2013 is a better time to be a Big Star fan than any time since the band was actually around. For years, their three albums — #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers — drifted in and out of print (to this day, nobody can completely agree on the correct running order for Third). These days, all three are consistently available, along with a fascinating box set, several live collections and the brand new compilation Nothing Can Hurt Me, which contains a set of alternate takes and mixes of Big Star classics to go along with the excellent new documentary of the same name.
Given their relatively slim output, it is tough to find Big Star songs you literally don’t know; rather, there are plenty of weird alternate takes and live versions that are worth exploring.
“In the Street (Movie Mix)”
It sounds anathema, but it is kind of cool to hear this power-pop staple given a big, slick, modern-sounding mix, especially given its prominence as The Big Star Song Everyone Knows thanks to Cheap Trick's cover of it, which served as the theme song to That '70s Show." Here, it sound more than ever like a radio hit that never was.
“Thank you Friends (Demo)”
It is possible to wander around the Big Star rarities vault and piece together a pretty fantastic acoustic album of their skeletal demos. The studio version from Third/Sister Lovers is best known for a bright electric riff and its gospel-ish background singers. This one is just Alex and guitar, turning the celebration into a spare, thoughtful elegy.
Alex Chilton had essentially three careers: one belting blue-eyed R&B with the Box Tops using a soulful voice that did not sound like it belonged to a teenager; for Big Star, he used a more Beatle-ish singing voice, while in his erratic-yet-oft-brilliant solo career, his vocals sometimes had a just-fell-outta-bed-quality. This cover manages to sound like all three — his most famous Box Tops song, covered by Big Star, but sounding rough enough that it could pass for "Like Flies..."-era Alex. Seriously odd.
This, the first track from a 1974 radio set, finds the band sounding faintly exhausted. Dreams have not panned out, the band is coming apart. Hummell, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, has returned to college, replaced by John Lightman. There is something very smiling-through-the-pain about this performance — the end is very effin' neigh.
Like "Thank You Friends," the original version of this song is one of the hide-the-knives classics on Third/Sister Lovers, bolstered by piano and cello. Here, it's piano and voice only; the results are both stately and almost as dark for their formality.
“My Life is Right”
A Chris Bell song from #1 Record and one that is both one of the most flagrantly Beatles-ish tunes on the album (those harmonies! those drum rolls!), one that sounds completely of a piece with the '70s' more baroque pop artists (hello, Todd Rundgren). Not to be confused with East River Pipe's equally gorgeous, equally jangle-driven "My Life is Wrong."
“O My Soul alternate version”
One of the things that's proven so inspiring about Big Star is how well constructed the songs are, even if their recorded versions can often sound like a stick has been shoved rather far up the various players' behinds, if you will. This take on "O My Soul" starts with a solid minute and 20 seconds of pure garage rock before crashing into the oddly proggy guitar pop we know and love.
“All We Ever Got from Them was Pain”
Technically a Chilton solo song, this demo hails from the 1969/70 era, when Chilton had left the Box Tops and was finding his voice as a songwriter (a version is on the compilation Free Again: The 1970 Sessions) before Big Star came together. Traffic sounds in the background lend this heartbreaker a very man-alone-in-his-apartment feel. Gorgeous stuff — impossibly sad and lonely.
Speaking of covers, T-Rex's bubblegum glam rock sounds pretty much perfect when hacked out by these guys, a trio of Chilton, Hummell and Stephens playing in front of a crowd waiting for Archie Bell and the Drells in 1973. (No, really.) Chilton kept this cover in his set over the year, and it's no wonder.
“I’m In Love With a Girl”
"I'm in love with a girl/ the finest girl in the world." Chilton boils it down in 1:48. One of the all-time great mixtape starter or enders. Maybe the girl knows he exists and maybe she doesn't. Either way, he has, as the kids say, all of the feels.