Big Star’s Third was alternately hailed as one of the darkest albums ever made, a shambling wreck, and an LP that simply should never have been released. Now, four-plus decades after its 1974 recording sessions, it’s often viewed as masterpiece and one of the most influential rock albums of all time.
The band formed in Memphis in ’71 featuring singers/songwriters/guitarists Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens, and bassist Andy Hummel. At the time, the group found only modest success, truly cutting only one album together – 1972’s #1 Record. They were already falling apart while recording ’74’s Radio City, Bell quitting the band during the sessions – twice. Third was made by only half the group, Chilton and Stephens, and wasn’t released until ’78.
With such a short discography and only one hit – the ever-infectious “September Gurls” – Big Star still inspired a power-pop and alt-rock renaissance in the ’80s and ’90s, with their praises sung loudly by R.E.M. and The Replacements, among others.
Best of is a fine entry point to the band. The 16 tracks show the band’s most commercial side; in other words, there’s little from Third. The now-rare single versions of six tunes are the highlights for diehards.
The gem of these new releases is Complete Third, which captures the making of the mythic album – and
in exhaustive detail. The three-CD set comes in a clamshell case with an extensive liner book and 69 tracks, 29 of which are previously unheard session recordings, demos, and alt mixes by producer Jim Dickinson and engineer John Fry. Rarely does a collection allow you to dig so deep into the archaeology of a single LP.
Straying from the band’s power pop, the album allowed Chilton to branch out with his strong guitar playing. He ranged from driving rock licks to ambient sounds, finding a new freedom in his experimentation – all of which is on show here.
To further honor the album, drummer Stephens assembled a band of fans to play it live in 2016, captured here on the two-CD, one-DVD or Blu-Ray Thank You, Friends. The lineup of stars is almost unbelievable: Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone of Wilco, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Robyn Hitchcock, Dan Wilson of Semisonic, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, the Kronos Quartet, and more.
Finally, Looking Forward collects 22 post-Big Star tracks by Bell, six previously unissued. These encompass Bell’s solo efforts, which, along with Chilton’s A Man Called Destruction, will be reissued in various expanded editions later this year.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.