It was once said about the Velvet Underground that while they sold very few albums during their lifetime, everyone that bought their records went on to form a band.
Formed in Memphis Tennessee in 1971, Big Star were a band of a similar ilk; they released two albums before disbanding in 1974 - a third album, deemed not commercial enough at the time, was released posthumously. They barely registered an impact during their lifetime, but those three albums went on to influence subsequent generations of musicians and to this day, they are cited as one of the most influential acts from that era. The Replacements, REM, Teenage Fanclub, Elliot Smith and Primal Scream have all paid homage to them at one time or another and their legacy has endured long after some of the more commercially successful acts of that time have disappeared from view completely.
Nothing Can Hurt Me is the companion album to an upcoming documentary film about the band. It contains twenty one previously unreleased versions of some of their best songs. It is, of course, magnificent, containing some of the most beautiful songs from the slim volume of work they left behind. As an introduction to the music of Big Star, it serves its purpose well; for existing fans and completists, hearing the different mixes and versions of their wonderful songs is a fresh reminder of why we fell in love with their music in the first place.
The new versions are just about different enough to make this a worthwhile purchase for those who already own their albums. Hearing the sweetly innocent 'Thirteen' alongside the raw and exposed 'Holocaust' neatly encapsulates the bands short and turbulent history - by the time they got to recording the third album, the personal and collective turmoil within the group was beginning to seep into their music.
Elsewhere, the soaring 'The Ballad of El Goodo' and the sweetly melancholic 'Give Me Another Chance' serve as a reminder of just how special this band was. Scottish rockers Teenage Fanclub based a whole career around Big Star's best known song 'September Gurls' and this closes the album on something of a triumphant note, the blueprint for the alternative power pop of so many bands from the nineties. The inclusion of an Alex Chilton's solo number 'All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain' is reason enough to buy this record - a gorgeous, heartfelt acoustic ballad made all the more bittersweet since Chilton's sad passing in 2010.
It is often hard to comprehend the workings of the music industry and how some acts of limited talent thrive, while others fall by the wayside and never get the exposure they truly deserve. Big Star have been referred to in the past as 'beautiful losers' or 'glorious failures', tired clichés that come nowhere near to explaining the impact this band had. Listening to these songs again is a potent reminder that success doesn't always have to be measured in commercial terms, and that inspiration and beauty still count for something, even in an industry where greed has been the byword for so long.
Review by Paul Page