Chilton, Alex

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Alex Chilton

Singer, songwriter

Boxed in by Tops Producer

Against the Current

Reflections of Pain

Selected discography


To countless critics, musicians, and fans of rock and roll, Alex Chilton is an icon. As far as Rolling Stones Parke Puterbaugh is concerned, Its safe to say there would have been no modern pop movement without Big Star, Chiltons greatest claim-to-fame band. And yet, Chiltons career has been troubled. After the brief success of his first band, the Box Tops, who were responsible for such hits as The Letter and September Gurls, and the profound and impassioned response to Big Star, Chilton spent the late 1980s and early 1990s without major-label representation and burdened by excessive touring. And although bands are quick to acknowledge their debt to himthe Replacements named a song Alex Chilton, the Bangles covered September Gurlshe does not think much of their respect, or, for that matter, gain much from their reverence beyond a little publicity.

Critics have gone to great pains both to point out the injustices of Chiltons career and to assure he gets at least some of the credit due him. Rolling Stone contributor Michael Azzerad added alternative rockers-gone-superstars R.E.M. to the list of those influenced by Chilton and bemoans the fact that while these young whipper-snappers have taken his antislick philosophy all the way to the bank, guru Chilton hasnt, despite a fanatically loyal cult following. For his part, Spins Erik Davis posited, If history were fair, all the college kids who scarfed up Teenage Fanclub, Velvet Crush, and Primal Scream CDs would be forced to go back in time and spend their cash on Big Star records. Critics often see the issue as one of doomed vision Big Star was ahead of its time and thus earned much of its respect only in retrospect; the bands audience needed time to catch up.

Alex Chilton began his career in a town not altogether suited to his talents: Memphis, Tennessee, where rhythm & blues is king and pop bands rare. Though Robert Gordon of Pulse! identified Chilton as a Memphis institution along the lines of Elvis Presleythough admittedly for a younger generation of listenersChilton seems to hold no great affection for the town that reared him. Once you get over [to Europe], Chilton said to Gordon in 1992, you begin to realize the cultural importance of whats happened here, and what could still be happening here. But were held back.

Boxed in by Tops Producer

Chiltons attitude most likely stems from his record-industry experiences over two decades earlier. Despite the enormous success of The Letter, the Box Tops were never allowed to explore their own music. Chilton told Gordon that he hears Box Tops producer Dan Penn

For the Record

Born December 28, 1950, in Memphis, TN.

Singer, songwriter, 1966. Discovered at high-school talent contest, Memphis, TN, c. 1966, and became lead singer for the Box Tops; recorded hit singles The Letter, 1967, and Cry Like a Baby, 1968; formed Big Star with friend Chris Bell, 1970; has played with the Cossacks, Panther Burns, and the Scores; worked variously as a dishwasher, record producer, and taxi driver, New Orleans, LA, early 1980s; recorded with Teenage Fanclub for Scottish radio broadcast, 1992.

Addresses: Home New Orleans, LA. Booking agent Venture Bookings Ltd., 611 Broadway, Ste. 526, New York, NY 10012.

when he listens to the band, not himself. Chilton related that almost immediately after the groups inception, their producers kicked our little band out of the studio and brought in all the session players. Spins Davis reinforced that view by referring to Chilton as the Box Tops stand-up golden boyas unlikely an image as Chiltons Big Star fans could imagineand Chilton completes the indictment by revealing that his voice was coached beyond recognition. Perhaps as a result of its narrow conception, the Box Tops lasted only until 1970, when, on the bands disintegration, Chilton joined his high-school friend Chris Bell to form Big Star.

Though critical praise for the Box Tops and for Chilton as a solo artist was often temperate, that for the singersongwriters role in Big Star is usually reverent. Rolling Stones Puterbaugh called Big Stars album Third/Sister Lovers, for instance, Chiltons untidy masterpiece, attesting, It is beautiful and disturbing, pristine and unkemptand vehemently original. Without question, Third is one of the most idiosyncratic, deeply felt and fully realized albums in the pop idiom. In Creem, Harold Demuir posited that Big Stars three now-classic albums . . . merged jangly anglo-pop and adult angst to create a virtual new genre. Chilton, he reported, as the force behind Big Star, successfully and consistently produced eloquent harrowing music. Pulsels Gordon, too, lauded Third, denoting it as a landmark rocknroll album: brutal honesty in the abyss and stating, Chilton bares his soul without flinching, creating a piece of art that has survived, no, flourished for years.

Chiltons later work has garnered less acclaim, and Chilton himself seems to support the critics evaluations. Gordon, for one, described Chiltons come back albums of the mid-1980s as detached and passionless. ... These are the works of a craftsman making a living, not a driven artist. Chilton explained the shift as a consequence of politics: I havent really had the time or money to go into a studio and record the way I wanted to, he lamented in Pulse!

But Rolling Stones Azzerad found virtue in Chiltons 1987 effort, High Priest, asserting that although Chiltons infrequent solo records [of the 1980s] have been erratic at best, this record is a strong, consistent effort. Azzerad cited Chiltons mixed-blessing singularity: Chilton can write great songs, but ruins them with skranky guitars, sloppy takes or off-key singing. So the record still has the same seductive whiff of self-destruction that tinged his previous work. New York Times contributor Peter Watrous also commented on Chiltons raw appeal, calling the artist a soul and blues guitar connoisseur who, when he sings the blues, does so without any of the black affectations a listener expects from a white performer.

Against the Current

It is not surprising that, considering his career difficulties and the cranky persona he has often presented to the press, Chilton is notorious for refusing to accommodate the music industry. Big Stars trend-bucking first record, #1 Record, offered a heavy dose of Anglophile pop in a period of self-indulgent progressive rock, attested Pulsels Gordon. The record was inclined to crisp and clean guitar sounds when distortion was in. Or, as Puterbaugh phrased it, Big Star dared to be poppishly offbeat when both pop music and nonconformity were being beaten back by the industry-driven push toward corporate rock and laid-back singer-songwriters.

True to his apparent mission, Chilton remained the ultimate nonconformist, carrying that attitude over into his live performances. Village Voice writer Howard Wuelfing reviewed a concert at which Chiltons sets ramble-tambled between gutsy country blues delivered with precipitous virtuosity . . . and impure pop chestnuts sung in a sweet, scorched tenor. Wuelfing also described Chiltons spastic grace, typifying the often ambiguous critical response elicited by the fiercely independent performer and his different-drummer musical forays.

I made [Big Star] to be as big a success as possible, but I did it my own way. ... Im not gonna start letting whats current in the taste of the music business dictate what I do, he told Gordon. With a marked tendency to opt for obscurity or infamy rather than conformity, he admitted, Id be happier doing anything in this world delivering papers, I dont carethan if in 1971 Id tried to sound like [then-popular bands] Ten Years After or Led Zeppelin.

Reflections of Pain

Chiltons most successful work, it seems, has been a reflection of emotional turmoil. Spin contributor Davis remarked on Chiltons bile and ballads that will punch a black hole in your soul. Of the solo albums Like Flies on Sherbert and Bachs Bottom, Creems Harold Demuir wrote, [They] painfully and sometimes compellingly preserved the sound of a man falling to pieces. Chilton has admitted to a one-time problem with alcohol and a reputation for being difficult.

But as often as he has revealed his rancorous side, Chilton has also exposed sorrow. Perhaps one of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful commentators on Chiltons contributions to music, John Fry, engineer of Big Stars albums and founder and president of Ardent Studios, told Pulsels Gordon that he found the production of Third disturbing. [The] overall unpleasantness of it to me is the subject matter and the content of most of the songsand what you could see Alex was going through in connection with that, he remembered. If an audience is going to get a record like that, its bought at the expense of somebodys pain somewhere.

Presumably, Chilton would dismiss Frys analysis, maintaining that his stance over the years has been more an expression of cynicism than vulnerability. And though there is little denying that an ache is in part what arrests Chiltons listeners, such a connection is not necessarily part of the songwriters agenda. Keeping a marked distance from the myth that has been created around him, Chilton seems at home in his contrary posture. In Pulse!, he recalled a friend who would say, Youre right, Alex, the world is wrong. And hell, he was joking when he said that, but I believe it. Clarified Chilton, The world is wrong. I am right.

And just when it seemed that most of the worldwrong or nothad completely forgotten him, Chilton resurfaced with an incarnation of Big Star, featuring original drummer Jody Stephens and the Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer as replacements for retired bassist Andy Hummel and late guitarist Chris Bell, respectively. (Bell died in an auto accident in 1978.) All it took to resurrect one of alternative rocks most revered entities was a phone call; when the Poster Children failed to appear at the University of Missouris 1993 Springfest, music directors at the college radio station rung Stephens, then project director at Ardent Studios. Stephens admitted in Rolling Stone, I said, Sure, if you can contact Alex, not thinking theyd reach him, much less get him to agree. Big Star 93 performed a two-hour set for roughly 300 beaming celebrants, perhaps all of whom had discovered the band on vinyl long after their split nearly two decades earlier. There was talk in the music industry of similar shows to follow, and Zoo Entertainment planned a live release for the fall of that year, tentatively titled Columbia, Big Star Live, April 25, 1993. True to form, Chilton had confounded expectations once again.

Selected discography

With the Box Tops

The Box Tops: The Letter/Neon Rainbow, Bell, 1968.

Cry Like a Baby, Stateside, 1968.

Super Hits, Bell, 1968.

Non-Stop, 1968.

Dimensions, 1969.

Greatest Hits, Rhino, 1982.

With Big Star

#1 Record, Ardent/Stax, 1972.

Radio City, Ardent/Stax, 1974.

Third/Sister Lovers, reissued, Aura, 1978.

01 Record/Radio City, Stax/Fantasy, 1992.

Big Star Live (recorded in 1974), reissued, Rykodisc, 1992.

Solo releases

Like Flies on Sh erbert (German import), 1980.

Bachs Bottom (British import), 1980.

High Priest, 1987.

19 Years: An Alex Chilton Collection, Rhino, 1991.

(Contributor) Love Is My Only Crime, Veracity (German), 1993.

Live in London, Rev-Ola, 1993.

Also released solo album One Day in New York.


Billboard, June 19, 1993.

Creem, February 1988.

Details, My 1992.

Guitar Player, October 1992.

Detroit Free Press, September 2, 1993.

New York Times, February 24, 1977; May 30, 1988.

Pulse!, June 1992; September 1992.

Rolling Stone, December 3, 1987; August 25, 1988; March 19, 1992; December 10, 1992; June 10, 1993.

Spin, May 1992.

Village Voice, December 18, 1984.

Diane Moroff