Invisible Man Seen Through a Visible Voice

18 March 2010

During all the St. Patrick’s Day revelry, pop music lost a giant – Alex Chilton. Though his name may not be familiar to the general public, his music sure is or should be. He was the lead singer of The Box Tops, the blue-eyed soul band from Memphis in the late 1960’s. They had a few top ten hits including the number one “The Letter.” In 1971, he formed the seminal pop band Big Star. They lasted four years, recorded three proper albums and split up. Chilton’s voice was silent for the better part of two decades until he reformed Big Star for a one-off concert and live album in 1993. From time to time Big Star would play a 10-city tour or a day at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest.

In the mid-1980’s Alex Chilton was the touchstone for two to the most important indie/underground bands playing. First, DIY’ers REM credited Chilton as being a huge inspiration in their music. Secondly in 1987, The Replacements recorded the song “Alex Chilton” on their 1987 album “Pleased to Meet Me.” Alex Chilton and Big Star were in demand, the only trouble was their records were long out of print and Columbia Records was in no hurry to re-release them.

To say there would not have been a modern pop movement without Big Star is not an understatement. They came out after The Beatles and the Velvets to blaze a trail in the early 1970’s that nearly every pop band that followed had to walk on. They dared to play pop music when overblown anthems and art rock was the in thing. There music was in accessible to some, including mainstream record buyers and the record company. There audience lay out there in the ether. Musicians who were spoon-fed the great 1960’s pop bands like The Beatles, The Byrds, and the Young Rascals, found something unique in Big Star. It is not surprising at all that so many Big Star fans ended up in bands.

In 1967, at the end of the Summer of Love, 16-year-old Alex Chilton the lead singer and guitarist of The Box Tops had the number one song in the country with “The Letter.” Back then, the number one song meant something. Not like today. When I was 16-years-old, I was doing everything possible to have Patti Baron, the sweetest girl at Roycemore Juvenile Reformatory School, notice me. Having an international number one would have done it for sure. Six months later, they hit number two with “Cry Like a Baby.” The venerated rock critic Lester Bangs wrote that their song “Soul Deep” – “is obvious enough, a patented commercial sound, yet within these strictures it communicates with a depth and sincerity of feeling that holds the attention and brings you back often.” Much of that could be attributed to the young lead singer’s voice. How could a mere 16-year-old manage to sound like someone who has had his heart ripped out many times over?

Of and on I had heard of the band called Big Star. Maybe I even heard their music. I am sure WXRT or college radio would have played it. I wasn’t aware of it. The only think I knew about them was the lyric by The ‘Mats “I never travel far, without a little Big Star.” What did it matter; record stores didn’t have their music.

Too often now, rockers stand aloof and are too cool for the room. They got that pose from Chilton. Knowing who he was and having Big Star in your collection automatically earned you cool points and elevated you way above your friends. I have friends who are knowledgeable in music yet they have no idea about Chilton.

With Big Star, Chilton was able to take the pop sensibilities of The Beatles and the soul of his hometown of Memphis and merge then together to create American Power Pop. The band is almost a walking contradiction, the name, Big Star, implied something on a hugely popular scale; they weren’t. The first two records were called “#1 Record” and “Radio City.” Big Star never reached had any chart success or a radio hit. Their albums were released on legendary Stax label and were under promoted. The final album “Third/Sister Lover” wasn’t released until four years after the band called it quits. Despite this, Rolling Stone Magazine named all of them to their Top 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time list. Now they are all considered classics and essential listening.

Sadly, I didn’t hear them until 1994. I bought the cassette of the “Columbia: Live at Missouri University 4/25/93.” I was mesmerized and instantly hooked. Around the same time, John Santucci, the lead guitarist of legendary Chicago art rocker’s Jean d’Eau, gave me a cassette of the first two albums “#1 Record” and “Radio City” when they were finally re-released as on CD. I played it to death. When I finally got a CD player in my car, the first CD I bought was that one. It accompanied me on every car trip I took. ‘Never travel far’ as the song says.

The song “September Gurls” is my favorite pop song of all time. Is it the perfect pop song? Maybe; maybe not. When you hear it; it sounds new and familiar at the same time. Even this morning on my run, it just so happened that Gurls played. I welled up a little at the thought of Chilton not being with us anymore. Then I smiled at the amazing guitar hook, the clean sound, the hint of jangly guitar and those lyrics about teenage yearning. “I loved you well never mind/I’ve been crying all the time.”

“When My Baby’s Beside Me” from the first album explains exactly what young love is like. Who needs a shrink or to hide and think. I don’t worry when she’s besides me. Really, that’s all you need. There have been millions of books about the subject yet Chilton was able to figure it out in 3:23.

The second album also features a song that fully understands what every high schooler with a car feels, “Back of a Car.” Rather than being a macho dude with a Hemi, Chilton exposes a longing and lust to that goes far beyond the one-night stand, “I’ll go on and on with you / Like to fall and lie with you.”

The song probably most well-known is the theme from “That 70’s Show, ” called “In the Street.” During the first season FOX used the Big Star version. Later Cheap Trick did the song because Chilton, who was never a fan of the spotlight, didn’t want undue attention. He explains Friday night in a small town in the 70’s. You can trace this song back to Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go.” “Hanging out, down the street/The same old thing, we did last week/Not a thing to do, but talk to you.” Is it a lover’s lament or sheer boredom? For some reason when I hear that song I think of the movie “Dazed and Confused” All these teenagers with all this pent-up emotion but there is nothing to do.

“Thirteen” is a pretty and simple song that James Taylor could have written. More folk than rock or pop, it explains a young man describing the to his girl how love and rock and roll can live together, “Won’t you tell your dad, “Get off my back”/Tell him what we said ’bout ‘Paint It Black’/Rock ‘n Roll is here to stay/Come inside where it’s okay.”

The genius of Chilton and his sometimes songwriting partner Chris Bell, is the melody. At times the guitar work sounds so easy that a beginner could play it. It’s mostly all rhythm and little lead, then you listen closer and you hear the subtly of it. Sure, a beginner could play it, that’s why their music influenced so many. It is easy to learn three chords and strum. Heck, 95% of the rock guitarists out there can barely play three chords and they are gazillionaires. Chilton could play and create intrinsic melodies yet his music is relegated to left of the dial, if that.

As indicated above, The ‘Mats wrote the song “Alex Chilton” for their hero. After Santucci finally hooked me up I went back and listened to The ‘Mats. Every song had Big Star in its DNA. You name it, Chilton was there. The video is odd in that there is no action, not even a performance by the band. I can’t tell if it’s The ‘Mats just being The ‘Mats or making a subtle statement that the music and the man are far more important than us. For his part, ‘Mats lead singer released a statement “Wow. That one punched me right in the gut.” Well said.

It’s not surprising that a good chunk of the bands I was listening to in the 1990’s were heavily influenced by Big Star. I was done with REM by 1991. Yet, I found Radiohead, Teenage Fan Club, Wilco, Material Issue, Matthew Sweet, The Posies and The Smithereens. More recently The Stokes and Tinted Windows show a definite Big Star vibe.

In the saddest of ironies, this weekend, the SXSW music conference was to have a panel discussion about the legacy of Big Star. The band was to play a few songs.

Last September, Rhino Records released a box set called “Keep An Eye On The Sky” featuring the three albums, some live tracks, demos and alternate takes. It covers 7 years including some Chilton solo stuff after The Box Tops and pre-Big Star. 98 songs in all and they are better than 99% of the music that you will hear on radio today.

So what is Alex Chilton’s legacy? Sure there is great music and bands that will continue to cite him and Big Star as a primary influence. I tend to think that his legacy is this: somewhere in America, a teenager straps on a guitar, his hair is in his face, he strums a D chord and aches to be with his teen dream. he may not know it, but he is channeling Alex Chilton. Maybe he will learn about Big Star and see where he unknowingly copped the attitude. Maybe he will even download a few songs. He will find that few exist. If he wants to find out about Big Star he is going to have to dig. That’s how Alex Chilton would have wanted it.


2 Responses to “Invisible Man Seen Through a Visible Voice”

  1. Margot Smith Says:

    Nicely said, Neil.

  2. John Santucci Says:

    Great story article, Neil! Yeah, much saddened by the death of Alex. A shame he never had the fame he deserved. Thanks for the shout out. Cassette tapes! My friend at work and I were discussing the advent of cassette tapes and how, by replacing the 8-Track, it ushered in the era of the mix-tape. I still don’t know what to do with all my cassettes! I suppose I should hold onto them until they become “cool” again.



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