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Inside Big Star's 'Complete Third'

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Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton in "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," a 2012 full-length documentary about the beloved and influential '70s rock band Big Star. Together less than four years, the band flirted with mainstream success but never achieved it. Nonetheless, they produced a body of work of seminal importance to pop and alternative music, influencing major artists like REM, The Replacements, Elliot Smith, Beck, The Flaming Lips and countless others. Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton in "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," a 2012 full-length documentary about the beloved and influential '70s rock band Big Star. Together less than four years, the band flirted with mainstream success but never achieved it. Nonetheless, they produced a body of work of seminal importance to pop and alternative music, influencing major artists like REM, The Replacements, Elliot Smith, Beck, The Flaming Lips and countless others. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/William Eggleston, Eggleston Artistic Trust)

Digging deep into a piece of rock history with Jody Stephens

Making sense of what we know as the third album from indie-cult-power pop legends Big Star just became easier and infinitely rewarding thanks to the release of 'Complete Third? from Omnivore Recordings.

The comprehensive collection of every available demo, outtake, rough mix and finished master from the sessions is the result of a near decade-long search for every extant tape.

In addition to 29 previously unheard tracks, the three-disc set includes a contextualizing essay from journalist/A&R exec/early Big Star champion Bud Scoppa and notes from original session participants that illuminate a project long-shrouded in darkness and mystery.

The resurrection of Big Star has been bubbling since some of the 'Third? record's sessions were first issued ' over three years after the recording sessions came to a crashing halt in 1975. The rumors and legends surrounding the recordings (some of them actually true) only served to keep the embers glowing as people traded records and tapes along with what little information they had on the defunct Memphis band in those pre-web days.

The most common Big Star myth at that time was that Alex Chilton, the soulful lead singer of 60s hit-makers The Box Tops ('The Letter,? 'Soul Deep,? 'Cry Like a Baby?), was tired of singing catchy pop tunes and sick of being fleeced by sleazy music-biz types and quit the group in 1970 to form a new band that would have complete control over their music and career.

The myth states that the new band's pure-pop ethos came from co-founder Chris Bell and was balanced with Chilton's edge, then made complete by powerfully inventive drumming from Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel's melodic, McCartney-esque bass.

Two albums of beautifully-crafted songs (1972's '#1 Record? and 1974's 'Radio City?) were issued to enthusiastic acclaim from music journalists (with Bell leaving the band before the second LP was recorded) but record company screw-ups prevented Big Star from leaving the launch pad.

The story continued that a much different third album was recorded - that it was a spooky record on par with 'SMiLE? ' the one that unraveled Brian Wilson after 'Pet Sounds.?

All of that reads well but only some of it was true.

To fully comprehend what Big Star really was and what the third record was really about, it's important to remember where it was recorded and just how important that environment was in the true story of the band.

John Fry and Ardent Records - Memphis

Ardent Records/Studios founder John Fry on the origin of the Ardent name (from a 2014 interview uploaded on Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum's YouTube page):

'We wanted to start putting out these 45 RPM records and we've got to think of a name for our label and we said 'What about Ardent? That has a nice sound to it.' We weren't entirely sure of the exact definition so we went and got the dictionary and looked in there. In that particular dictionary - which I still have - it said that the definition was 'Hot, fiery, fierce, burning passion.' We said 'That's a perfect name for a music company.'?

John Fry established Ardent Records in 1959 while the studio which shares the name came seven years later.

Some of the best-sounding records out of Memphis in the 60s and 70s were crafted using Fry's knowledge of recording technique. Fry's desire to constantly update his studios with the latest technology while keeping handy the best of the past ensures that Ardent is still one of America's finest studios in operation.

Pre-Big Star

Like most cities, Memphis was bursting with pop, rock and soul bands in the 1960s. Chris Bell, in his early teens, had been in a few of them, including the Jynx, beginning in 1964. Alex Chilton would sometimes sit in and sing lead on a few songs. Chilton joined The Box Tops as the Jynx dissolved but he and Bell would meet up again a few years later after Bell played and recorded with bands Icewater and Rock City, featuring an evolving collective of Memphis-area musicians.

'The first time I walked into Ardent Studios, I walked in the control room and Chris and Steve Rhea were in there working on an Icewater song called 'All I See Is You,'? Jody Stephens told me in a recent phone interview.

Big Star's drummer is now Business Development Director at Ardent, bringing new clients to record at the studio and new artists to the Ardent Music label. Stephens is also part of Those Pretty Wrongs with musician Luther Russell (see sidebar).

'Steve played drums on it and sang lead. Of course, Chris played guitars and was singing backgrounds,? Stephens said. 'They would take turns engineering while recording each other's parts. Chris already knew the equipment at Ardent pretty well.?

John Fry was passionate about the art of recording and offered to teach the young musicians recording technique.

'I enrolled in my first class with John and he had it in a little building next door to Ardent that Big Star would practice in,? Stephens explained. 'John showed up with this big booklet of white sheets of paper that he put on this easel. He drew and discussed sound waves and the thing I remember about these early sessions is that he talked about cancellation and phase. I thought it was fascinating how sound waves could actually cancel each other out so you hear nothing.?

'#1 Record? and 'Radio City?

While Fry was certainly present during the recording of Big Star's first album, '#1 Record,? Chris Bell did much of the engineering and mixing, utilizing knowledge gleaned from Fry's instruction.

Jody Stephens says that, at the time, he didn't have Bell's patience or the hunger to learn about the intricacies of recorded sound.

'John is John. He explores things from the very fundamental aspects of them. I don't think I quite had the attention to provide for the detail that he was going through. I couldn't sit still long enough. I wanted to concentrate on playing rather than the technical side of engineering. Though I know quite a few people really enjoyed those classes. Andy Hummel (Big Star bassist) certainly did.?

Nearly two years after John Fry's sudden death from a heart attack at age 69, Jody Stephens speaks of him in the present tense at times. His presence at Ardent is still so strong, it's likely that many of his friends and associates do the same.

'John had a tremendous amount of patience in engineering,? Stephens says. 'As opposed to just throwing up some microphones and hitting the record button, I think he realized that what he was recording and the way he was recording it was going to live forever. He was a remarkable guy.?

Released in June 1972, Big Star's debut, '#1 Record,? was a flawless debut. Billboard wrote 'every cut could be a single.? In Rolling Stone, Bud Scoppa called it 'exceptionally good.? Ardent had signed a distribution deal with Stax Records. Unfortunately, Stax was on the decline and approaching bankruptcy. Side deals with other labels not being a priority, the record languished.

Crushed, Chris Bell left Big Star after '#1 Record,? although he was part of the edgier - but just as brilliant - follow-up in the form of songwriting. With a number of songs already written, Bell took a handful for his next (then undefined) project and Chilton kept a few for Big Star.

The three-piece band had more of a live sound on 'Radio City.? When it was released in February 1974, critics raved again but the album suffered a fate similar to its predecessor. While Columbia had taken over the Stax catalog, a strange misunderstanding meant that it would not widely distribute 'Radio City.? Meanwhile, disillusioned bassist Andy Hummel had quit the band to finish college. John Lightman joined on bass for some live appearances, though Big Star never widely performed live in those years. Jody Stephens estimates they may have played a total of around 25 concerts through 1974.

The 'Third? Album

In the fall of 1974, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens entered Ardent Studios to begin recording some new songs. To this day, there is debate on whether the results were intended for a Big Star record or an Alex Chilton solo album. Stephens is confident that the former is correct.

'The intention in going in was doing it under the Big Star banner,? he told me. 'Alex did say that we might call it 'Sister Lovers' because he and I were dating sisters. They were not twins, which is something I see written every now and then. They were a year or two apart.?

Chilton's girlfriend, Lesa Aldridge (now Elizabeth A. Hoehn) was his muse, sometime collaborator and partner in dysfunction. She contributes a touching piece to the booklet accompanying 'Complete Third? and her voice appears on several of the demos and rough mixes included in the set.

'We entered the studio saying 'This WILL be a Big Star album,'? Stephens said. 'From what I remember, it was always going to be a Big Star album. That was the primary thought but there were secondary thoughts about calling it something else.?

There is much raw emotion on the third album in songs like 'Holocaust,? 'Big Black Car,? 'Kanga Roo,? 'O, Dana? and 'Downs.? Listeners expecting the carefully produced song-craft of '#1 Record? or the infectious swagger of 'Radio City? are sometimes thrown upon first listen.

Dig a little deeper and those songs, with their sometimes-chaotic production, begin to make sense - especially in the context of Alex Chilton's lifestyle at the time. His relationship with Aldridge combined with his chemical intake to make for some increasingly bizarre night-time recording sessions, testing even the eternally patient John Fry.

'I wasn't at the night sessions,? Jody Stephens says. 'I was there when we recorded during the day. I didn't really see anything crazy myself because I wasn't there, nor was John.?

Fry trusted Alex with Ardent and allowed him to record after hours, often after Alex and friends had immersed themselves in the Memphis party scene.

One of the 'Third? album's most valuable components was legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, who reportedly realized he was in for a wild ride when Chilton began the first session by shooting Demerol down his throat with a syringe.

Stephens thinks of a track likely recorded at night: 'Alex probably came in and recorded his voice and guitar on 'Kanga Roo,? with Richard Rosebrough (Memphis-area drummer and engineer who worked with many area musicians. He passed away last year). That was what Alex handed to Jim Dickinson and said 'Produce this, Mr. Producer,? according to the story Jim tells in the documentary (the 2012 Big Star documentary, 'Nothing Can Hurt Me,? currently viewable on Netflix). Then Jim built a track around it.?

Twenty finished masters were captured (plus outtakes and a few cover songs) before John Fry called a halt to the proceedings.

'From what I've read, John ran out of patience in the end,? Stephens says. 'There was a point when the recording of 'Third? stopped which was probably a good idea. There were certainly enough songs there. Just to continue with no real purpose wouldn't have made any sense to me either.?

While the album is frequently cited for its sound of confusion and isolation, there is a symmetry to the record, thanks to uplifting songs like 'Blue Moon,? 'Jesus Christ,? 'Lovely Day? and Stephens's 'For You.?

'They're such charming and endearing songs,? Stephens continues. 'Then you get to 'Holocaust? or 'Kanga Roo? and there is a nice balance there.?

When Ardent Records promotion man John King and producer Jim Dickinson played a test pressing of the finished tracks for various record company execs in 1975, the labels wouldn't touch it. The tapes sat on the shelf for three years as stories and rumors began to circulate and the Big Star legend continued to percolate.

Earlier in 1978, a small French label agreed to release a 12-track version of Big Star's 'Third.? US label PVC released a reconfigured 14-track version that same year and on CD nine years later. British label Dojo issued a 17-track version of 'Third? in 1987 while the US Rykodisc label put out a 19-song 'Third? in 1992.

Five years after issuing their vinyl 'Test Pressing? version of 'Third,? Omnivore Recordings has rounded up every known tape related to the album on 'Complete Third.?

'I think it's a remarkable accomplishment on the part of Cheryl Pawelski (Grammy-winning producer and co-founder of Omnivore Recordings) and Adam Hill (Ardent Studios engineer and producer, Big Star archivist and Associate Producer of 'Complete Third?),? said Stephens. 'Adam is brilliant. He has a memory like a tape recorder. Everything that he's gone through in terms of Big Star recordings, he remembers everything about it. He would dig into the tapes and provide Cheryl with the audio on a lot of these things. I think Cheryl was digging too.?

Stephens said that when he first sat down to listen to the new collection, he listened to all three discs over the course of a day.

'I think it's really interesting to hear how things evolved,? he told me. 'Somebody pointed out that that this set emphasizes what an important role John Fry played, not only in the way he recorded these songs but also the way they were mixed. It's true. The rough mixes of these songs are good but when John actually did a proper mix, they became just amazing. It was a whole new adventure in the world of that song. It's like it became multi-dimensional or something when John Fry mixed it.?

Big Star and their extended family have suffered a painful number of losses. On December 27 1978, Chris Bell was on his way home from a band rehearsal when his car struck a telephone pole, killing him instantly.

In 2009, Rhino issued a two-disc set of material recorded by Bell over a two-year period. 'I Am The Cosmos? is an essential chapter in the Big Star story.

Alex Chilton died after an apparent heart attack in New Orleans in March 2010, just days before Big Star were due to perform at the SXSW Festival in Austin. Original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel died of cancer a few months later.

When I first listened to the 'Complete Third? set, I wondered what Alex Chilton would have thought about it, having read about his love/hate relationship with the material and his reluctance to even discuss that part of his life. I asked Jody Stephens if he had a guess as to what Alex's reaction might have been.

'I don't know what Alex would have thought. Alex wasn't too keen on doing any of the songs on Big Star's 'Third? when we played live, outside of 'Thank You Friends,? 'Jesus Christ? and 'For You.? We even tried to get him to do 'Kizza Me? once and it didn't really get off the ground.

'But secretly, I think that it would have put a smile on his face. If nothing else than for the fact that it endures and it connects with people on so many emotional levels. The span of emotion that it covers is - in large part - why it endures.?

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