It’s a ’70s Thing: Learning to Fall in Love Again With the Songs of Alex Chilton

March 26, 2010

in Musical Musings

“I never travel far without a little Big Star.”

When I first heard Paul Westerberg of The Replacements sing those words back in 1987, in the bridge to a tribute song called “Alex Chilton,” I took them at face value. They seemed like a boast, a call to arms, even. I didn’t know what Big Star was at the time, or why he felt the need to travel with some of it. Nor had I heard of Alex Chilton. But I thought Westerberg was incredibly cool and so, if he said that’s what he did, then I wanted to do it, too.

First, though, I had to find out what he was talking about. I assumed he was referring to musicians. And luckily, I was a college DJ back then and was allowed to roam the station’s stacks, where I easily found Big Star’s LPs — just three — and one Friday night, after doing a show, I took them back to my dorm room (which I wasn’t allowed to do). I spun the records a few times over the weekend and listened closely, searching for clues — who where these guys? Why hadn’t I heard of them? What was so compelling about their music that it caused Westerberg to declare, “I’m in love,” with their songs?

But I didn’t find any clues. Frankly, I didn’t get it at all. Big Star turned out to be a four-piece band from Memphis, led by a singer named Alex Chilton, that formed, performed, and broke up in the early 1970s. And they sounded like it — they sounded dated, in fact, and unfashionable to my mid-’80s eardrums. (Chilton’s  main claim to fame was serving as the lead singer for the Box Tops, whose song “The Letter” went to number 1 in 1967.)

I remember trying to imagine Westerberg and his boozy, brawling bandmates carrying around Big Star’s LPs and listening to them on tour. But I couldn’t. I mean, what did these angry, raucous garage-rockers think was so vital about a band whose mellow, “groovy” songs seemed the antithesis of post-punk? Hell, they sounded like something my parents would have listened to when they were in college.

So I put the records back in the stacks on Monday, feeling perplexed. But on a whim, and out of stubbornness, I bought the university bookstore’s only copy of Big Star’s final studio recording, Third/Sister Lovers, and listened to it again — and again — and it eventually grew on me. In many ways, it’s one of the wildest, weirdest, most disjointed and infectiously interesting records I’ve ever heard. I still play it occasionally, having carted it around from place to place for these past 20-plus years, never wandering far without it, whether on vinyl, cassette or, as I recently discovered, on iTunes. I’ll admit it, I’m in love with those songs.

Well, all these memories came flooding back to me earlier this month when, sadly, I heard that Alex Chilton had died unexpectedly on March 17, after suffering a heart attack. He was only 59.

Since his death, I’ve had the chance to go back and listen to, read about, and reflect on his music. It’s been fun and educational. But I still feel a little perplexed. What I can’t figure out is why Big Star wasn’t and isn’t more popular. Why hadn’t I heard their music in 1987? Or worse, why is it that few people I’ve spoken to lately have heard of them at all?

After listening to all three records again, several times in their entirety, I can see more clearly now what I was missing (and why I was a bit turned off) two decades ago. Big Star were the consummate ’70s power-pop band, drawing on a host of musical styles, past and present. (Full disclosure: I don’t like much ’70s music.) Their songs often mixed shimmering harmonies and jangly guitars reminiscent of The Byrds, with a little Memphis-leaning R&B a la The Rolling Stones, some Grateful Dead electric-folk, the wild abandon of The Who, an occasional David Bowie-like spacey oddity, etc.

But Big Star’s songs were often a little edgier, darker, a little hipper and more sophisticated. For instance, can you imagine Badfinger, to whom they’ve often been compared, covering the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale”? In their version, Big Star claimed that song for their own. Most important, Chilton and company had a knack for crafting hauntingly beautiful melodies. Many of their songs, including “The Ballad of el Goodo,” “Thirteen,” “September Gurls,” “Stroke It Noel,” “For You,” “Nightime,” and “Thank You Friends,” are near-flawless compositions, on par with the greatest rock ballads and pop tunes ever written.

Don’t take my word for it. According to Rolling Stone, Big Star created a “seminal body of work that never stopped inspiring generations,” and Allmusic calls them the “quintessential American power pop band.”

In other words, Big Star were doing many of the same things as their contemporaries — everyone from T. Rex, Roxy Music, and The Stooges to Steely Dan, Elton John, and Supertramp — writing pretty pop songs with plenty of hooks, harmonies, and heartfelt lyrics. And in some cases, they were doing it better.

Except no one was hearing them. Critically acclaimed but never commercially successful, Big Star suffered the fate of many great but poorly managed bands, namely weak record label promotion and a dire lack of direction or ability for distribution. Fans may have heard Big Star on the radio, but they couldn’t buy their records in the stores. Consequently, out of frustration over sales, limited commercial success, and eventual infighting, the group broke up in 1974.

It’s ironic that Big Star’s first two releases were called (playfully and hopefully) #1 Record and Radio City — when they never had a big hit or ever saw much air play. Oddly enough, one of their best-known songs, “In the Street,” became the theme song for the wildly popular 1998 TV sitcom, That ’70s Show. But it’s a cover (and a cheap trick at that), so I doubt anyone but the most ardent fan knows it’s theirs.

Big Star may not have been a commercial success, but they served as a polestar for a lot of the “alternative radio” acts of the 1980s and ’90s, and this is where I come in. Many of the bands I hold dear, including R.E.M., The Posies, Teenage Fanclub, and The dB’s, claim Big Star as a major source of inspiration. Chilton was reportedly idiosyncratic (he was once offered the role as lead vocalist for Blood, Sweat & Tears but turned down the gig because it was “too commercial”) and had a DIY aesthetic that was appealing to a lot of young post-punkers getting started in that era. He helped them out — for instance, it turns out Chilton was a producer on The Replacements’ album Tim (later spawning the aforementioned tribute) — and they in turn helped revive his reputation and supported his solo efforts.

And now, after living with the music for awhile, I have begun to hear Big Star’s influence on many of the power-pop purveyors, past and present, that I adore and rave about, including Let’s Active, Gin Blossoms, Guided By Voices, Robyn Hitchcock, Whiskeytown, among others. And this, in turn, has inspired me to dig out their records and listen to them again, too.

I’m not sure what my problem was back in 1987, why I didn’t make more of a connection between Westerberg and Chilton. It was all there, right in front of me. Maybe, because I was a listener and not a musician, I was being overly loyal and too selective. Or maybe I was just being arrogant and foolish — but who isn’t at 21? In either case, I was off base, but I have been able to make up for it.

So here’s my advice to you, dear reader: don’t repeat my mistake. Go buy Big Star’s big three. All are available online as a download; the first two, in fact, can be had as a double album — that’s 25-plus songs for less than $10. You can’t beat that. And for the completist, last year Rhino Records released Keep an Eye on the Sky, a boxed set of virtually all known recordings related to the band. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

Whether you are a fan of ’70s music (with all of its “rock” goofiness, like spelling girls with a “u,” hippy expressions like “my baby,” and, oh yes, more cowbell!), or just a fan of incredibly well-crafted and innovative feel-good pop music, you will fall in love with and (I hope) never travel far without Big Star, too.

As always, tell us what you think. Have you ever heard of Big Star or Alex Chilton? Which of the records or songs are your favorites? Or are there other bands from the ’70s that you think outshine Big Star? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Edd Hurt May 21, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Interesting comments above. What you have to say about your reactions to Big Star reinforce my idea that rock ‘n’ roll history is a matter of generational notions that don’t have too much to do with music itself. There are several kinds of Big Star fans: the few who heard the music when it appeared in 1972-1974 (critics; a few discerning rock fans; a very few people in Memphis, which at the time had, on the one hand, produced a lot of very original and idiomatic music from Stax, American Studios and so forth, and on the other was a standard dumb American city in love with all the “progressive” rock that Big Star was partly a reaction against), folks like me who heard the records when they were reissued in 1978, the generation who discovered them in the ’80s, when (just as in the ’70s) rock seemed to be “progressing” past its origins into something far more honest, inclusive and wonderful, and then the even younger people who got into them in the last decade.

What strikes me about your comments is the lack of perspective you seemed to have had about music itself as you heard the Big Star records. I fell victim to this myself as the ’80s progressed and, for a while, I fell for the big con that the Talking Heads, R.E.M., Husker Du, the various attempts to combine “roots” and “punk” that would result in the inanities of “No Depression” music, and other things of that ilk (back when people took Elvis Costello seriously) had somehow superseded the entire history of pop music and specifically rock and roll that had come before it. You know, like the idea that non-rock had somehow become rock, as in the “lounge music” movement and all that stuff. None of which is to say that the music of the ’80s was necessarily bad–I myself don’t ever return to most of it, but I do like the G0-Betweens and Prefab Sprout and hip-hop and so forth, there’s always good music.

What I think the original critics of Big Star perceived was the links to the music of about 5 years previously. The Zombies, the Byrds, the Beatles circa ’66, Moby Grape, Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys…the high end of late-’60s pop music. All the original reviews caught this flavor. Later on, by the time I heard Big Star, we also realized this. I was born in 1958 and was 19 when I heard the three Big Star albums.

This puts me, generationally, in the camp with Chilton and Chris Bell, more or less. I’m also from Tennessee and realized a long time ago that Memphis was, despite its faults, the most un-doctinaire and fuck-it-all city in American musical culture. The Big Star records could have never been made in a company town like Nashville.

To my ears in ’78 the Big Star albums seemed like some of the only un-dated ’70s music. I had been discovering all the early-’70s music that my generation’s fucked-up obsession with “progress” a la prog-rock and all that other bad, post-Beatles ’70s shlock had obscured: Funkadelic, Eno, James Brown at his peak, classic ’70s soul, late Stax music, and on and on. The other ’70s. This is what Big Star is a part of; plus, the production of the Big Star records is relatively austere, purist, classic, and the playing in the Memphis style of spare rock ‘n’ roll. In other words, this was a band with a link to a tradition that the rock fans of the ’80s could only dream of. As people get further away from what rock ‘n’ roll sort of was in the ’50s and ’60s, they become more convinced of their strange ideas of progress. I see this every day with people under 35–they think Can is a great band but regard James Brown as a joke, or dismiss the great Miles Davis electric music of the era as a relic of a jazz sensibility they only dimly perceive.

This is because they spent too much time worrying about fuckin’ David Byrne or somebody, or Jack White, or whoever–latecomers to rock. Chilton was to some degree a precursor to these performers and fans, but Alex liked r&b and understood its impulses. Who among the younger generation can say the same? We’ve had plenty of worship of Lou Reed, but I don’t see anyone giving Ernie K-Doe or Chris Kenner their props, as Chilton always did.

I suppose condescension toward the past is somewhat inevitable, given the nature of rock and music history in general. I certainly used to think Sinatra was a joke, and spent hours listening to shit like Jethro Tull in 1974 when I could’ve been listening to Howard Tate or the JB’s. As for Westerberg and “Alex Chilton” the song, I never thought much of the song or of the Replacements. They’re OK–to me they were about as significant as John Fred and His Playboy Band or any number of other post-punk groups I’ve forgotten the names of. The skill, verve and artistry of Big Star isn’t there on their records, as far as I can hear, just sounds like more of the same old calculated outrage and studied incompetence to me. Some good songs. But I feel sorry for a generation who has to derive inspiration from stuff like this, such a late moment in what was already a specimen of Junk Culture.

It sounds like you got the picture, and good for you.

Henry Mortimer May 27, 2010 at 11:32 am

Thanks for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, Edd. What I’ve discovered over the past 30-odd years of listening to (and, more recently, writing about) music is that, the more I hear, the more I want to hear. Every musical encounter begets a sonic odyssey for me, it seems. I love finding (and finding out about) a band I’ve never heard of, getting to know the songs, tracing their lineage, and seeking out successors and imitators. I never seem to get enough, and I hope I never do. Thanks for reading and responding.

Janet June 11, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Wow, I thought I was the only person who knew about Big Star. Guess not.

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