The story of Big Star is the very definition of “cult band.” Born slightly out of time, delivering sparkling British Invasion-inspired pop several years after it fell out of vogue, their music went largely unheard during their existence.
However, like their contemporaries The Velvet Underground, their recordings have had a remarkable afterlife and gathered many acolytes who gleefully spread the word about Memphis’ best kept secret. With0ut Big Star, the careers of R.E.M., The Replacements, The Posies, The dBs, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and scores of others would have been significantly altered if they existed at all.
On the occasion of the re-release of the Big Star boxed set, Keep An Eye On The Sky, I spoke with drummer and sole surviving original band member Jody Stephens about the group’s enduring legacy.
In the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Memphis was a hotbed for British Invasion-inspired bands. What do you think caused this convergence of power pop?
I don’t know. I would think that the British Invasion swept through the whole U.S. population as did soul music just after that. I think everyone was pretty taken with both. I can’t speak for Cargoe or bands like The Scruffs. I just know I was a huge Beatles and Rolling Stones fan along with The Kinks, Badfinger, Procol Harum, and many others. People with like interests tend to connect and I think that’s why Chris and Andy and I got together initially. I think Alex was a fan of that music, too, and he came on board to due to our similar music interests.
Was there a particular record that caught your ear and made you think, “I want to create something like that”?
Any Beatles album! It doesn’t matter which one, they were all pretty inspirational.
At the same time you’re listening to this inspirational music, you have Ardent, one of the top studios in the country, at your disposal. How much did Ardent and, particularly, its owner and chief engineer/producer John Fry shape the sound of Big Star?
John Fry was everything about the sound. First he made sure the instruments—drums, guitars, bass—sounded good on their own. You can’t make a good recording if you don’t start with a good base sound. Outside of that, the way John captured those songs in the engineering process just added that extra bit of sparkle. I think that Big Star’s music is still relevant because of the way John Fry captured it on tape.