A potentially embarassing confession: it took the death of Big Star frontman Alex Chilton for me to realize just what I knew about him. I knew his name was the title of a Replacements song (thanks, Rock Band), I’d known of Big Star thanks to the justifiable hype over last year’s box set from Rhino and I’d known a handful of his most famous, very solid compositions that he either wrote or popularized (“Thirteen,” “The Letter,” “In the Street”) through inevitable cultural osmosis (thanks, That ’70s Show). Through that knowledge alone, there is no denying Chilton was a major player in the easy-to-identify, impossible-to-describe genre that is power pop.
But these works came to me at the wrong time. Had I been actually 13 when I heard “Thirteen,” I might have pegged Chilton and Big Star as what they’re now known as by discerning fans – genius snatches of genuine emotional longing – instead of just a really really good power pop band. Nonetheless, it’s never too late to learn; the education has been swift and urgent. The majority of it is verbalized after the jump. Input and memories of this work from someone who was there to hear it are most welcome.
Note: This post currently covers Chilton’s work with Big Star and his earliest work as frontman for The Box Tops. It will accordingly be updated later with coverage of Chilton’s solo work.
The Letter/Neon Rainbow / Cry Like a Baby / Non Stop / Dimensions (Bell, 1967/1968/1968/1969 – reissued Sundazed, 2000)
Despite the stratospheric highs of “The Letter” and a few enjoyable singles that followed (“Cry Like a Baby,” “Neon Rainbow,” “Soul Deep”), Chilton’s connection to The Box Tops’ is kind of like Prince’s connection to 94 East. Sure, both of them were instrumental members of the respective lineups and showed a talent they’d hone over time – but these aren’t the revelations they’re often purported to be. The Box Tops’ records were barely their own, with too little songwriting input from Chilton (in his late teens at the time) and backing tracks that were more often laid down by session players (including a young Bobby Womack) than the actual members. Still, all four albums aren’t unlistenable in the least, and thankfully exist in expanded editions (adding single mixes, non-LP tracks and previously unreleased tunes) for the discerning or curious collector.
#1 Record / Radio City (Ardent/Stax, 1972/1974 – reissued Fantasy, 1992/2009)
The early 1990s was really the time where Big Star finally got their due as a power-pop band for the ages (see the next entry), but the knowledge was already there among critics and fans. Listening to this stuff, it’s hard to imagine why sales figures never provided worthy back-up to all those opinions. It’s tight stuff, upbeat to hear but kind of complex upon reflection, particularly because there is a really narrow field for those who’ve mastered putting their hearts and minds into sparkling tunes. The Beatles were the biggest group in the world because they did it so well; Big Star did it nearly just as well and couldn’t meet the same kind of fame. Go figure. Stax Records, whose distribution problems played a large part in the band’s early weak sales, made up for it by releasing a two-fer of the band’s first two records, a reissue of which included two bonus tracks (non-LP versions of “In the Street” and “O My Soul”).
Third/Sister Lovers (PVC, 1978 – reissued Rykodisc, 1992)
Compared to the other Big Star records, there isn’t much straightforward about this album. It sounds a bit different than the other two, with some more expansive arrangements in the mix. The lyrical content is also a bit more heart-rending than the work that came before it. But it certainly didn’t alienate Big Star fans, who were happy to have it at all after years of small releases. The record was recorded not too long after the Radio City sessions but shelved for four years. It got a few releases over the years (and a few titles, hence the hybrid it’s know known by). There was the original 14-track version on PVC, a 12-track U.K. release on Aura and a 17-track CD version from 1987; but when Rykodisc got the rights to release it in 1992, they reordered the album to Chilton’s preference (another 14-song order) and threw in not only the three extra tracks from the 1987 CD but two additional cuts.
Big Star Live (Rykodisc, 1992)
The Big Star/Rykodisc partnership wasn’t limited to one disc. Not only was there I Am the Cosmos, a compilation of recordings by late ex-member Chris Bell (the co-writer, with Chilton, of all the songs on #1 Record), there was also a live radio show recorded in 1974 featuring John Lightman on bass (replacing Andy Hummel, who’d left right before the release of Radio City). It’s a lengthy set and features stirring renditions of all the big cuts of the time, plus a cover of Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues” and an interview.
Nobody Can Dance (Norton, 1999)
It seems like a semi-legal bootleg, but this disc – half Radio City-era rehearsals, half live show from the same time – was approved by the band. Plus, it’s the only place you’re going to hear Big Star tackle “The Letter,” Chilton’s chart-topping composition when he fronted The Box Tops.
Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino, 2009)
The ultimate love letter to Big Star fans, this four-disc box encompasses alternate mixes, demos, cuts from the band’s pre-Big Star days (Icewater, Rock City) and a 1973 live show. The devotion that went into this box mirrors the passion of the band’s fans, which is as good an impetus as any to seek this package out.