Thursday, March 18, 2010

Heroobit: Alex Chilton

If you're just waking up, I'm afraid it's to pretty grim news: Alex Chilton died overnight from a suspected heart attack.

Born William Alexandra Chilton in Memphis halfway through the 20th century, Chilton formed a small-time band with friends called The Devilles. A combination of line-up changes and (more pressingly) other bands with the same rotten name inspired a change to The Box Tops, with whom Chilton would go on to have a chain of hits. The first, The Letter, in 1967, kicked off a period of frantic activity. Members came, members wait, and by the time The Box Tops were done in 1970, they'd amassed a collection of ten singles and four albums.

Their success had tempted the band from Memphis, and at their end Chilton returned home. Here he joined a power trio, Ice Water. Again, there would be a name change before things really started rolling. The change of the name on the posters to Big Star wasn't, this time, quite the instant charm that the renaming of The Devilles had been, and the first two albums - #1 Record and Radio City struggled. Sure, with added hindsight, Rolling Stone could call them part of a "seminal body of work that never stopped inspiring succeeding generations". At the time, there was a slight sense of piles of unsold records stinking the place up.

Partly this was down to the label - Big Star had been a strange choice for Stax Records to sign in the first place, and they'd not really been that keen on promoting #1 Record. By the time Radio City came out, Stax had become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Columbia, leaving the band with an even better record and even less support.

The band shattered and Chilton was left pulling together the third album with a rotating, loose band - including his girlfriend Lesa Aldridge popping in to help out on vocals. Producer Jim Dickinson said:

[I was] nailed for indulging Alex on Big Star Third, but I think it is important that the artist is enabled to perform with integrity. What I did for Alex was literally remove the yoke of oppressive production that he had been under since the first time he ever uttered a word into a microphone, for good or ill.

It was a mixture of both - the good was the album, Third/Sister Lover, was a thing of great beauty. The bad was that Chilton and Dickinson struggled to find a label willing to release the thing.

In the end, as so often happens, it was British hipsters who came to the rescue. A 1978 re-release of the first two albums was instrumental in helping shift the perception of Big Star from being crazy idiots into genuine legends; the new fan base persuaded Ardent to actually release the third album.

Chilton visited London in 1979, where he recorded Bangkok, starting a period of interesting-but-wayward solo work and the half-vaudevillian Panter Burns with Gustav Falco. Depending on how far you want to buy in to the legend, The Cramps either borrowed, hired or stole a car to drive to Memphis in order to persuade him to produce their first album.

The 1980s saw Big Star's reputation grow - helped by the enthusiastic name-dropping of more successful alt-rock groups, and reaching a peak with The Replacements naming a song for Chilton. In 1993, affection having turned to a religion, Big Star reunited, bulked out by members of The Posies working on the side. Although focused on the classic 1970s stuff, there would be a new record, In Space, in 2005.

Having got the taste for reunions, Chilton also engineered a reunion of The Box Tops in 1996.

Big Star were due to play SXSW later this week. Chilton had been complaining about his health earlier yesterday. Jody Stephens of Big Star told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that “I don’t have a lot of particulars, but they kind of suspect that it was a heart attack.” Alex Chilton was 59.