Alex Chilton never really thought that much of his songs; particularly those he wrote for Big Star. He always seemed vaguely baffled – and sometimes fed up – with the acclaim and love poured on those songs by critics and its cult body of fans, and pretty much said so in 1992: “I'm constantly surprised that people fall for Big Star the way they do... People say Big Star made some of the best rock 'n roll albums ever. And I say they're wrong."
He was a little less abrupt in a 1996 interview with 'The Idler,' hinting at a more personal insecurity about his songs: “There's a million examples of good songwriting, very few of them are mine.”
In the same interview, he described what puts him off his songs: “Usually when I write a song and I don't like it, it's because there's something in the tune that just seems so awkward to me and lays such an egg and is so lame that I really can't dig that bit of it and that kind of ruins the whole thing for me.”
Although the names Big Star and Alex Chilton don’t have the same general public recognition, particularly in the UK, they were arguably as influential as the Velvet Underground in terms of the sheer number of bands and artists with a clear Chilton/Big Star influence.
In the UK, the band enjoyed something of a resurgence in the early nineties, thanks to the constant praise of bands like the Teenage Fanclub (who very much wore the influence on their sleeves) and Primal Scream. Before then, American indie rock bands such as the Cramps, REM, Yo La Tengo and the Replacements were vocal in their support for Chilton and Big Star, with the latter even writing the song ‘Alex Chilton’ and inviting Chilton to guest on a couple of their songs. The influence of Big Star can be heard clearly in the music of Wilco, Elliott Smith, Whiskeytown, Brendan Benson, Jeff Buckley, Evan Dando and countless indie rock, power pop and alt. country bands. It can even be heard in very recent acts such as Deerhunter, Of Montreal and the Hold Steady (whether this influence is direct or indirect, it’s hard to say). It is a testament to the quality of Big Star’s music that all three of their original studio albums, ‘#1 Record’, ‘Radio City’ and ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ are still influencing musicians almost four decades later.
There is something timeless to an awful lot of Big Star’s music. Ok, a couple of tracks on ‘#1 Record’ have dated a little, but for the most part, the songs could be from any period in the last 50 years. It is probably because the band put their songs first, rather than trying to adhere to any specific style of the time. Sure, it has elements of 70s power pop, but it also straddled other styles, such as American folk pop, Beatles-esque 60s pop, and on their final album, more experimental, noisy pop, some of which sounds like a precursor to shoegaze 15 years later (based on the albums recording dates, rather than its release date – the album was shelved for several years before finally getting a release in 1978).
Chilton’s career in music started when he was 16, singing and playing guitar in beat/soul/pop combo the Box Tops. Chilton sang the lead on hit single ‘The Letter’, and contributed several songs to the band, although he never had any real control over the band’s direction. When the Box Tops split up, Chilton performed solo shows for a spell before reconnecting with old acquaintance Chris Bell in Memphis. Bell invited Chilton to see his band Icewater perform, featuring Andy Hummel on bass and Jody Stephens on drums. It wasn’t long before Chilton had joined them. The band subsequently became Big Star, named after a chain of grocery stores that the members frequented during recording sessions.
The band’s 1972 debut album, ‘#1 Record’ met with critical acclaim on its release, and the band were optimistic about its prospects for success. Unfortunately, their label, Stax, had distribution issues, meaning that the album was hard to find. Inevitably, it sold poorly. Tensions rose between some of the band members, culminating in Bell, who had developed a serious drug habit, quitting the band.
Big Star continued as a three-piece, recording what is possibly their ultimate guitar pop statement, ‘Radio City’(1973). While their debut was fantastic, ‘Radio City’ was that bit more consistent, with no weaker or dated elements. It is probably the band’s most accessible moment, featuring the perfect guitar pop of ‘September Gurls’, acoustic ballad ‘I’m in Love with a Girl’, the chugging rock of ‘She’s a Mover’, the folk rock of ‘You Get What You Deserve’, the odd yet pretty piano ballad ‘Morpha Too’.
It was great, and again, the critics thought so too. But again, the album was marred by distribution problems. Columbia Records, the new owners of Stax, were not interested in dealing with independent distributors and were even less interested in promoting ‘Radio City’. The album didn’t get proper distribution, and so ended up selling a mere 20,000 copies.
Hummel, fed up with the lack of success, quit the band to finish college. Chilton and Stephens pressed on, recording the band’s most out there and arguably finest overall album, ‘Third/Sister Lovers’(1975). The album had not completely abandoned Big Star’s earlier pop rock style, but was undeniably more atmospheric, noisy and dark than the band had ever been before.
While moments like ‘Kizza Me’ and ‘Thank You Friends’ were more upbeat, the majority of the songs were slow and woozy, like the melancholic ‘Big Black Car’, the haunting ‘Holocaust’ or the whirling, feedback drenched ‘Kanga Roo’. Then there are the odd, experimental moments, like the plinky intro to ‘Jesus Christ’, the odd rhythms of ‘Stroke it Noel’, the baroque ‘Nature Boy’ or the clattering, slighty tuneless ‘Downs’ (though it should be noted that there are several different versions of this album, and they don’t all feature the same songs). As well as these experimental tracks, however, ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ featured some of Chilton’s most beautiful tracks; the gorgeous little love song ‘Blue Moon’, the fragile sounding ‘Take Care’, or classic Chilton-style ballad ‘Nightime’.
It wasn’t particularly well received by the label, who shelved it. They finally released it in 1978 when again it wasn’t well received. Shortly after its release, Chris Bell died in a car accident.
The album was a big influence over many differing acts – Wilco songs such as ‘Sunken Treasure’ and ‘Misunderstood’ would sound right at home on the album. Those unfamiliar with Chilton could be forgiven for thinking ‘Blue Moon’ was by Elliott Smith. Teenage Fanclub songs such as ‘About You’ and ‘Your Love is The Place Where I Come From’ owe a ridiculous amount to Chilton. This Mortal Coil covered both ‘Kanga Roo’ and ‘Holocaust’. Chilton, however, was less enamoured with the results, claiming that he didn’t have enough control over the production process:
“I would’ve done a ton of things differently,” he said in 2007. “I could give a thousand examples. There are so many, it’s futile to even start. It has to do with everything, from every mix to every selection of voice track to use, to the selection of tunes. I could probably pick six or seven or eight tunes I would have used, but I think it suffices to say that I was pushed out of the process as soon as the mix-down began.”
‘Third/Sister Lovers’ was the end of Big Star until their reformation in 1993, but Chilton had not recorded his final influential record of that decade. He became a loose associate of the New York punk scene in the late 70s, recording with Television’s Richard Lloyd and producing a couple of Cramps records. It was around this time that he released in 1979 ‘Like Flies on Sherbert’, an intriguing, experimental mess of a record that isolated some Big Star fans at the time of its release. It’s largely a sloppy, drunken rock ‘n’ roll record, a mix of covers and Chilton originals.
Chilton wanted it to be messy, he wanted the musicianship and the recording to be sloppy. Most of the tracks seem to start and stop abruptly, and the recordings are drenched in noise and feedback. Essentially, it’s a precursor to punk blues bands like Boss Hog, Royal Trux and the Gun Club, but it also brings to mind the Replacements’ intentional sloppiness and Pavement’s more left-field moments. Despite all the noise and sloppy playing, it still features some great Chilton songs, such as the oddball chugging rock of ‘My Rival’, the Jonathan Richman-like ‘Rock Hard’, the catchy, Lou Reed-esque stomp of ‘Hey! Little Child’ or the warped pop of the title track.
After ‘…Sherbert’, Chilton took a step back from music, occasionally putting out albums, none of which really matched up to his earlier work. He started playing live more often towards the end of the 80s, and reformed Big Star in 1993, even releasing a new album, ‘In Space’, in 2005. While not quite as good as the early Big Star records, it still featured some great songs.
With the release of a Big Star box set last year, the band were enjoying another resurgence in popularity, and were starting to get the recognition they so richly deserved. Then, as we all know by now, Chilton died on the 17th March – he was packing in preparation for Big Star’s high profile set at this year’s SXSW. He was only 59.
I’m always surprised that more people, especially in the UK, haven’t discovered the work of Chilton and Big Star, considering so many bands cite them as an influence. If one good thing comes from Chilton’s death, it will be that people take some time to listen to what they’ve been missing. To help with this, I’ve put together a playlist of some Chilton’s best songs. There is a link at the bottom of this article. You’ll need Spotify to play it, but if you don’t have Spotify, why not sign up? It’s free, and you get access to loads of music.
When listening to all of Big Star’s output and Chilton’s best solo work to determine what would make the playlist, it really struck me just how consistently good his output was in the 70s, and just how much of it reminded me of subsequent bands. Big Star’s influence runs deep, and if you haven’t heard Chilton’s music directly, you’ve almost certainly heard his influence.
To conclude this tribute, I’ll let Chilton describe Big Star’s legacy in his own words; an uncharacteristically positive(ish) summary from 2007:
“Well, all in all I sort of look at the Big Star records as being a little bit innovative, you know? And by that I mean in a mostly musical sort of way, and not so much in a literary sense. I look at the tunes that we wrote, and I think that some of them – a few of them – are pretty good. I listen to the music, and I think that some of it shows a good musical mind at work. That’s what I think is good about those records. I see them as being the work of sort of young, fairly promising musical minds. I’m not as crazy about them as a lot of Big Star cultists seem to be. I think they’re good, but then again, I think Slade records are good, too.”