Photo Credit: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton
One of the pleasures (and frustrations) of being a music fan in the pre-Napster/YouTube/Spotify/Pandora era was finding new stuff by following your favorite artists down the rabbit hole. For me, growing up in the 1990s, Pearl Jam led to the Singles soundtrack, which included two solo Paul Westerberg songs, which led to the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, which made me wonder, "Who's this Alex Chilton guy Westerberg's singing about?"
Chilton and his most "famous" band, Big Star—named for a local chain of grocery stores in their native Memphis—were and remain an enigma. They pretty much invented power-pop; without them, there'd be no Replacements, and no New Pornographers or Weezer, either, to name just a few of the dozens of bigger bands that owe Big Star a debt. Part of the mystique that made them so cool was that they were so obscure. That's changing, thanks to the publicity surrounding Chilton's 2010 death, the fascinating 2013 documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me and the efforts of more famous brethren like R.E.M.'s Mike Mills to champion these nearly-forgotten masters.
How did this happen? How could one of the best rock bands in history, hands down, almost end up in the dustbin? ("In the Street" was the group's only song to ever see real success, and that was only when Cheap Trick covered it as the theme song to "That '70s Show.") The title of Big Star's debut, #1 Record, was only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, after all. The band knew they were good and, child star Chilton's natural cynicism aside, they really did halfway expect to be big stars.
Nothing Can Hurt Me lays the blame mostly on Stax Records' distribution troubles and poor marketing. The frustration led Chris Bell, Chilton's underrated songwriting partner, to quit in 1972. When Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens headed into the studio to record Radio City, the title was firmly sarcastic. But it was even better than #1 Record, from the funky first track "O My Soul" to the perfect wistful pop gem "September Gurls" to the confessional closer "I'm in Love with a Girl."
Though now considered classics, both records combined sold fewer than 40,000 copies at the time. Thanks to the Internet, they could never be buried that way today. By the time I caught on to the band, a CD version including the first two albums was fairly readily available. (Both were recently reissued separately on CD and LP.) It took me years, though, to track down Third, aka Sister Lovers—the one Mills and company's supergroup will be covering in its entirety Saturday, Nov. 8 on College Square.
Recorded by Mississippi blues and rock and roll legend Jim Dickinson in 1974 sans Hummel, no one even bothered to release Third until 1978. Smothered in Dickinson's trademark echo, with Chilton's once-rumbling voice higher and frailer than ever, it's the sound of Chilton cracking up, trying to sabotage himself before anyone else gets the chance. He covers "Femme Fatale" here, and the stark, beautiful Velvet Underground & Nico is as good a touchstone as any. Where Big Star had once celebrated driving in the All-American tradition, "Big Black Car" recasts it as suicide. The ballad "Nightime" is the claustrophobic nightmare to "I'm in Love with a Girl"'s dream come true. "Holocaust" is as harrowing as any of Lou Reed's heroin tales.
This is Big Star, though—Chilton couldn't write a non-catchy tune if he tried. Songs like "Kizza Me," with its woozy piano, "O, Dana" and "You Can't Have Me" are bizarro versions of the band's earlier straightforward power-pop. "Kangaroo" is shoegaze 10 years ahead of its time. There are strings and organs and saxophones and backup singers, even a cowbell (!), but it's all just a bit off-kilter.
All of this means that Third isn't always as much fun to listen to as #1 Record or Radio City. But it's more interesting and, in the context of today, more relevant, too. Let's face it: Guitar-pop is played out. No one's done anything new with the genre in 20 years. But Third's shambling, shimmering dark night of the soul is influencing indie stalwarts like Yo La Tengo, Girls and The War on Drugs as we speak.
Unfortunately, there was no Fourth. Bell died in a car crash in 1978. Chilton went on to have an eccentric career as a cult figure, dabbling in the New York and New Orleans punk scenes and forming a blue-eyed soul band that recalled The Boxtops, his teenage combo that had a couple of hits in the late '60s. In 2004, Chilton reunited with Stephens and, along with two acolytes, the Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, recorded an OK album and went on tour. (I saw them in Atlanta in 2006. They were pretty good!) Finally, 30 years too late, children by the thousands, if not the millions, sang for Alex Chilton.