March 18, 2010


Alex Chilton's passing is very sad news indeed.

From the Box Tops, through his tenure with the criminally under appreciated (in their time) Big Star and beyond with his solo work, Chilton made music of very high quality. When an older friend passed #1 Record on to me in the early 80's, it was an amazing gift.

Since then, I have laid Big Star's work on people like it was a hot stock tip.

Here's a re-post of a review that I did a long time ago, in tribute to a great talent.

#1 Record

Dizzying styles and fads were thrown at the record buying public in 1972. Artists who had brought so much to the imaginations of listeners in the 1960's were either dead or releasing work that saw them going into decline. Some of the heroes of the previous decade were looked upon as spent forces, creatively.

The K-Tel generation was now ripe for brainwashing.

Along came Big Star, taking the best elements of British Invasion pop, the jangle of the Byrds and fusing it all with great playing, song writing and crystal clear production. The makings of a super successful group?

It really should have been.

Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel formed the core of the outfit (then called "Icewater") They were then joined by former Box Tops singer, Alex Chilton, with he and Bell doing the bulk of the writing. Renamed for a local supermarket chain, while recording, all of the pieces fell into place.

Released on Ardent Records, hampered by inept distribution from Stax, the album flopped commercially. Although music critics drooled over # 1 Record, many didn't even get to hear it. Shortly after, Chris Bell walked away from the band.

Everything here is meticulously thought out in terms of arrangements and how the instruments were recorded. It seems fitting that producer John Fry mentioned, at the time, "that if it came out of England it was alright by us."

Anyone watching reruns of That 70's Show would be familiar with the opening strains of "In the Street", little knowing (or caring) where it came from. Love the line about stealing a car to drive around and the "wish we had a joint so bad" turnaround. Clean, crisp Stratocaster produced guitar figures are everywhere. "When My Baby's Beside Me" and "Thirteen" also leap out and grab the ear.

Heavier material appears occasionally ("Don't Lie To Me", "Feel") but it is the exception and not the rule.

Signaling a downshift in the homestretch, "rock" exits the picture in favor of quiet fare. Melancholy permeates the remaining songs, which seem caught in the long shadow of a lonesome sunset. "Try Again" would not have sounded out of place on "All Things Must Pass." Acoustic strumming and slide guitar, surround the "Lord, I've been tryin' to be what I should" lyric. Mysteriously titled, "St 100/6" makes a stark, album closer.

"Love me again
Be my friend
I need you now
I'll show you somehow."

Although they would (without Bell) produce another brilliant set (Radio City), it would suffer the same fate as # 1 Record. An aborted attempt at a third album signaled the end of the band. The legend grew up around them as time passed. Countless artists have paid tribute, citing them as a huge influences.

Alex Chilton: "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."

Some film shot during these sessions. "Thank You Friends" is from "Sister Lovers" (third, incomplete Big Star album)

"#1 Record" isn't easy to find on vinyl, though it's readily available on a twofer CD (which includes "Radio City") released by Rykodisc in the early 90's. When listening, you'll be amazed with the production values, song craft and will likely be pissed that you hadn't found this disc a lot sooner.


Dan said...

I was very sad to see the news. I loved the Boxtops. His voice was so soulful.

Barbara said...

Thank you, Sean, for sharing this sad news. Another name to add to "Gone But Not Forgotten".

Malcolm said...

I first discovered Alex Chilton via The Box Tops and later got into Big Star and his solo stuff. The first CD I ever bought was "The Ultimate Box Tops". I listened to it for my Friday morning commute.

Just like you, I also turn people on to Big Star whenever I get the chance.

Master Cianan said...

This news was crushing.

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