I didn't know it could be this way.
on this page: Cry Like a Baby, Dimensions, Rock
City, 1970, #1
Record, Radio City,
I am the Cosmos, Bach's Bottom, One Day in New York, Like Flies on Sherbet, Live in London,
Feudalist Tarts, No Sex, High Priest, Dalai Lama, Black List, Clichés, A Man Called Destruction, Set.
Down to only two people (Chilton and Stephens) the duo started recording a third album, which they abandoned in 1974. Chilton went solo, and Big Star's last attempts were released four years later to much acclaim. Bell recorded a bunch of solo recordings, but died in 1978; Stephens works at the recording studio in Memphis; Hummel became an aerospace engineer. Big Star's last album marked the start of Chilton's "fuck this" period, which lasted through the mid 80s. After he mellowed (or recovered) he started to do his material straight, embarked on a careening solo career that found him acting like a 60s soul/R&B cover band from the mid-80s at least through the mid-90s. (Occasionally, he'd pen a good sarcastic original amongst the covers and re-creations). Big Star reunited in the 1990s, if by "reunited" you mean Chilton + Stephens + two guys from the Posies. Chilton himself passed away in 2010.
Big Star: Chris Bell (guitar, vocals), Alex Chilton (guitar, vocals), Jody Stephens (drums), Andy Hummel (bass). Bell left 1972, and Hummel quit in 1974. John Lightman replaced Hummel for some live shows. Band disintegrated thereafter.
Like a Baby
A teenage Alex Chilton first came to fame as the lead singer of this group. Not that you hear much of the real group; songwriters Dan Penn and Mike Oldham provided most of the material and Penn's production is easy-going southern pop: piano/organ in the middle, strong bass lines, scant guitar, horns, strings, even gospel backing vocals on occasion around Chilton. (Weirdly, the album's closest approximation to rock is a cover of Motown's "You Keep Me Hanging On"). What made the "group" work was Chilton's voice - leaning heavy on the accent and gruffness, using the lower part of his voice, making him sound like a man in a mid-life crisis. The songs are mostly unmemorable soul and pop numbers, although I like the cover of "Weeping Analeah", and some of the Penn-Oldham songs are decent ("Every Time", "Fields of Clover"), even if they lack something. Fortunate then, that the Penn-Oldham title track was a huge hit (and a great song) - using every production aspect mentioned above, and including a catchy electric sitar solo. Not much to stir your soul, but nothing obnoxious.
The Box Tops: Non Stop (1968)
Box Tops: Dimensions (1969)
All hail the five headed Chilton! This was the Box Tops' final album, still using the same basic approach: Chilton singing over the studio house band. Both Penn and Oldham weren't involved, and the material is stronger. The producers (Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman) pulled back on the horns and strings and let the band stretch out more than on Cry Like Baby; so Dimensions has electric guitar solos ("Together"), blues numbers fronting piano ("I Must Be the Devil"). In other words, it sounds like a band playing on it (true); just not the actual Box Tops. The album's big single was "Soul Deep" which employs the Chilton soul voice successfully for more AM gold. When I first put this album on, I instantly went - "oh, this is THAT song" - it was anonymous radio favorite of mine. Given that they recorded pop music, the ones on here are surprisingly decent - "Sweet Cream Ladies" about prostitutes, Neil Diamond's "Ain't No Way", Chip Taylor's "I'll Hold Out My Hand", and Chilton's own "Together" and "(The) Happy Song" in a folky/country version. (Also, this album makes me realize that Chilton sounds like a southern Neil Diamond.) Even so, they might have run out material, as the album concludes with a long blues number, built around "Rock Me Baby", which is basically the house band doing jamming with restraint. As far as late 60s pop albums go, this is pretty solid, and leagues beyond some of the Chicago dreck, mostly due to the uncredited guys playing on it.
Rock City was a studio band with a pre-Star Bell and Stephens, along with Thomas Dean Eubanks on bass and Terry Manning on keyboards. Eubanks was Rock City's main figure, writing most of the material and endowing it with his hoarse vocals. Most of his work seems like a scrapbook of others' post-psychedelia ideas: acoustic intros to hard rock ("The Answer"), tough acoustic rock ("Introduction"), dramatic soul ("Shine on Me"), pre-prog solo organ ("Sunday Organ"), and some middling power-pop ("I Lost Your Love", "I Think It's Time to Say Goodbye", "Lovely Lady"). The album's standout track is Bell singing an early version of "My Life is Right", even if he almost wails on the chorus. His guitar work is usually a song's high point ("I Lost Your Love" is a good example) but it can't offset Eubanks' damn irritating habit of scooping his vocals ("The Wind Will Cry for Me") which makes me ding the album's rating. With some better songs, or even with a better singer this would do better. As it is, Bell's plaintive, confessional songs (including a version of "Try Again") don't do well when surrounded by Eubanks' fake knockoff versions of others' big ideas. A historical curiosity.
The CD re-issue also includes a couple
tracks: both sides of Eubanks' T.
Rex-rip off "Oh Babe" from 1974, and a post-Rock City take on
with Bell, Stephens and Manning, which is pretty close to the Big Star
version. Eubanks faded, while Manning continued as a studio
engineer and backing player for others, including Chilton and The
1970, rel. 1996), **1/2
At this point it was not entirely clear what Chilton was going to do. Post-Box Tops, he recorded these sessions in Memphis with many of the people in the same scene which would produce Big Star, before embarking on a failed attempt to become a folkie in New York. 1970 shows Chilton trying on several styles, and distinct voices as well. His Box Top soul growl ("I Can Dig It", "Free Again", "All I Really Want Is Money") or a bluesier tone ("Just to See You", "Come on Honey" covers of "Jumpin Jack Flash" and "Sugar Sugar") . Most of these tracks have some big limitations: his main backing band (producer/musician Terry Manning and drummer Richard Rosebrough) are merely adequate, and some slide guitar gives the album that according soul/country feel. Nor do these songs have much in the way of hooks, with the exception of "Something Deep Inside". However, you do hear the future focus of Big Star's sound: good vocals and excellently recorded guitars. Chilton also has a good sense of humor, and a good portion of these songs are probably tongue-in-cheek, such as his heavy cover of "Sugar, Sugar", "All I Want is Money" or "I Wish I Could Meet Elvis" (on which he sings with yet another voice - something like a parody of Roger McGuinn: high and tight). Chilton does show his (presumably) unaffected voice on three great, otherwise lost pop songs: a straight version of the Box Tops' "The Happy Song", "Every Day As We Grow Closer" and "The Emi Song". All three show that Chilton's pop approach was more simple than the Big Star guitar power-pop: folky or based on gentle piano progressions. In retrospect, it's hard to see how this scatterbrained solo attempt would have been accepted. With the Big Star/Chilton cult, however it provides some new material (the three pop songs) and a historical marker in Chilton's development, while showing just how valuable the other members of Big Star were.
Every time a band makes it thanks to word-of-mouth, think of this: both the Velvet Underground and Big Star gained fame even though there were few copies of the albums to hear until they were reissued in the early 1980s. Big Star was one of the first American power-pop bands, and arguably the best. They were sincere: singing about broken loves, the lives of teenagers, probably their own lives. Their sound was based on the Beatles, the Kinks, the Byrds, and anyone who could be earnest without devolving into a whine. Part of their secret lies in production - never have guitars glittered so, and the vocal harmonies, additional percussion give an overall feeling of hard work until completion. There's a divide between the harder power-pop which makes Badfinger look like professional hacks ("Feel", "When My Baby's Beside Me", "In The Street", "Don't Lie To Me" are all highlights), and more poignant, often acoustic, songs ("Ballad of El Goodo" which just glistens, "Thirteen", "Watch the Sunrise"). The albums sort of trails off towards the end, with some lesser songs (the second-rate flower-era "The India Song", "Try Again", "Give Me Another Chance") all tending more towards their lighter sound. Even so, they do all the little things right - the tambourines, the noisy break in "Don't Lie To Me", sparse use of keyboards, and the guitar solos. Granted, Chilton's vocals are much stronger than Chris Bell's, but Bell is often singing about frustration or trying to assure himself, and his vocals work well in those situations. But my God, they had an ability to capture adolescence with the folky "Thirteen", or the bored teenagers with "In The Street". Everybody has been there - driving around your little town at night with nothing to do, felt like they have to keep trying in the face of failure, or wanted to yell "don't lie to me!" These were ordinary kids, making damn fine music.
Radio City is several things: it is uplifting, honest, heart wrenching, and lovely. Bell left, off to fulfill his tragic destiny, and Chilton scaled back the acoustic, putting more power in the power-pop. The result is music with the Stones' brawn and grit, but firmly within pop's realm ("Life is White", "Mod Lang"). Radio City still built on #1 Record; it has teenage anthems ("Back of a Car", "September Gurls"), and concludes with direct and honest solo acoustic song ("I'm in Love with a Girl"). Chilton was ever devoted to the Beatles, and some of the slower, less guitar-oriented songs have the mystical daze of the late Beatles around them ("Daisy Glaze", the charming "Morpha Too"). Since I cannot really do Radio City justice, (and indeed, there have been many words on the subject written elsewhere), I just want to briefly mention a few factors in Big Star's genius. One is their relationship with Ardent Studios, where they recorded. The other albums power-pop that came out of the studio at this time (Cargoe, and the Hot Dogs' Say What You Mean) also had the same finely tuned production. The band's close relationship allowed the studio to perfect their sound further, in the studio itself, a luxury which few bands had. The other is Jody Stephens' drum style, which is bouncier, more varied and a bit more forceful (and as a consequence, more interesting) than his compatriots in Badfinger or the Stories, to name a few. It seems that a lot of power-pop drummers tried to update Ringo's style for the 70s, using a fuller but still basic sound, while Stevens' playing has more depth. Whatever the elements, Radio City was the crucible in which the band crystallized.
many conflicting emotions, all strong; so many mixed internal
signals. #1 Record reflects the teenage conundrum;
City is the condition itself.
Star: Live (rec. 1974, rel. 1992), **1/2
Big Star never sold enough records to merit a live album during their existence, but in 1974 they did a live in the studio session for a Long Island radio station. Big Star fans will want Live, but it is not essential. Just a trio (with John Lightman on bass) the set lasts under fifty minutes. No real surprises in Chilton's selections: mostly drawn from Radio City and nothing from their to-be-recorded third album. Chilton breaks out a mini acoustic set in the middle with "Ballad of El Goodo," "Thirteen," "I'm in Love with a Girl" and the album's lone surprise: Louden Wainwright III's "Motel Blues." Their performance is fine, but doesn't deviate much from the studio recordings.
1974, rel. 1978), ****1/2
You may hardly recognize Big Star on Third/Sister Lovers: the band sounds transformed. Hummel had left, Chilton's drug use slurred his vocals, and the band's previous perfectionist simplicity was replaced by sundry outside sounds: strings, female backing vocals, honking saxophones. Sure, Third/Sister Lovers is a power-pop album more or less, but a deranged one. Chilton was messing with pop's templates and creating moods, rather than recording any sustained band performance. Their previous work was credibly created live; T/SL's interwoven pieces would be a hindrance. The electric power-pop songs have messy strains of madness ("You Can't Have Me", "Kizza Me", "Thank You Friends") and Chilton's ballads are transformed into ragged voiced chamber-pop ("Stroke It Noel", "Blue Moon", "Take Care"). At the other end, Big Star never sounded so numb and down before - the solipsistic extension of previous moods like "Dazy Glaze" comes on slow, bleak tracks like "Big Black Car" or "Holocaust." Except for Stephens' "For You", the whole album feels like Chilton couldn't decide whether to walk away or keep on working. He was tired of giving himself and having it not be noticed - "Get me out of here, I hate it here" he sings in a quiet moment. This corrosive uncertainly leads Third/Sister Lovers to have the same stand-offish feel of many artists who have turned their back on the mainstream, compounded with the outpouring of one man's filtered mind. Their previous album's had a pure feeling to them, as Bell and Chilton outpoured, but with T/SL, Chilton's whole approach had changed; songs deal with frustration ("Thank You Friends", "You Can't Have Me"), or with have a mocking tone ("Jesus Christ"). Velvet Underground sounds come through as well, not only with a cover of "Femme Fatale"1 but in the feedback guitar part in "Kangaroo", and the album's general pattern of cultural interference. Some of the work also resembles another disturbed un-hero - Syd Barrett - not only Chilton's slacker vocals, but the disquieting slide parts on songs like "Holocaust." Chilton was not seeing things right, or thinking things clearly, the same sort of quirkiness that inhabits Barrett or Alexander Spence's work. Chilton wasn't that far out there, but compared with their previous albums, he's on the moon. The album was never really finished (how could it have been?) and was released in 1978.
Out of all the tracks on the CD issue, the half-joking cover of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On" became the unlikely blueprint for the rest of Chilton's career.
Bell: I am the Cosmos (rec. 1970s, rel. 1992), ****
After leaving Big Star, Bell recorded an album worth of material in Europe with Rosebrough and bassist/organist Ken Woodley, which was unreleased at the time. These solo recordings are the proper heir to Big Star's first two albums - the Anglophile power-pop, acoustic work and personal lyrics. The sheer amount of Big Star-like material is fantastic, and Bell acquits himself well on guitar. The title track is an excellent example of what makes Bell good - instead of self-propaganda or love proclamations, Bell sings of melancholy or doubt ("Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos") over his riffs. How he sings is also important; Bell's vocals were always the weakest part of his contributions, offset in Big Star because Chilton had The Voice. He had the habit of writing songs in keys too high for himself - and braying as a result. Some of this is to his advantage, reflecting the personal nature of his songs, perhaps following John Lennon ("Look Up"). It's also a large sticking point, and his voice probably derailed his attempts to sell the album when recorded. But those who can live with his voice will find a treasury of songs along the Big Star power-pop trajectory, such as "Get Away", "I Don't Know" and the title track. He also branched out - "You and Your Sister" and "Though I Know She Lies" fall more as singer-songwriter works (with Chilton on backing vocals on the former), and "Fight at the Table" is more rollicking old R&B than anything else. On the whole, I Am the Cosmos has some holes ("Make a Scene" has a great riff but lacks a strong middle, "Fight at the Table" is a bit of a dud), and lacks the power of Big Star's backing, but sounds more like Big Star's third album than Third/Sister Lovers.
he was unable to sell the album, Bell had a lot of personal problems
and largely left the music industry. Chris Stamey's Car
Records eventually released "I am the Cosmos" as a single with "You and
Your Sister" in 1978, but Bell died in a car accident soon afterwards.
(rec. 1975-76, rel. various, mainly 1981), **1/2
Chilton's post-Big Star discography is a real mess, mainly because his recordings had limited and scattered release in the late 70s and early 80s. And, well, the reason for that may have been because it sounded like was drunk/hungover and/or didn't give a damn and just screwed around in the studio, never completing songs or playing tattered covers. Bach's Bottom collects the 1975-76 sessions with producer Jon Tiven and Memphis regulars, which did not yield an LP, although portions were released on the Singer Not the Song EP in 1977. It's more of a historical document than a regular album, including studio chatter and plenty of flunked takes. But hell, at this point it doesn't seem like Chilton could ever complete a song. This is where he really started to lose focus, sounding more like the erratic Replacements-idol then the sharp Big Star frontman. Chilton still had tremendous talent and personality, even if he was steering back towards R&B and regular rock. "Take Me Home and Make Me Like It" is a drunken tirade, but the barroom antics and R&B feel make it something from his own Exile on Main Street. While its a good song Chilton was a mess and Bach's Bottom has three versions of the song, the latter two turning into shaky jams. Even the other good power-pop songs have dark clouds: Tiven's "(Every Time I) Close My Eyes" is about strong disorientation, and "All of the Time" flies everywhere. Otherwise the album is disordered covers or workings of older material (1970's "Free Again" shows up twice, for example). Some of these would be generously called avant-pop or low-fi ("Walking Dead" about zombie lovers), but mainly they are just incomplete disasters.
The CD release also has both sides of Chilton's 1979 single Bangkok/ Can't Seem to Make You Mine, which was recorded in late 1977 with Chilton playing about everything. The A-Side is a tight, non-PC song that was probably the most coherent thing he'd recorded in years, with Chilton singing about "living on Chinese rocks" amidst echoey guitar and laughs. The B-Side is the old Seeds tune, with some exaggerated Richard Hell style vocals. Both have a rockabilly feel to them.
Both Chilton and Bell were involved with the Prix recordings made around this time.Alex Chilton: Singer Not the Song EP (1977)
1Although Big Star covering the VU is enough to make a coolness meter explode, in theory it could be topped if Big Star had covered Syd Barrett's version of James Joyce's "Golden Hair."