The boy who was better than the Beatles
The thing about Alex Chilton is that he was a musician from the south of the United States.
The hardest part of that sentence was to put this brilliant, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, genius singer, songwriter, musical innovator, guitarist in the past tense.
Chilton died in New Orleans on St Patrick’s Day from a heart complaint. He was on his way to Austin, Texas to play at the South by South West music conference and festival.
During the 40 plus years I’ve been listening to music, three musicians stand out in hours listened to and eons spent celebrating, considering and wondering.
They are Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Alex Chilton. If I’d discovered Alejandro Escovedo earlier than the 1990s, he might have been there too but the others had such a head start, that’s hard to say.
Chilton was someone I heard before I knew who he was. Like most young boys in the late 1960s, I loved it when I heard The Letter by The Box Tops.
It had an urgency that spoke rock and roll: “Give me a ticket for an aeroplane/Ain’t got time to take a fast train/Lonely days are gone/I’m a going home/My baby she wrote me a letter.”
It had a context that spoke politics and people: it was released at the height of the Vietnam war and everyone wanted someone to get on a plane and come home.
I found out who Chilton was a few years later when someone told me about Big Star, a band put together in his home town, Memphis.
This was why the Beatles deserve some recognition - they recorded two influential albums (Sergeant Pepper & Revolver) and almost everyone who used them to shape their music made something that was so much better.
The Big Star contribution was as big as anything - in terms of musical innovation and creativity it was so much bigger than the Beatles and stands alongside the Velvet Underground.
The two officially released records were works of pop-rock art and the (officially unreleased) third album was sublime.
Think about anyone who released either perfect pop-rock tunes or discombobulated noise jumps that sit in blue-eyed soul/rock/blues grooves and you’ll find Big Star.
On the first LP, #1 Record, the adrenalin pumping riff of Don’t Lie To Me and the creepily beautiful pop of Thirteen make you just believe while the second LP, Radio City, had some of the most exquisite power pop ever heard, including September Gurls and What’s Going Ahn.
There’s a myth about Chilton: that his genius stopped with Big Star. This doesn’t stand examination. His catalogue of work as a solo artist - and more recently with the reformed Big Star - is as good as anything in the modern American rock era.
Like Flies On Sherbet, Bach’s Bottom, Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy, 1970 and A Man Called Destruction are some of the records that mark him as a musician with an ear and eye that captured southern sensibility, living its culture but realising its limits - it was, as the Drive-By Truckers say, “the duality of the southern thing”.
Chilton’s musical career was launched and took off because of his voice, although he had to be told to find it.
When the band, later to become The Box Tops, shopped around their debut tune they found a ready set of ears in a Memphis producer (and genius songwriter) Dan Penn.
But Penn said that while he loved the song he didn’t like the singer. The band returned the next day with a friend - a 16-year-old Chilton - who almost whispered the lyrics.
Penn went into the studio and urged Chilton to push the lyric, to growl. It worked and the baby-faced singer was soon a four million selling star - a big one.
Chilton could take a song and make it. His covers of everything from Jumpin’ Jack Flash (where drums and bass crowd out any of that Stones’ riffing stuff) to the bubblegum hit Sugar Sugar (which sounds licentious and X-rated in his hands) provided a solid catalogue of interpretation - Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy was all other people’s songs.
These reworkings were testament to his musical history but the tunes with his writing credits are so much more powerful.
His crooning vocal, his rock edged snarl and his sweet but threatening pop kiss were all there. Chilton would tease with I’m Free and invite liberation with Do What You Want. But throughout he was making southern music.
It doesn’t seem an accident of geography or culture that he died in New Orleans. If ever there was a son of the voodoo river city it was Chilton (he even wrote a song about the living dead) and what he didn’t understand about gris gris is not worth knowing.
There are few musical legacies that come close to Alex Chilton. He taught rock and rock to everyone who listened and he kept the music alive, he gave us rock’n’soul and he never let go.
As fan and devotee Paul Westerberg (of the band The Replacements who most lived Chilton’s heritage) said in his song/homage: “Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round/They sing, ‘I’m in love, what’s that song?/ I’m in love with that song.’”
There will never be anyone like him. Nashville musician Will Kimborough said the other day, quoting a friend, “Alex was our Beatle”.
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