Big Star, 1971 in Alex Chilton’s Living Room. Pic: Tomas Utpen
This month saw the release of two anticipated box sets. One was the collection of remastered albums by The Beatles, and, in a case of perspicacious timing, a four CD career-spanning retrospective for a band who are vocal about the debt they owe to the Fab Four, power pop icons Big Star. Keep An Eye On The Sky (Rhino) collects a treasure trove of unreleased material – including early demos from before Alex Chilton joined the group, acoustic demos that Alex recorded for the troubled and troubling third album, as well as a stunning live set recorded in 1973. It’s a loving tribute to a band that whose short lifespan caused a wave of influence that can be heard in the work of everyone from R.E.M. and The Posies (a group whose co-frontmen are now members of a reconfigured Big Star lineup) to Primal Scream and Teenage Fanclub. Pampelmoose caught up with Jody Stephens, Big Star’s drummer and founding member, at Ardent Studios in Memphis to speak about the box set as well as the band’s history, legacy and future.
How does it feel to have all this material coming out in one big chunk like this?
It’s great. It’s a great little history book about Big Star both in audio and print. I like to call it a scrapbook. Rhino took a lot of care in putting this together. When i first saw it, I was just astonished. I mean, I was not even that big a part of it being put together. I came up with the name. John [Fry, owner of Ardent Studios] sent me an e-mail asking me to search through the Big Star songs to see if anything would fit. So, one day I was listening to “Stroke It Noel” and Alex came up with the line, “Keep an eye on the sky”. And so I floated that by everybody at Rhino and they liked it. But then John told me that the line is actually “Keepin’ an eye on the sky.” But it seemed appropriate. I also approved some of the liner notes and stuff, but I didn’t really get involved with it. It’s just too time consuming. I figured there were enough cooks bothering with it that it didn’t need me. And you know, sometimes putting those things together, an outsider’s perspective might reflect the interests of the audience much more than my own. But still, I was astonished at how great it looked and the pictures looked – they found some that I hadn’t ever seen before – and at the material they pulled out of the vaults.
Was there any material on the set that you were unfamiliar with?
Some of the acoustic demos, I don’t know if ever heard those. Chances are, I had after Alex recorded them just to give me some reference to the song before we started working it up. I wish I had a better memory at any rate. I don’t really remember having heard some of that stuff. And there were some takes that never got mixed that John went back in the studio to mix. And to have him mixing which is something that he hadn’t done that in 20 or 30 years. It’s so great to have him back involved with the band.
One of the things that made Big Star so distinctive was your drumming style. Who were you influenced by?
Ringo Starr is the first that comes to mind. I don’t know how much interest I would have had in music had it not been for The Beatles. They really opened the doors for me to the wonderland of music. Charlie Watts and the whole British Invasion scene. Procol Harum and BJ Wilson. My brother and I put a band together when we were in our teens and at first we just focused on British Invasion bands. But then along came Otis Redding and Sam & Dave and all the folks down on McLemore Avenue with Stax Records. After that we put a soul band together, playing “Knock On Wood” and those kinds of things. At any rate, Al Jackson would be another drummer that was an influence; he was the original drummer for Booker T & The MG’s. And I can’t leave out John Bonham. Basically, those drummers that you can hear a couple of measures and know off the bat who they are. Drummers that play with some character. I had to rely on character a lot because I knew I would technically never be a great drummer, I was never studied or terribly proficient. I just wanted to be someone who adds something musically to the band rather than just keeping a beat.
When did you start playing with Chris and Andy?
It was March in 1970 when Chris and Andy and I got together. I was still in high school. I had happened to pass the audition to play drums at Memphis State University production of Hair, one of the first productions not on Broadway. I wound up playing in that. Andy, I had met him 2-3 years earlier in junior high, and he comes up to me after the show and said, “We’re putting a band together, would you like to come over and jam with them?” Of course I did. They all practiced at Chris’s house and Steve Ray was there, and some other folks. That was my introduction to Andy. Chris introduced me to John Frye and Ardent when we went there to start recording some demos which was just great. To me, Ardent was better than going to Disney World. The Disney World of studios at any rate. All the people there had pretty creative minds so we had the tools to be as creative as we wanted to be. As creative as we dared to be.
How did you feel about the idea of bringing Alex into the band after that?
I was very open to the idea. I knew Alex had a great voice even though the voice he used in Big Star was much different than his Box Tops voice. I thought what Chris and Alex could collaborate on in regard to material would probably work really well. The soul or nucleus is the material they’re coming up with. So having another singer in the band and his material. And Alex is a great guitar player. He added a lot and was a pretty well rounded and talented guy. Still is.
Did you have any indication in those early days that you were on to something special?
I thought we were on to something special to me, but it’s always nice when people agree with you. For me, at the end of the night, we’d finish up what we’d done that evening and it always just as if we’d stepped into some place magical. It’s so gratifying and satisfying to do that. I think when people sit down to be creative they open themselves up emotionally. When you do that and you succeed, it’s a bigger rush than other achievement.
There has been a lot written about the fact that there some frustrations within the band, even early on. Where was this coming from?
I think the frustration was about the fact that we were getting great reviews, but the distribution end of things didn’t work so well. Ardent was doing their job in marketing the band getting record into the hands of writers. After the release of the first record, we had an audience of music writers and that was about it. But Stax had a deal with Columbia. Al Davis who did distribution and Clive Davis set it up. But Clive left Columbia after that deal. And whoever came in after Clive didn’t have that same relationship with Stax. We didn’t fare well with that new acquisition. That’s what it was really centered around. There wasn’t a lot of frustration inside the band. There were little squabbles that you would have in any family of people so to speak. It certainly wasn’t what broke up the band.
How did it feel when Chris left the group?
Wow..I was really disappointed and saddened by the fact that he wanted to leave the band and pursue a solo thing. There was just something about the presence of the four of us that felt great and worked really well for me as evidenced by the first album. I was pretty disappointed. This is my perception but I felt like Chris left the band thinking that he might have to live under Alex’s shadow. It’s not like Alex was casting that shadow. The press spotlighted Alex, which made sense because he had a high profile from being in The Box Tops, so that gave it something the reader might be familiar with. Given that, I think Chris thought he would be better off doing his own thing.
I’ve read that you guys didn’t play a lot of shows when you were first together. Why was that?
The reality is we could not find a booking agent nor could we enlist the help of a proper manager. The gigs we had were ones that Joe King came up with. Alex and Andy and I played a few nights at Max’s Kansas City in New York. And Alex and John Lightman and I maybe a year later played Max’s Kansas City again. That led to us playing a stadium gig with Badfinger and some dates in Ohio. But, no, we never played that much as a band.
One of the shows that you did play that everyone points to is the famous rock writers’ convention in ’73. What do you remember about that?
One thing I do remember feeling of being the underdog. So the pressure was off us to make any great impression. For one, we all realized that we weren’t the featured act in my recollection. There were two other Stax acts. We were playing request of the rock writers that were attending. We agreed to that request because it was our audience. It was our only audience not to mention a friendly audience. So, we got up and played a set and had a good time with it. And with the combination of alcohol and reckless abandon, the music writers had a good time, too.
What can you tell me about the breakup of the band?
Andy left after the release of Radio City. He decided that he couldn’t make a career out of this and had to start thinking about moving on with life. Then I left after the third album, with that in mind as well. It didn’t really look like we were going to make a go of this. And Alex and I had different opinions about lifestyles and stuff. I mean, the third album is a brilliant representation of where Alex was at the time. It has a pretty raw, dark sort of lifestyle. It just wasn’t where I was. I didn’t share the same kind of lifestyle so I moved on.
It’s interesting that you’d say that because listening to the record, your song (“For You”) really stands out as a ray of light in the midst of that album.
You know having just said that, when I think about it, there are some awfully sweet moments on there. Things like “Blue Moon” and “Nightime” and fun things like “Stroke It Noel”. But somehow even those songs have some kind of melancholic spirit to them, some kind of dark spirit.
When did you become aware that the band was having such an influence on other musicians?
I’m thinking maybe in 1978. I was in England. I lived in London for 2 1/2 months. I had picked up a music publication and in the want ads in the back there were people looking for Big Star records. The next issue there was something about Alex and the next week a review mentioning Big Star. And then I ran into Nick Kent who was a legendary music journalist at the time. I ran into him on the street. It was summer and really hot and he had on this leather outfit: leather jacket and leather pants. And I thought, “The sacrifice you make for fashion…” Anyway, he’s a really nice guy and he started talking about a bootleg that he had from the live performances that we did for WLIR and how he had a bootleg of the third album that hadn’t even been released at that point. So, that’s where I got the first idea that things were spreading.
Did it feel good knowing people were paying attention?
It felt great. And it has opened up so many doors and built bridges to meeting people. I was having a much better time in London because of it. I was staying with Andrew Tyler who was another music writer and the reason I was able to stay with him was because he had come to Memphis to do a story on Stax and Ardent and Big Star. That’s the fun of being in Big Star. It’s a common denominator. You can have a conversation and meet people and you have something in common that you can talk about. I mean talk about a great icebreaker. For example, when I was in London, I walked into Virgin Records and spoke to someone there…it could have been Simon Draper…but I told him, “Hey, I’m here on holiday and I’m looking for work as a drummer.” And they set up an audition for me with Johnny Rotten who was putting together a group that went on to be Public Image. I was going to along for the experience. I didn’t think that we were that musically compatible and I hadn’t played drums in a year by that point. Anyway, they set up the audition for a Monday but then they called me up on that Sunday and said that Johnny had found a drummer.
Did you have any idea that you’d start playing music with Alex again?
I had no idea that I’d be playing with Alex again until I got that phone call out of the clear blue from the University of Missouri asking if I would get together with Alex and play some Big Star songs. I told them if Alex was willing, I’m certainly willing. Somehow they found his phone number and called and he said, “Yeah.” We weren’t gonna get paid anything. They were just going to cover our expenses and that was about it. They were looking for other folks to fill out the lineup and I suggested Jon [Auer] and Ken [Stringfellow]. I had met them a year earlier and thought they were such amazingly talented guys. Later we heard from Bud Scoppa at Zoo, who is a friend of mine and he wanted to record it. So, we came up with a budget to go to Seattle and practice a couple of days and do better job of the live performances. I’m still shocked and surprised about it. I’m still scratching my head.
With the box set and all this talk about the band, would you try to get Andy to come back and play with you guys again?
I think he would. I don’t know. He’s always welcome. It would be a gas for him to sit in with Big Star. The only time he’s ever been invited to a show was when Big Star played at SXSW. Andy came down for that and he and Terry Manning and I were part of this Big Star panel. But oddly enough, he didn’t come to the show. I don’t know…we haven’t talked about it, but it’d be a gas to do something with him.
Do you think Big Star is going to continue on?
If it would continue, it would be with the lineup that we have now. But I always think our last gig is going to be our last gig. I always think this is the last time that we’ll play together. For me, it helps going into a show thinking that it might be our last performance. I might have a little bit better time because of it and put a little bit more of myself into it. Anything the future brings is always a gift.