Was anyone in music ever so jaded and armored so fully, at such a young age, as Alex Chilton? The genius who launched a thousand great bands in his wake was seemingly burnt out by the music business by the time he had reached his twenties. As a 16-year-old, he fronted the Box Tops and achieved a No. 1 hit with “The Letter,” a timeless piece of minor-key ’60s soul-flavored Brit-rock coming directly from Memphis, Tennessee. Even then, the preternaturally gifted artist seemed to have his feet planted on two continents — in love with the British Invasion but still deeply ingrained in the great Memphis music scene that had by that time brought to bear the legendary Stax Records. The young Chilton learned at the feet of a veritable murderer’s row of soul and country stalwarts including Den Penn, Spooner Oldham, and Chips Moman. He internalized those lessons brilliantly, but some part of him was always looking overseas for inspiration. By the time he started Big Star with the similarly inclined songwriter Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and stalwart drummer Jody Stephens, he had fully integrated the sounds of the British Invasion with his own homegrown soul influences into something utterly unique and transcendentally brilliant. Big Star would make only three albums in their brief history (setting aside Chilton’s half-hearted if charming 2005 release In Space, which was Big Star in name only), but each was an unqualified masterpiece: The stunningly fully formed debut #1 Record, the muscular and classic-laden follow-up Radio City, and finally, after Hummel and Bell’s departure, the harrowing and gorgeous psychological meltdown Sister Lovers.
As a writer, guitarist and singer Chilton is an entirely singular figure. Angelic of voice and acid of wit, there is almost no one comparable in terms of his capacity to turn from malevolent to crushingly vulnerable with just a few unexpected chord changes or turns of phrase. You could say it is a gift he shared with, say, Chrissie Hynde or John Lennon, and that would not be wrong, but neither does it provide the whole picture. Alex Chilton had weapons at his disposal. He could destroy you in the manner of his own choosing. From the artful put-down to the crushing confession to the nostalgic reminiscence that brought back every memory you have ever tried to suppress, and made you happy in the process. As a guitarist, he was nonpareil, brilliantly playing in blues, soul, and rock idioms, but restless enough to push into the avant garde in a way that few before him had dared.
Chris Bell was himself profoundly gifted, though perhaps fully found his own voice after he left the band, as evidenced by the brilliant posthumous collection of solo recordings I Am The Cosmos. Jody Stephens is equally crucial to understanding the Big Star story — an inventive and exciting drummer, well suited to both the irrepressible power-pop side of the Chilton/Bell consciousness and the more experimental efforts that manifested as the material evolved.
None of the Big Star albums were commercially successful upon their release; each was its own preposterous farrago of record company hijinx, poor timing, and possibly the full-borne fruits of a highly defeatist attitude. (It is generally taken that both the name Big Star and the album title #1 Record were intended ironically.) Nevertheless, each has become a key touchstone to contemporary pop music. Who knows what difference it might have made for good or ill in the life of Alex Chilton (or Chris Bell for that matter) had those records been codified as the classics they are as soon as they were released? Would Chilton have been the same broken man who released Sister Lovers and went on to alternately resent and occasionally indulge in his cult status? Could Big Star ever really have become the American Beatles? It’s an odd thought, but it doesn’t matter, really.
One would think with only three albums to choose from, ranking 10 songs couldn’t be that difficult. In fact the opposite is true — you could rank 28 of these fuckers and not hit on a bad one. But no one ranks the top 28 anything, so for all of us who never travel far with out a little Big Star, let’s give this a shot.
10. “Thank You Friends” from Sister Lovers (1978)
The brilliant, yearning, and acerbic second track on Sister Lovers is a spot-on exemplar of Chilton’s melodic gifts and withering wit. Over a catchy, ascending melody line, he acknowledges those who have helped or “helped” him along the way, backed by whooping gospel vocals and a generally celebratory atmosphere. “Thank you friends / Wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” Chilton sings with the apparent utmost earnestness. Then, he twists the knife. On a chorus featuring the Oscar Wilde-worthy epigram “all the ladies and gentlemen / who made this all so probable,” Chilton tears the whole proposition down, suggesting he might well have had a better time without the friends-as-hangers-on. A bitter but amusing insight into life as a cult icon.
9. “In The Street” from #1 Record (1972)
One of the best renowned Big Star songs on the basis of its inclusion as the theme of That 70s Show (via a faithful version by the great Cheap Trick), this is a pitch-perfect take on the boredom of adolescents that haven’t a thing to do but drive around and look for trouble. It would not be until the similar-minded Jonathan Richman released “Roadrunner” that a song so fully captured the charms of marauding the strip malls and convenience stores of suburbia.
8. “O My Soul” from Radio City (1972)
The brilliant five-minute, forty-second second workout that opens Radio City signals Chilton’s intention to both broaden the band’s approach on the second record while adding an even harder-edged blues element to Big Star’s repertoire. In his accustomed fashion, Chilton can make utterly tossed-off lyrics sound like sonnets (couplets like “You’re really a nice girl / And I think you’re the most / And when we’re together / I feel like a boss” aren’t really even trying, are they?) but the focus here is mainly on Chilton’s extraordinary guitar chops and the rapturous interplay between his fluid and lyrical playing, Hummel’s sturdy bass work and Stephens’s inventive timekeeping. The result is something like a great lost track from the Velvet Underground’s celebratory Loaded — a statement of purpose, and amongst the most winsome and winning numbers in the band’s catalog.
7. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” from #1 Record (1972)
Opening with one of the most memorable riffs Chilton ever authored (and one of the most indelible in all of rock and roll), this chugging R&B-charged gem is a master class filled with huge hooks, great guitar breaks, an unforgettable singalong chorus and, just because they can, awesome fucking handclaps. If John Fogerty had somehow made a guest appearance on Beatles For Sale it might have ended up sounding something like this. But this is better.
6. “September Gurls” from Radio City (1972)
This quintessential track encapsulates everything about Alex Chilton’s genius for pop songcraft — warm, jangly guitars, a brilliant melody, and a chorus so infectious it might require a dose of penicillin. These joyous elements are juxtaposed against Chilton’s sad tale of unrequited love and shrugging longing –- and all of this is accomplished in a stunningly efficient two minutes and fifty seconds. This is also Chilton as lyrical alchemist making truth claims with little basis in fact that nevertheless feel totally true. What is so great about a September Gurl? Is there really anything better happening there than in March? You may have never known that December boys have it bad, but the genius and conviction of Chilton’s delivery make it feel like scripture.
5. “Take Care” from Sister Lovers (1978)
Sister Lovers culminates in a kind of beautiful aural nightmare, the smashed fragments of Chilton’s hopes and consciousness lay strewn, his nerves jangled and his exhaustion total. Rarely has vulnerability this naked been portrayed on record — Joni Mitchell’s Blue comes to mind — and the effect is in some ways as frightening as it is intoxicating. Both musically and lyrically, Sister Lovers sounds dangerously close to a man stepping onto the precipice of madness. It is in that context that the closing track “Take Care” is so moving and chilling. Amidst a strange amalgam of carefully played strings, shambling drums, and ghostly guitar feedback, Chilton wobbles through a stunning ballad which begins ominously: “Take care not hurt yourself / beware of the need for help.” As the song proceeds through a swooning series of voices and choruses sounding something like Van Morrison in the midst of a full psychotic break, Chilton finally summarizes: “This sounds a bit like goodbye / In a way it is I guess / Please take care.” Then suddenly the song sort of vanishes. Big Star was finished and in some ways Chilton would be gone for a long time as well.
4. “Thirteen” from #1 Record (1972)
“Thirteen” is a haunting, stunning consideration of adolescence –- a murky life passage that would otherwise be considered anything but pretty. And in less capable hands, this song would likely not work –- Chilton’s plucked acoustic guitar and exposed vocals never cross into preciousness. The result is an incredibly thoughtful meditation on the simplicity of young love and the inevitable difficulty of everything that follows. When Chilton sings “Rock and roll is here to stay,” it’s not an emphatic gesture, but instead is punctuated with an implied question mark, presciently bereaving what seems like the unavoidable conclusion — the end of both the innocence of first love and the rose-colored ambition of a young artist.
3. “Nighttime” from Sister Lovers (1978)
Of the three devastating ballads that conclude the end-of-days misery of Sister Lovers, “Nighttime” is perhaps the most longing and painful. Over the course of a gorgeous, haunting acoustic melody, Chilton contemplates a freezing night on the town where he will no doubt encounter his cohort. Then in a refrain familiar to anyone who has ever been terrorized by the encroaching scrutiny of small town life, he pleads, “Get me out of here / I hate it here.” He’s never sounded more broken or more alive.
2. “The Ballad Of El Goodo” from #1 Record (1972)
Whoever El Goodo is, he must be a man amongst men to be the recipient of such a tremendous song in his name. Oh, that melody! Those backing vocals! The harmonies! A middle eight that is impossibly catchier than the chorus! And let’s not forget the lyrics (“Years ago my heart was set to live, oh / But I’ve been trying hard against unbelievable odds”)! All and sundry, it amounts to a lush anthem to the rebelliousness and optimism of youth that recalls the work of contemporary David Bowie’s “All The Young Dudes,” taking a similarly elegiac tone to expressing a commitment to a life lived outside the margins.
1. “Kangaroo” from Sister Lovers (1978)
The most bracing and outsized measure taken on an album of profoundly avant gestures, “Kangaroo” is the musical centerpiece and a culmination of Chilton’s ever more radical vision for Big Star’s final album. Over the course of it’s cathartic three minutes and 46 seconds, Chilton sings in a pleading, plaintive tone to a would-be paramour — sounding deeply disoriented and not a little strung out. As the weirdest of all love songs unfolds amidst a sea of buzzing feedback and distortion, Stephens’s drums drop in and out unexpectedly, and Chilton’s guitar sounds nearly Eastern at times. The melody is lovely but elliptical and difficult to pinpoint, the overall effect not so much a pop song as a man simply unloading his addled head onto the tape. “Kangaroo” is as beautifully damaged as rock and roll gets, and sets a template for the experimentation of countless great pop acts going forward.