By Edd Hurt
To ask why power pop flourished in Memphis three decades ago is to ask the wrong question. This is because power pop has never flourished anywhere. For a style that is founded upon the innovations of immensely popular groups like the Beatles, the Byrds and The Who, it has been, at its best, something of a non-populist art form. And at its most popular (Cheap Trick, the Knack), power pop has been just another kind of rock music, more melodic than most, but lacking the strangeness and melancholy present in the work of the subgenre’s greatest artists.
Since power pop eludes easy definition, making any kind of critical assessment of the music has been difficult. In a 1978 issue of his Bomp! magazine devoted to the style, Greg Shaw casts a rather wide net, including groups as disparate as the Ramones and the Sweet along with The Raspberries, Badfinger and Big Star. To say, as Shaw does, that all power pop derives from The Who is to ignore what may be the Ur-power-pop statement, the Everly Brothers’ 1966 Two Yanksin England, a brilliant, neglected (and recently reissued) record featuring songs by the Hollies, and a work that one-ups the Beatles by putting a peculiarly Southern American spin—lost, melancholy, subtly tortured—on the basic formula.
Big Star, the Memphis band led by Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, are the group whose early ’70s albums go a step further and define power pop as a synthesis of British pop music and the West Coast post-folk-rock of the Buffalo Springfield, Gene Clark and Moby Grape, with an admixture of the spare, oblique style of Stax Records. And like the Everlys’ Two Yanks in England, Big Star’s albums give the Beatles back to Americans. As writer Richard Meltzer once told an interviewer, “Big Star is the cypher, is the means, through which most bands today who are influenced by the Beatles get their dose of the British Invasion.” Big Star’s story, like Moby Grape’s five years earlier, is a tale of failure and defeat, of intransigence combined with an almost unhealthy pop sense, and of critical acclaim eventually opening the door to a larger, but still limited, popular acceptance.
The publication of a Big Star biography almost simultaneous with the release of the band’s first full-length studio recording in 31 years poses some interesting questions. Rob Jovanovic’s Big Star: The Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop (A Cappella Books/Chicago Review Press) goes some way toward clarifying the story of the band. But can a rock biography really work without a point of view, however eccentric or wrongheaded that might be? And similarly, Big Star’s new In Space leads one to ask the inevitable question: can a group whose legend is founded upon failure and defeat reinvent itself without the very qualities that have lured so many listeners into the shadows?
A British writer who has published biographies of Pavement and R.E.M., Jovanovic has done a fine job of research, and he writes competently. He has compensated for the lack of participation by Big Star singer and guitarist Chilton, or co-leader Bell (who died at 27 in a car crash), by amassing an extensive array of materials. And he provides impressive sketches of the other players—everyone from Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel (along with Chilton and Bell, the original members of the band) to producers and engineers John Fry, Jim Dickinson and Terry Manning.
Where Jovanovic puts a foot wrong is in the opening sentence of the book: “Unlike many U.S. cities, Memphis has a rich and varied history.” Michael Bane, in his examination of Memphis music White Boy Singin’ the Blues, lays it out far better: “Memphis has no history, at least not one it wants to remember.” It is this ahistorical quality—this need to forget—that informs both Big Star’s Radio City (a record about being trapped in a red-ceilinged room with some booze, a lot of drugs, a girl and a Kama Sutra picture taped to the wall) and Third (which subverts the pop-confessional mode with endless overlays of strings, Mellotrons and over-amplified guitars).
As do far too many writers on what are, after all, works of musical art, Jovanovic offers little in the way of real musical analysis, characterizing the opening of Radio City’s “O My Soul” as “fifty seconds of twisted guitar work, down-home organ riffs and some creative drumming from Jody Stephens.” In fact, the opening of “O My Soul” is nothing more than chromatic major-sixth chords, and it’s a Mellotron heard here, not an organ. The Big Star albums are a study both in the use of chromaticism (the opening riffs of both “Feel” and “In the Street”) and in the use of the major sixth (the middle section of “Life Is White” and the post-Stax guitar lines of “Mod Lang,” not to mention Andy Hummel’s Duck Dunn-meets-Paul McCartney bass figures).
But as a straight history of the band (and of the subsequent careers of Chilton, Bell and everyone involved), Jovanovic’s book has considerable merit. He gives us a portrait of Memphis kids, besotted with the Beatles, who were given the opportunity to perfect their art untroubled by studio or label interference, or indeed, at times, by the outside world. As engineer Terry Manning says, “It was a time when we could stay up all night, with a sense of being into the music and trying new things, which if the truth be told was more like trying to copy the Beatles. But they were trying to copy the things that Stax and other Memphis musicians were doing on my own doorstep.” In Ardent Studios founder John Fry, they had their George Martin, albeit one who cut his teeth working with Johnnie Taylor rather than with Peter Sellers. Both Chris Bell and Jody Stephens would eventually meet Paul McCartney.
Jovanovic is strong on the recording of 1974’s Third, a record that became producer Jim Dickinson’s most famous work, and one that profoundly unsettled everyone he shopped it to. “This record makes me feel very uncomfortable,” Atlantic Records exec Jerry Wexler said at the time. Jovanovic describes how the relentlessly experimental and fractious Chilton subverted Jon Tiven’s attempts to produce what became 1981’s Bach’s Bottom, and the author doesn’t even dismiss, as do many critics, Chilton’s infamous 1979 Like Flies on Sherbert, a record of truly desiccated glamour.
But what’s missing here is a vision of how Big Star’s music—rhythmically savvy, impeccably recorded and ultimately despairing—works as art. The classicism of #1 Record gives way to the mannerism of Radio City, which seems almost normal compared to the mania and unbearable lyricism of Third. The careers of Chris Bell (makes pop masterpiece, meets McCartney, dies suddenly) and Alex Chilton (who as a young man sat at the feet of Carl Wilson and Roger McGuinn) shadow pop-music history while silently making it, and Big Star’s music calls into question the very idea of youth and exuberance.
In Space, which is due from Ryko Sept. 27, calls nothing into question, and is in fact one of the most puzzling reunion albums in recent memory. Well, maybe not that puzzling—for an encore at their 1993 reunion show in Columbia, Mo., Chilton insisted upon doing a cover of Gene Chandler’s “The Duke of Earl.” And it was pretty entertaining, even if new Big Star members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (of The Posies) didn’t seem to know the song. Anyway, it’s safe to say that no band of Big Star’s magnitude could conceive, let alone pull off, something as simple and spare as the T. Rex-Chuck Berry shuffle of In Space’s “A Whole New Thing,” or could combine banality and an utterly confident command of rock ’n’ roll basics as effectively as they do on the magnificent cover of the Olympics’ “Mine Exclusively.”
Still, for the guys who invented this stuff, they sound, if not exactly inhibited, a trifle cautious. There’s never that moment when pop formalism sounds ready to come off the rails, and for all their considerable skill (Jody Stephens remains the quintessential power-pop drummer) they seem content to mine the genre. True, “Lady Sweet” and “Best Chance We’ve Ever Had” are models of classicism and show that the Posied Big Star still possess an ease and unhurried mastery that set them apart from their countless epigones. Their Beach Boys tribute “Turn My Back on the Sun” is charming enough; “Love Revolution,” which is an attempt at avant-Archie Bell & the Drells, reveals their roots in soul. In Space is mostly a triumph of style over substance, and power pop, like all significant art, has always flourished in that arena where the two grapple for supremacy.