Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me Documentary

Hanspostcard is hosting a movie draft from 12 different genres…this is my musical entry and final pick.

Such a great band but such a frustrating story. Robyn Hitchcock remarked, “Big Star is like a letter that was mailed in 1972 but didn’t arrive until 1985.” That is a great way to explain them. They made three of the best albums of the decade that were not heard until much later. When they were finally discovered they influenced many artists such as The Replacements, REM, Cheap Trick, Matthew Sweet, and more. The last time I checked it was on Netflix…watch this documentary.

When these musicians and critics talk about Big Star…they talk about them like people talk about The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks. In this documentary you have Cheap Trick, REM, Mitch Easter, Robyn Hitchcock, and others talking about the band.

The first album got great reviews…you couldn’t ask for better. When the label called radio stations trying to get them to play it…the stations would say it’s not selling. When someone actually heard the songs on the radio, they couldn’t find the record to buy it. This was basically the same story with all of the albums.

Distribution problems and just bad timing. Stax didn’t do a good job of distribution…they made a deal with Columbia before the second album to distribute the album…problem solved right? Nope, Clive Davis who made the deal was then fired at Columbia. The deal fell through and then Stax disintegrated.

Chris Bell who was key in creating the sound the band had quit after the first album. He came back but then quit again. Chris had depression problems and wanted badly to do something on his own. Alex Chilton continued and finished the second and third album with a new bass player on the third album.

After that, it follows Chris and Alex’s career to the end of both. It also covers Jim Dickinson’s role on the third experimental album. Family members, fans, and rock writers also share their love of Big Star and memories of the band members.

In May of 1973 Ardent Studios where Big Star recorded invited 100 rock writers down to Memphis to hear Big Star live. They all loved Big Star and it went over great…but that wasn’t the band’s problem…it was the business side. What would have happened if they would have signed with a label more suited to them?

Before watching this documentary, a couple of years back I didn’t realize Chris Bell was so instrumental in developing their sound. I knew it wasn’t the Alex Chilton band, but Chris was invaluable and started the ball rolling. All 4 members did contribute writing and singing but Chilton and Bell were the Lennon and McCartney of the group.

It’s a great documentary about a great band that had the talent, but fate wasn’t on their side.

There is the often-used Peter Buck quote that everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album went out and started a band…the same is true with this band.

My recommendation? Watch it…NOW

Cast

Billy Altman … Self – Writer
Jon Auer … Self
Lester Bangs … Self (archive footage)
Chris Bell … Self (archive footage)
David Bell … Self – Chris Bell’s Brother
Norman Blake … Self
The Box Tops … Themselves (archive footage)
Panther Burns … Themselves (archive footage)
Cheap Trick … Themselves
Stephanie Chernikowski … Self – Photographer
Alex Chilton … Self (archive footage)
Rick Clark … Self – Writer and Musician
Stephen Ira Cohen … Self – U.S. Congressman (archive footage) (as Steve Cohen)
The Cramps … Themselves (archive footage)
John Dando … Self – Band Manager, Ardent Studios 1972-1975
Luther Dickinson … Self
Mary Lindsay Dickinson … Self
Steven Drozd … Self
Van Duren … Self – Musician
Mitch Easter … Self – Musician and Producer
Bruce Eaton … Self (voice) (archive footage)
William Eggleston … Self
Tav Falco … Self
John Fry … Self – Founder, Ardent Studios
John Hampton … Self – Engineer, Ardent Studios
Douglas Hart … Self – Bass, The Jesus and Mary Chain
Robyn Hitchcock … Self
Andy Hummel … Self (archive footage)
Ross Johnson … Self – Writer and Musician
Ira Kaplan … Self
Lenny Kaye … Self – Writer and Musician
John King … Self – Promotions, Ardent Studios 1972-1975
Curt Kirkwood … Self
John Lightman … Self
Carole Manning … Self – Ardent Studios 1972-1975
Mike Mills … Self
The Replacements The Replacements … Themselves (archive footage)
Steve Rhea … Self – Promotions, Ardent Studios 1972-1975
Will Rigby … Self – musician
Richard Rosebrough … Self – Engineer, Ardent Studios 1972-1975
Kliph Scurlock … Self
Tom Sheehan … Self – Photographer
Chris Stamey … Self – Musician and Producer
Big Star … Themselves
Jody Stephens … Self
Sara Stewart … Self – Chris Bell’s Sister
Michael Stipe … Self
Ken Stringfellow … Self
Matthew Sweet … Self
Alexis Taylor … Self
Marge Thrasher … Self – Hostess of Straight Talk (archive footage)
Jon Tiven … Self
Pete Tomlinson … Self – Writer
Jaan Uhelszki … Self – Writer (as Jaan Uhelzski)
Terry Edwards … Conductor, London (uncredited)

REM – Superman …. 80’s Underground Mondays

I was surprised back when I found out that REM didn’t write this song. This song was originally recorded by a late 60’s band from Beaumont, Texas called The Clique, who released it as the B-side of their only Top 40 hit… “Sugar On Sunday.” The song was written by the group’s producer Gary Zekley along with Elliot Bottler, Mitchell Bottler and Brandon Chase.

The Clique didn’t have massive success in the charts but they toured nationally with popular acts, including Tommy James and The Shondells, Grand Funk Railroad, Brooklyn Bridge, and The Dave Clark Five. They had a brief reunion in 2008.

I like the Clique’s version of this also. It has a psychedelic vibe to it which is cool. REM stuck close to the original. Mike Mills the bass player is singing lead on this song because Michael Stipe refused to play it in concert. He told a London crowd in 2008 “We’re definitely not doing that one” after a fan request in 2008.

The scratchy spoken intro is credited to a Japanese pull-string Godzilla doll. Translated loosely from the Japanese, it says, “This is a special news report. Godzilla has been sighted in Tokyo Bay. The attack on it by the Self-Defense Force has been useless. He is heading towards the city. Aaaaaaaaagh….”

The song was on the album Life’s Rich Pageant released in 1986. Superman peaked at #17 in the Mainstream Rock Charts. The album peaked at #21 in the Billboard Album Charts, #39 in Canada, #24 in New Zealand,  and #43 in the UK. 

From Songfacts

This is a slightly stalkerish song about a guy who sees himself as Superman. He believes he can “see right through” the girl (presumably using his X-ray vision) so he knows that she doesn’t really love the guy she’s with. Where it gets a little creepy is when he threatens to find her even if she’s “a million miles away.”

It’s all in good fun though. R.E.M. don’t take it too seriously – Mike Mills sang lead on the track instead of Michael Stipe.

311 covered this song at one of their Halloween shows. Lead singer Nick Hexum dressed up as… you guessed it… Superman. On their DVD Enlarged To Show Detail 2, you can see them practicing it in the bus before the show, and then you see them perform it in concert. 311 site R.E.M. as one of their major influences. Hexum and Doug “S.A.” Martinez have both commented on their love of R.E.M.

 

Superman

I am, I am, I am Superman and I know what’s happening
I am, I am, I am Superman and I can do anything

You don’t really love that guy you make it with now, do you?
I know you don’t love that guy ’cause I can see right through you

I am, I am, I am Superman and I know what’s happening
I am, I am, I am Superman and I can do anything

If you go a million miles away I’ll track you down, girl
Trust me when I say I know the pathway to your heart

If you go a million miles away I’ll track you down, girl
Trust me when I say I know the pathway to your heart

I am, I am Superman and I know what’s happening
I am, I am, I am Superman and I can do anything

I am, I am, I am Superman and I know what’s happening
I am, I am, I am Superman and I can do anything

REM – Drive

Whenever I hear this song… I think of David Essex’s song Rock On. It makes sense…Michael Stipe wrote this as a tribute to Rock On.

They recorded a demo version of this song at John Keane Studios, a favorite place for the band to work in their hometown of Athens, Ga. Before the bulk of the Automatic for the People sessions were to take place in March and April, the group spent a little more than a week in New Orleans, playing and recording in Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studio.

The ended up recording a complete demo of the song in New Orleans they would use as the basis of the song.

Automatic For the People was released in 1992.  The album title comes from a sign at “Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods” diner in Athens, Georgia. It read, “Delicious Fine Foods – Automatic For The People.” The diner was near the university in Athens, and was a regular hangout for Stipe and his friends in the band’s early days.

The song peaked at #28 in the Billboard 100, #7 in Canada, #11, and #5 in New Zealand in 1992.

Michael Stipe: There were, before Punk, a few songs that resonated with me. One was David Essex’s ‘Rock On.’ ‘Drive’ is a homage to that. It was the first song I wrote on computer. Before, I had a typewriter. The reason is my handwriting changes dramatically day to day. I don’t trust it. I will write one of the best lyrics ever and discard it because the handwriting looks like s–t. Or the handwriting looks good but it’s a crap lyric, lo and behold, it’s in the song. Too late.”

Mike Mills about the video: “I’m not much of a symbolist. There’s something messianic about being passed over the heads of the people like that, and yet we’re anything but messiahs. That was always a strange thing to me. I mean, yes, they get to touch you, but at the same time they’re holding you up like a saint.”

Michael Stipe: “The other interesting thing about that video was what happened backstage,” he added. “We shot it in Los Angeles with a thousand people as extras. River Phoenix came, hang out in the trailer. We had a great time, until Oliver Stone showed up. I think they had both been drinking, and they got in a fist fight in my trail (gaffaws heartily). I think River won, to tell you the truth. I know he did, in fact.”

From Songfacts

The central lyric, “Hey kids, rock n’ roll,” was borrowed from “Rock On” by David Essex. The words may be the same, but the mood is completely different. This is a much more somber song.

Lead singer Michael Stipe explained in the November 12, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone: “

Guitarist Peter Buck used a nickel as a guitar pick for the mid-song guitar solo to get a sharper sound. He overdubbed the track six times.

There is a line in the song that goes, “Smack, crack, bushwhacked.” This can be seen as an indictment of then-U.S. President George Bush (the first one). Lead singer Michael Stipe had taken out ads in college newspapers in 1988 saying, “Don’t Get Bushwhacked. Get out and vote. Vote Dukakis.” They weren’t very effective.

This was released two months before the national election between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Clinton won that one, but eight years later Bush’s son became president. When the younger Bush ran for re-election in 2004, R.E.M. performed concerts to benefit his opponent, John Kerry.

This song has no chorus. That doesn’t happen very often in hit songs.

This was the first single released off the album. It was issued a few days before the album came out.

At live shows, R.E.M. played a funk-rock version of this song because its ambient atmosphere was difficult to duplicate. This version appears on a 1993 benefit album for Greenpeace called Alternative NRG.

Director Peter Care shot the black-and-white music video at Sepulveda Dam in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles. The clip mostly has Stipe crowdsurfing as he performs the song.

The implication was unclear; is the audience protecting him, or ready to tear him apart? Stipe told Mojo it was both. “It’s everything. I’m about to be devoured.”

Drive

Smack, crack, bushwhacked
Tie another one to the racks, baby
Hey kids, rock and roll
Nobody tells you where to go, baby

What if I ride, what if you walk?
What if you rock around the clock?
Tick-tock, tick-tock
What if you did, what if you walk?
What if you tried to get off, baby?

Hey, kids, where are you?
Nobody tells you what to do, baby
Hey kids, shake a leg
Maybe you’re crazy in the head, baby

Maybe you did, maybe you walked
Maybe you rocked around the clock
Tick-tock, tick-tock
Maybe I ride, maybe you walk
Maybe I drive to get off, baby

Hey kids, shake a leg
Maybe you’re crazy in the head, baby
Ollie, Ollie, Ollie, Ollie, Ollie
Ollie, Ollie in come free, baby
Hey, kids, where are you?
Nobody tells you what to do, baby

Smack, crack, shack-a-lack
Tie another one to your backs, baby
Hey kids, rock and roll
Nobody tells you where to go, baby

Maybe you did, maybe you walk
Maybe you rock around the clock
Tick-tock, tick-tock
Maybe I ride, maybe you walk
Maybe I drive to get off, baby

Hey kids, where are you?
Nobody tells you what to do, baby
Hey kids, rock and roll
Nobody tells you where to go, baby
Baby
Baby

REM – The One I Love

I remember this song well…it was a breakthrough song for REM. I knew some very intense REM fans and they were not happy that they were in the top 10. The cat was out of the bag and the band was not their secret anymore.

The moment that guitarist Peter Buck played that riff on his Rickenbacker 325 I knew I liked this song. It had the jangly sound that previous REM songs had but this one had a larger commercial appeal. This song broke them through to the masses.

The song peaked at #9 in the Billboard 100, #11 in Canada, #16 in the UK, and #6 in New Zealand in 1987.

It was on the album Document and it peaked at #10 in the Billboard Album Charts, #13 in Canada, #28 in the UK, and #17 in New Zealand.

Michael Stipe describes this song as about using people over and over. It sounds like a love song until the line, “A simple prop to occupy my time.”

Mike Mills (Bass Player): “Peter Buck came up with the riff on his porch. I remember Peter, showing me that riff and thinking it was pretty cool, and then the rest of the song flowed from there. We played the whole song as an instrumental until Michael (Stipe) came up with some vocals for it.”

 

From Songfacts

The lead vocal on the chorus contains just one word: “Fire,” which Michael Stipe draws out into a long wail. In the background, you can hear bass player Mike Mills singing, “She’s comin’ down on her own, now.”

This is not based on any real person or event. The band made up the lyrics while they were on a tour.

For a while, Stipe thought this was too brutal a song to record. He told Q magazine in 1992: “It’s probably better that they think it’s a love song at this point. That song just came up from somewhere and I recognized it as being really violent and awful. But it wasn’t directed at any one person. I would never write a song like that. Even if there was one person in the world thinking, This song is about me, I could never sing it or put it out… I didn’t want to record that, I thought it was too much. Too brutal. I think there’s enough of that ugliness around.”

This was R.E.M.’s first hit song. They had been recording since 1981 and growing a following.

Bush played this at Woodstock ’99 with a much harder sound. 

Robert Longo directed the music video for this song, which has images of tenement buildings, dancers and lonely couples, mixed with sweeping clouds, lighting bolts and bursts of flame. The director of photography was Alton Brown, who would go on to be a Food Network star with shows like Good Eats, Iron Chef America and Cutthroat Kitchen.

Speaking to Mojo in 2016, Stipe said that he wasn’t at all dismayed that so many people misinterpreted the sarcastic and spiteful lyrics as a straightforward love song. “I didn’t like the song to begin with,” he explained. “I felt it was too brutal. I thought the sentiment was too difficult to put out into the world. But people misunderstood it, so it was fine. Now it’s a love song, so that’s fine.”

The One I Love

This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind
A simple prop to occupy my time
This one goes out to the one I love

Fire (she’s comin’ down on her own, now)
Fire (she’s comin’ down on her own, now)

This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind
A simple prop to occupy my time
This one goes out to the one I love

Fire (she’s comin’ down on her own, now)
Fire (she’s comin’ down on her own, now)

This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind
Another prop has occupied my time
This one goes out to the one I love

Fire (she’s comin’ down on her own, now)
Fire (she’s comin’ down on her own, now)
Fire (she’s comin’ down on her own, now)
Fire (she’s comin’ down on her own, now)