Big Star: What’s Going Ahn
Interviews and introduction by Daniel Coston
There are many legends within the story of Big Star, but the truth still lies within their records. Despite distribution issues, personnel changes and a sometimes indifferent public, the music of Big Star has overshadowed initial perceptions to become timeless. The release this past September of a Big Star boxset, Keep An Eye On The Sky, comes hot on the heels of reissues of all their records, as well as the posthumous album by band co-founder Chris Bell, I Am The Cosmos. There is even a reported movie of the band’s story in the works.
While not all Big Star myths may be addressed in my conversations with the band members, what emerges is an honest discussion about the history of a fantastic rock band.
BT: When did you both first meet the other members of Big Star?
Andy Hummel [bass, keyboards, vocals]: Chris and I went to high school together. Actually, going back further than that, I knew Jody from some friends of mine when I was in junior high school. He went to church with some other guys that I played music with in my first band. We played a little bit with Jody, but a whole lot. He would stand in when our regular drummer wasn’t available.
Jody Stephens [drums, vocals]: [Andy] was a grade above me. I was introduced to him by a guy named Mike Fleming. Mike and Andy were in a band together, and I think my brother Jimmy joined that band, at some point. Jimmy was playing bass, and Andy, I think was playing keyboards.
I think Jimmy and Andy and Mike’s band had a gig the night the Beatles played Memphis, August 19th. They had a gig that night, so had we to trade our [evening] tickets for matinee tickets. And we got into trouble because we snuck backstage, and they took our tickets away from us.
Three or four years later, a band I was in had auditioned to be the band for the first college production of Hair, at what was then Memphis State University. I was still in high school, but we passed the audition. We did a two-week run in March of 1970, and Andy Hummel came to one of the shows, and came up on stage for the big finale. He reintroduced himself, and invited me to come out and play with some folks. And I said sure, and wound up at Chris Bell’s back house, with Andy and Steve Rea. Tom Eubanks may have been there, and that was the beginnings of what became Big Star.
Hummel: It was an old frame house out behind his parents’ very nice house, and they had said we could use. We went out there and tried to convert that into a sort of practice facility.
BT: How much did that lineup record, or play? I know that some shows were played as Icewater, some under other names.
Hummel: There was some playing that happened under all that guise, and who went and played the gig was seldom the same group of people. It was just who managed to be in on the thing on any particular gig. But it wasn’t a whole lot. You could count it on two hands, easily (laughs).
Stephens: Steve [Rhea] played drums with Andy and Chris prior to my joining. Steve had to go away to college, so that created the opening for me. Later on, when Tom Eubanks left, it became more of a three-piece, which really formed up the cohesive group.
BT: Were already recording at Ardent by this point?
Stephens: We were. Chris and Andy were friends of John Fry, Ardent’s owner and founding father. John saw us as responsible kids, and gave us a key to the studio. We’d come in and record on our own after hours. Chris and Andy had gone through the John Fry school of recording, so we kind of could do it ourselves. Having access to the studio was a pretty incredible opportunity, especially for Chris, who was able to experiment with guitar sounds, and different tones, and a lot of things without anybody looking over his shoulder, without the clock ticking and having to pay for studio time.
BT: The story I’ve heard is that Alex [Chilton] and Chris had been in touch, and that Chris invited Alex to an Icewater show at a local VFW...
Stephens: I don’t think that was an Icewater show. I’m not sure what we were called [laughs]. Yeah, Alex came to see us at a VFW, and he joined the band shortly thereafter.
BT: Had you met Alex before that?
Stephens: I don’t think so. That’s interesting, because Chris, and Andy and Steve Rhea and John Dando and I all went to New York to shop our demos that we recorded. We stayed at the Chelsea [Hotel], which is where Alex was living, if I’m remembering things correctly. But I don’t remember meeting Alex during that trip, oddly enough. Andy got to New York, and he had to turn around and go back home. So Dando and Steve Rhea and I all shared a room. But I think that Chris was staying with Alex. But it’s just curious that I don’t remember meeting Alex until he came to the VFW performance.
Hummel: We were “Ardent scruffs,” if you will. We hung around the studio a lot, so obviously we were aware that Alex was there recording that solo LP that he recorded with Terry [Manning]. He and Chris got together and talked about it, apparently. It was just a little serendipity there, I think. Alex was probably looking for a new musical direction, and we were kind of needing a fourth player to push us over the top, so it just made sense. It was a symbiotic thing. And it worked out.
BT: How soon after Alex joined did you start working on what became No# 1 Record?
Stephens: It doesn’t seem like much time passed at all. Alex joined in, and Chris had some songs. A couple of songs had already been recorded, one of which was “Life Is Right.” I think Alex added some parts to it, or something. And Alex had some songs, and they wound up sitting down together and just making suggestions, exchanging suggestions here and there.
Hummel: Once we got Alex under our wing, we gained a lot of credibility, obviously. Since he was already kind of a star and everything. So we got to the point where we could get the studio time when we needed it. It slowed down a bit once we got to producing it, and actually figuring out what sorts of overdubs we needed.
BT: Listening to that record, it’s amazing how fully realized that sound was, especially considering that you essentially producing yourselves.
Hummel: We were, but we kind of had no choice. (laughs) It was not like there was someone else around there to do it. And it was not like we could afford to bring in a lot of session musicians. It was born out of necessity.
BT: How did “The India Song” come about?
Hummel: I was just fiddling with some stuff. I was going through a real Joni Mitchell period at the time, and that one song that I had sitting in the back of my mind, and I actually did a little demo just for myself. There wasn’t anybody else but me in the studio, and left it laying around, and Alex heard it and said, “We’re going to put this on the LP.” I said, “Oh, that doesn’t go on the LP,” and he said, “Sure it does. It’ll be fine.” I laid down a vocal track, then Alex reinforced it with doubles. [Ardent founder John Fry also notes that Chris Bell added additional harmonies on this song.]
BT: What happened after the release of No#1 Record, in early 1972?
Stephens: The problem with Big Star was we never had a proper manager, nor did we ever have a proper booking agent. I just don’t think anybody was interested. So we didn’t play much. There were certain doors that were never opened to us because we didn’t have a proper manager. But having said that, Ardent seemed to perform its role extremely well. Press was part of Ardent’s job, and John King did a pretty incredible job of that. But once it got to actually putting records in the stores, the process failed.
I’m not quite sure what happened there. It could have been a lot of different things. The story I heard recently was that Al Bell had negotiated the distribution deal with Clive Davis, and shortly after that, Clive left Columbia. So the champion for distributing Stax left, and it could be was that Clive’s vision was never realized because he wasn’t there. And then whoever came on board next didn’t have the same interest that Clive had.
Hummel: Leading up to the release of the first album, Ardent had the notion that “Well, we need to set these guys up so they can tour, so they promote the album.” They went out and bought and set up a PA system for us. Some of us needed new equipment, so they got us new equipment. And got ourselves all ready to play. They also hired a couple of guys to help us. John Dando, who was our equipment manager. And another guy, Vince, whose last name I can’t remember, whose job was to book the dates and make sure that the gigs happen. Vince never did a whole lot, I’m not quite sure what happened with Vince. Part of it was probably him just having difficulty in getting us to go play. Because we would rather play around in the studio. But also, he never really dominoed with any real gigs.
One gig was in a shell, an outdoor amphitheater up in Mountain View, Arkansas. I think maybe 25 people came to it, if that. Another was at the auditorium at the University of Mississippi, so went and played that, and it was about the same. And this was both bands,
this was Big Star and Cargoe. The idea was to promote them both at the same time, at the same gigs. And that was pretty much it. Now admittedly, in that second one, at Oxford, Mississippi, after the gig several of us got busted and had to spend the night in jail.
The gigs get pretty fuzzy in my mind after that, on the gigs we did as a three-piece, or a four-piece.
The police in rural Mississippi in those days were pretty nasty guys. We weren’t really doing anything odd, as far our behavior. We just played the gig, and then got in our cars and heading home, and we had two or three sheriff’s cars drive up from behind us and stop us and search our cars. Nobody had anything to speak of. We had a little bit of pot, that was about it. But they apparently had pre-determined that they weren’t going to have us hippie musicians in their town. They wanted to hassle us a little bit, so they did. It was pretty disgusting, actually. John and Chris’ father, Mr. Bell, and my parents arranged to get us bailed out the next morning, and they took us back to Memphis.
BT: What happened leading up to Chris leaving the band? Andy, I know that there was a fight between you and Chris, and some guitars got damaged in the process.
Hummel: Those two were very separate incidents. The guitar damage was just a fight that Chris got in because Chris was kind of being a dick during practice one day, and popped him in the nose. Which I thought he richly deserved. Him leaving the band was a much deeper seeded set of problems that he was reacting to there, and he was primarily very disappointed in the fact that the first album hadn’t sold, and there was nothing he could do about it. If it had been something wrong with the music, he could have fixed it, right? Because he knew how to do that. He knew how to operate the studio, he knew how to write music, he knew how to produce music. But it wasn’t. It was about the business end of the thing, and the fact that there were people who weren’t promoting it very good, and that they weren’t getting it into the stores, therefore it wasn’t it. There wasn’t a lot that any of us could do about that. It was very frustrating for him, extremely frustrating, and I think that probably contributed more than anything else to him deciding to go his own way.
BT: Was Big Star already writing for Radio City before Chris left the band in late 1972?
Hummel: There was the famous monaural session that we recorded the four [new] songs all in monaural. We got John [Fry] to record them all with just the one microphone sitting out in the studio. The tape of what was a really wonderful performance that subsequently mysteriously disappeared. When Chris finally said, “I’m gonna leave the band,” there was some sort of a transaction went on between Alex and Chris where they said, “Well, you take this one, and I’ll take this one,” and they just split them up. Roughly in accordance with who had written the most of each one, that sort of thing.
BT: Legend was it that four songs on Radio City were co-written by Chris?
Hummel: That sounds about right. And there probably another four that Chris took off with him, which Big Star had some hand in. Because I don’t recall it as being an uneven deal. He got as much as he took.
What was the status of the band around the Rock Writers convention in May, 1973?
Hummel: We may have been kind of dormant there for a while, but I don’t recall any big decision that we had quit playing. Right around that time, there was a group decision that “Well, let’s go ahead and finish up the LP that we started.” We got John [Fry] to start back engineering some sessions for us, and we started doing some stuff.
The rock writers convention was the first time that we had what I would call a real, no kidding gig. We really had a stage, we were to get out and get on, and we were gonna play, and we were the main feature that one night. We practiced for it, worked up for it, came up with some songs for it, because we couldn’t do the whole Big Star catalog. We had to stick to certain ones, away from ones that we’d agreed we wouldn’t play anymore, and we had some cover songs that we added in there to help. We got to wear nice clothes, and the place was packed, who were there ostensibly to hear us. I don’t know how much they really did (laughs). There were a lot of drunk rock writers out there.
Stephens: John King, who was the marketing guy for Ardent Records, was putting this rock writers convention, and asked us to play because writers requested it. For me, it was kind of an underdog situation. There were other bands on the bill that were the spotlight of the evening, and the spotlight of Stax’s marketing efforts. So I figured we could just have a good time with it, and while they were rock writers and critics, I felt like we wouldn’t be performing under the critical eye of these folks. It was just to have a good time. We thought, “Wow.” It was encouraging. I think that helped get the band together again, and working on Radio City.
Hummel: There was a subset of songs on that record that were recorded in a collaborative way. In some cases, Alex would already have something already partially written, and he’d bring it in, and we’d write a bridge for it, or a turnaround, and stick that in there, or maybe a few extra words that it needed, and complete the song. There were a couple like that. Then, “Daizy Glaze” came from this weird idea that Alex had in his mind from some Handel, classical music, and he started playing that, and we just jammed with that for a while, and fiddled with that until we had a song. Then went off and wrote some words one night, and came back and sang them, and we had a song.
So that was going on with the mainstream band, then you had what was called the Dolby Fuckers, who were a bunch of guys what would get together in the studio in the middle of the night when they were drunk, and put stuff down. And some material emerged from that.
Stephens: There were versions of “What’s Going Ahn,” “Mod Lang,” and She’s A Mover” that Alex cut with Richard Rosebrough. A guy named Danny Jones played bass, but I’m not sure on which of those three. Richard played drums on those three. When it came time to record those, we did, and we demoed them, I think. At least “She’s A Mover.” Maybe we tried “Mod Lang”, too, but they didn’t work as well as Alex’s version with Richard. They just had a better feel, or something. So at any rate, we wound up using those. We couldn’t top them. There were other things. I just heard a version of “O My Soul” with Richard playing drums on it. It’s kind of a fragment of it. So they must have gotten into it, at some point.
Hummel: And then Alex did a couple of solo songs, and I did “Way Out West,” which was originally a solo song that I brought in, and we just all electrified it and played it one night, and we said, “Let’s put that on there.” So it came from a variety of sources. The various activities that we were involved in. The music emanated from those activities, and we’d put it on the record.
BT: Jody, did Andy give you “Way Out West” to sing?
Stephens: He wrote the song and he didn’t want to sing it. So I seemed to be the choice to sing it. Alex basically would sing the songs he was the primary writer of, and Chris would sing his. So Andy writes a song, and it as like, “Well, let’s give the drummer a song to sing,” I guess.
BT: You sort of got the Ringo song on the album, as it were.
Stephens: That’s exactly what it was. That’s the way I took it, anyway.
Hummel: Alex and I were hanging around together a lot in those days. He was going through a lot of different girls that he was having relationships with, kind of simultaneously, and a lot of what’s in those songs is him really just telling about his experiences with them, and how he felt about them.
BT: Andy, how long did you play with Big Star before you moved on?
Hummel: I actually left the band before they released the album [in 1974]. My last memory of being involved in it was when they were mixing it. I went in there a few times to see if I could help, but Alex and John were just buried in the details, and had the whole thing going. And anybody else in there was a distraction to them, so I backed off and left them alone. It wasn’t too long after that they started planning their trip to the northeast. They did a little tour up there, and they said, “Okay, you need to decide whether you’re gonna go back to college, or whether you were gonna come tour with us.” Because it was time to sign up for my courses for my senior year. So I thought about that for about ten seconds (laughs), and I said, “I think I’m gonna go get my degree.”
BT: Had you stayed in college throughout Big Star?
Hummel: Yeah, I never quit going to school the whole time. Which was kind of stressful, keeping up with school in the daytime, and recording all night. But I got through it.
Stephens: After Andy quit, John [Lightman] played with us a lot, and John is the bass player that appears on the WLIR broadcast.
BT: What shows with other bands that Big Star played with that stand out in your mind?
Stephens: (laughs) Our performance opening for Archie Bell & The Drells is part of the boxset, at Lafayette’s here in Memphis, and that’s kind of an interesting show, because we weren’t playing to our audience. We were obviously playing to Archie Bell & The Drells fans. We’d finish a song, and there might be be one person clapping. So that kind of stood out.
Next issue: The rest of the rest of the Big Star story, with Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow.