March 2010. The month I will forever remember as the one when both Mark Linkous and Alex Chilton died. I didn’t want to have to write about Mark Linkous dying a couple of weeks ago any more than I want to write about Alex Chilton dying now. However, on both occasions, it has been a pleasure to be able to just sit and write about what these people mean(t) to me.
I was first introduced to the music of Alex Chilton and Big Star, as so many people of my age were, by Teenage Fanclub who cited the band as one of their major influences. In about 1993 I bought a 2 CD set including all 3 Big Star albums, and they’ve remained a body of work that has always been close to my heart ever since. I played my best friend September Gurls, and told him it was a new Teenage Fanclub song. So apparent was Big Star’s influence on Teenage Fanclub that my friend didn’t doubt that was I had said was true, and he didn’t think he was listening to something recorded 20 years earlier. That guitar sound, oh it was just so rich, so chiming and so charming.
It’s really only bad luck, or bad timing, that meant that Big Star didn’t become household names, but they pretty much defined early 70s, post Beatles power pop. As well as Teenage Fanclub, REM and dozens of other contemporary artists owe a lot to Big Star (I believe REM went to Ardent studios and deliberately used the same Mellotron as Big Star while recording their album, Green). For several years now Wilful Missing have covered Thirteen in some of our live shows. When we did it in Ripon last Sunday, just a few days after Alex had died, it was quite hard to play without a tear in my eye.
If the first 2 Big Star albums were a direct progression from The Beatles, it was the third stalled album (either known as Big Star’s Third or Sister Lovers) that has maintained an enigmatic, semi-mythical status, and became one of my favourite ever albums. It is at times difficult listening (basketball for a snare drum, anyone?) while at other times marvellously crafted (basketball for a snare drum, anyone?) but throughout, despite it’s difficult gestation is quite magical, and a big influence on me. Not just in the music I make, or listen to, but that album has had an almost spiritual effect on me. The true intended running order for the album is open to some debate, but the version I first had put most of the lively songs in the first half, with the more melancholic, soporific tunes towards the end, making it a perfect Drifting Off To Sleep album. It might surprise you to learn that I don’t actually have a Top Ten Albums, but if I did, this album would be among them.
Alex Chilton’s lyrics are often interesting to consider. On #1 Record, it may not at first be obvious, but I think I’m right in saying that The Ballad Of El Goodo was inspired by Chilton’s objection to authority, and in particular people being called up to serve in the armed services. On Sister Lovers, Chilton’s lyrics often took a far darker tone. Holocaust has got to be one of the saddest songs ever recorded. I could quote any of its lyrics, but here are the final few lines of the song:
Leaving those who fall behind
As far as they can
They don’t just care
You’re a wasted face
You’re a sad-eyed lie
You’re a holocaust.”
The way Chilton sings that last line, his fragile voice dragging the words as though it were a heavy, dusty old rug that could do with shaking out if only he could be bothered, says so much more than the words written on a screen. The same could be true of his singing in Big Black Car, at the end of the line “Why should I care? Driving’s a gas, It ain’t gonna lassszzt.“ Another song on the album, Thank You Friends on first hearing sounds quite positive, but there is a certain pathos, and desperation in this too on closer inspection:
“Without my friends I got chaos
I’m often a bead of light.
Without my friends I’d be swept up high by the wind”
If you’ve been listening to BCB over the past week, you might have heard Rob Walsh pay tribute to Alex Chilton on Sunday night, or you might have heard me play a few Big Star tunes on Wednesday in Eclectic Mainline, or you might have heard Phil Cope also playing a Big Star tune in honour of Alex in his show too. His passing has been marked by several of us at BCB, and by hundreds, even thousands, elsewhere.
Of course, Big Star was not just about Alex Chilton. And Alex Chilton was not just about Big Star. For instance, Alex was a teenage chart-topper with The Box Tops before Big Star. And the contributions of Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel to Big Star cannot be overlooked. But I’m not writing a biography, just a few paragraphs..! If you want a biog, you could start with Wikipedia.
Here’s my Big Star playlist on Spotify Big Star – Albert’s playlist
For those of you who don’t use Spotify, here is September Gurls on Last.fm
Thank you, friend. Take care.