"I've got a pretty nice thing going and I'm happy with the way that I get by, but I don't feel compelled to work to try and make millions you know. As long as it goes on this way, I like it. I feel lucky to be able to do the work I can at all."
-- Alex Chilton, "The Idler" interview
How many artists can claim to have sung a chart-topping hit when they were 17, gone on to front one of the most revered (though unappreciated) rock bands, produced an album for a famous punk rock band, and continue to make solo records of consistent quality today? Not many, but Alex Chilton can certainly claim to have done all of these and more.
1. Give me a ticket for an airplane
Born in Memphis, Tennessee on December 28, 1950, Alex Chilton played in several bands while in high school - briefly playing with Bill Cunningham, who he would work with later in The Box Tops, and Chris Bell, who would work with him in Big Star. The most steady of these bands, the Devilles, formed when Chilton was 15, gained notoriety around the Memphis area and by 1967 had evolved into The Box Tops. They presented themselved at legendary producer Chips Moman's American Recording Studio and were assigned to Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham - two of the studio's chief producers. They were presented with a song by an aspiring new songwriter named Wayne Carson Thompson - that song was "The Letter" and it would net the band a place at the top of the US chart and international success. The archetypal blue-eyed soul hit, the song featured Chilton's raspy delivery sounding far beyond his years - "Lonely days are gone, I'm a-going home, my baby just a-wrote me a letter". The hit came at a good time: "I was failing the tenth grade and I was going to have to repeat my sophomore year in high school, but I got lucky and had a No. 1 hit that summer. So my mom and dad were like, 'Why don't you go ahead and give this 'rock' thing a try?' "1
The Box Tops released further singles - "Neon Rainbow", "Cry Like a Baby" - that equalled their first in quality but were far less commercially successful. The band slowly eroded and finally ended in 1969, with Chilton legendarily storming off stage mid-gig. Chilton decamped to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he recorded a few solo offerings, which were released (much) later as the 1970 album - the soul/blues element he would bring to Big Star was very clearly present in these recordings. However, feeling unsatistified with New York, Chilton decided to return to Memphis - 20 years old and already aware of the fickle nature of the industry.
2. I'm a-going home
Big Star is formed
Upon returning to Memphis, Chilton met up with his friend from high school, Chris Bell. Bell was playing in a band called Ice Water at the time, which also included Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens. The band was also occasionally called Rock City and played mostly covers of bands such as Led Zeppelin, throwing in a few originals, none of which made it onto future recordings. Chilton had earlier tried to get Bell to move to New York and start a duo with him; Bell, however, preferred to stay home. Chilton began to hang around Ardent Studios, where Bell could also often be found acting as engineer and occasional session guitarist. Chilton began sessions for another solo effort; these surfaced on the Lost Decade compilation, also much later on. However, the sessions went nowhere and Chilton decided to join up with Ice Water, who turned from their live focus to begin some serious studio sessions. It was after one of these that the band noticed the Big Star Foodmarkets across the street and the band was thus rechristened Big Star.
3. I don't really need it, if I'm a big star
Making #1 Record2
During the sessions for what would become #1 Record, the opposite personalities within the band began to emerge. Bell, fascinated by the British Beat sound, had a definitely more pop-minded outlook. Chilton, on the other hand, preferred "rootsy" music, leaning more towards gritty soul and blues. Both contributed songs to the album; however, as Hummel states, "Chris WAS in charge" of the sessions, having had far more experience on the recording/production side than the other members while working at Ardent. The record took shape over the course of 1972 and was released through the Ardent imprint with Stax distribution - which proved woefully inadequate, the album selling only 4,000 copies at the time.
The music press raved about the album but always focused on Chilton when talking about the band - as Jody Stephens stated in his Perfect Sound interview, "the critics really focused on Alex, giving him a lot of attention. Anyone would have. Alex was in the Box Tops with the number one song in the nation. It's only natural that they focus on a band member that the readers would be familar with." Chris left the band in early 1973, practically breaking up the band. "Musical differences" - Bell preferring to keep Big Star a studio concern while Chilton wanted to go out on the road - and other tensions led many to claim the split was acrimonious. Chilton denies this, stating in his LA Weekly interview that "(some see) me as a Machiavellian guy who stole Chris Bell's band from him. Chris was a funny person...we had a good working relationship, and there was never a harsh word spoken between us." Chilton's ocassionally extreme personality might have played a part but, as he later contributed to Bell's I Am the Cosmos, the relationship, if broken, was at least later patched up.
4. How long can this go on?
Making Radio City
Big Star was pretty much inactive immediately after Bell's departure, so Chilton had time to begin (another) solo attempt, enlisting Danny Jones and Richard Rosebrough. Once again, however, the sessions proved inconclusive. The turning point came when John Keene asked Big Star to play at a local rock writers' convention - a "low-key, low pressure" affair that the three remaining members were more than willing to jump into. The show proved to be great fun and the band decided to go on to record another album - which would become Radio City.
Though a few of the songs on Radio City had been co-written between Bell and Chilton ("Back of a Car", etc), and the first session for the album was done while the band was still a foursome and engineered by John Fry, the tape of that session was later lost and, with Bell leaving the band soon thereafter, the album was essentially Chilton-led. It contrasts strongly in some places to #1 Record, being far more rough at its core, less afraid to rock out - but how much of this was Chilton's leadership and how much was the band's evolution from debut to sophomore attempt is hard to tell - regardless, Radio City bettered its predecessor musically and lyrically, while still failing to achieve any sort of real commercial sucess. Andy Hummel left the band after a brief tour, and Big Star remained as a duo, Alex and Jody.
5. Without my friends I got chaos
Making Third/Sister Lovers3
Some have claimed the recordings that would later become Third/Sister Lovers practically constitute Chilton's first solo record - this isn't an entirely farfetched claim. Much like his later albums, the album mixes rock and roll with soul and blues, mixing in covers ("Femme Fatale", "Nature Boy, etc) with his own compositions. This album is so intensely personal it feels like an intrusion sometimes. panamaus' excellent "Holocaust" and "Life is White" nodes speak of Chilton's feelings around the time of Big Star's last two albums; one would be well-advised to read them to gain some insight on his feelings. This album shows Chilton really taking charge of the band's sound - "If you want to be a producer", he told Jim Dickinson, who was working on the album, "do something with this." The album is so much of his work that, other than Stephens' drumming, the rest of the musicians would best be filed under "Guest".
I know I speak not only for myself but many other Big Star fans when I say that this album has made a profound impact on the way I listen to music. Chilton is in his element here, from cheery heights - "Jesus Christ", "Stroke it Noel" - to frightening downs - "Holocaust", "Big Black Car". It's an album you keep coming back to; it's an album that never lets you down. It's one of those albums that acts as a marker - before/after. If this sounds like gush, well, maybe it is - but like Brian Hogg states in his #1 Record sleevenotes, "It's difficult not to simply trip out superlatives when discussing this album" - a statement that could easily be applied to all three Big Star records. Big Star might have broken up in dismayed disillusionment, but they left a rarely equalled collection of excellent pop/rock songs - and our man Chilton was responsible for much of it.
6. What can a lonely rock and roller do?
The early solo years
With Stax Records going under and Third/Sister Lovers unreleased, Chilton began to record with Jon Tiven, still in Memphis. Releases from these sessions include the The Singer Not the Song EP and Bach's Bottom, an album released in 1980. A year earlier, Chilton had released the Bangkok single in London. It was a preview of what was to come: later that year Chilton recorded one of his best known solo records, Like Flies on Sherbert. I haven't yet been able to get my hands on a complete copy of this album, but what I've heard of it (and about it) reminds me of Dickinson's claim that "if things were going to be fucked up, (Chilton) was going to be the one to fuck them up", taken to an extreme. In a way, however, this is Chilton at the purest; the decadent beauty of songs such as the title track, drenched in slapback echo and featuring Chilton slipping in and out of falsetto, is undeniable. It's not an album for the impatient or the faint of heart - but then again, neither is Third/Sister Lovers. This is Memphis at its purest, warts and all.
The turn of the decade marked a new period of creativity for Chilton, who embraced the new punk movement, moving back to New York and playing in clubs like CBGB's, epicenter of the rising punk wave. He produced The Cramps' debut record, Songs the Lord Taught Us; legend has it that they drove down to Memphis in a stolen car to get him to produce the album. His recorded output from this time consists mostly of work with showman Gustav Falco, under the name Tav Falco and the Panther Burns. After a few albums with Falco, Chilton practically dropped off the musical scene.
7. No Sex!
Recovery and reforming
Reports of exactly what Chilton was up to in the early to mid 80's vary - a move to New Orleans, a stint as a dish washer and a lumberjack, etc - but all served to heighten his legend. What is known from this period is that Chilton cleaned his act up, fighting off the alcohol abuse that had plagued him since the mid-70's. He returned in 1985 with Feudalist Tarts, a six-track mini-LP now available in an augmented version as Feudalist Tarts/No Sex. Featuring some of his most straight-forward, R&B-rooted music, Feudalist Tarts showed a far more mellowed out Chilton4 - who was only 35 years old at the time, far younger than most rock stars' "mellow out" age. But then again, Chilton's story is one of packing into his life what some people couldn't accomplish in two or three.
Since then, Chilton has played with a reformed Big Star (documented on the Columbia album), a reformed Box Tops, the Chilton-worshipping Replacements, The Posies, Teenage Fanclub . . the list goes on. Other than the two bands Chilton was originally in, he can claim to have directly influenced these bands and many others. He's released several albums, mostly focusing on covers - take 2002's Set (or Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy, if you're European), recorded in a one-night, one-off recording session and featuring probably my favorite Chilton cover - "The Oogum Boogum Song", originally by Brenton Wood. His voice is still in fine form, his guitar playing is better than ever - in other words, he's not just a living legend, he's also going strong.
8. You're casting your spell on me
When I first started gaining interest in more than just music, but the people behind the music, there usually wasn't too much more to dig into - Tears for Fears don't really make the most exciting rock-tale imaginable. Discovering Big Star and, through them, Alex Chilton, however, changed all that. Here was someone who had made some of my favorite rock music, had a chart-topper when he was 17 (and not a teeny-bopper hit), been through what appears to be a personal hell in the late 70's and early 80's - in other words, someone who had lived life to the fullest, and lived to tell the tale - it's a bit awe-inspiring. Though some of his actions, attitudes, comments might not be "admirable", it would be foolish to let that get in the way of the fact that his music is really quite excellent and remains current, unaffected by any trend or fashion. Any self-respecting musician would do himself well to model himself in Chilton's footsteps musically, even if his personal life might be a different matter. The node above holds The Replacements' tribute to Chilton; few artists can inspire that kind of devotion, and in this case it is entirely rightly earned.
- ActiveBass Interview
- A very good history of Big Star resides in the band's own node; I won't try to rehash it but rather try to discuss Chilton's role within the band
- As with the history of Big Star. the making of Third/Sister Lovers is discussed in its own node
- "It's funny, because I spent so much of my life moving from place to place and I went through a few dark periods, but in the last few years I've kind of settled down" - Chilton, ActiveBass Interview
- Dates usually refer to release date rather than recording date; in some cases, original releases were omitted in favor of more popular formats (for example, the Feudalist Tarts/No Sex compilation). Best Ofs and other compilations not included.
Editor's note: Alex Chilton died in New Orleans on March 17, 2010.
C. Sources and Further Reading
- "Alex Chilton". All Music Guide, "http://www.allmusic.com"
- "Alex Chilton". Last Call Records, "http://www.lastcallrecords.com/biographies/alexchilton.html"
- "Alex Chilton". The Box Tops Official Webpage, "http://www.boxtops.com/btbios.htm"
- "Alex Chilton". The Idler, "http://www.idler.co.uk/html/interviews/interview15.htm"
- "Alex Chilton Set To Go". ActiveBass Interview, "http://www.activebass.com/news/item.asp?i=138"
- Big Star Reference, "http://www.septembergurls.com"
- Hogg, Brian. Liner Notes to #1 Record, "http://www.zenandjuice.com/music/bigstar/text/1reclinr.txt"
- Nick Johnstone's Alex Chilton Website "http://members.aol.com/dammarie/alexchilton.html"