Album Review

The Most Detailed Look Yet at Chris Bell Before and After Big Star

Chris Bell - Looking Forward / I Am the Cosmos / Complete

Chris Bell’s untimely death in 1978 not only robbed the world of his musical greatness, but also froze his artistic assets. A full appraisal of his art was retarded by the paucity of available recorded material that lingered for many years after his passing. Big Star’s debut, #1 Record, despite the contemporaneous critical praise and retrospective glory lavished upon it, had been poorly distributed at the time of its 1972 release. Reissued in 1978, apparently to Bell’s delight, it’s imported manufacture delegated it to specialty shops. That same year, Bell’s solo single, “I Am the Cosmos,” was released on Chris Stamey’s Car label, but it would be 14 more years until Ryko’s 1992 full-length I Am the Cosmos really started to flesh out the Chris Bell story. By then, Big Star had become an iconic reference among 1980s indie pop bands, and with Alex Chilton’s new Big Star formation in 1993, interest in Bell continued to grow.

The next cache of Bell material to turn up were pre-Big Star recordings by The Jynx, Rock City, Christmas Future, and Icewater on collections dedicated to Big Star and the Ardent label. In 2009, Rhino Handmade provided further insight into Bell’s post-Big Star period with an expanded edition of I Am the Cosmos. Omnivore now pulls this all together, expanding upon what’s been excavated before with three new releases. First is the single CD Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star, which adds six previously unissued tracks to the existing corpus of pre-Big Star material. Second is a deluxe reissue of I Am the Cosmos that adds eight tracks to the 2009 Rhino Handmade reissue. Third is an omnibus vinyl-only box set, The Complete Chris Bell, which collects the material from the first two sets, and adds an excerpt from Rich Tupica’s forthcoming biography, There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Big Star Founder Chris Bell.

What’s immediately striking about the material on Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star is how good it sounds. Ardent studio owner John Fry had the presence of mind to train a handful of musicians on recording technique, and let them practice in the studio’s down time. These sessions were free from the pressure of a studio clock or a label’s budget, and they allowed the musicians to explore their craft as players, engineers and producers. The six previously unreleased tracks include recordings by The Wallabys (“The Reason”) and Icewater (“A Chance to Live”) and four backing tracks. Big Star fans drawn to the backing track “Oh My Soul” will find it unrelated to the Chilton song of the same name, but the chugging groove is infectious and Bell’s guitar work superb. The unfinished “Germany” has fine vocal overdubs, and the gritty guitar on the alternate of “Feeling High” is terrific.

What shines through the early Ardent sessions is everyone’s unbridled enthusiasm, and for Chris Bell in particular, an optimism that had yet to be crushed under the weight of #1 Record’s commercial failure. From the earliest track, “Psychedelic Stuff,” through the British Invasion tones of the Wallabys, breakthrough compositions like “All I See is You,” and material that would be re-recorded by Big Star, everything rings with a sense of musicians chasing their muse, unencumbered by commercial considerations and with a growing sense that they could make music as meaningful and moving as their idols. Alec Palao’s liner notes include insightful interviews with John Fry, Steve Rhea, Terry Manning, Alan Palmore, Jody Stephens, Tom Eubanks, providing detail on the scene, sessions and tracks.

The eight tracks added to I Am the Cosmos include alternate versions, backing tracks and mixes that provide the final clues as to the journey Bell’s songs took throughout his lifetime. As Alec Palao notes, “unless some new studio sessions come to light in the future, [this set] is essentially the last word on the work of this quixotic talent.” Omnivore relocates the Icewater and Rock City tracks Rhino added in 2009 to a more natural spot on Looking Forward, and adds several mixes from the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me. Bob Mehr’s liner notes tell of Bell’s spiritual, musical and geographical odysseys to record, overdub, mix and find a record deal. Alec Palao’s track notes further dissect Bell’s artistic restlessness by piecing together details of his intercontinental quest for perfection.

The avalanche of material that’s been posthumously released on Big Star, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton might feel Elvis- or Jimi-like, had the band not been so thoroughly ignored in their prime. The drive to learn how these artists came to produce #1 Record, Radio City and Third, and what became of them afterwards is delayed discovery rather than morbid curiosity. The books, documentary, reissues, best-ofs, box sets, archival artifacts, resurrections, reunions, and tribute performances might overwhelm lesser artists. But in the case of Chris Bell, the before and after provide a surround that magnifies the all-too-brief artistic flame. Those new to the Big Star canon should start with their albums, those who’ve already imbibed will want to dig the roots and the afterwards, and those who’ve already thoroughly explored the periphery will find something of value in upgrading. [©2017 Hyperbolium]