent to record reviewers. Although the masses didn't quite catch on, the Big Star sound was pure ear candy to critics: melodic and rough, polished and sweaty, mellow and twisted. Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers, released in 1974 and 1978 respectively, cemented Big Star's cult status and patented clash of chiming guitars with Byrds-like harmonies roughened up by a rebel yell. Due to inner dissension and limited sales, the quartet broke up in the mid-70s, long before Big Star's visionary groove launched a hundred alternative rock bands during the grunge era.

By the early 80s, what Jovanovic calls "the Winston-Salem gang" -- including the dB's Will Rigby and Peter Holsapple -- may well have turned R.E.M. on to the music of Alex Chilton and company. R.E.M.'s endorsement helped keep Big Star's afterglow afloat through the 80s, and by the early 90s Big Star had truly become big stars -- in the underground/grassroots sense. Some even called them "the Beatles upside down." Upside down also because Chilton and his primary songwriting partner, the late Chris Bell, had to create their own Memphis. They did it by tunneling back through the records of roots-drunk, art school dropouts from the UK: The Who, the Move, T.Rex, and the aforementioned Fabs (among others) were all big influences. Famed producer Jim Dickinson's sensitive, sympathetic ears also helped Chilton hone this aesthetic, during recording sessions at Memphis' Ardent Studios.

Jovanovic depicts Big Star as late adolescents, precariously balanced. Yet they weren't wimpy, and their appeal wasn't limited to those who actually heard them (only the Velvet Underground, another 60s/70s band that didn't sell well, had a greater influence on post-punk indie-rock). Big Star faced down the gorgeous perfidy of "September Gurls," which became better known only when it was covered by the Bangles in 1986. Many more years later, their futility anthem, "In the Street," covered by Cheap Trick, became the theme song for That 70s Show. (Whoopee!)

After a couple of decades gone solo, Chilton suddenly agreed to a Big Star "reunion" performance. The lineup included original drummer/singer/songwriter Jody Stephens and new Seattle recruits Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, guitarist and bassist, respectively, of the Posies. Columbia, the album which documents the concert, is kinda Big Star-lite.

And now, a mere 12 years later, Chilton's Columbia crew brings us a studio album of all-new tracks, In Space (Rykodisc). It's a disc on which lightweight-to-high-generic qualities seem deliberate and sometimes witty, as if the band is saying, "Hello, fellow collectors! We're influenced by Big Star!" But my favorites sound more like chillin' Chilton's better solo joints. The very classical "Aria Largo" gets tortured by a twangy electric guitar, one careful note at a time. "Love Revolution" sounds like a longhaired Carolina beach band covering Archie Bell's "Tighten Up." "Do You Wanna Make It" conjures a big, fat, drunk chick doing the bump to the Kinks. Yes, baby's got bass, and there's a Big Star tattooed on it.

Once again, Big Star shines where the sun don't. 'Cause after all, they're stars of the underground! Presently, Big Star's touring plans are also underground, courtesy of Mr. Chilton, who steadfastly remained in his New Orleans home and got smacked by Katrina. Chilton's also-reformed Box Tops may have to re-schedule, too. Meanwhile, Big Star subs Auer and Stringfellow continue to play with their other band, the Posies (which are slated for a Sept. 25 show at Chapel Hill's Local 506). Typically, as Jovanovic makes clear in Big Star's bio, the post-airlift Chilton's rumored to be in a place he refuses to name.

Big Star is now slated to play live dates in December; check Pollstar.org for updates. In Space was released on Rykodisc Sept. 27. Jovanovic's book is currently in bookstores and available online at places like amazon.com.

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