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Monday, May 09, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Big Star
The saga of Big Star, and member Alex Chilton in particular, is one of the more compelling stories in rock history. Big Star was a quartet from Memphis, who included a young Chilton, formerly the teenaged lead singer for The Box Tops. It's a story of naivete, disillusionment, bitterness, and redemption, the first three of which come through in succession on their first, second, and final albums.
Alex Chilton also had three distinct careers; with The Box Tops, Big Star, and solo; they bear little in common with each other. Fans of 60's oldies remember him as the soulful voice of "The Letter", one many believed was that of a black soul singer. Big Star fans know him as the quirky, depressed, erratic genius with a British-style pop songcraft ability, solo Chilton fans remember him as a punk-era enigma; sometimes boozed, sometimes brilliant, sometimes maddeningly inscrutable, blowing off any pretense of stardom, becoming the focus of a quirky, devoted cult while delivering strange, occasionally incoherent albums. This chaos ended in the 90's when Chilton became a specialist in semi-ironic, semi-reverent cover versions of obscure R&B and rock 'n' roll songs.
What is indisputable is that Big Star, with three albums, helped create power-pop and jangle-pop, both of which were two of the most important movements in rock during the 80's. At the time it was a thankless job; the band broke up hitless after just two and a half years. But their legacy remains strong to this day.
Born Dec. 28, 1950, Chilton grew up middle-class in Memphis, TN, and started playing guitar in high school, playing in loose combos with friends. He also took up bass, and could alternate between the two, making him a versatile and useful band member. He began to sing, just a little at first, and then more as he grew confident in his voice; he had his own natural tenor, but could also sing in a deeper, bluesier voice sounding much older than his 16 years. After paying dues in a number of local amateur combos, he had his first professional gigs in 1967 with a group called the DeVilles.
The DeVilles consisted of Gary Talley (guitar), John Evans (guitar), Bill Cunningham (bass), and Danny Smythe (drums). The band played white R&B and were good musicians in a music town; their popularity was already on the rise in town when they invited Chilton, 16, to join the band in 1967. Producers/songwriters Chips Momen and Dann Penn scouted the band and liked what they saw, especially in Chilton. Popular at the time was the 17-year-old white soul shouter Stevie Winwood, and Momen and Penn were seeking a similar act of their own when they came across Chilton and the DeVilles. They signed the band, which changed its name shortly after to The Box Tops to avoid confusion with another DeVilles.
From the start, Moman and Penn kept tight reigns on their investment; choosing the material, mostly written by themselves or Wayne Carson Thompson. However, their first pick was a good one; a blue-eyed soul number by Thompson called "The Letter", the first number the Box Tops recorded. The 16-year-old Chilton's vocals are what makes the record; strong, confident, gritty, and soulful.
The single went straight to #1 in late 1967, starting the band off right at the top. Moman and Penn, however, suddenly with a cash cow at their disposal wanted to protect their investment, hired sessionmen to replace the band for the recording of the debut album, The Letter/Neon Rainbow; the actual band members barely appear on it. This naturally came as a blow to the band, although it does infuse the Box Tops records with a more authentic sounding Memphis soul groove than the young band could probably have handled themselves. Chilton sang, but his and the band's songs weren't used. The album didn't do as well as the single, making it only as far as #87 on the charts.
The album is a professional sounding but muted affair; Chilton comports himself admirably on vocals. Nothing on the album approaches the fire of the first single, which must've doubly stung the sidelined band, although a follow-up single "Neon Rainbow" reached #24. Evans and Smyth ultimately walked out in 1968 and returned to school, to be replaced by Rick Allen (ex-Gentrys) and Tom Boggs.
This new lineup, also augmented by sessionmen, recorded the band's follow-up album, Cry Like A Baby, in 1968. Legend has it, Dan Penn and songwriting partner Spooner Oldham didn't have a single for the band to record hours before the session was to begin, and came up with the title track, on the spot. Whatever its genesis, "Cry Like A Baby" is another fine piece of blue-eyed soul in a similar vein to "The Letter" and Chilton gave it another great vocal. It peaked at #2 on the charts. The songs on the album are written by the same team as the first, and the album is another professional slab of studio session Memphis soul, with Chilton's vocals on top. Chilton did manage to get his first song credit at this time, but only as a B-side, "Come On Honey". Cry Like A Baby, the album, did a little better than the debut, peaking at #59.
The third Box Tops album, Non-Stop, yielded two more singles; the lackluster "Choo Choo Train", which peaked at #26, and the Penn-Oldham "I Met Her In A Church" which only reached #37. Chilton was finally allowed a songwriting credit on an album, the modest soul shouter "I Can Dig It". Overall, it was mainly more of the same formula; bland session playing; good singing from Chilton, a couple of soul singles and plenty of filler.
Chilton, 18 at this point, began to resent the control the record company held over the band and grew vocal about it, at odds with the sunny personality projected in the publicity photos.
Producer Penn was starting to lose interest in the band anyway, so they were given a token more freedom on their final album, Dimensions, which was released in 1969. Penn wasn't involved this time out, either as a producer or songwriter. Chilton was allowed three songwriting credits and got to play on the album a little more, although the sessionmen remained employed. Chilton's "I Must Be the Devil" is the first standout original track of his career, a wrenching soul ballad that Eric Burdon might've sounded good doing. The single was "Soul Deep", written by "The Letter" composer Wayne Carson Thompson, which returned the Box Tops to the top-20, peaking at #18. Also included was an unexpected Bob Dylan cover, "I Shall Be Released", which was released as a single and reached #67. A third single, "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March" also saw chart action at #82. The album charted at a disappointing #77.
Following the album's release, original member Cunningham left the band, and also went back to school. The Box Tops' contract expired in February 1970, and without Penn in their corner, Bell didn't re-sign them, which suited Chilton just fine. He moved to Greenwich Village for a while, hoping to get a solo career going, but discovered it wasn't his scene. He returned to Memphis after a few months.
While Chilton was cooling his heels in Memphis, former high-school friend Chris Bell, a singer/songwriter whom Chilton had once played with in a high school cover band, put together a band with guitarist Steve Ray, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. In 1971, they began playing gigs around Memphis under the names of Ice Water and Rock City. Ray soon left the band, and Bell invited Chilton to join. The band renamed itself Big Star, after a local supermarket chain.
Bell had a part-time gig as an engineer and session guitarist at Ardent studios, owned by soul label Stax. He was able to get the band studio time, and they subsequently got a deal with the Ardent label, a subsidiary of Stax. It's hard to know what Stax, legendary for its soul releases, was expecting from this quartet of white 20-year-olds, one of whom used to be somebody already years prior. Given Chilton's blue-eyed soul stylings with the Box Tops, it's likely Stax was expecting something similar.
Which isn't what they got. Instead, we got Chilton's and Bell's gift to rock 'n' roll progeny, the wildly influential #1 Record, a record that not only failed to live up to its optimistic title, it barely managed to make it to the retailers.
In hindsight, it may hard to see what was so amazing about this album; one has to understand just how outside of the trends of the day it was to fully appreciate its impact. In 1972, rock had split in two directions; heavy and progressive on one end, and mushy MOR housewife music on the other end. One thing nobody was doing (or almost nobody, Badfinger and the Raspberries were two other misfits) was playing melodic, mid-60's inspired, Byrds and Beatles influenced harmonic music. The very concept was considered extinct in the heavy early 70's. #1 Record consists of ten Chilton-Bell originals, plus one by Hummell, and one Bell-Eubanks. "Feel", the leadoff track sounds like the solo Beatles reunited in the 70's, but with strange twists, like Chilton and Bell's deliberately high-register vocals, which lent the song an edginess unapparent in the lyrics. "The Ballad of El Goodo" is charming in its optimistic naivete, even as it foreshadows darker days ahead. "In The Street" is textbook power-pop before the word was coined. "Thirteen" displays adolescent angst in a wistful way, lent more weight when one considers that Chilton never had a normal teenhood. And on and on; the simple truths this album states eloquently about melody, harmony, chiming guitars, the power of innocence resonated years later in the early work of R.E.M., The Bangles, Game Theory, The Replacements, and Teenage Fanclub, among countless others. This album simultaneously gave birth to power pop and jangle pop, years before anybody knew what they were. Big Star is arguably the most influential American group of all time, after The Beach Boys, the Byrds, and Velvet Underground.
Unfortunately, Stax was in a bad way financially, and Ardent was incapable of competant promotion or distribution. As a result, despite some enthusiastic reviews and even airplay, many people couldn't find the record in the stores; consequently, it failed to make the charts.
This called for a reassessment in direction, and Bell and Chilton had opposing viewpoints. Bell favored more studio experimentation, Chilton wanted to play live. Tensions were also heightened by the attention Chilton received because of his Box Tops career, largely at the expense of Bell, who had contributed equally to the debut. The ensuing quarrels escalated, and in late 1972, Bell walked out. Sadly for Bell, his solo career would amount to one remarkable, legendary single, "I Am The Cosmos" in 1978; shortly after its release, he was killed in a car accident.
Bell's departure staggered the band; they tried to continue as a trio, but broke up within months; Chilton again tried to launch a solo career but couldn't get one started. After a single reunion gig in 1973, the trio decided to give it another shot, and went about recording a new album.
Radio City appeared in early 1974 and while it lacks the consistency of the debut, its high points reach higher than anything else they recorded. It's impossible not to hear the disillusionment creeping into the songwriting, singing, and even playing. Which is not to say the band plays poorly; they outdo themselves here. But if #1 Record had a sound of unbridled optimism, on Radio City the pessimism sets in. Lacking Bell, it is a decisively rawer and more shaggy recording than the debut, which works to its credit. The elegiac and homely "September Gurls" is the band's best known song, given reverent treatment by the Bangles on their Different Light album. "Back of a Car" is power pop with an accent on power; rough and ragged chords played raw as Chilton sings like the wounded, confused, never-grown-up-right adolescent he still was; even there, a glimmer of optimism sneaks through on the chorus. "I'm In Love With A Girl" is a country/folk tune, delicate and tender; its melodicism and spare arrangement have grown poignant with time. While this edition of Big Star is not the same band as the Bell-Chilton Big Star, it remains just as good; many aficionados prefer it to the debut.
Ardent still didn't have their distribution problems worked out though, and once again, the records barely made it into the stores. Hummell threw in the towel and quit; down to a duo of Chilton and Stephens, the band recruited John Lightman for an east coast tour and radio show on WLIR in Long Island; the WLIR show was released years later as Big Star Live.
The situation could not have been more frustrating for the band; once again receiving good notices for their album, they couldn't sell it; no matter how brilliant their tour was (and by all accounts it was ragged), it wouldn't boost sales. Chilton seems to have grown disgusted with the record business entirely at this point; on Big Star's third album, he seems to have ultimately gone out of his way to sabotage himself.
Chilton himself dismisses such speculation as myth, but a cursory listen to the third and final Big Star album, Third/Sister Lovers, lends credence to the myth.
One of the most infamous recording sessions of all time, work began on Third/Sister Lovers in late 1974. Stax/Ardent was going bankrupt at this point; even as the band recorded, they realized the album would probably meet the same fate as their first two, if not a worse one. It is a harrowing, hellish listen in many respects; as stark and naked as Plastic Ono Band, erratic and crackpot in its arrangements and production, manic depressive in its melodies and singing, it is power-pop for the suicidal, yet few albums make for more compelling listening than this one. Resorting to such devices as beating a deflated basketball with a drumstick for percussion, purposely playing out-of-tune guitars, and other wacked-out uncommercial trickery, there isn't a song left unscathed; each has been disfigured in one way or another. The results aren't often pretty; the album sounds claustrophobic and paranoid. However, Chilton's songcraft is at the peak of his career; songs like "O Dana" sound like a singalong on the decks of the Titanic, while "Kangaroo" is nervous, edgy, and scary. Jody Stephens gets a credit with "For You", but even its upbeat chorus and sentiments doesn't transcend the gloom. Not only the sound of a band breaking up, Third/Sister Lovers is the sound of a man breaking down.
Ardent didn't survive long enough to release it, nor is it clear they would have had they survived. Big Star disbanded with their album in the vaults, and few expected to hear from any of them again. Third/Sister Lovers, however, acquired a life of its own. Given a semi-bootleg release in 1978, and then appearing on many labels over the years with varying track lineups and sequencing, it became one of the ultimate cult albums. Rykodisc would eventually release the definitive version, at 14 tracks plus 5 bonuses in 1992.
After Big Star, Chilton at last embarked on his solo career, and an erratic, quioxtic solo career it has been. There is no way to classify his solo output, he has literally been all over the place. His first album, recorded in 1975, Bach's Bottom, is a mess. Continuing in the weird, almost paranoid vein Third/Sister Lovers conveyed, but lacking its songcraft, it comes across as a sneering, drunken shambles. After relocating to New York City, where he had failed to launch a career after the Box Tops, he settled into the bohemian club scene, which suited his approach well. He bounced back with a brilliant, angular punk single in 1977, "Bangkok", backed with a version of The Seeds' "Can't Seem To Make You Mine", and followed it with a variety of singles and EP's on tiny American and foreign indie labels. He produced the Cramps' first recording session, and helped them land a deal with I.R.S.
However, his life was beginning to fall apart. His next album Like Flies On Sherbet, released in 1980, is an amateur-sounding affair, with blown intros, studio noise, haphazard edits, sloppy and enervated playing, slurred, careless singing. Some of his cult revere this disc, but it was recorded when Chilton had developed a very serious battle with the bottle, and the album reflects it. It's not a case of mad genius here; this album really is the nadir of Chilton's career. One does get the impression he was trying here, but just wasn't up to the task. Chilton wouldn't release another studio album for seven years, and he barely ever recorded his own songs again.
He reached rock bottom around the time of his 1982 release, Live In London. This album featured selections from Big Star and the Box Tops among his solo songs, and he had members of the Psychedelic Furs and Soft Boys backing him, but Chilton just isn't there; his voice is weak, his playing listless and disinterested. Fortunately, Chilton began sobering up after this, and was returning to form by the time he was finally recognized for what he had accomplished with Big Star. He released a pair of "comeback" EP's, Feudalist Tarts (1985) and No Sex (1986). The Replacements named a song after him in 1986. He began landing better gigs. In 1987, he had pulled himself together enough to make another stab at recording.
High Priest, his first studio album since the abortion that was Like Flies On Sherbet, is not the return to power-pop his fans may have hoped for, but it did show signs of his musical senses returning. Recorded with Memphis/New Orleans sessionmen, it actually recalls the Box Tops as much as Big Star. His vocals remain arch and ironic sounding, but his guitar playing is excellent, and he comes up with four solid originals, including the weird "Dalai Lama" and the perverse "Thing For You", plus a selection of well-chosen covers. Hardly essential listening, but the first time since 1974 Chilton had held it together over the course of an entire album.
He relocated to New Orleans and continued playing gigs and releasing EP's into the 90's; in 1992 the Posies, a power-pop band inspired by Big Star, covered Chris Bell's "I Am The Cosmos". The following year, Chilton invited the Posies to back him and Jody Stephens at a Big Star "reunion" at the University Of Missouri, one he agreed to at the behest of a diehard fan. The show was relased on CD as Columbia: Live at the University of Missouri, and is a triumph. After years of avoiding confronting his own painful past, Chilton sounds better here than he had in years; at times he almost sounds bouyant, as though the weight of the world has been lifted from his shoulders. At 43, he still managed to sound like that same lost kid he was two decades earlier, with one difference; he now seemed at peace with his past. The Posies give the show a kick of adrenaline, and particularly on "Back Of A Car" and "September Gurls" this modest disc sounds like real rock 'n' roll affirmation. It went so well that Big Star toured Japan and Europe, finally getting some of the acclaim that had so long eluded them, and even appeared on the Tonight Show, but after the tour, nothing more was heard.
In 1994 he returned to solo work and released an album, Cliches, on the newly-revived Ardent label; while it contains no originals it is a good collection of friendly R&B numbers, showing Chilton sounding focused, interested, and with a sense of humor. He's essentially repeated this formula ever since, releasing A Man Called Destruction (1995; four okay originals, eight R&B/early rock 'n' roll covers), Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy (1997; 12 covers), Set (2000; 12 covers), and Live in Anvers (2004; 11 covers, one Big Star tune, one Box Tops). None of these records came close to charting, but that hardly matters anymore.
Chilton's career has been too slipshod and careless to be given too much scrutiny, although except for his boozing days he has usually remained an engaging listen. His real legacy is the one he shares with the short-lived Chris Bell; that of Big Star, the biggest little band ever, the band that had the biggest hand in writing the story of the 1980's, even if they weren't around to participate. Their legacy endures among musicians, collectors, and a small coterie of fans, many of whom have elevated the band to almost mythical status. That's going a little far; still, their ad-hoc indispensibility has been remarkable.
The curious listener who wants to dabble in this music should be aware of Chilton's three careers and invest accordingly. Big Star's #1 Record and Radio City are available as a two-fer; toss in Third/Sister Lovers and you've got the whole set. Columbia is well worth it for fans; Big Star Live, the document of their 1974 LIR show is an interesting curiosity, but lacks Bell and Hummell, and the rather muddy sound quality makes it a purchase for completists only. Avoid an album called Extended Versions, which is really a truncated, edited version of Columbia.
The Box Tops have been the subject of many anthologies, The Best of the Box Tops: Soul Deep on Arista is the best. The Box Tops' original albums are certainly inoffensive, and they have an appealing soulfulness with a touch of psychedelic undertones, but they're fairly bland beyond the hits, and really are for blue-eyed soul maniacs only. For a solo Chilton overview, Rhino's 1991 collection 19 Years: A Collection is a good anthology, if very patchy listen. Chilton's 90's-00's output is actually easier listening than most of the Rhino collection, but none of it is essential except for devoted fans. Cliches is probably the best.
Listen to Big Star: September Gurls (1974)
A slightly modified version of this article appears at Blogcritics.org