They say things come in threes. You know usually bad things like celebrity deaths and bad news from family. I have also noticed this trend with influential rock musicians and their uncanny habit of releasing three albums and then vanishing. First you have Jimi Hendrix. Three of the most influential albums of all time released in a span of 18 months and then gone. (Granted there have been about 128 posthumously released recordings but none are full Experience albums). Then there was The Velvet Underground. The band that launched a thousand garage bands also three albums. (Well five really but once Lou left the band..)
This occurred to me while watching “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.” Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori directed this feature length documentary released in theaters a few years ago but like the band’s history, it has languished until a release on the major streaming services like Netflix, which is where I caught up with it.
The band Big Star was always an enigma for music fans and this well paced film answers a lot of questions. For years they seemed to be more of an imaginary band then truly an existing four piece based in Memphis, Tennessee; however, with the chronological timeline of this rockumentary you begin to see how bad luck followed this band like the great melodies they found in the Ardent Studios.
The band was a collaboration between the tormented genius Chris Bell and the rock prodigy Alex Chilton. Chilton formed the band just weeks after calling it quits as lead singer of The Box Tops. As a 16 year old, he had stepped into a recording studio for the very first time in his life and sang “The Letter.” This international hit launched his career and after an exhaustive few years and hundreds of performances, he bailed on the band and formed Big Star in the heat of Memphis’ extraordinary music scene. Chris Bell on the other hand was a reclusive genius who toddled in the studio for hours. Finally emerging with encyclopedia knowledge of sounds based on the soul rooted in the hometown Stax records.
The two musicians managed to find each other and used their unlimited access to the Ardent studio to deliver a seminal piece of rock they ironically called “Number One Record.” Although the band found significant chemistry and success in the studio that they turned into a laboratory of sound, their fate outside amongst the record buying public failed miserably. Much of this was out of their hands and the saga of failed promotion, bad distribution and horrific timing make up the drama of this film as it relates the ultimate in frustrated artists.
The band that took their name from the grocery store across the street from the studio never lived up to their moniker mostly as a result of circumstance not talent. Their first two albums received near universal acclaim from the increasingly influential rock critics including the revered Lester Bangs, however due to record company incompetence, fans couldn’t even buy the record. Poor distribution deals and unrelated lawsuits keep an anxious record buying populist at bay and out of luck. At the time of its initial release in 1972, the album was near impossible to find at local record stores and their legendary second album “Radio City,” was never even shipped from the warehouse.
This is not a tale with a happy ending as most of the key characters are now gone and the band, though extremely influential to a generation of bands like R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and The Replacements, still have not really sold many copies of their albums even after being re-released by Rhino Records. They deserved a better fate.