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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…

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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…

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Posted by Bart Bealmear
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10.04.2016
09:18 am
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William Eggleston’s photos of Big Star
09.01.2016
08:56 am
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It’s difficult today to conceive of how William Eggleston’s photography was once considered controversial—he documented everyday scenes that, through his eyes, became vivid and surreal. The luridness of his color—and the very fact that he worked in color—provoked a rejection of his work in certain very, very serious artperson circles, but those lurid colors were essential to his work’s effectiveness. He intentionally used the most saturated process available at the time—the dye transfer—to achieve the eye-bleedy reds that practically became his trademark. And in 1976, a solo exhibit at MoMA by the self taught Memphis-based shooter William Eggleston, titled “Color Photographs,” turned American photography on its ear.

Like Eggleston, that great legend among influential but underachieving American rock bands Big Star hailed from Memphis, TN. And their connection to the photographer wasn’t just geographical—not only did his photo “The Red Ceiling” appear on the cover of that band’s 1974 LP Radio City, a candid portrait he shot of the band adorns the back cover.
 

 
It wasn’t very hard for the band to score that coup—Eggleston was a family friend to the band’s singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, and accordingly, thirty Eggleston shots appear in the band’s first ever photo-monograph, the forthcoming Big Star—Isolated in the Light, to be published in October by First Third Books. According to Big Star’s bassist Andy Hummel (RIP 2010), quoted in the book from a 2001 interview by Jason Gross originally appearing in Perfect Sound Forever,

Alex knew Bill Eggleston through his parents I believe. His mother was an art dealer and Bill, of course was a very gifted local photographer. Bill was a major hell raiser, as were Alex and me at the time. We drank a lot, stayed out all night, and took all manner of drugs. Somehow we got hooked up with him and Alex talked him into doing the cover [of Radio City]. I could go on and on about Bill’s techniques and all, which were truly innovative and brilliant, and which I kind of made note of, being very much into photography myself, but I’m sure there are lots of books available that deal with all that now that he’s world famous and all. But we wound up at the TGI Friday’s on Overton Square one Monday night, which was “Rock’n’Roll Night.” It was a major hell-raising scene in those days. A DJ would play old 45’s and just everyone came and stuffed the place. That was the back cover. Then we went over to Bill’s later on and he suggested the light on the ceiling pic, which he had previously taken. We all loved it and I thought it fit perfectly with the sort of avant-garde nature of the LP.

A close friend of the band, Michael O’Brien, has since become a highly reputable photographer himself, noted for portraiture and documentia; he’s published three monographs, The Face of Texas, The Great Minds of Investing, and the book of his most likely to be of interest to DM readers, Hard Ground, which pairs portraits of homeless subjects with poetry by Tom Waits. In Isolated in the Light, he recalls how his exposure (no pun) to Eggleston via their mutual association with Big Star altered the course of his life.

I remember hearing tales from Alex about this mysterious and eccentric photographer, William Eggleston, who was a friend of the Chilton family. I may have seen him at Alex’s house before – perhaps at the famous New Year’s Eve party that Alex’s parents threw each year – but my first definite memory was when I was becoming interested in photography and Alex suggested we drop by Eggleston’s house on Central Ave.

Shy, introverted and avoidant, I tried to change Alex’s mind but to no avail. In no time we were sitting in Eggleston’s living room. At least we were in a group and I wouldn’t stand out. A patrician, sharply intelligent Eggleston led the conversation. I lurked on the periphery and saw a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment on the coffee table. Quickly I picked up the book and hid behind its pages. It was my first exposure to the French photographer’s work. I thumbed through the images. Boom! It hit me; this is exactly what I wanted to do.

Looking at Eggleston’s images of Big Star, I think back to Memphis in the 1970s. There was such a confluence of artistic energy thriving on the fringes of this Deep South provincial town. Now, with the benefit of years, I see how Big Star was the commonality… the force that energized the photographers, the recording engineers, and fans. We all had our own voice but Big Star energized us.

The image [below] of Andy, Jody and Alex – it’s such a perfect Eggleston image, recording the scene’s convulsive color and fragmented pattern! It’s like a volcanic eruption–the draperies, Andy’s shirt, Jody’s jacket, even the little watchband against Alex’s shirt. All the colors are assaulting one another – nothing is in concert – yet, the image is a perfect document.

 

 
Big Star—Isolated in the Light features photography not just from Eggleston, but from O’Brien, that great documenter of the people of the Mississippi Delta Maude Schuyler Clay, David Bell (brother of Big Star Guitarist Chris Bell), and even Andy Hummel, among others. All photos were restored from original negatives, transparencies and prints. The book features interviews with the photographers, musicians influenced by Big Star including members of This Mortal Coil, the Posies, and The Pixies, and with the sole living member of Big Star, drummer Jody Stephens.

Clicking on all the images in this post—apart from the album art—will reveal a higher-res version.
 

Eggleston and Jody Stephens
 
More after the jump…

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Posted by Ron Kretsch
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09.01.2016
08:56 am
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Meet the enigmatic Gimmer Nicholson, whose ill-fated 1968 album influenced Alex Chilton & Big Star
02.08.2016
08:54 am
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Christopher Idylls
 
Larry “Gimmer” Nicholson was a journeyman Memphis musician. In 1968, he recorded what would be his only solo album. Though it would be over a decade until it saw release, the recordings that make up Christopher Idylls proved to be incredibly influential on the work of a budding—and now beloved—Memphis group. This week, Light in the Attic Records will issue a new vinyl edition of Christopher Idylls, Nicholson’s stunning lone album.

Prior to the 1968 recordings that would result in Christopher Idylls, Gimmer Nicholson played guitar in various bands, including the New Beale Street Sheiks (with Jim Dickinson), and backed various performers, like Furry Lewis. Nicholson moved to San Francisco for a period, taping a demo. When he returned to Memphis, the songs that made up the demo would be re-recorded at Ardent Studios.

Terry Manning was behind the board for the Christopher Idylls sessions. Manning—now a renowned producer/engineer, having worked with dozens of legendary acts, including Otis Redding, Big Star, Ike & Tina Turner, and Led Zeppelin—signed on after hearing Nicholson’s demo, which he loved. For the studio recordings, Nicholson used a guitar effect that was then a relatively new approach. Terry Manning:

He plugged it into an amp, and, using a new delay pedal, he’d play along with himself. Gimmer was really fascinated by that. He loved new guitars, and a new piece of gear he hadn’t used before would spark creativity in his mind.

Gimmer would play a phrase, which would repeat itself, and he’d play the next phrase over that. This session was one of the first uses of the electronic repeat as part of the music.

The sessions went well, and Nicholson’s album was supposed to be Ardent Records’ debut LP release (the label had only put out 45s at that point), but Christopher Idylls was shelved.
 
Reel A
 
Nearly a half century has passed since the Gimmer Nicholson recordings for Ardent, and the reasons why the album wasn’t released have become muddled. Manning says it was because Nicholson didn’t like both the mixes and the album cover, refusing to let the label put it out. Ardent’s founder, John Fry, was asked about Christopher Idylls shortly before his death. Though he couldn’t remember why the record wasn’t released, he did provide reasons why the label might have passed on the Nicholson recordings.

Gimmer’s work didn’t lend itself to a single or 45, but it was a beautiful sounding album. He certainly had marvelous technique. But what do you do with an instrumental album? At that point in history, there weren’t too many people who would’ve wanted it. If they’d listened to it, they would’ve. Christopher Idylls is a wonderful piece of expression, and I’m sorry it didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Gimmer continued where he left off following the Christopher Idylls recordings, and was a fixture of the city’s music scene. He played around town and worked as a hired gun on a number of recording sessions, including Dickinson’s illustrious 1972 solo LP, Dixie Fried. Even among those close to him, Gimmer was seen as an enigmatic, private person. I found very few images of him online, and when I did, he was always wearing sunglasses.
 
Gimmer in the 70s
Gimmer Nicholson, far left, on stage during a Sid Selvidge gig, c. late 1970s. Alex Chilton is third from the left.

As for Ardent, they did eventually start releasing LPs, with an early full-length being Big Star’s #1 Record.
 
#1 Record
 
Big Star is one of the biggest cult bands ever, but in the early ‘70s they were a new unit, still developing their sound. Gimmer Nicholson’s recordings had made the rounds around town, and when listening to Christopher Idylls today, it’s readily apparent that Nicholson’s chiming guitar tracks were an influence on Big Star’s principals, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton. The similarly shimmering acoustic guitars heard on #1 Record numbers like “Watch the Sunrise” and “The Ballad of El Goodo” bear this out. Gimmer Nicholson’s gorgeous instrumental album had made an impact, regardless of its unreleased status.
 
Reel B
 
Terry Manning has always championed Christopher Idylls, and over the years attempted to stir up interest in the recordings. A story he has told regarding one such occasion corroborates the theory that at least one member of Big Star had head the Nicholson record. In April 1970, Jimmy Page was in Memphis for a Led Zeppelin gig, and after the show, Page and his girlfriend spent the evening hanging out at Manning’s apartment. Joined by Chris Bell, the four drank wine and listened to the Gimmer Nicholson album over and over again.
 
Christopher Idylls on Peabody Records
 
It would be over decade until Manning found an interested party, but finally did with Sid Selvidge. Selvidge, a Memphis musician and record label owner, released Christopher Idylls on his Peabody Records in 1981. Peabody was the same label that first issued Alex Chilton’s ramshackle classic, Like Flies On Sherbert, a couple of years prior.

Continues after the jump…

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Posted by Bart Bealmear
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02.08.2016
08:54 am
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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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Alex Chilton RIP
03.17.2010
09:17 pm
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image
 
via The Commercial Appeal, thx Ned Raggett
 
Fuck, I’m gutted.

Pop hitmaker, cult icon, and Memphis rock icon iconoclast Alex Chilton has died. The singer and guitarist, best known as a member of ‘60s pop-soul act the Box Tops and the ‘70s power-pop act Big Star, died today at a hospital in New Orleans. Chilton, 59, had been complaining of about his health earlier today. He was taken by paramedics to the emergency room where he was pronounced dead. The cause of death is believed to be a heart attack.

 

 

Posted by Brad Laner
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03.17.2010
09:17 pm
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