To put a cap on the starry sparklers of our July 4 weekend tribute to Big Star, here’s my review of Alex Chilton’s “1970,” an album that was a eureka moment for me when I first heard it. To me, it offered a gaze through a kaleidoscopic looking glass; a peek through the window of transition between Alex’s stint as the teenaged lead singer of The Box Tops and his emergent identity as one of the architects, along with Chris Bell, of the sound and scope of Big Star. Thankfully, somebody had the tape machine rolling when Chilton stepped into Ardent Studios to figure out who he was, and wanted to be. To hear the youthful Chilton working with his malleable voice, ditching the gravelly baritone, and tapping into his more emotionally searching (and less mannered) tenor, was and continues to be a revelation.
You know the feeling you get when you’re browsing your local record store and, suddenly, without warning, you strike gold? There it is — that long out-of-print album or bootleg you’ve waited your whole life for, is shining back at you and for that moment, the world is, at long, long last, yours. For devotees of Memphis’ second-favorite son Alex Chilton, and his essential, ignored band Big Star, the unearthing of “1970” is one such moment.
Originally recorded during that transitory year in Chilton’s life and shelved for more than 25 years, this album is an insightful historical document of the period between Chilton’s stint as the teenage singer of the Box Tops (that’s his 16-year-old voice singing “The Letter”) and the aforementioned Big Star, a band whose brilliance simply cannot be overstated.
Formed with Chris Bell (who quit the band after its debut album and died in a car crash in 1978), Big Star crafted three-minute slices of Anglophile pop perfection in an early seventies world dominated by a glut of “progressive” rock and heavy metal wankers. Songs like “September Gurls” and “Thirteen” remain among the most stunning pop songs ever written and all three of Big Star’s sudio albums — the ambitiously titled “#1 Record,” “Radio City,” and “Third/Sister Lovers” — are seminal works. When they were originally released on Ardent Records, however, the albums fared poorly and the band soon collapsed under the weight of its own expectations and the public’s indifference.
In the ensuing years, the band has been publicly hailed by everyone from R.E.M. to the Replacements and has finally enjoyed a revival that has even seen Chilton re-forming the band for a series of dates with original drummer (and Ardent producer) Jody Stephens and members of the Posies rounding out the lineup.
While nothing can bring back the diamond magic of those original Big Star records, and Chilton’s solo work of the last two decades has been spotty, “1970” captures the 19-year-old Chilton at a crucial moment, combining his knack for dusky Southern soul, blue-eyed style, with his fascination of wide-eyed Mersey Beat songcraft.
Although the album — from the cover art to the content — has a casual, conversational look and feel to it, the sound is excellent, even though, thankfully, producer Terry Manning stuck to only the types of equipment in use at the time the recordings were made in preparing the disc for release. To their credit, Chilton and Manning also refrained from overdubbing and polishing the original 8-track master tapes, thus ensuring the integrity of the original recordings. Nice move.
The palpable sense of optimism that runs through these 13 tunes (which Chilton recorded for a planned solo album) can be traced to his disenchantment and eventual departure from the Box Tops, a Top 40 mid-sixties singles band whose artistic development was intensely controlled, monitored, and — to an extent — discouraged.
It’s clear that Chilton, for the first time in a long time, is having fun again, loving music again. He gives a deliciously salacious treatment to a current hit of the day, the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and offers an ode to The King on the country-ride ramble of “I Wish I Could Meet Elvis.” His sly voice treated with a heavy echo, Chilton could be talking about himself when he sings that he wishes he could meet Memphis’ favorite son “and see what’s behind that crooked smile.” Little did Chilton know that more than a decade later, he himself would be the object of the Replacements’ rock & roll affections and obsessions in a song titled, simply enough, “Alex Chilton.”
During “Every Day As We Get Closer,” one gets a peek inside Chilton’s frame of mind and his celebration of artistic independence when he sings that he’s “traveling a brand new highway” and “doing things finally my way.” And on “Free Again,” which borrows lyrically from the Stones’ “I’m Free,” Chilton sounds positively jubilant and vindicated as a steel guitar carries him along: “Well, I’m free again / To do what I want again / To sing my songs again / Free again to end my longing / To be on my own again.” And also free to form one of the best bands of that, or any other, era.
Check out Alex Chilton’s cover of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” here:
Check out “Free Again” here: