Much has been written about the brilliance of the Memphis band, Big Star. Yet, they didn’t just appear out of nowhere; like all bands, their collective musicians developed over time. Free Again: the 1970 Sessions (read our review here) concentrated on the pre-Big Star work of Alex Chilton. Looking Forward – the Roots of Big Star showcases the group’s other frontman and initial songwriter, Chris Bell, in a revealing new compilation from Omnivore Recordings.
Unlike Chilton, whose sound changed drastically from his blue-eyed roots in the Box Tops to Big Star, guitarist Bell had already begun to experiment with the heavy, but melodic rock that would become his band’s signature calling card. Through several early bands – the Wallabys, Icewater, then Rock City, we see much of Big Star’s best traits come into focus.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on an early, Rock City version of “My Life is Right,” which later appeared on Big Star’s #1 Record. Featuring vocals by Bell (more passionate than on the later version) and signature drumming by future Big Star member Jody Stephens, most of the key elements are in place.
Although Bell played guitar on the majority of this set, only eight of this collection’s 22 tracks were penned by him, and only a couple have his vocals, yet his presence is felt throughout. Most of the songs here are eerily similar to what Big Star would become. The opening number, “Think It’s Time to Say Goodbye,” from Rock City, has a similar vibe to Big Star’s “Don’t Lie to Me,” while “All I See is You,” from an earlier band, Icewater, sounds like a lost Badfinger cut, and features a chorus that recalls the Beatles’ “Dig a Pony.”
There are some different elements going on here too – “Looking Forward,” with its heavily-processed vocals and backwards effects, sounds like a Syd Barrett outtake, while “Psychedelic Stuff” is crudely produced, and influenced by British psychedelia like the Move.
While just about everything here has merit, the finest material comes from Bell’s last band before Big Star, Rock City. Tom Eubanks was a hell of a great singer – listen to his gritty voice on “I Lost a Love,” while “The Answer” starts out haunting and slow, then morphs into a hard rocker, featuring a stinging Chris Bell guitar solo. There’s also an early version of “Try Again” (another #1 Record track), this time featuring the interesting addition of a steel guitar.
While most of this material has shown up somewhere before, this collection does boast six previously unreleased tracks. Of particular note is the Icewater rocker “A Chance to Live,” and an early, instrumental take of “Oh My Soul,” which led off Big Star’s sophomore album, Radio City (which didn’t feature Bell).
The eleven Rock City tracks makes Looking Forward worth grabbing. The additional material helps give us more backstory into the beginnings of one of rock’s most enigmatic and underrated performers.