After sketching out the creative blueprint for Memphis-based Big Star, the band that launched a thousand other “power pop” bands, Chris Bell left it in Alex Chilton’s hands after one album. He spent the rest of his short life trying to reclaim that mantle. Bruce Eaton talks to Rich Tupica, author of a new Bell/Big Star biography.
“Whenever an artist dies young, there’s an interest, and there’s always that lingering question of what might’ve been.” John Fry / Ardent Studios
The Big Star story has been oft-told (mea culpa: I’m the author of Big Star’s Radio City for the 33 1/3 Series) but perhaps no more succinctly than when Alex Chilton told me during an interview in December 2006: “Big Star was one thing. I was something else.” That “something else” was largely the creative blueprint sketched out by Chris Bell: a superbly-recorded, melodically-focused, guitar-dominated group that paid homage to the Beatles above all others and English rock in general while still drawing on a range of American influences. While Big Star wasn’t alone in this intent or even the first to pursue what was soon labelled as “power pop” (see: Badfinger and the Raspberries), they quickly pushed beyond the overt by-the-numbers approach to power pop that would soon relegate the genre to the skinny-tie nerd brigade of the New Wave.
When I first caught wind that a writer in Michigan – Rich Tupica – was undertaking a biography of Chris Bell, I scratched my head. How much uncovered material was out there that hadn’t been exhumed? As it turns out, a lot. With just-published There Was A Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and the Rise of Big Star (HoZac Books), Tupica has made an essential contribution to the Big Star canon. At nearly 400 pages, it’s chock full of new interviews, fresh information, and heretofore unseen photos and graphics and a must-own for every Big Star fan.
PKM: Most accounts of Big Star are Alex Chilton-centric. There are a lot of understandable reasons for the focus on Alex even though Big Star was initially Chris Bell’s band and built around his musical vision. But with Chris passing at a young age, there’s a lot less in terms of recorded material and interviews for a biographer to delve into than for Alex. What inspired you to take on the challenge of telling the Big Star story from Chris Bell’s vantage?
Rich Tupica: First of all, there is already a terrific book about Alex Chilton, A Man Called Destruction, by Holly George-Warren. So, Chilton was already covered. Plus, I’ve always been enamored with the underdogs—and Chris Bell is for sure an underdog. He has a cult following within a cult following. Of course, when he died he was relatively unknown, so there is little out there as far as interviews goes. I found three interviews from the 1975-76 era of his career. Luckily, those journalists allowed me access to those so Chris’ voice could be in this book. I think the challenge of not having much source material on Chris, and the fact that those close to Chris are guarded about it, kind of inspired me to keep digging and try harder. It was a real challenge to put this puzzle together. But Chris is becoming more well-known each year, so there is a small, niche market that I knew would appreciate a book on him. From when he was killed in a car wreck in December 1978, to today, there’s a world of difference in his status.
Thanks to Omnivore Recordings, 2017 was the year of Chris Bell. They re-issued all of his recordings and even released The Complete Chris Bell six LP boxset—the holy grail. One of the LPs is a 45-minute audio interview from 1975 with Chris Bell I discovered while doing research for There Was A Light. I’m pretty sure that’s the only audio of his voice. Luckily a British music writer named Barry Ballard allowed me to not only use it for the book, but also allowed Omnivore to preserve it, and restore it, on the box set. Omnivore cleaned up the audio and it sounds amazing. To hear Chris Bell talk openly about his life and Big Star was surreal to me. I found that toward the end of my research—I didn’t think anything like that would ever turn up. Luckily, Barry still had the reel of tape in his attic, forty years after he conducted the interview in London. It’s an amazing artifact that not enough rock journalists cared to write about. Hearing the band’s story, in Chris’ voice, answered a lot of questions about him and the band.
At the time of his death, Chris had only released Big Star’s #1 Record and had one limited edition single release, “I Am the Cosmos” with “You and Your Sister” on the B-Side.
Aside from small pockets of power pop fans, nobody knew who the hell Chris Bell was back then. Even most Big Star fans thought of it more as a Chilton project. Of course, that all changed as the grassroots following grew and fans grew increasingly curious about Big Star’s backstory. For an unknown band from Memphis who barely played any shows, it’s amazing how their legacy didn’t dissolve into the obscurity pile.
PKM: Not many people got to know Chris outside of Memphis. What misconception(s) about him did you uncover in your work.
Rich Tupica: Most people think Chris Bell was timid and, perhaps, a pushover. That is the opposite of Chris Bell—especially when he was working on music. Chris had no problem leading Big Star on their first record at Ardent Studios. Chris, who was about 20 at the time, was even guiding Alex Chilton in the studio, which is funny because Chilton had recorded hits with the Box Tops in studios since he was 16 years old. Chris was an audiophile to an extreme degree. He was a musician first, but John Fry [Ardent Studios founder / owner] and Terry Manning, who operated Ardent Studios back then, taught Chris a lot about sound and audio engineering.
PKM: In the year before he passed, Chris seemed to be very aware of the growing interest in Big Star and getting at least somewhat of a handle on his personal issues. At the same time, Alex displayed little interest in faithfully recreating the Big Star sound of their first two albums either live or in the studio. In my mind, I could see a scenario where Chris lands a label deal in the great New Wave / post-Knack power-pop rush in the late 70s based on the growing interest in Big Star and then Chris gives the fans what they want – killer live versions of Big Star songs with solo material in the same vein. He could have even called the band Chris Bell and Big Star (especially if Jody Stephens was on board) or even just Big Star and there could have been no real objection. After all, it was his band to begin with. Do you think Chris was serious about a Big Star reboot or launching a solo career off the growing Big Star fan base? If so, what do you think are the odds he could have pulled it off?
Rich Tupica: Chris was for sure attempting to reform Big Star in the final years of his life. There were some discussions with Chilton, but Chilton was more into recording the Cramps and bumming around New York City playing sloppy gigs and recording solo experimental tracks—that was not how Bell wanted to operate. Plus, Chilton was drinking a lot by that point and his Like Flies on Sherbert ethos was running wild during this era. Big Star was his past, and it didn’t interest him at all. Bell, on the other hand, still loved Big Star and was proud of it. That Beatles-influenced sound never left him—his solo, post-Big Star recordings are proof of that.
PKM: Ardent Studios has birthed a lot of great records but when you walk through its doors and just see what’s hanging on the walls, there’s no question that Big Star was John Fry’s pride and joy. My impression from interviewing John was that if Chris had found himself in a reliable position to relaunch Big Star in some manner, John would have been behind it. Fry certainly didn’t like the way Big Star petered out after he shut down the sessions for Big Star Third and wouldn’t have known yet just how big they would become in the ensuing years. Your thoughts?
Rich Tupica: John Fry was basically the fifth member of Big Star. It was his mixing skills that gave those records the sparkly, bright sounds. Fry was a huge supporter of Big Star from their earliest rehearsals. He was close friends with Bell and bassist Andy Hummel, and quickly became close friends with drummer Jody Stephens and Chilton, too. But aside from friendship, the Big Star albums were also Fry’s creative outlet. Adam Hill, Big Star’s archivist, told me, “John Fry didn’t mix any records the way he mixed Big Star.” And, it makes sense. That clean, precise sound is very specific to Big Star. Fry mixed it very bright and clean because he knew the radio waves would muddy the sounds—so he mixed it as bright as possible, so the tunes would jump out at the listeners. Fry had a golden ear and spent ample time on the records. Without him, Big Star wouldn’t have existed.
PKM. There’s been a lot of conjecture and innuendo over the years about Chris’s sexuality and his relationship with John Fry. With the passing on of many of the principals to the story, you had a number of interviewees go on the record on this aspect to the story in a non-sensational manner. After reading your book, I came away thinking that their relationship –whatever it was– was indeed an important part of the story. We’ll never know the exact role it played in Chris leaving Big Star and his subsequent breakdown, but the relationship between Chris and John seems to have at the very least added gasoline to the fire. After all of your research, what is your take on the nature of their relationship and the role it plays in the Big Star story?
Rich Tupica: I wasn’t around back then but many people have said they heard rumors back then about a relationship. Some said they didn’t hear about it until years later. I am unable to confirm anything, because while they were both on this planet, they never came out. They never publicly said anything about it, so I’ll let people read the book and they can take away from it what they’d like. One thing I want to note, if I didn’t think it impacted the story in a crucial way, I likely wouldn’t have addressed it as much. But many people told me it had an impact, so I felt that part of his story needed to be addressed.
But Chris’ sexual confusion for sure played a huge part of his emotional distress—many people confirmed that. But it wasn’t just his sexuality that was tearing him up. After #1 Record was released and flopped, Chris sadly went off the deep end. Many people have said they felt Chris left the band because of the lack of record sales—but I feel that was only one part of it. John Fry himself told me it was a “confluence of circumstances” that eventually landed Bell in a psychiatric ward. In the book, I wanted to make it clear that Chris Bell didn’t leave Big Star just because he didn’t become a rock star after releasing one album. That idea still gets tossed around, but I didn’t get any indication that Chris was that delusional or had a colossal ego. Was he upset that the record wasn’t getting into stores because of distribution problems? Sure. But after working for a year on something, for countless hours, anyone would be irate. When you have Rolling Stone giving it a perfect rating, but have sold zilch, you might be confused and angry.
But it was more than commercial failure that upset Chris. It was a scary time and Chris was coming apart. He was often guarded and paranoid—an increasing prescription pill habit was not helping this matter—nor was his excessive drinking. He was always somewhat of an introvert, but it gradually got worse as 1972 wore on. Big Star moved on without him. It was then, with Chilton at the helm, that they recorded Radio City at Ardent minus Chris—the band’s founder and visionary. Alex admitted that he carried on using Bell’s blueprint.
Of course, Alex brought amazing songs to Radio City, and eventually Third. You cannot downplay Chilton’s input and songwriting on those albums. During those years, Alex was riding a wave of creativity, and luckily he had access to Ardent and was able to lay down those songs with Big Star.
From Radio City on, Chris was on his own—musically, at least. Luckily, his older brother David Bell stepped in as his pro-bono manager and helped him get a batch of solo recordings cut—that’s why we have the posthumously issued I Am the Cosmos LP today. Without David Bell, that record would not exist. He’s another key player here and still manages Chris’ catalog. David was the one who financed the lengthy trips to France and London, where they recorded and mixed at iconic studios like the Château d’Hérouville and George Martin’s AIR Studios London. Chris would still dip back into Ardent and record periodically, but he was never as comfortable there as he was in the early Big Star days. He and John Fry patched things up, but I don’t think they were ever as tight as they were while they produced #1 Record.
Chris eventually patched things up with Chilton too. Chilton famously sang backups on Chris’ tune “You and Your Sister”—that was also the last song Fry ever produced for Chris. It was just a tumultuous time for Chris. It was a mixture of drugs, alcohol, sexual confusion and—ultimately—Christianity. During the final years of his life, as his solo music career kind of sputtered out, Chris got heavy about being a devout Christian. He was very spiritual, and he was very serious about it. It was a positive guiding light for him. In the last couple years of his life, he even landed a management job at Danver’s, a fast food chain his father Vernon Bell co-founded. That job afforded him a new car, and, for once, a steady income. Things were looking up for Chris when he lost his life.
Today, Chris is a part of the legendary “27 Club”, but at the time of his death, he was still living at home with his parents and trying to get his life figured out. Sure, he knew of very small pockets of Big Star fanatics even back then—but it was nothing like it is today, of course. If Chris had lived, I think he would’ve felt quite validated with the years he spent recording music and being a broke twenty-something. Most of his adult life was dedicated to music—it’s just too bad it didn’t pay off until the early ‘90s—fourteen years after his fatal wreck – when the I Am the Cosmos album finally was issued. Before that, he was still hidden in the shadow of Alex Chilton—who lived on to reap the benefits of Big Star’s cult following. Of course, Alex’s solo career was also successful, too—he really became a great guitar player in the 1980s and 1990s. Chilton’s guitar playing is quite overlooked. He could play pop and rock‘n’roll, but his ability to play and write classical and jazz music set him apart from average rock guys. I think that’s why Big Star was able to record such brilliant LPs. All of them, including Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, all had distinct style. For instance, you know when you hear a signature Jody Stephens drum fill—nobody plays like Jody except Jody. All of that factors into making remarkable albums.
PKM: Unlike Alex Chilton, Chris (as well as Andy and Jody) was a devoted fan of a lot of mainstream rock (James Gang, Led Zeppelin – who Alex abhorred – and the like). In listening to the recent Omnivore boxset of Chris’s solo material, it struck me how much a lot of it would have fit in comfortably on FM playlists in the 70s alongside Wings and the Eagles – the guitar boogie of “Got Kinda Lost,” for example. There were enough classic rock elements in his solo recordings that it would not be hard to imagine him going out on the road as an opener for, say, Blondie or even Heart. And the guitar solo in “I Am The Cosmos” had real “air guitar” status. What did you learn about Chris’s musical tastes that you think would be surprising given Big Star’s alternative rock appeal?
Rich Tupica: Chris and Alex for sure overlapped on some bands. They both loved the Beatles, the Kinks, and Free, for instance. But it was their varied tastes that really made Big Star. Chris was very much rooted in British Invasion stuff, and while Alex dug some of it, he was also heavily into soul and funky R&B—which was not in Chris’ wheelhouse. Alex dug the Beach Boys and the Byrds, and you can hear some of those sounds on #1 Record—alongside Chris’ British tastes. As the 1970s wore on, after Big Star fizzled in late 1974 or so, Alex kept digging deeper into underground music. I mean, he’s the guy who first got the Cramps in a real recording studio. I can’t see Chris Bell collaborating with the Cramps.
Bell never abandoned his love of well-crafted, polished pop music—he even dug the Carpenters and Fleetwood Mac. I’m sure that was while Alex was digging around for old rockabilly 45s and attending the infamous Sex Pistols concert in Memphis. One of the last records Chris was really hyped about was the debut album from the Cars. It was released not long before his death. One day, he held up that LP and told his bass player, Ken Woodley, “Now, this is the future of music.” I think that says a lot about where he was headed musically. He was forming a new band with Ken Woodley and fellow Memphis power-pop guy Tommy Hoehn when his life was cut short. He’d actually just wrapped up a rehearsal with them minutes before he was killed. Listen to Hoehn’s “She Might Look My Way” and then listen to Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” and you’ll hear two forms of genius.
I can only imagine what they would’ve recorded together at Ardent Studios if Chris didn’t get in that car accident. That band, which didn’t last long enough to cut any tracks or even have a name, is the great Memphis pop band that never was. Perhaps they would’ve recorded Big Star’s “Fourth” LP. Who knows?
Bruce Eaton is the author of Big Star’s Radio City (33 1/3). A writer and jazz concert producer residing near Buffalo NY, he can be found at http://bigstarbook.blogspot.com.