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Back To Radio City: An Interview With Big Star
Matthew Horton , August 6th, 2014 09:08

With the documentary on the seminal power pop band, Nothing Can Hurt Me, screening in cinemas in the UK, Matthew Horton joins founding member Jody Stephens and producer John Fry to reflect on the band's landmark second album

The 2012 rock documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori, finally gets a UK cinema release this month, giving audiences a chance to reassess the career of a band that broke through long after it had ceased to be a functioning unit. This recent interview with Big Star's drummer, sole surviving founder member Jody Stephens, and producer John Fry, was arranged primarily to discuss the band's initial reunion for second album, 1974's Radio City – a formative period in their career – but also the record's aftermath and their band's enduring cult appeal.

Let's pick up the story after your debut album, #1 Record from 1972. The band began to fall apart, didn't it?

Jody Stephens: After the release of #1 Record, Chris [Bell, guitarist]'s reason for leaving the band was about the spotlight being on Alex [Chilton, singer/guitarist] in all the reviews, which was understandable because Alex was kind of the common denominator. If you hadn't heard of Big Star you'd probably heard of The Box Tops [Chilton's previous band who had a US no.1 single with 'The Letter'] and the hits they'd had, so it made sense to feature Alex. I think Chris just didn't want to live in that shadow. It had nothing to do with personalities – everybody remained friends – but there were some emotional times right when Chris left. It's all part of that process. There's a certain amount of sensitivity involved with being creative and there are definitely going to be emotions! I think things would be amiss if there weren't. At any rate we all kind of drifted apart.

John Fry: Chris in particular took it hard because he put everything into the album. As the late Steve Ray [guitarist in an early Big Star incarnation] says in Nothing Can Hurt Me, we all had expectations but for Chris it was 100%. He became quite depressed and left the band and for that period of time where the whole thing was in limbo, the remaining three weren't sure whether they wanted to go forward. The record had been out for around eight months and things were going great in terms of critical acclaim. All the magazines, the trade magazines like Billboard and Cashbox and Record World and the fan-orientated magazines were writing great stuff about it, and there was a little radio play but it was mostly on the FM/rock stations that were just starting and on a few of the AM stations in smaller markets. But whatever activity there was was not driving any sales, at least not through the Stax distribution system. We'd started out with independent distributors when #1 Record was first released then just a few months into it they made a changeover to Columbia. It's well known that the Columbia thing never worked well for Stax and certainly never worked well for our little label that was distributed by Stax. I think one of the main factors was that Al Bell, who was the guy running Stax then, had negotiated the deal personally with Clive Davis, who was running Columbia. Pretty soon there was some kind of power struggle at Columbia and Clive Davis was put out and sometimes if new people come in, if they decide they didn't like the old guy, then they don't like any of the old guy's deals either.

What brought the band back together? The Rock Writers' Convention [in Memphis, May 1973]?

JF: I'm sure the reception they received from that pretty much handpicked ideal audience at the Rock Writers' Convention had something to do with that, but Alex always said that the thing that really made him want to go ahead with another album was John King saying, "You know, we got some pretty good attention from the first album and if we did another one then maybe we could make some progress." But you have to factor the convention in there. It was certainly a one of a kind event!

JS: John King told us he wanted us to play. We wouldn't be the featured band, we'd just support the other two bands, an English band and a local band, both signed by Stax. We figured, you know, writers were really our only audience, they'd all gotten the record, they'd all listened, and for the most part they seemed to all really like it. So, John King made a good impression – he was a radio promo guy at Ardent [Big Star's label] – and we got back together for that.

JF: I had always assumed they would want to make another record but I wasn't really pressing the issue. Somebody's got to have the songs and the interest and the will to do it or there's not much point just going through the motions.

Did you need much persuasion to get back in the saddle?

JS: I didn't need much persuasion, and I think Alex thought it might be a good thing, which is how it turned out. Basically Stax footed the bill for the convention and none of us really had any money so it was always good to have a free dinner and free drink every now and then. So we got back together and maybe it was courtesy of drink or other recreational enhancement things, I don't know, but people just went nuts! They sang along – they knew the lyrics! You contrast that with a performance we did later at Lafayette's where we opened for Archie Bell & The Drells – not a great pairing of bands, really – and we'd finish a song and you'd hear one person clap. So the convention was amazing and that motivated us all to do another record. That's when we got Radio City underway. But between #1 Record and the convention Alex had put a band together with Richard Rosebrough and Danny Jones, and they'd recorded some songs, three of which – 'What's Going Ahn', 'She's A Mover' and 'Mod Lang' – wound up on Radio City. We tried to re-record those but they didn't have the same kind of vibe. Richard's a great drummer, I've always admired him and I just couldn't top what he'd done, so they wound up on Radio City.

What do you remember about the recording of Radio City? Did you have high hopes?

JS: I did, simply because of how well it fit together, both sonically and melodically, the performances too. It was an incredible opportunity because we were a three-piece band, and you know, I think bands and the number of people in them are like photographs. The more people you have in a photograph the more it becomes a group, but the fewer the people the more you see individuals. And I think that's the way it is even between a three- and four-piece band. There was a greater opportunity to be individuals on Radio City.

JF: We had good songs, the recording was going smoothly and it actually went rather quickly. Most of the tracks were done by the band at sort of spontaneous sessions. But for the bulk of the album, they would record pretty much as they recorded #1 Record, which was to set up as a band and record the basic tracks. Then as time was available, they'd do the overdubs and we'd leave it again until more material was ready. The overdubs were largely done by the band. Andy [Hummel, bassist] learned how to engineer and Alex could do it a bit, so they could pretty well take care of that, and by the time we had it all together the remix was done straight through over a number of days, maybe one track a day.

It's still so fresh. It's extraordinary to think it's 40 years old.

JS: It is. It really sparkles and other records of the time sound kind of flat. And that's John Fry. John was pretty amazing. He captured a sonic thing that unique to him. He was certainly a 'fourth member' presence.

JF: It's a common misconception that I produced the first album, because they stuck my name on there as executive producer, whatever that is. That was Chris Bell's idea – he asked me how I wanted to be credited and I said just credit me as engineer. And he said, "No, everybody has those; we want something different. We want an executive producer." Fine, whatever! But in terms of musical production, #1 Record and Radio City were produced by the band. On Third/Sister Lovers we actually had an independent producer, Jim Dickinson, and that's a completely different recording process altogether.

Things went swiftly downhill again after Radio City.

JS: I think Andy left even before the release of Radio City. He wasn't going to be able to make a living of it and so he wanted to get on with things. Both Andy and I had been going to school but he just wanted to get it done and move on, whereas I thought I could still go to school – which I kind of did on and off! – and be a part of Third too. I hated seeing Andy leave but I loved being witness to Alex's brilliance as a writer, and I thought his vocal deliveries were pretty amazing too. I wanted to be a part of another experience like that. I stayed on and the third album was dark at times and brilliantly sweet at other times – songs like 'Blue Moon' and 'Nightime'.

How did you get back together again in 1993?

JS: A guy called Mike Mulvihill from the University of Missouri called and asked if I would get together with Alex and play some Big Star songs. He'd found Alex's phone number and called him and I think Alex's line was, "I'm not doing anything else that evening." And it was for no money! They agreed to pay our expenses, but that was it. I've seen stories that implied the money was "right", but there was none and I even had trouble getting my expenses from them until one of the board members at the university – who was a Big Star fan – pushed it through. At first, I didn't really want to be a part of putting the band together because I thought it could easily fall apart, so they solicited other folks themselves and it seemed like people either didn't want to do it or were tied up. In the end I pointed them in the direction of Jon Auer [from The Posies] and his bandmate Ken Stringfellow came along too to play bass – and we stayed together for 17 years, even producing a new record [In Space, 2005] that I think is a lot of fun. Whenever Alex introduced a song from that album, he'd say, "Here's a brand new song – you may not like it now, but you'll love it in 30 years!"

That's the Big Star legacy, isn't it? How do you feel about your lack of success in your heyday, then all this belated recognition?

JS: It would've been nice to have made a career out of it, but all that was a kind of pie in the sky thing anyway. There's such a remote chance of anybody making a career in music. You were more likely to be able to do that back then than now, but it wasn't that big a deal. Ken and I are in a band with Daryl Mather called Orange Humble. Daryl found out about Big Star in 1978, and it dawned on me that the reason people know who Big Star are is because of people like Mike Mills and Peter Buck talking about the band in the press. Primarily it's about writers like yourself writing about the band and making references to the band; that's mostly why we have an audience today, and then people like Mike Mills and Peter Buck pick up on that and then start talking about us.

They've got more influence than us.

JS: It's just that kind of synergy that starts to take hold. You get enough people talking about it, people begin to think, "I've gotta check out what these people are talking about." That and Paul Westerberg writing about Alex Chilton – a lot of people have told me that that's how they got turned on. Primal Scream talk about the band, Afghan Whigs too. We're lucky to have had those [people] involved and interested early on. So yes, the lack of commercial success or my being able to make a career out of it is a side issue. I'm having some incredible experiences now because of it, and I've worked at Ardent Studios on the business side of things since 1987, so in a way having been in Big Star has provided a career in music for me, and established a lot of great relationships.

JF: I think if people like music over a number of decades it comes back to the quality of the songs and the quality of the performances, and to the extent that the recording contributes, it's about capturing whatever was going on in that moment in time. Frankly I am astonished at the longevity. I'm very pleased by it, to see there are young teenagers today who are huge Big Star fans, but I never would have imagined that. There must be something in there that speaks to a multi-generational audience or all this wouldn't still be interesting.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is screening in cinemas across the country; head to the film's website for full details