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What’s Your Sign?: Big Star’s Alex Chilton and his obsession with astrology
09.13.2017
09:20 am
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Big Star
 
Alex Chilton had quite a career in the music business. As the singer of his first group, the Box Tops, he had a number one hit with “The Letter”; he was just sixteen at the time. Later, he joined Big Star, writing pop gems that failed to find an audience then, but are now so beloved that the band has one of rock’s biggest cults. He recorded wonderfully chaotic material from the mid-to-late ‘70s, before setting on a steady course of gigging and albums that focused on his interpretations of other people’s songs, as well as periodic reunions with the Box Tops and Big Star. He died in 2010 at the age of 59.

When Chilton was around 20, he began using something he found useful in helping guide his life’s path: the zodiac. Alex initially became intrigued with astrology during his teenage years, but it was only after he moved to New York in 1970 did he fully embrace it. While living in Manhattan during the post-Box Tops/pre-Big Star period, Chilton befriended the Brooklyn musician, Grady Whitebread, who schooled Alex on astrology. Over the years, Chilton used horoscopes to decide who he should hang out with—including potential band members—and generally deal with life’s uncertainties. In a 1992 interview, Alex talked about the subject:

I’ve studied it rather extensively and I’ve gotten really, really sharp at it. I’m a pretty good interpreter of [astrological] charts. It is interesting as far as understanding people and it’s just darn interesting in and of itself. The longer you study something you believe in, the more profound it can get for you. (from the 2014 Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction)

His fascination with astrology has, in turn, influenced his songwriting. Two tracks from the second Big Star album, Radio City, come to mind: “Morpha Too”,  which contains the line, “Kitty asked me to read her stars”; and “September Gurls,” arguably Chilton’s best tune. Alex was born on December 28, referenced in the song’s refrain, “December boy’s got it bad.”
 
September Gurls
 
Chilton frequently covered other artist’s material, and one choice in particular was surely swayed by the star signs.
 
Continues after the jump…

READ ON
Posted by Bart Bealmear
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09.13.2017
09:20 am
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‘Downs’: A stoned and chaotic unreleased Alex Chilton track from new Big Star box, ‘Complete Third’
10.04.2016
09:18 am
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Big Star - Complete Third
 

I was getting very destructive in a lot of ways then, and I was trying to capture that on recordings. –Alex Chilton

On October 14th, Omnivore Recordings will release the Big Star boxed set, Complete Third. Nearly ten years in the making, the collection includes all of the demos, rough mixes, alternate takes, and final masters that could be unearthed from the infamous 1974 Alex Chilton/Jody Stephens recording sessions that would produce the third—and for decades, final—studio album released under the Big Star moniker. As many of you reading this surely know, Big Star released two incredible albums on Ardent Records that should have been pop hits, but sank without a trace (largely due to poor distribution). By the time of the recording of what would become Third, two of the founding members—including Chilton’s songwriting partner, Chris Bell—had split. The Third sessions took place during a particularly rough patch for Chilton.

I was getting pretty crazy and into some pretty rotten drugs and drinking a lot. And I just wasn’t thinking in any practical terms at all after having the first Big Star albums go pretty much unsought.

Much of the Big Star mythology has to do with their third album, which wasn’t released until 1978, long after the band’s demise. The record label’s choice of album title, track listing, and even the use of the band’s name has been called into question—something that continues every subsequent time the record is retitled, reconfigured, and reissued. In the liner notes for Complete Third, the mysteries that still surround the project are explored: Why were the recordings shelved for so many years? What is the album title? Is there a definitive track sequence? Were the recordings meant to be released as “Big Star” or under another name entirely? Was it actually intended to be Alex Chilton’s solo debut? Was the album even formally completed?
 
Alex Chilton
Alex Chilton

What would become commonly known as Third was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis over a four-month period. Jim Dickinson was the producer, and John Fry, owner of the Ardent label and studios, was the main engineer. Dickinson brought an experimental approach to the proceedings, which immediately impressed and inspired Chilton, and thus greatly influenced the outcome, while the strange and pleasing ambience captured on the album is attributed to Fry, who also created the final mixes. At the time of the recordings, Big Star was on the verge of collapse, and many of Chilton’s other relationships—like those with his girlfriend/muse, Lesa Aldridge, and John Fry—weren’t exactly stable either. The sessions were, by all accounts, tumultuous. For starters, Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens taped the basic tracks live—which would normally be fine and dandy, only Chilton didn’t play his demos for Stephens ahead of time. Things really got out of hand during wild late night overdubbing sessions, with all sorts of people coming and going and drinking and drugging. All this craziness ended up having a major impact on the recordings.

If you take enough bad drugs and drink enough you’re gonna be writing some pretty strange music. –Alex Chilton

The bleakness and debauchery present on a number of the songs is palpable, resulting in a voyeuristic quality that can be awkward and unsettling. Many of the arrangements will strike new listeners as odd, like on “Big Black Car,” in which the sound of silence was incorporated. How “Dream Lover” would flow wasn’t even thought out, so what’s heard on the album is the arrangement being created as it was recorded. The frequent presence of strings, which are absolutely gorgeous, add additional layers of melancholy to the somber, druggy tracks.
 
Jody Stephens
Jody Stephens

The darker tunes were offset by loose, up-tempo rock numbers, with many of the songs crashing to a halt at their conclusions. One of the notable highlights is Chilton’s defiant, “You Can’t Have Me,” featuring a dazzling synth-bass part and a rousing middle section that sounds like it’s gonna burst at the seams.

And then there’s “Downs.” Neither blue in mood, nor a joyous-sounding rocker, it IS stoned and chaotic—the oddest track on the fantastic, out-there LP. It’s also the spark that ignited the Third sessions.
 
Chilton and Lesa Aldridge
Chilton and Lesa Aldridge

Written by Chilton and Aldridge, “Downs” is an ode to the couple’s preferred form of intoxicants. It was composed in Chilton’s apartment, with Chilton handling the music and Aldridge coming up with most of the lyrics. Chilton was so pleased with the results that he quickly recorded a guitar/vocal demo and rushed the tape over to John Fry, who was impressed enough with the track that he gave the go-ahead to record an album.
 
Chilton and Fry
Chilton and John Fry

When it came time to record “Downs” at Ardent, Fry commented—within earshot of Chilton—that he thought the song had the potential to be a hit. BIG MISTAKE. Chilton, who made two commercial albums with Big Star, only to see them flop, was no longer interested in trying to make hits. In an act that could be described as self-sabotage, Chilton went out of his way to make the track radio unfriendly.

Chilton: “Let’s do the snare drum with a basketball!!”

“I remember the look on his (Fry’s) face,” Dickinson later recalled. “If Fry had just not said how good it was….” So, believe or not, a deflated basketball was indeed used on “Downs.” Steel drums were also brought in, giving the track a wobbly feel. Adding to the unsteadiness is Chilton’s vocal, as he slurred the melody, either to match the lyrical subject matter, or simply because he was out of his head.

Dickinson would go on to say that Chilton “destroyed” the song.
 
Jim Dickinson
Jim Dickinson

I have to say that I dig “Downs.” It’s just so gloriously fucked up! How it turned out surely made an impression on the man himself, as it points towards the ramshackle form Chilton’s music would take during the second half of the 1970s.

But don’t take my word for it. Dangerous Minds has scored the premiere of John Fry’s early mix of the song, one of the previously unreleased alternate mixes included on ‘Complete Third,’ and you can hear it after the jump…

READ ON
Posted by Bart Bealmear
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10.04.2016
09:18 am
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Tav Falco and the meaning of ‘anti’-rockabilly (with special guest Alex Chilton)
10.04.2013
05:42 pm
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Tav Falco's Panther Burns
 
In the late 1970s, so many awesome punk bands looked to rockabilly for inspiration—think of the Cramps, X, the Gun Club. Not as renowned as those bands but possibly more authentically rockabilly than any of them were Tav Falco’s Panther Burns.

Early on, Gustavo Antonio Falco caught the attention of fellow Memphisian Alex Chilton, who saw him end a perfomance at the Orpheus in Memphis by cutting a guitar in half with a chainsaw. Chilton worked with the Cramps around the same time, and saw in Tav Falco someone who he could help take blues and rockabilly to new places. Falco did the titleing for Chilton’s notorious first solo album, Like Flies on Sherbert.

Around the time all of this was happening, Falco booked a gig on a Memphis-area talk show hosted by the matronly and marvelously named Marge Thrasher. In Amy Wallace and Handsome Dick Manitoba’s Official Punk Rock Book of Lists, Eric Friedl ranks this TV appearance #2 in his list of “Things That Made Memphis Punk.” With Chilton shyly sporting a pair of Cons and slotted in as guitarist (Falco cheekily introduces him as “Axel Chitlin”), the Panther Burns did a rendition of the Burnette Brothers’ “Train Kept a Rollin’” before segueing into … well, it took quite while before they could get to that second song—over the apparent objections of La Thrasher.

Fascinating here is the yawning chasm between the song they actually play, which seems understated, spare, groovy, and otherwise unexceptional, and the well-nigh horrified reaction it gets from Thrasher. While it was not a performance designed to blow the roof off the joint, Falco must have been positively bumfuzzled to hear the middle-aged Thrasher deem the song possibly “the worst sound I’ve ever heard come out on television” and block Falco’s efforts to play a second song by engaging in a lengthy and hostile interrogation as to the inherently “anti-music” nature of Falco’s style, which frankly seems hardly to exist—there’s nothing particularly alienating about the music! Not unduly discomfited, Falco gamely offers up a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo in defense.

Thrasher doesn’t even seem all that angry, she’s genuinely curious why anybody would choose to play music like that on live TV at 9 o’clock in the morning: “This is anti-music, is that right? ... Are you all all part of the federal grant, of money?” (You can almost hear the Tea Party in that question….) We encountered a similar theme in a recent post about the Jackson 5—our increasing inability to hear just how profound punk’s attack on the status quo was. I don’t know if Thrasher was expecting the Electric Light Orchestra or the Carpenters or Lawrence Welk, but she sure as hell wasn’t expecting the thrum and purr of a low-budget rockabilly machine such as Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. I don’t know; it’s a wonderfully resonant bit of television. (In the video, the interesting freeze effects and inserts are the work of Randall Lyon, who partnered with Falco to run a video company named TeleVista Projects, Inc.)
 

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Alex Chilton Honored In Congress By Representative Steve Cohen
Alex Chilton and The Box Tops live at The Bitter End in 1967

Posted by Martin Schneider
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10.04.2013
05:42 pm
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Alex Chilton died from lack of health insurance
04.15.2010
12:17 am
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image
 
How sad is this? Paul Hooson writing on the Wizbang Pop blog:

The wife of indie-music icon, Alex Chilton, Laura Kersting, revealed how the legendary singer was suffering serious heart symptoms recently, but had to delay seeking medical help due to a lack of health insurance. According to his wife, the 59 year old singer had been mowing the lawn recently, when he developed shortness of breath and chills. Chilton lived in New Orleans.

Chilton was the lead vocalist of The Box Tops, and had a multi-gold 4 million selling single with “The Letter” at the tender age of just 16. Chilton was scheduled for a reunion show with Big Star only days before he called his wife at work to say that he wasn’t feeling very well. She rushed home to get him, and while in the car, Chilton lost consciousness only a block before they arrived at the hospital emergency room door. Chilton was soon pronounced dead.

Chilton lived in a mixed race neighborhood in New Orleans. He and and his wife managed to survive the great storm that ruined the city in recent years. Strangely, Chilton chose to use a push mower to mow his own lawn, and lived a very humble life. Although, Chilton had sold several million records over his career, he never became wealthy.

Despite a string of great singles and a huge imprint on American power pop music, Alex Chilton was just your “Average Joe” musician.

Thanks Steven Otero!

Posted by Richard Metzger
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04.15.2010
12:17 am
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Alex Chilton Honored In Congress By Representative Steve Cohen
03.18.2010
01:34 pm
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A very sincere tribute. Moving.
 

Posted by Brad Laner
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03.18.2010
01:34 pm
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Alex Chilton 1967!  The Box Tops!
03.17.2010
10:25 pm
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image
 
Before Alex Chilton discovered power pop with Memphis, Tennessee legends Big Star, he was one of the best blue-eyed soul singers around as part of The Box Tops.  Originally founded by drummer Danny Smythe in 1963 as The Devilles, they eventually became The Box Tops by 1967 along with members Chilton (lead vocal, guitar), John Evans (guitar, keyboards, background vocals), Bill Cunningham (bass guitar, keyboards, background vocal), and Gary Talley (lead guitar, electric sitar, bass, background vocals). 

Their first single, The Letter would give them a hit single in 1967, catapulting the band to national fame.  They would follow their debut hit with further chart toppers, including Cry Like A Baby in 1968, before disbanding in 1970.  Chilton would, of course, find his future Big Star pals around Tennessee and move on from there.
 

Posted by Elvin Estela
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03.17.2010
10:25 pm
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