Back in the early Seventies, Big Star made their mark on the post-Sixties landscape with their brand of melodic, melancholy pop, and were described by the rock critic Jason Ankeny as the "quintessential American power- pop band". Alex Chilton, formerly a teenybopper pin-up with the Box Tops, had teamed up with Chris Bell, an old mate from his home town of Memphis, Tennessee, to join a band called Icewater. He changed the name to Big Star, and in 1972 they made a debut album, # 1 Record, that was acclaimed as a masterpiece. But it was heard by virtually no one on account of abysmal distribution.
They split, then reconvened to release Radio City in 1974. Bell left again, for good this time; he was killed in a car accident in 1978, the year that Big Star's last album, Third/Sister Lover, was released.
Tonight heralded the first-ever chance for a UK audience to see one of the most mythic cult acts in rock'n'roll history, a band who have been cited as a key influence by groups ranging from REM to Primal Scream, a testament to the durability of their dulcet sound. A fourth studio album, In Space, hit the racks in 2005.
With two original members present – the guitarist and vocalist Chilton and the drummer Jody Stephens – there was no doubts about their authenticity and they played note-perfect versions of the band's extensive back catalogue of perfect pop gems. But the gig never really took flight.
Sometimes the music can say it all, but not on this occasion. The band did not speak to the packed theatre until many songs into the set and their minimal attempts at communication were often indecipherable to these ancient ears. Surely Chilton had stories to tell.
Worse still was the fact that the volume of the guitars was cranked up to such a level that the vocals were lost in the mix, fighting a losing battle for the entirety of the set. There was too much power and not enough pop. Chilton did give us some great songs – "Battle of El Goodo", "In the Street", "Way Out West" – but they were weighed down by some very dull guitar work.
The support act was Robyn Hitchcock, and perhaps it says a lot about the show that, for this reviewer at least, the highlight of the night was his extended comedic riff on why guitarists often have a prominent lower lip. Hitchcock also treated us to the sublime English whimsy of his song "I Often Dream of Trains" locomotives that are heading "for Paradise or Basingstoke or Reading". Could there ever be a more unlikely itinerary? I hit the road back to Reading without waiting for Big Star's encore.
Bob Dowdeswell, university manager, ReadingReuse content