Saturday, 11 December, 2021 in Culture, Music

Part Two: Big Star – Give Me Another Chance

Alex Chilton Take 3

Early 1977 would finally see the release of the second batch of Alex’s 1975 recordings and the timing would be perfect for introducing Big Star to a new audience. This is certainly the period where everything written so far would converge to create the near-current myth we have of Big Star.

“I was very pleased that the world caught up with them but even so they only became a more successful version of the cult band I just mentioned.”

Max Bell

Alex’s second 1975 recordings were funded and produced by Jon Tiven, whom we met earlier as one of the enthusiastic early fans of Radio City and for his organising of the Rock Writers Convention. If Third/Sister Lovers is loose, these Tiven recordings make them sound like Sgt Pepper. Whether by design, luck, fate or genius planning, the recordings found their way to Terry Ork who would shortly release them on his NYC Ork Records label. Many people cite Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch as being the first Independent punk single, others say The Australian Saints’ Stranded, but the real Year Zero for true values punk record ideals and labels must surely be Ork. Alex’s release could not be more perfectly timed to be part of this new movement.

Holly George-Warren’s Alex Chilton biography ‘A Man Called Destruction’ recounted what happened during this period: “In late 1976 the sessions with Jon Tiven during the fall of 1975 resurfaced in an out-of-the-blue phone call back from New York. “Ork Records called me up and said that Tiven had sold them this master of me,” Alex said “and they were going to put it out, and would I like to come up and do a gig? I said sure.”

The Singer Not The Song EP would be Alex’s first true solo release and because of Ork previously releasing the debut Television single, it would emerse him in the burgeoning New York punk world.

Almost from the off and after 2 years of little to no US public interest, this release re-ignited the Big Star story – and specifically now the Alex Chilton story – access to the mainstream press again.

On February 24th 1977, John Rockwell in The New York Times ran a piece on Alex’s New York gig with the headline : ‘Alex Chilton, Rock Legend, Back’. Again it would repeat some of the same history we had seen in the 1973 and 1974 Big Star press but importantly, this new press now had a punk attitude that chimed with what Alex was doing at the time:

Rock‐and‐roll is full of spuriously hyped “legends,” but Alex Chilton, who closed a two‐night run at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club Tuesday and who will return to CBGB’s (with Talking Heads) March 3‐5, really is legendary.’
Clearly his musical style isn’t appreciated in Memphis, and equally clearly he could become an instant star on the local underground circuit. All it will take on his part is determination he’s got the talent already.
Mr. Chilton comes from Memphis and had two gigantic national hits in his mid‐teens 10 years ago with a rhythm and‐bluesish band called the Box Tops. He resurfaced in the early 1970’s with a group called Big Star, that won him critical acclaim but died commercially. Now—still based in Memphis—he’s back, with a bass player and a drummer picked up here he reportedly hasn’t really performed anywhere at all for three years.
The music at the Ocean Club Tuesday was hardly very polished. Mr. Chilton’s voice cracked often, he had difficulty staying in tune and ensemble precision was rather raw. But this was still most exciting rock‐and‐roll, with Mr. Chilton’s blend of mid‐60’s British pop buoyancy and New York punk energy undiminished. Likewise undiminished are his talents as a songwriter—his new “My Rival” and “Window Hotel” fully hold up against his older songs. And he can still revive a forgotten oldie (like the Seeds’ “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine”) and make you wonder why it never went to No. 1.

Whilst we’d read that Alex had earlier been described as a ‘legend’ in the Metal Mike Saunders review, this felt different. The review felt exciting and part of the times. It brought him into the new world of Punk and Alex was again being alluded to in terms we might think of for Iggy and Lou – as being dangerous, loose and unpredictable and unlike in 1973, this now seemed to be true. The review also covers the now familiar Big Star being a commercial disaster but within this new punkier context. So much of what had been written earlier had now been condensed into a single exciting summary and surely this resonated hugely with readers.

I was wondering how much of Alex’s past and what had earlier been written about Big Star was still in the public consciousness. There certainly now seemed to be a further tonal shift upwards from the FM pop perfection of Big Star to further music critic myth-making but it finally felt that the Press mirror held to this myth-making was becoming reality.

I thought I should speak to John to ask him about Alex’s then re-emergence. John told me that ‘Chilton was known and had a reputation amongst rock critics’. He also told me he’d done his research so that the earlier Press taken from the Ardent Press releases was remembered. John is one of the premiere US rock writers so it is no surprise that from what we’ve discovered surrounding Alex’s re-emergence on the live scene, his review would have been discussed frantically amongst other critics and the public. What was a surprise for me was that John was not responsible for the writing of the headline ‘Alex Chilton, Rock Legend, Back’; that was written by an anonymous NYT sub. John did suggest I speak to fellow critic, Bob Christgau for his opinions on Alex from that time, which I did. Bob very much reconfirmed John’s thoughts. He also offered an insight for anyone relying too heavily on reviews beyond their original source: his own Big Star reviews – currently on his website and in his popular books – were re-written in the 1980s.

Meanwhile in the UK, the NME was also associating Alex Chilton with the growing punk movement, this time with a live review of his CBGBs gig by Barry Miles.

2nd April 1977 – First ‘Punk’ related UK Alex / Big Star mention

Alex Chilton: CBGBs, New York NY, NME, Barry Miles
“ALEX CHILTON is known for two things: ‘The Letter’, which he did when he was with The Box Tops, and his work with the legendary group Big Star. Now, as a refugee from the ‘60s, he is looking for salvation in ‘70s punk.”(…)
“Then at last it was time for Alex to do ‘The Letter’. He performs it in a hotcha, uptempo, neo-punk version — the fame and grandeur of the number requiring him to hold his bass 10” lower than before and causing him to wave it in a couple of Baroque flourishes to signify the end. He sings in a falsetto, brain damaged, teenage wail which is well suited to this sort of thing.
It must be his legendary status which enables him to headline here, since the group isn’t really ready for it — but then, considering the state of most of us in the club, there might just as well be a performing dog act up on stage half the time.”

This sounded as equally exciting as John Rockwell’s NYT review, which would most likely have remained unseen by the majority of UK readers. It was also the first time in the UK that Alex was being referred to as ‘a legend’. The front cover of this particular issue of the NME was emblazoned with a striking photo of The Clash. Whether Mike Saunders long ago had a premonition of what Alex would become, Alex now seemed established in the press and reality as a Punk Pioneer and ally of the NYC scene.
I spoke to Barry Miles for a little background and insight into his review :

“The reason I called Alex Chilton ‘legendary’ was because I was writing from the New York Downtown scene, where he did have a kind of legendary status. I was writing for NME from New York a lot of the time because I had a girlfriend there and spent as much time there as I could. Alex Chilton was certainly not legendary in Britain at that time though people did sometimes mutter about Big Star at the bar at the Marquee and the NME staff all knew about him of course.”

Whilst Dark Star and similar magazine and fanzines were important in telling the story of Big Star to the UK public, they were, by 1977, seen as publications associated with the past. Their covers were adorned with The Eagles and Grateful Dead. Big Star and Alex Chilton were now being written about in the more Punk friendly Sounds and revitalised NME

Of course, Alex’s emergence into New York’s Punk scene was still being heavily written about throughout the 1977 US press. Some further cultural additions added to his and Big Star’s image there:

Alex Chilton: The Big Star of New York’s Underground, Mitchell Cohen, Phonograph Record, June 1977
‘CHAPTER THREE in the adventures of a bona-fide, under-acknowledged rock hero is currently in progress. At the moment, the story is mostly taking place in the lower regions of New York City, but with some more exposure, a little luck and a recording contract, Alex Chilton will be able to spread to urban and rural areas throughout the U.S.’

Had Chris Bell timed his visit to London 18 months later, it certainly feels as though his reception would have been immensely helped by Chilton’s new found counter-culture celebrity. It should be noted that, despite the 1975 UK Chris Bell interviews, Big Star were still then equated with only Alex Chilton.

Alex, reborn as a now bona fide counter-culture star, continued his underground ascent and soon ventured to London for some gigs. The obvious choice to cover them was Max:

“Alex Chilton is currently resurfacing for yet another bite on the bullet and hoping that he can make people forget about his past associations, his recorded masterpieces and his credentials to be Next Big Thing in New York’s teeming clubland.
See, for too long Chilton was lauded as the cult figure that got away, the good loser genius boy wonder. Rock writers, who love a cult figure more than their paycheques, have dug Alex for a while now, but their loving don’t pay his bills.”(…)
(Big Star) probably sold more here on import than they over did in Memphis, and Tennessee is a starvation zone for rock. Country boys don’t appreciate longhairs in camp clothes playing loud songs that owe nothing to the Grand Ole Opry.(…)
After Radio City Big Star disbanded, save for one unreleased third album of variable quality including a version of the Velvets ‘Femme Fatale’ a reflection of Chilton’s sordid state of mind in 1975.
He’d O.D.ed in the studio once too often. The last that was heard of Big Star, Chilton had devastated a console and left a mess of blood-soaked towels strewn over the floor.(…)
A new single, ‘Shakin’ The World’ b/w ‘Can’t Seem To Make You Mine’, is Chilton back to form, especially the B side, a great cover of Sky Saxon and The Seeds’ punk classic.
His new agreement with ORK Records sees Chilton based at a real company able to launch him on the East Coast where his natural hard rock affiliations lie.
(…)Listening to the EP and the single was an excuse to dig out the old Big Star nuggets that band ever reformed, well….that New York new wave will have to watch out for Chilton. He’s a mover.

NME, 6th August 1977, Max Bell

The UK’s 1977 perception of Alex and Big Star had seemingly gone into overdrive with this article. All the elements were finally present: mentions of lost masterpieces, a now genuine US Punk scene ‘cult figure’, intriguing references to being a former teen star, a magnificently failed cult rock band. All combined with references of rock excess, unreleased albums and of course, allusions to The Velvets, this made for a very captivating read. Max had distilled into one article, at the absolute height of UK punk – and it should be noted, without the aid of the US publications – everything that would make Big Star and Alex Chilton cult figures.

In 1977, three years after the release of Radio City, for the UK, the legend of Big Star was surely born here. It was the first UK mainstream publication to fully recount the entire Big Star, Box Tops and Alex solo career history. Everything was there, including the Sex Pistols featuring on the front cover. For any youngster avidly absorbing the weekly ‘Punk News’ they would surely have read this article too.

Max told me:

“Alex’s NY ‘punk’ recordings were fantastic. I have all his singles and EPs from that era, wrote a liner note for one of them on Aura (the label that tried to revive his career) and reckon Like Flies On Sherbert and indeed BS3 Third/Sister Lovers (I have got test pressings of those on white labels) are amazing works with a harrowing edge comparable to Lou Reed’s Berlin album. I loved arcane US punk groups, like The Cramps, say, or Just Water. I saw all Alex’s London shows, Dingwalls sticks in the memory.”

Max’s NME article also contained the first published reference to the unreleased Third/Sister Lovers album. At the same time that Jon Tiven was punting his Alex recordings to ORK, Ardent were punting theirs to everyone else but to no avail. Third/Sister Lovers was eventually released in 1978. I was curious as to how these mythical recordings were becoming part of the growing Big Star myth before this release.

I was very aware of the third album and was sent a cassette copy in contemporary time ie before it was released. It wasn’t a bootleg but was sent to me at NME by Ardent

Alex Chilton as cult musician was in full swing in the UK weekly Press. For those who had purchased the Stardust Soundtrack it felt like The Letter would be the simplest way to be introduced to him/them. Alex’s production work would also become another easier way for anyone unable to purchase the Big Star records.

Even at this time, a few of the bands he would later produce were starting to be written about – with Alex being the focus of those articles– long before any material by them was released. Although they did not release a record until 1978, The Cramps would soon become a huge entry point to the world of Alex Chilton. His name as producer would adorn many of their early releases. For now, it was Alex’s public profile which was leading people to The Cramps:

Alex Chilton: Getting The Cramps Between The Box Tops And Big Stardom
“ANY SELF-RESPECTING cultural elitist should know who Alex Chilton is, as should all hopeless old bozos still lingering on from the 60s. To recap for the uninitiated: Chilton sang gruff white soul lead with a Memphis-based hit combo called The Box Tops who had a string of hit singles, the most notable of which was ‘The Letter’.“
(…) Sandy: What about all that stuff about the recording of Big Star’s 3rd album, the prostitutes and the physical state of the band?
Alex: ‘Well, you know, I dunno what to say. I never had a drug habit (laughs, extending arms for inspection).”
(…) Sandy: I went down to Olympic studios where I found Chilton wandering around with no shoes on musing over the idea of overdubbing a snare drum on to a newly recorded backing track. (…) Some say he’s crazy, some say he’s a genuine pop maestro (count me in with the latter). I just heard the demos, and I’m placing my bets NOW on Big Stardom in 78 for Alex Chilton.

Sandy Robertson, Sounds, 31 December 1977

Beginning a piece with “Any cultural elitist” is a sure fire way to have any eager and budding cultural elitists ears prick up. Here we are again, a few weeks after Max’s article, in another mainstream UK weekly with further re-iterations of Alex’s entire career and mentions of the now fabled unreleased Third Big Star album. And with some ‘crazy Alex’ anecdotes to boot.

By the end of 1977, at the height of Punk Rock writing in the UK and US Alex Chilton had found his place– or more accurately a place was found for him – in the rock canon of cult artists. Sandy Robertson, in his 31st December 1977 Sounds piece mentions Big Stardom on the horizon in 1978 for Alex Chilton. While we now know this never happened the UK public would at least soon finally be able to buy those precious artefacts – UK copies of the two Big Star albums – for the first time after they were released by the mighty Beatles label, EMI. The Third/Sister Lovers album would also find a release internationally by Aura and PVC in 1978. Those albums would be enthusiastically reviewed by and written about by some of the UK’s top writers – Jon Savage, Nick Kent and of course, Max Bell.

1978 was the year which finally cemented Big Star. The Cramps would begin to release music which allowed eager-eyed credit spotters to trace them back to Alex Chilton. In addition to the re-release of the Big Star albums, we would also see the first release of any post-Big Star Chris Bell material. I am The Cosmos, recorded back at his home in Memphis and mixed in the UK by Beatles engineer Geoff Emmerick, would come to define Chris. In what would seem to be this story turning full circle, Alex would even record backing vocals for the singles B-Side.

In the 1978 Dark Star interview Jody talks talks of a possible reunion ‘I’m trying to reform the original band now, all four of us (…) Chris is all for it and so is Andy and Alex…”.

As was always the way with Big Star, fate would intervene with a familiarity. Chris’ single was put out on a tiny US label that did not have the distribution might to sell many copies and it was barely reviewed : “Unsurprisingly reminiscent of ex-colleague Alex Chilton in its fragile quirkiness” is all ZigZag said of it which I’m sure would have been cutting for Chris.

All hope for a full reformation would tragically end when Chris died in a car accident in December 1978. Unlike other bands whose popularity sky-rocketed from similar such tragedies, Big Star saw no significant increase in their public appeal. The obituaries were small, Max Bell being one of the very few to write anything. But the tragedy would eventually add to the enigma of Chris and Big Star in the by now familiar pattern – a retelling of the story but with a new element profoundly added.

For anyone reading the UK music press during the years 1977-1980, they would come across something new about Alex Chilton and Big Star every few months, either in a retrospective, live review or noted as an influence. Max Bell, again would write a huge NME article on the history of the band (one which certainly seems to have inspired the liner notes for the 1978 Big Star re-issues): “THE BIG STAR story seems to have taken up a considerable part of my writing life. This is the fourth time in three years that I’ve sat down and tried to make sense of one of America’s least known or understood cult bands.”

Nick Kent, in 1979:

TALK TURNS to Alex Chilton, boy genius, guiding light of Big Star, the figure behind a thousand strange and lurid tales and, according to Lux, “a guy blessed with…I don’t know what…something anyway! He’s done the most reckless suicidal things and gotten clean away. Talk about a cat having nine lives. Alex must have 90.

Sandy Robertson, Sounds, 23 February 1980

ABSOLUTELY ONE of a kind, because, while archivists insist they wish that Jimbo was still here or that Syd would make another album, Alex Chilton is the only one of the dead-or-alive brigade who actually manages to come up with some product now and then, and none of that real unsaleable 4 in-the-morning shit to boot!

I’m not talkin’ Lou Reed, ‘cause he was always faking it (but you knew that anyway), I’m talkin’ pure untenable primitivism. Does he do it out of sheet recalcitrance, or out of a bottle (like the girl in the Booze ad)?

Box Top/Big Star, producer of The Cramps and his own crisp ‘Bangkok’ single of a year or so ago, Alex knows how to put out fairly acceptable-sounding records, therefore I must assume we’re dealing with wilful genius here. Big Star’s first was slick, the second was tinny, the third melancholy and chaotic, and Like Flies On Sherbert combines 2 with 3 to evoke fast, snickering insanity, Chilton playing the axe-murderer with the transistor to his head.

I could go on with the numerous UK and US articles throughout 1978, 79, 80, 81, 82, and 1985 when Alex re-emerged. Or 1987 when he returned yet again, or 1990, even 1993 when Big Star reformed and more unexpectedly with the Box Tops reformation in 1996. Each time has been an opportunity for the tale to be retold and embellished, and many other times in between.

In many ways, the entire story of Big Star was written from almost day one, literally and mythically in 1973. It was then the story of Alex Chilton and of a band poised for huge success. Those early reviews were written with genuine love by some of the top journalists of the day in an age where information was hard to obtain but theirs was a story of change.

I think it is, overall, a story of how we as music fans love to create myths surrounding our favourite bands and how we love to repeat or read them again and again; each time embellishing those same stories as they are passed on to a new audience in a new era. It is about a period where we can now never regain that same symbiotic public/press/artist relationship that existed in the pre-internet/social media world. This is genuine fandom from all sides – a rare instance where journalists and the public alike shared the same love for the music of one band and tried to ensure the feeling this music gave them was passed on to others. It’s the giddy feeling you get when you pass on a secret that you believe only you know about. If Punk Rock broke down the barriers between band and fan, Big Star had years before broken down an as important barrier between critic and record buyer. And it happened a long time before the 1990s.

The Big Star story is the same story being slightly adapted to fit each new age – first with emerging serious journalism, then punk, then re-releases and whatever real life occurrences happened to the protagonists; most recently the sad and untimely death of Alex himself but thankfully it also involves the 1990s rediscovery of Chris’ recordings and him taking his rightful place, going from what was once a ghostly figure to rightfully being written into the story as Alex’s equal. Every time a show or re-release occurred it was another opportunity to re-tell the Big Star story. It was a myth which had been created that became and still becomes even greater.

Without music writers taking up the cause it is almost certain we would not have Radio City, Third or even Alex’s solo career. We certainly would never have had the Chris Bell recordings. Ardent were not some evil major label, they were a family who truly believed in Big Star, as did the writers. And I for one am very thankful for those writers. We owe Big Star to them.

While we’ve chronicled some of the early Big Star press is it possible to work out who was the first Big Star fan? No, but ironically it could be argued as being Alex himself, when he joined Chris Bell’s band. This was a band that obviously caused him major hurt over the years and despite repeated denials of his dislike for them, he was due to play with them days before his death, almost 40 years after he first joined. And who was the second? That was probably far too big a question to answer but a good guess would be a music critic somewhere. Maybe Jon Tiven or Max Bell? They were almost certainly into Big Star before you were and that’s been great for music fans.


Thanks and Bibliography:
Max Bell
John Rockwell
Todd L Burns
Robert Christgau
Barry Miles
Simon Frith
Rock’s Back Pages
Glasgow School of Art
Rolling Stone
Dark Star
Melody Maker
Big Star Facebook Page
Duglas T Stewart
Andy Beavers
‘There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and Big Star’ by Rich Tupica
‘A Man Called Destruction’ by Holly George-Warren
‘Big Star’ by Rob Jovanovic
‘Nothing Can Hurt Me’ – Drew DeNicola, Olivia Mori

Grant McPhee

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