If Big Star’s music didn’t come so obviously from the heart it would sound calculated. The Memphis band’s 1972 debut had one foot in the tradition of great ’60s pop sounds of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, the other in the sound of high-volume ’70s guitars. Big Star was, in other words, the perfect band for the times, and yet the times rejected Big Star. That left later generations to discover the band’s first two albums of perfect power pop and a beautiful shambles of a third album. Why did it take so long? Poor distribution usually gets blamed for countering the good reviews. But maybe it’s that obvious sincerity that insured the band would always reach a self-selecting audience. There’s a lot of hurt behind those soaring choruses, maybe more than a Top 40 environment in the thralls of the DeFranco Family and Rick Derringer could handle.
The band began as a collaboration between pop obsessive Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, a golden-throated refugee from pop stardom who’d walked away from his job as the frontman of The Box Tops and joined forces with the Bell-fronted band Icewater. After Big Star’s debut, the hopefully titled #1 Record, flopped, the troubled Bell walked away. By the time its follow-up, Radio City, failed the next year, the band had been reduced to Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens. Working with whoever they could lure into their Ardent Studios home, they proceeded to make an album sometimes called Third and sometimes Sister Lovers, a beautiful pop nightmare that sounds like—and apparently was—the product of a long, dark nights.
With only three official albums to its name, Big Star doesn’t seem like a natural for the box-set treatment, but Keep An Eye On The Sky has plenty to offer both neophytes and longtime fans, dropping demos, alternate mixes, and selections from Bell and Chilton’s pre-Big Star work alongside album tracks and the two stunning sides of the only solo work Bell saw released before dying in a car accident in 1978. Bell’s already gone from the band on the previously unreleased 1973 live set that makes up Sky’s fourth and final disc, a stirring set played before an indifferent crowd waiting to hear Archie Bell And The Drells. They knew what they wanted and it wasn’t Big Star—at least not yet.