ROB JOVANOVIC Big Star: The Story Of Rock’s Forgotten Band (Fourth Estate)

Conclusively eclipsing his workmanlike “Nirvana: The Recording Sessions”, Rob Jovanovic’s “Big Star: The Story Of Rock’s Forgotten Band” reads like a labour of love. Certainly, the contrast between the two subjects and his treatments of them couldn’t be more marked: splashing the Nirvana name on the masthead practically guarantees a potential audience of millions, whereas despite their name (taken from a supermarket adjacent to the Memphis studio they recorded at) Big Star have yet to trouble chart compilers in any territory, to the best of my knowledge, despite fanboy (and girl) testimonials in print and song from the likes of Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub and The Bangles.

Jovanovic seems to have interviewed every surviving major player in the Big Star story (and many of its orbiting satellites) with the obvious and glaring exception of de facto bandleader Alex Chilton himself, whom the author observes ruefully “has always guarded his privacy. Famous for not being famous, Chilton does everything in his power to remain so”. If Chilton’s absence is the one thing that prevents this from being the definitive tome on Big Star, it’s his reticence that practically guarantees that it’s as good as we’re likely to get.

Jovanovic certainly hasn’t bungled his golden opportunity. His version of the Big Star story reaches back as far as dawn-of-the-20th-century Memphis, paints detailed portraits of the main characters’ families and environments, and works through their pre- and post-Big Star careers, including Chilton’s slippery brush with celebrity as a Box Top and his long, prickly and frequently self-destructive solo career. In between, there’s the small matter of how Big Star and its fractious, ever-shifting personnel managed to create three of the greatest albums of all time in “#1 Record”, “Radio City” and “Third/Sister Lovers” whilst beset by commercial indifference and record company incompetence. Brilliantly, Jovanovic ends his tale in 2004, when the fabulous promise of the first Big Star album in three decades, then being recorded, had yet to curdle into the brandname-besmirching “In Space”.

One measure of a biography such as this is whether it affords new insights into long-treasured albums. In the months since I read it I’ve heard “I Am The Cosmos”, the fragmentary solo album by former Big Star member Chris Bell, entirely afresh in the light of his struggles reconciling his Christianity and homosexuality, and been wowed anew by the dense but supremely melodic layering upon which the band built “#1 Record” and “Radio City”. If you adore Big Star anywhere as much as any open-eared lover of popular music reasonably should, you might well find similar enlightenment in these pages.