Mar 192010

No disrespect whatsoever meant to Alex Chilton and Big Star, but this may be a good time to poke you and set myself up for ridicule. Why Big Star was the power pop band for rock nerds who didn’t like power pop?

I don’t know what it’s like today, but I’m pretty sure the rock nerd world has changed a lot since the early 1980s, when Big Star and Chilton’s legacies were making up for lost time in the critical and underground/”college rock” realm. People like myself, who grew up with a Beatles-based pop basis, easily dug those Big Star albums that were surfacing from years of obscurity. What at first seemed promising, though, was that rock nerds who were into heavier, noisier, or more cock rock-based stuff – and who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Badfinger let alone any Beatles album except the experimental stuff on The White Album were also digging Big Star. “Hey,” I remember thinking as a college freshman, “this slightly menacing hipster guy may now think I’m cool too for liking [insert power pop band of your choice]!” Yep, the Steve Albini characters of the world who were as excited about Big Star as I was would no longer scoff at my love for Stands for Decibels.

No dice! I was still a pop-loving pussy and they were still cooler than I’d ever be. Come to think of it, beside these hipsters savoring the novelty of Chilton transitioning from a band like The Box Tops, I don’t recall much love for The Box Tops, no high fives were directed toward me from these types for my childhoold love for “The Letter,” “Cry Like a Baby,” and a lot of other bubblegum Memphis soul tunes from that era.

Who knows, though. Maybe I read the whole situation wrong and I simply needed to pay my dues. I mean, I have come around on a lot of stuff I didn’t like when these guys I used to know were taking the time to try to show me the way.

Big Star’s not the only band I’ve felt this way about – and again, I really like Big Star. It took me years to warm up to Funkadelic, for instance, because I harbored my own reverse snobbism that they were a “check-box band” (ie, checking off a box to preserve some rock nerd cred: “Sure I like soul music – I love Funkadelic!”) for white rock fans who didn’t bother to appreciate music by black pop musicians other than Jimi Hendrix while growing up. Certainly it’s offensive and distasteful to admit that I still harbor some of these feelings regarding rock snobs who dig Funkadelic, but who would we be if we couldn’t come clean about our own prejudices now and then?

So what do you think? Did you notice Big Star getting a “pass” among a certain generation of rock hipsters who otherwise don’t have the time of day for a jangly pop band singing about unrequited love? Have you ever felt there’s a band that seem to be the sole representative of their genre for people who don’t otherwise like that genre?

I look forward to your thoughts, and I trust that we will be understanding about the candid admissions that may follow from this thread.


  28 Responses to “Why Was Big Star the Power Pop Band for Rock Nerds Who Didn’t Like Power Pop?”

  1. There’s a mixture of nice guy and flat-out dick in Big Star & Chilton’s music that makes their appeal considerably thornier than your average power pop band. There’s real romanticism and heart in there, but churlishness and diffidence, too. Sometimes, there are both in the same line. “I loved you, well… never mind.”

  2. Mr. Moderator

    Good rationale, sourbob. And I should have noted: I’m nowhere near the word’s biggest power pop fan. To set this up I needed to make it clear that I truly am a ’60s pop-based guy, but by sophomore year I realized that my own interest in ’70s power pop would have its limits.

    I realize now that using Albini as an example here overlooked the fact that he likes Cheap Trick, the other somewhat power pop band that dudes who don’t like pop music tend to rally around. I think those of us of a certain age know what kind of rock nerd I’m talking about, right?

  3. mockcarr

    I think I’m only a year younger than you, but I’m having a difficult time imagining what a cock-rock nerd would be like. I guess I didn’t pay enough attention to hipsters or something.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    mockcarr, the quickest description that you may understand is a hipster version of a young mwall:)

  5. mockcarr

    OK, that’s a bit better, because all I was thinking of was Beavis and Butthead.

  6. BigSteve

    Isn’t part of the appeal of power pop its anti-machismo? It’s boyish, even fey. I think of it as partly an antidote to the lunkheadedness of rock and punk. I guess that’s the more pop end of power pop. Cheap Trick put the power at the forefront.

    Big Star has some crunch, especially on the second album, but the Chris Bell version of the band is softer. I think maybe the real nerd appeal of the band was its fucked-upness, which comes to dominate on the third album, but it was always there.

  7. Mr. Moderator

    Yes, BigSteve, the “fucked-upness” of Big Star definitely helps. Contrast it with all the “let’s pretend everything’s groovy (or that she ever really went out with me before dumping me in the first place)” power pop bands that some of us want to stop in midsong, grab their Rickenbackers, and smash them against the wall, like Bluto does to that folkie on the steps in Animal House.

  8. misterioso

    Mod, I am going to have to take a pass on the self-identity issues implicit in your intro, at least for the moment.

    What it all gets down to for me is this. While I like my share of power pop, so called, Big Star was bigger than the genre and better than almost all of the practitioners of it. (Though I think if Badfinger had only made 3 or 4 records and were seen as less Beatle-dependent they might have a strong claim for the same kind of status.)

    There are many performers or bands who can be identified with a particular genre–a genre which one might love or hate or take-or-leave–who simply rise above it, or simply dwarf it. Can Dylan’s 65-66 output be lumped in with “folk-rock”? Sure, but so can a lot of crap. It is so far beyond genre it did so much to give birth to that it’s silly.

    The Clash were a punk band–okay, true enough, but they outgrew the genre.

    And so on. I am sure everyone has their own examples.

    So while I understand the identification of Big Star with what is called power pop, that is just a (retrospective) way of marketing the music and really doesn’t mean much.

    So, my advice–which I know you have been waiting for with bated breath–is to screw the genre labels and the hipsters alike.

    I know what you’re thinking, but it’s okay–you’re welcome!

  9. Mr. Moderator

    There’s no getting around my self-identity issues, misterioso. Sorry to have burdened anyone with them, but unfortunately that comes with the territory.

    Good point about the continued retrospective marketing of Big Star and other bands who probably did not foresee themselves as being godfathers of offspring they may rather not know had ever been sprung.

  10. larry

    Move on already, mod, you know the reasons. Their loveable loser appeal has legs. You can’t put your arms around a raspberry.

  11. I know it’s nothing new to put labels on things… walk through any grocery store, listen to any blogger emphasize comparisons i.e. like: as:…
    I am going to try and avoid the tags and simply say Alex walked his own line, as I was reminded when Alex went missing after Katrina. Talking with Alex was like warming up your car. It took a few minutes to loosen Alex into a conversation, but you were always rewarded with a quip, a quirk, a smile, a wink. That is the Alex that I remember. Not so much the A-side Box Tops, but the B-side Alex songs and the Chris, Alex, Jody, Andy with John Fry’s solid production in those fabled halls of Memphis Ardent Studios. There are no labels big enough to play on my car stereo for Alex and friends. Nor are there any loud enough to drown out the void Alex has left us with. Rock Hard, Alex. I’m buying the next round.

  12. Very well said, Curt. Your words are spot-on.

    There’s a coworker of mine who grapples with this “power pop” label. He’s a GREAT guitarist who has a mind capable of anything (He works in our IT department). Therein lies the problem: He can’t grasp the idea of what this genre is. He prefers to think of artists like Tom Petty or Chris Isaak as power pop (“They play pop music. The use jangly guitars. They have harmonies.”). I can’t quite get him to understand the concept of the genre. By strict definitions, Tom may be power pop, but everyone knows he’s not a power pop artist.

    My coworker seems to think that it’s some sort of super secret club that is exclusive to anyone who has an adversity to radio success (Kinda like hard core indie rock enthusiasts). I don’t know about all that, but it does show the fundamental problem with such labels.

    Personally, if you wanted to label Big Star’s music as “dumpster juice,” I would love it all the same. Those records reached in a resonated with me in such a way that I can’t really explain. Reading what many of you have written hear, I sense that they are the same with you.

    There’s a magic in those Big Star records plain and simple. Like The Beatles, I think it was a combination of personalities, times, and talent.


  13. Wow. I need to check my stuff before I click submit. Sorry, Townspeople…

    “Those records reached in and resonated with me…Reading what many of you have written HERE…”

    I promise that I was not trying to be clever. Maybe those mono Beatles have got me off balance.


  14. As far as the Beatle mono LP’s… try listening to only the left channel next time, all will be made clearer!

    Personalities, time and talent… shades of the Beatles!

    It’s funny, too, that almost any band that I put in that illustrious category without a label has very distinctive band members, heck you even remember each band members’ name! Who knows, maybe even their astrological sign!

    As far as I am concerned, the music is for anybody that wants to take the time to listen. If you want to dig deeper, then you’ll eventually discover bands like Big Star! Starting with Big Star is like starting at the Pot of Gold and working your way back to the leprechaun!

    Sorry, man, I think I feel Alex smirking…

  15. Mr. Moderator

    Welcome aboard, curtism, and great stuff. Glad you found us. Don’t be a stranger!

  16. I’ve always maintained that the magic/brilliance/whatever of The Beatles was the combination of those personalities (I usually include George Martin). I used to hear things like, “Paul was the brilliant one,” or “John was the brains,” or “Ringo was the weak link.” As time wore on, I came to realize that it wasn’t always about John and Paul. It wasn’t that George chipped in occasionally with a decent tune. I fully believe that had those four exact people not been together, then it would have never been the same. They each had a certain hand in whatever magical sounds came from those records. This was further evidenced by their subsequent solo careers. To give all the credit to one or two individuals takes away from the essence of what makes them GREAT.

    It’s as though God said, “If we’re gonna have rock n roll music, we may as well have The Beatles.”


  17. We are in too much agreement here! What was it that one of those 70’s Beatles books said…”George always looked like he had bad breath”… Sorry, just adding a two-second memory into the mix about the Beatles’ personalities… I also include Billy Preston in the mix, just because… after all he is given a full credit on the singles from Let It Be! (I am in no way leaving out the tremendous value George Martin produced whereas the Beatles are concerned… without George Martin… it goes without saying)!

    Interesting thought occured to me while reading the many thoughts of Alex Chilton’s passing, comparing Chris Bell and Alex to John Lennon and Paul McCartney… if that is the case, which one was John and which one is Paul? They never go that far with their explanations.

    Personally, Big Star was like the Beatles in another way… they were bigger than the sum of their individual parts… again with that time and place.

    To all things melodic and lyrical…

  18. Mr. Moderator

    curtism, if you’re about as new to the Halls of Rock as you are to commenting here, you may have missed this thread, on bands with top-to-bottom rock superhero powers:

  19. MM… hmmm… I don’t want to mix comic books and music, though I do remember earlier in the 70s’ that many record stores had a comic book room too. Like Wuxtry’s in Athens, or Eides in Pittsburgh…

    I won’t go into how many comic books that I own.

    I really want go into how many comics that I have owned…

    To name names… Peter Buck told me once that a Good Song is a Good Song, when I asked him why they were playing Midnight Blue by Lou Gramm. I had to agree (especially as I liked the song).

    Forgive me, Mal…

  20. I’d say Power Pop as a concept really can’t exist before the mid-70’s, it’s in many ways a flip side of the punk reaction to what had become of Rock and Roll. So Big Star was too early to truly be Power Pop. They seem to be creating, not recreating. Also the Memphis roots nicely offset any potentially embarassing anglophilic posturing.

  21. Personally there are so few bands that I’d give the moniker “power pop” that I really don’t see it’s current usage…

    Geo, as to your thought about “creating, not recreating”, I’d not thought of it that way. I listened to the music, the tempo, the lyrics and the general way it was played (lacklustre versus really believing in the tune)… only a few bands convinced me enough to pin that name on them.

    Of course, live is a different story. Pop could become more “powerful” when played live. My true test of pop music was always if I found myself humming it (or, hope no one hears this), I found myself singing it after the song ended! Yes, there’s more to music than that, especially music we feel passionate about! But if I remembered it enough to sing it afterwards, well, that was something!

    I think of Badfinger as powerful pop and they came before Big Star. Pete, Tommy, Joey and Mike (Mick) were outright stars in my playbook. Mix in their knack for pacing songs and playing well… good stuff indeed.

    Big Stars’ Memphis roots and homespun tunes always made me feel welcome should I ever get to Memphis… that and an hour or two of Al Green preaching might be just about right…

  22. jeangray

    The first album I ever purchased by Big Star was “Third/Sister Lovers” when it was released on CD in the early 90’s.

    I had read for years about how they were the godfathers of power pop, but that album did not sound like power pop or any other type of pop for that matter, to my ears.

    I later purchased the first two albums, and was dissapointed that they did not offer Third’s druggy, psychotic ambience, but I enjoyed them jus’ the same. Still none of it sounded much like power pop to me. The closest song was “You Get What You Deserve.” I really felt like the power pop tag, was some serious musik critic mis-labling.

    Power pop to me has always been Cheap Trick, the Knack, the Romantics, a lot of Todd Rundgren/Utopia’s stuff, hell even Matthew Sweet & the Posies amongst many others. All these groups my claim Big Star as an influence, but I jus’ don’ hear it in their recorded output.

    I hear Big Star/Alex Chilton as one of those fairly unique artists for whom there isn’t much precedence in popular musiks. I can’t even come up with someone to compare Alex to. From the Box Tops to Big Star to his solo stuff, he sounds like completely different artists. How many musicians can you say that about?

    As for the title of this thread. I never even met another Big Star fan, besides those Posies guys until the late 90’s. I went to one of the biggest universities in my state in the 80’s, was a college DJ & semi professsional musician and still never saw any Big Star love until well into the 90’s. But I sure read a lot of mainstream critics talking about how great they were. Perhaps it’s an East Coast thing, but dude your college experience was way different then mine.

    Then again I may have been that “slightly menacing hipster” person you were a-referencing.

  23. To Mod’s question, I think Chilton’s affiliation with the first Cramps records and the 70’s NY punk scene had a lot to do with 80’s bad-asses fresh from punk/hardcore boot-camp giving him the time of day. Legend has it that the Big Star records were considered one of those secret sacred relics like the Modern Lovers first LP among the early punk crowd. Add in the record-collector appeal and other-worldly brilliance of his “lost” Third/Sister Lovers album, his unhinged-sounding late-70s recordings such as Like Flies on Sherbert and you have a picture of a guy who fit in with the, uh, misfit nature of punk rock without necessarily sounding like what punk rock was supposed to sound like.

    So I think it was the obscurity of Big Star (relative to, say, the Raspberries or Badfinger) and the punk context of his post Big Star career that made it OK for post-punk motorheads to get behind Chilton and Big Star. Outside of this context, no way “Thirteen” or “When My Baby’s Beside Me” or even “Sept. Gurls” would have passed muster with this crowd.

  24. I’ve always found it interesting that Big Star was just ONE of the many musical outlets Chilton was involved in. Anyone who seeks out any of his solo outings will be surprised/disappointed that it sounds nothing like Big Star. I’ve always thought that Like Flies On Sherbert could have Big Star’s fourth. It takes us further down that road of tripped out 70s Memphis drug haze.

    Chilton could have easily settled into the power pop kingdom and stayed there, but he chose to keep moving forward (?). He made this incredible legacy of music in only one facet of his career. From the Box Tops to Big Star to punk/underground icon, no label could define him. I think you really nailed it, Jean.


  25. Mr. Moderator

    Barely on topic, but I just noticed the following performance of “The Letter,” a performance that no one seemed to post to Facebook the day Chilton died:

    What the HELL kind of guitar is being played in the background? It looks like that futuristic electric lute that one of the hippie guys on an old Star Trek played.

  26. BigSteve

    It looks like the “aeroplane” alluded to in the song.

    And btw the bored chick we see in the last frame of the video is priceless.

  27. The College Rock bands liked them, so the college rock fans followed like sheep (they happened to be good, but I find that more coincidence than anything else)

    Their “story” is very alt-rock which helps. Badfinger sold well for the 1st 4 records, the Raspberries and The Knack were very mainstream.

    I think it may be scientifically provable that dropping The Band, The Byrds or Big Star as an influence equals instant credibility.

  28. Power pop in itself suggests decent melodies, memorable lyrics, and the ability to mold all things musical into a tapestry of sound that just made you want to sing along, dance along, tap along, play along and start a band! It’s my kind of music.

    So much of Barock’s book, for instance, does not fit into my narrow focus of Power Pop. Sure a song on an album is power pop, but rarely the whole album. And that is perfect. I’d much prefer the sounds to change as I am listening through an album. Slow it down, speed it up, yell, scream, seduce, enchant, or sing a tender lullabye. It’s all good.

    On top of that, the ability to play their instruments, whether great or poorly just adds to the mystique. My steering wheel is my drum kit for much of the time!

    As far as Power Pop credibility, just because someone else likes it, doesn’t mean I will…. and vice versa. I can’t tell you how many copies I’ve given away of Ian Hunter’s “Rant” cd, or Fairport Conventions’ “What We Did On Our Holiday”… music is worth turning people onto… and you have to be open to being turned onto other people’s music… if it’s worth hearing you’ll know soon enough!

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