Monday, September 01, 2014

Big Star: there's no success like failure

Best bit in the Big Star documentary "Nothing Can Hurt Me" recalls their appearance at the one and only Rock Writers Convention in Memphis in 1973. "Suddenly they found their audience," somebody says. How true that is.

Groups who appeal to rock critics don't appeal to anyone else. This is made more certain by the fact that rock critics prefer bands who aren't popular. Nothing appeals to the rock critic mindset more than a band somehow too pure to appeal to the great unsophisticated. And they like bands who appear temperamentally unsuited to fame. Because a lot of rock critics are train wrecks themselves they feel validated by bands who are the same.

Big Star were celebrated among a bunch of people who thought that they could make a load of other people like them and then found out they couldn't. Of course they suffered from having the wrong record company and the wrong distribution but it might not have made much difference if they hadn't. Big Star were the progenitor of a seam of hundreds of bands who sound as if they ought to produce pop hits but don't actually have the common touch that you need to produce hits. They were never going to make it but there was enough pop DNA in their sound to make it seem they might.

Instead they had a very successful career as a failure. Their reputation grew over the years.  "They were like a letter posted in 1971 that didn't arrive until 1994," says Robyn Hitchcock. Actually, it's arrived at regular intervals since 1978.

The film starts with the original, purposely slipshod band in the studio in 1971 and ends with the great and the good of contemporary rock gathering around a microphone and a string section to respectfully pay tribute to the music they came up with. Watching that it struck me: is this the way Classical Music got started?


  1. Another American music doc with a "recreation" (see the Funk Brothers, 20 Feet)? Give me Steve Coogan's opinion any day...

  2. Hi James! On a similar note, Gene Clark's No Other album has got its own all-star band. Can't recall if they turned up to pay homage on the recent doc.

  3. All those Rock Critics Faves albums I've bought over the years, from the Raspberries to the dBs to Green On Red to the Long Ryders to Jellyfish... All good stuff, and yes, I yearned a little for them to become big stars (sic), but I never really thought they would.
    Any examples of RCF bands that eventually DID break through? R.E.M. could be a contender here...

  4. I'm grateful for the critics in this case. These are wonderful records which I would never have heard otherwise. It shouldn't matter to the listener if the bands are popular or not, but I guess we need the psychological reassurance of not being alone.

  5. Read this recently and was suprised that Alex Chilton said he had $50,000 which lasted him to 1976 from his Boxtop days. The fact that he'd already had a lot of success and had this sort of money in the early 70's puts a slightly different spin of their story.