REVIEW: Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky (box set)
Keep An Eye On The Sky by Big Star
The fourth and final disc in Rhino Records’ career-spanning Big Star box set Keep An Eye On The Sky is a live show recorded in January, 1973 at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis, and it’s a challenge, while listening, to stifle a creeping sense of smugness.
This is the sound of a great band vigorously performing to rousing indifference. It would be easy to heap retroactive judgmental scorn on the crowd, assumed to be on hand to see that evening’s headliners Archie Bell & The Drells (of “Tighten Up” fame) and seemingly unable to recognize the power pop genius of Big Star on display. Had we all been there, we’d like to believe we’d recognize the group’s quality even if it went unappreciated on that evening and throughout the group’s short career. But as I gaze at the stacks of unsolicited CDs decorating my desk, I sometimes wonder what contemporary underappreciated titan I may be ignoring, and will my failure to champion that artist one day be harshly judged?
There’s some irony in the fact that Big Star’s Lafayette’s set includes a cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Hot Burrito #2”: there’s a group that similarly was undervalued in its prime and has been elevated in hindsight to heroic heights. The absolution of history must be bittersweet for artists. I sometimes wonder if Big Star’s leader Alex Chilton’s seeming discomfort with the latter day laurels thrown at his feet is his way of saying “thanks, but where the hell were you when Big Star needed an appreciative audience?” When a DJ once gushed to Chilton that the group’s second album was that year’s best, he brushed off the flattery and said flatly: “That’s nice. I hope it sells.” It didn’t.
There are careers and there is history, and while Big Star failed to have much of the former, they have definitely made their mark in the latter.
It’s not like Big Star hasn’t been given a good post-mortem rattle. Aside from the 80s-era Big Beat reissues of Big Star’s original albums #1 Record and Radio City (both recently remastered and reissued with bonus tracks on CD by Fantasy Records), I count about a dozen discs in my collection – everything from a high fidelity Super Audio CD two-fer of the original albums to a couple of live bootlegs to Ryko’s 1992 Big Star Live document of a late-era radio station in-studio performance to last year’s Thank You Friends: The Ardent Story collection. Rhino’s online imprint RhinoHandmade has promised (although as of this writing there have been delays) an expanded, limited edition version of Big Star co-leader Chris Bell’s posthumous solo record I Am The Cosmos. What could possibly be left in the vaults of Memphis’ Ardent Records studio and label?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. The challenge with box sets is the selection of audience. Should the compilers assume the box serves as an introduction to the fan (surveying the official releases), or a treasure trove for train spotters who want to supplement their collection with novel discoveries? The makers of Keep An Eye On The Sky have sensibly gone with the latter and plunged deep into the archive for previously unheard material. It all comes packaged in a nice box which resembles a vinyl 45 picture sleeve, with a 100 page book and an enhanced CD video clip of Big Star in and outside the studio, set to Chilton’s plaintive ballad “Thirteen.”
While there are some nice alternate mixes and outtakes from #1 Record and Radio City and some proto-Big Star studio noodling from Bell and precursor assemblages Icewater and Rock City (which first surfaced in 2003 on the Lucky 7 label’s Rock City disc), to me the real revelation is a series of acoustic demos, especially those dating from Big Star’s blighted swan song, 3rd. As polished and pleasant as Big Star’s first two record could be, 3rd (also known as Sister Lovers) was made in legendarily dissolute circumstances. Whatever optimism had buoyed Big Star’s early music was gone, replaced by dissonance and an almost willful denial of the group’s superficial charms. It’s a wholly other thing from what came before, but a standalone work of corrosive genius.
The acoustic guitar demos for “Blue Moon,” “Thank You Friends,” “Nighttime,” “Take Care,” “Lovely Day” and a solo piano treatment of “Holocaust” are stripped of the claustrophobic atmosphere from the official album and given some room to breath. Hearing them in this format highlights the way the final versions were not so much full bodied recordings as autopsies on songs that might – in less fraught circumstances – have sounded more of a piece with Big Star’s first two records.
Keep An Eye On The Sky is a great gift to Big Star’s army of acolytes and is close to the last word on the group. I say close because I think there’s still room for Rhino or some other tasteful compiler to take all the scattered pieces of 3rd – particularly these demos and the stellar “original mixes” included on Thank You Friends: The Ardent Story – and assemble a definitive version of that tortured masterpiece.