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A fan's tale of pop's biggest retrospective stars,
This review is from: Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop (Paperback)
Given the giant family tree of pop bands who trace their lineage back to Big Star, their initial failure to gain commercial traction is remembered more in well-worn stories than in emotional memories. Those few who latched onto Big Star's two key albums at the time of their early-70s release may hold onto the sense memory of the band's celebrated obscurity, but for most, the Big Star story was learned after the fact. Author Rob Jovanovic has done an admirable job of connecting the dots that form the group's oft-repeated career low-lights, and fleshing out the individual band members (and the group's coterie) as humans behind the retrospective pop gods.
Jovanovic faced down several daunting problems in writing and publishing this book. First, the band's initial career was short and their output small, so the central part of the story arc wouldn't fill a book. Second, the band's principal singer and songwriter, Alex Chilton, declined to be interviewed by Jovanovic (quotes from Chilton are drawn from another writer's earlier interview). Jovanovic had to hurdle the group's lack of commercial breakthrough, and thus the relatively limited appeal of a band history. Their ancestral place in rock history may be secure, and their in-the-know following may be big, but to the mass audience, they're still a cult band. The shortness of their first run was solved by providing the group member's pre-Big Star work as valuable context; in Chilton's case, coming off a chart-topping career with the Box Tops, there's a great deal of material. In addition, the members, particularly Chilton again, had post-Big Star careers whose exploration provides informative echoes of the Big Star experience. More than a third of the book covers Chilton and co-songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell's post-Big Star careers.
That Jovanovic convinced a publisher to take on the project is perhaps the most impressive feat of all. Particularly because his finished product is squarely aimed at the band's fans, those who have the albums, have seen the reunion shows, and still struggle to really understand and feel the group's troubled origin. His interviews with band members, production staff and others provide a catalog of terrific details about the recording of the group's albums, and help to untangle the Bell-Chilton songwriting credits. He offers finely detailed accounts of how the album covers of "#1 Record" and "Radio City" came to be, and he turns up information on pre-album and unreleased recordings. His explanation of why the song "O My Soul" is in mono (on an otherwise stereo album) clears up a mystery that's dogged listeners for 30 years.
At the heart of the book is the failure of Big Star's debut, and its particular impact on Chris Bell. Javanovic follows Bell's slide and departure from the group (and his eventual erasing of the album's 16-track masters), in one of rock's less happy stories. The fallout of Big Star's commercial failure, though mostly limited in scope to the group, its immediate attendees and their posthumous third album, is surprisingly long-lasting. The book is well researched and competently written (though it's not a real page-turner, even for fans). The closing chapter provides a great description of how the author investigated and pieced together the story. The use of lengthy end-notes is distracting, as they're either outside the scope of the book, or material that should have been worked into the mainline text. The use of British spellings (apparently native to the author) is also distracting and feels academic in a book about a band from Memphis. This is an informative read for fans of the band, but not an invitation to fanship; the original albums are a much livelier introduction to the band's genius. [©2008 hyperbolium dot com]