Big Star’s “Radio City:” A Cult Classic Turns 50 Years Old

Posted on February 26, 2024

by Eric P

Unless you’re related to someone who worked in a record store you may have never heard of the band Big Star. But you’ve probably heard their work – in the theme song to That 70s Show, in covers by bands like the Bangles and the Gin Blossoms, in the musical influence permeating songs by artists like Teenage Fanclub, the Replacements, Pavement, and R.E.M.

“I never travel far without a little Big Star,” sang Paul Westerburg in “Alex Chilton,” the Replacements’ paean to Big Star’s central singer/songwriter. Chilton got his start at 16 growling the vocals for the radio hit “The Letter” with the Box Tops; he spent his post-Big Star years releasing solo albums of varying sloppiness, enjoying worshipful cult status, flirting with self-destruction and, occasionally, washing dishes to pay the bills.

Some bands, like the Replacements, crave popular success but their songs don’t sound like it. Others, like Nirvana, record songs that don’t sound like hits but get popular anyway. Big Star fell into a different category – they wanted their songs to be hits, and they pretty much sounded like hits, but somehow it just… didn’t happen. Just didn’t work out. Cognitive dissonance ensued: they called the band Big Star but never became big stars. They titled their first album #1 Record but it never went to number one (or anywhere close). They named their second album Radio City but nothing on it got played on the radio. Everyone must have gotten sick of all the irony by the time the band’s brilliant, moody third record came out; it came to be known as Big Star’s Third, as though someone involved decided at least that was a description that wouldn’t get proved wrong.

Radio City turns fifty years old this month; one way to commemorate the occasion would be by not being very popular. That’s my plan. Alternately you could celebrate by revisiting – or visiting for the first time – the chiming, chugging, 70s-inflected power pop of this pervasively influential record: the careening guitar heroics of “O My Soul;” the heartbreak-on-its-sleeve longing of “Way Out West;” the quintessentially teenaged ache of “Back of a Car;” the stripped-down directness of “I’m in Love With a Girl;” the pure pop perfection of “September Gurls.”

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

hoopla video   |   hoopla audio   |   Freegal

Big Star: The Story of Rock’s Forgotten Band


Live at Lafayette’s Music Room, Memphis, TN

hoopla audio

Live in Memphis

hoopla audio

Ocean Club ’77


Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93


Did you like this blog post? Keep up to date with all of our posts by subscribing to the Library’s newsletters!

Keep your reading list updated with our book lists. Our staff love to read and they’ll give you the scoop on new tv-series inspired titles, hobbies, educational resources, pop culture, current events, and more!

Looking for more great titles? Get personalized recommendations from our librarians with this simple form.