If the name Chris Bell is unfamiliar to you, you’ve probably yet to delve into the rich catalog of pioneering ’70s power-pop outfit Big Star, one of rock’s most beloved underdogs. Big Star is yet another one of those talented and innovative bands that sadly never quite broke into the mainstream, largely thanks to a combination of bad luck and bad distribution.
The Memphis-based group — originally comprised of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton on guitar and lead vocals, Andy Hummel on bass, and Jody Stephens on drums — only produced three studio albums — #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers — as core band members gradually departed with each new release. Despite some great reviews, Big Star simply couldn’t accrue the record sales to back them up, and finally, with only Chilton and Stephens left standing, the group disbanded altogether before their final record even went to press.
As tragic as this story may sound, Big Star’s extraordinary efforts did not go wholly unnoticed. Record collectors and music lovers around the world have fought through the years to keep them from becoming just another cruel casualty of the music business. Since their 1974 breakup, Big Star has enjoyed a fiercely dedicated following, critical accolades from a slew of major publications, successful reunions in the ’90s and 2000s, and admiring nods from musicians as wide-ranging as R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Kiss’ Paul Stanley.
Unfortunately, the band’s co-founder, Chris Bell, never got the chance to appreciate much of the acclaim. In December 1978, he was instantly killed in a car accident on his way home from a rehearsal at the infamous age of 27. Whereas his former bandmate Alex Chilton had decades to carve out a distinguished career in the post-Big Star years, producing a slew of eccentric records and offbeat live shows, there’s no such expansive catalog of material for Bell, though he was just as integral to crafting Big Star’s signature sound. Even Bell’s lone solo LP, I Am the Cosmos, remained unreleased for nearly 14 years after his death.
So who exactly was this talented, ill-fated artist? Omnivore’s soon-to-be-released 22-track compilation of Bell’s pre-Big Star work strives to help answer that question. These recordings, pulled from the archives at Ardent Records, feature Bell alongside future Big Star members and other key cohorts as they noodled around in the studio and unknowingly began to chisel out a sound that would eventually impact the music world.
Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star offers a rare glimpse inside Memphis’s Ardent Studios in the early 1970s, when Chris Bell and his high school friend and musical partner Steve Rhea were given the chance to learn the ropes and experiment with their own music. This time spent at Ardent not only resulted in the ultimate formation of Big Star but also in the eclectic projects presented on this compilation.
During their apprenticeship, Bell and Rhea worked within a community of musicians, including local singer, songwriter, and guitarist Tom Eubanks; singer-songwriter Alan Palmore of the Wallabys; engineer, producer and future Big Star session player Terry Manning; and of course, Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel, and Alex Chilton.
While we see multiple arrangements of these names throughout the credits, each track is often officially attributed to a particular project, predominantly Icewater and Rock City. This gives the impression of distinct bands when, in reality, the monikers tended to operate more as working titles under which Bell and his various collaborators recorded. Rather than keep track of which song is attributed to which project, the ordering of Looking Forward encourages us to approach them as pieces within a greater body that combine to tell one chapter of the Big Star story.
For those coming to Looking Forward hoping to hear a classic Big Star-style anthem, you won’t be disappointed. The opening track, “Think It’s Time to Say Goodbye” contains the full sound, feel-good hook, prominent guitar, and passionate expression of favorites such as “Feel” and “Don’t Lie to Me.” Considering the striking similarities, it’s surprising that this isn’t actually a Bell or Chilton composition, but is instead credited to Tom Eubanks — who also contributed some of the other most Big Star-like tracks here.
Moreover, it’s important to note that roughly half of the songs presented on this compilation were not, in fact, written by Chris Bell or any other Big Star members. Yet, we can see how performing and producing these tracks with their own inputs and interpretations helped to mold the band’s signature style well before the first Big Star sessions.
The following track — an immediately endearing tune called “All I See Is You” — also strays into Big Star territory, mirroring the more sentimental, introspective side of the future group and foretelling tunes like “Give Me Another Chance” and “Try Again.” In fact, an early version of “Try Again,” the first official Bell/Chilton collaboration, is also included here, as well as a preliminary cut of “My Life Is Right,” co-penned by Bell and Eubanks. Truthfully, neither sounds incredibly different from the final versions that would appear on #1 Record.
From here, however, Looking Forward begins to meander through some different phases. The strong influence of 1960s rock, particularly British Invasion and psychedelia, is explicit in a many of these recordings. “Feeling High” features a bouncy Beatles beat and quirky, “Penny Lane”-eqsue imagery, and despite being one of Alan Palmore’s pieces, alludes to Chris Bell’s love of the Fab Four. Likewise, Bell’s own 1969 experimental demo “Psychedelic Stuff” sounds like a zany British-born tune released in the wake of Sgt. Pepper and provides a glimpse at some of Bell’s earliest influences and stylings.
Although ’60s hangover pieces like these may initially seem far flung from Big Star’s timeless sound, let’s not forget that the roots of power pop do partially lie in the mod and Merseybeat records of yesteryear. What’s more, both Bell and Chilton frequently maintained a level of psychedelic dreaminess throughout Big Star’s tenure. “The India Song” and “St 100/6” on #1 Record slip into this mode, and after Bell’s departure, Chilton continued the trend with the drastic emotional shifts and hazy imagery of “Daisy Glaze” and the melancholy “Morpha Too” on Radio City. And let’s not even get into the otherworldly trip that is Third/Sister Lovers.
Not all of these tracks look strictly toward the last decade, though. Others are focused straight ahead to the 1970s and beyond, much like how Big Star and other power pop greats combined their retro influences with fresh new ideas. Great examples here include “The Answer,” which opens with an ethereal, almost mystical lyric that plunges into a heavy hard rock vibe. “I Lost a Love” carries a distinct Big Star attitude with its infectious energy and huge hook of a chorus, while the rocking “Chance to Live” somehow manages to echo punky early new wave before new wave even happened.
But what of Chris Bell’s more individual efforts? In the liner notes, Steve Rhea asserts that “Looking Forward” is pure Bell. Intentionally or not, Bell seems to channel Neil Young’s “Down By the River” with a haunting guitar and foreboding tone. Although it hardly resembles a typical Big Star track, this enchanting and intriguing mix shows an example of Bell honing his ability to create engrossing moods — an essential part of the Big Star formula.
Though the tracks on Looking Forward seem complete for the most part, the entertaining instrumental oddities that fill out the second half of the compilation remind us that these nascent cult stars were basically just a bunch of young guys messing around in the studio, throwing things at the wall and seeing what stuck. Some of their interesting musical tangents include “Introduction” and “Sunday Organ.” There are also a few backing tracks, most notably a very early one for Alex Chilton’s “Oh My Soul,” which in this form sounds almost like an entirely different song than the one that would later kick off Radio City.
All in all, it’s safe to say that Looking Forward will take you on a fascinating and sometimes surprising musical journey through the foundations of power pop’s favorite sons. But is it a rewarding journey for every music lover? Considering the voracity of most Big Star fans, this compilation will at the very least be appreciated by any die-hard aficionado looking to explore something past the original three studio albums.
On the other hand, if you’re a Big Star newcomer, you should probably listen to #1 Record and Radio City before giving this compilation a go. While non-fans can still enjoy these songs, the selections will make more sense once you understand what exactly they all were building toward.
It should also be noted that some of these tracks have previously been released as parts of other compilations, deluxe editions, and box sets, so depending on your pre-existing collection, you may want to look through the tracklist to see what you already have. Re-contextualizing these songs by grouping them together, however, does allow for new insight into Big Star’s trajectory.
Plus, it’s worth checking out the interviews with Bell’s Ardent collaborators, as well as the backstory behind these recordings, all of which are featured in the liner notes. The compilation also makes a nice companion to Omnivore’s 2012 release, Free Again: The 1970 Sessions, which details the solo work Alex Chilton was doing at Ardent around this same time. You can even imagine Looking Forward‘s “Shine On Me” being sung by Chilton himself, in his soulful Box Tops growl.
Though Looking Forward at first seems intended to highlight Chris Bell’s early work in the way that Free Again did for Chilton, it actually ends up making a slightly different point. While we do get to see Bell’s influences and musical growth throughout these tracks, instead of focusing squarely on his personal contributions, Looking Forward emphasizes Bell’s essential role as a driving force within the cotillion of creative musicians working at Ardent Studios in the early 1970s, from which Big Star would soon emerge.
While skilled artists can always produce outstanding art on their own, just as Chilton and Bell both did after Big Star, this collection illustrates how, when a few determined individuals come together with the right ideas at the right place and the right time, they can come up with something completely new, different, and even groundbreaking.
This is how Big Star worked, and we have Chris Bell to thank for adding his invaluable hand to the mix and giving us music that will continue to resound long past his brief lifetime.
Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star is out July 7 from Omnivore Records. Pre-order your copy here.