Big Star – Complete Third (review)

Big Star – Complete Third (Omnivore Recordings) review

No album tried harder to destroy its band’s legacy, while ironically adding to it

What happens when you create two of the greatest pop/rock masterpieces of the 1970’s and nobody cares? Third is the aural answer to that question. The legendary album gets the deluxe treatment in Complete Third, from Omnivore Recordings, giving fans a chance to peek behind the curtain at one of the most harrowing rock albums in history.

Complete Third is the culmination of a decade-long search for every scrap of recorded music related to this project. The result is a three-disc set chock full of demos, alternates, and rough mixes, along with insightful liner notes, that help enhance the understanding and appreciation of this difficult record.

Although Third can be wholly appreciated on its own, it’s certainly helpful to understand the backstory. Highly recommended is Nothing Can Hurt Me, a 2012 documentary that sums up the star-crossed band’s misfortunes (and is easily available on Netflix). Big Star’s first two albums were full of the melodicism of the Beatles, and the haunting depth of the Byrds, coupled with the fury of the Who, and sprinkled with the sun-soaked harmonies of the Beach Boys. If this concoction sounds like a recipe for success, it should’ve been. Through misguided marketing, lousy distribution and just bad luck, the band never reached their potential. This was the shadow that leader Alex Chilton had hanging over him when he entered the studio to begin work on what would become Third.

One of the biggest revelations of Complete Third is that this record may have been soaked in despair, but it didn’t start out that way. The dozen and a half acoustic demos that begin Disc one showcase many of the tracks with just Chilton and a gorgeous, 12-string guitar, and the results are mind-blowing good. There’s a gritty quality to his voice on “Jesus Christ” that is missing from the finished rendition, while “Thank You Friends” sounds less sarcastic in this stripped-down form. His take on the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” is spine-tingling good in its simplicity; Chilton truly had one of the greatest voices in all of rock. Even the odd “Downs” isn’t quite the train wreck it later became.

In demo form, many of these songs would’ve sounded right at home on the band’s previous record, Radio City. Of course, that isn’t true for everything here – the creepy “Holocaust” is even more potent and immediate with just Chilton and piano, while several versions of “Big Black Car” show that he was trying very hard to move away from the patented Big Star sound. An incomplete version of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” complete with Alex handling all the harmonies, proves that these sessions weren’t all doom and gloom.

Also featured are numerous rough mixes, as different people tried to wrangle these disjoined sessions together. The Jim Dickinson ones are interesting to hear because most are missing key overdubs. But, these cuts are all riddled with tape dropouts, so they’re not easy to listen to. More fascinating are the John Fry roughs – while still not even close to commercial, these versions are more straight-forward, and a little less weird.

The accompanying packaging is done with the care of a devoted fan. Photos of tape boxes and pictures of all the parties involved, give this a family album-type feel. The real treat is the numerous essays and testimonials crammed into the booklet. Everyone from Chris Stamey, who played with Chilton in a post-Big Star band, to the Bangles, who covered “September Gurls” on their second album, is included. The last surviving original member, drummer Jody Stephens gives his memories, while critic Bud Scoppa manages to even track down a few quotes from the mercurial Chilton himself.

The original Third album is a difficult listen; it’s a soundtrack to a dark time in one of the most under-appreciated artists of the rock era. Complete Third’s real triumph is making this music more palatable. By adding the additional material, especially the acoustic demo versions, they provide a perfect jumping off point for an album that deepens with each listen. For a band that never had success during their brief time together, Complete Third is another in a long line of recent triumphs. —Tony Peters