The Chaotic Beauty of Big Star’s ‘Third’
All the known music for the power pop band’s third album is collected in a new box set
The somewhat tortured yet fascinating history behind Big Star’s Third album has been much talked about since its original release in 1978, aptly mirroring the beloved Memphis power pop’s star-crossed career: Following Big Star’s first two brilliant yet commercially-underwhelming records (1972’s #1 Record and 1974’s Radio City), and the departure of bassist Andy Hummel, the band’s guitarist and singer Alex Chilton made recordings in 1974 that were a 180-degree turn from his previous works. The tracks that would eventually make up Third were at times hauntingly dark, melancholy and enigmatic, augmented by additional and eclectic instrumentation. Not surprisingly, this collection of songs — which didn’t have a formal track list and album title, or even for that matter whether it was going to be called Big Star — befuddled record execs who were put off by its unusual, not-ready-for mainstream content. When Third was finally released four years later on the PVC label, the band had already broken up and the album, like #1 Record and Radio City, went nowhere. But in typical Big Star fashion, Third has gone on to cult status to become another of the band’s best works — a masterpiece that earned a place in Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time.’ In recent years, a rotating group of critically-acclaimed musicians, including Big Star’s surviving member and drummer Jody Stephens, have performed tribute shows to celebrate the music of Third.
The fact that the record was put together in such an informal way, and with different running orders on subsequent versions — including Rykodsic’s 1992 release of Third/Sister Lovers — raises the question of how Third was really intended to be presented, similar to the Beach Boys’ aborted Smile album. Thankfully, the answer to the mystery behind Third may finally be put to rest through this superb three-disc set Complete Third (Omnivore Recordings), which contains every known available recording during that period: demos, rough mixes, alternative takes, and the final masters, with a good portion of its content previously unreleased. Thanks to the painstaking project supervision by producers Cheryl Pawelski and Adam Hill, fans can now experience Third in a new historical light.
The set begins with the demos of the songs that would end up on the eventual collection. Featuring just Chilton and his shimmering acoustic guitar, the demos just absolutely sparkle, especially on the tender ballads “Blue Moon” and “Nightime.” Those particularly recordings alone would’ve been enough to warrant its own release for perhaps a single-disc or double disc reissue of Third. But it gets better as you dig deeper. One of the highlights of Complete Third’s are the tracks that feature Chilton and his girlfriend Les Aldridge — the muse of the record — collaborating together, particularly their duets on covers of the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired,” and Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ “That’s All It Took”; Aldridge also takes a lead vocal turn on a rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours.” There’s a chemistry between the two not only romantically but musically as well. Also notable on this first disc is Chilton’s cover of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” complete with the faithful high vocal harmonies.
Following the demos come the rough mixes under producer Jim Dickinson, and literally some of those mixes are rough, understandably having been unearthed after all these years; yet even in their coarse form they lend a certain authenticity. Those Dickinson mixes showcase Chilton’s acoustic demos fleshed out with backing instrumentation. Through engineer John Fry’s rough mixes, the tracks sound somewhat fully realized and cleaner, incorporating the moody and atmospheric elements the would end up on the final masters. Disc two also offers up some interesting revelations from those sessions — such as an alternative version of Stephens’ “For You,” this time with Chilton on lead vocals; and Aldridge taking the mike on the Kinks rocker “Till the End of the Day.”
The third and last disc features the final masters that are familiar to fans who grew accustomed to the Rykodisc version. Despair and melancholy never sounded more beautiful on Third. There are moments especially on the somber songs that is akin to witnessing or hearing a nervous breakdown. That is evident on such unsettling tracks like the stark and emotionally-devastating “Holocaust”; the weary and drugged-out “Downs” and “Big Black Car”; the languid “Dream Lover”; and the resigned-sounding “Kanga Roo.” Yet amid this sense of hopelessness are hopeful glimmers of light, especially on the yearning and hopeful “Blue Moon”; the gorgeous and dreamy “Nightime”; the whimsical “Jesus Christ” (a holiday chestnut in its own right); and the upbeat and joyous “Thank You Friends.” And there are bursts of energetic rock and roll that echoes the band’s earlier efforts from “Kizza Me” to the rambunctious cover of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and a defiant “You Can’t Have Me.”
Certainly Third could arguably be considered an Alex Chilton solo record, but one has to mention Stephens’ contributions to the recordings as well as his performance on “For You,” marking the first time he contributed his own composition accompanied by a rare lead vocal. Its is a lovely ballad further heightened by the masterful string arrangements by Carl Marsh, another important element to the entire album.
Just like Big Star itself, Third has influenced future rock artists; in addition to the detailed liner notes written by veteran music journalist Bud Scoppa, the set features testimonials from R.E.M.’s Mike Mills; the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs and Debbi Peterson; the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris; and Let’s Active’s Mitch Easter. “The mind-bender that is Big Star Third is one of the most harrowing, yet beautiful, pieces of music I’ve ever heard,” writes Mills. The music from Complete Third also a testament to the genius and perseverance of three of the major participants — Chilton, Dickinson and Fry — who sadly aren’t here to appreciate this lovingly-assembled set.
It’s not far off to say the qualities that define the original Third — consisting of a large amount of songs of ranging styles and influences; moments of experimentation; and its haphazard patchwork — is comparable to The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) and other ambitious concept records. How Third started from Chilton solo demos made during a low point in the band’s morale, to now later being regarded as work of high stature following years of public neglect sounds almost mythical. But that’s always been a common theme in the unusual story of Big Star: things never happen the way they should be at the time but eventually find a way to move and inspire long after the fact.