In the entire narrative history of rock & roll music, there is perhaps no other band that best personifies the concept of glorious failure than Big Star. This is a band whose story has come to represent something far greater than one any guitar band who, whilst at their creative peak, never sold enough records to commercially merit much of a place at the top table of the bands of the 1970s. But, whilst the comet that was Big Star might have brief and largely unhappy, it led left a particularly long tail. More than forty years on from the release of their debut album they have an influence that many of their contemporaries who sold tens or or even hundreds of times as many records as they ever did could ever claim to have done.
This is the band that could have been, should have been and, in most parallel universes with any sense, would have been. Success had come early to Alex Chilton, who, at the age of sixteen, had been thrust into the limelight when his band The Box Tops sailed to the top of the American charts with the still fondly remembered “The Letter.” With the formation of Big Star, Chilton was breaking free from the shackles of the commercial end of the recording industry, but this was still a band with a clear pop sensibility. By 1972, it might have been reasonable to assume that the world was ready for Big Star, but it was upon the release of their debut album that their story began to unravel.
The band had signed a recording deal with Ardent Records, a small label recently taken under the wings of the Stax soul label, but Stax was not equipped for an album of this nature. Radio play was limited, distribution was terrible, and when Stax agreed a deal with Columbia Records to try and get the album more effectively distributed, but the major label wasn’t interested and even went to the trouble of removing the few albums that had actually managed to make it to record shops from sale. Tensions within the band itself understandably rose, and after a series of physical fights, guitarist Chris Bell – who, for many Big Star fans, encapsulated the creative spirit of the band even more than Chilton did – left in November 1972.
Two more albums followed. “Radio City” was released the start of 1974 and was similarly lauded by critics, but by this time the relationship between Stax and Columbia was at breaking point, meaning that Columbia, who by this time had complete control of the Stax back catalogue, refused to process it, meaning that it sold just 20,000 copies. By the time of the release of the band’s third and final album, “Third/Sister Lovers,” tragedy was starting to brush against its cheek. The band had split upon completing the recording of this album at the end of 1974, and it took until 1978 for it to be released. Shortly after its release, Chris Bell was killed in a car crash. The Big Star story, we might reasonably have assumed, should have ended there.
Time, however, has a memory and Big Star were not easily forgotten, and the continuing acclaim of of the music press and the obvious influence over musicians from the mid-1980s on – in the film, Robyn Hitchcock describes their discography as “a letter that was posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985” – meant that the interest in the band never quite went away, and in 1993 they reunited. After a little more than a decade, a final album, “In Space”, was released in 2005, and the band remained sporadically active until bass guitarist Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton died within four months of each other in 2010. Finally, the curtain might finally come down on this most unique of bands.
Fanatics, however, are seldom easily put off. It is perhaps unsurprising that “Nothing Can Hurt Me” is a labour of love that started four years ago with a Kickstarter campaign. Yet for all the extraordinariness of the band’s story, the very nature of that story causes problems issues which directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori can only partly address. A lack of commercial success and the fact that Big Star was a band who existed largely in the studio rather than on the road means that archive footage of the band itself is thin on the ground, and this, coupled with the fact that all bar one of the original members of the band were dead by the time of its release, means that “Nothing Can Hurt Me” is largely dependent on talking heads in order to maintain its narrative structure. The fact that many of those interviewed came from a small circle in Memphis leaves the viewer with the impression that we are very much looking in on the story of Big Star from the outside.
For all of that, though, “Nothing Can Hurt Me” maintains a striking intimacy and affection for its subject. The musician talking heads that pepper it – including Matthew Sweet, REM’s Mike Mills and Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub – talk of Big Star as being an intensely personal experience, and they talk about the band with the misty-eyed love of genuine fans. And, whilst it might have been extremely difficult to reflect the tensions that the band felt within itself as the world around it started to fall apart, this is skilfully achieved whilst never painting any of the individuals concerned into the corner of being right or wrong. It’s a difficult tightrope walk to maintain, and for all the problems outlined above, “Nothing Can Hurt Me” remains a work that makes the best of the limited resources at its disposal.
Perhaps, though, getting an introduction to Big Star through a documentary isn’t quite the right way to experience this band. There are some bands in the world for whom the visual is very much a part of the overall experience of them. The Flaming Lips, two members of which also turn up in “Nothing Can Hurt Me,” are a striking example of this. Big Star, on the other hand, are a band to be listened to rather than looked at, possibly to be best enjoyed through a decent set of speakers and in a darkened room. What is notable about the production of both “Number One Album” and “Radio City” is how intimate they sound. The drums are punched right into the centre of the mix, and Chilton’s plaintive voice could well be coming from the other side of the room that you’re in when you’re listening to it.
It’s a somewhat nebulous idea to have to come to terms with, but life isn’t fair, and the story of Big Star, whether told through “Nothing Can Hurt Me” or their three original studio albums, is, perhaps, proof that there are few arenas in which this is more true than in the cut-throat world of popular music. Had circumstances been different, perhaps songs of the exquisite fragility of “September Gurls” or “Thirteen” might have been million selling singles. This is a band with a rich legacy, and “Nothing Can Hurt Me” is confirmation that this legacy is being tended by people who carry a deep emotional attachment to this most idiosyncratic of bands. Whether these idiosyncrasies are best served by a documentary telling their story is open to debate. Fans will love it – as I did – but those looking for a primer in one of popular music’s more extraordinary and saddest stories may be better advised to hunt down their three albums, listen to them alone and in a darkened room, build the emotional connection that so many others have with them, and then fill in the gaps should they wish to by watching this. There is a story worth telling about Big Star, but this shouldn’t obscure the beauty, elegance and simplicity of their music.
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