"I love you, well never mind"

Teen idol turned cult legend. Revered producer turned oldies favourite. Alex Chilton refused to follow trends, with his individual approach driving him onto artistic perfection yet also pulling him away from commercial success.

As lead singer with The Box Tops Alex Chilton topped the Billboard charts with ‘The Letter’. The only member of the band to actually play on the record, Chilton’s raw vocals astonished the world-weary studio hands. He was 16 and about to reach his commercial peak.

The Box Tops - The Letter

- - -

Fast forward just three years. Barely out of his teens Alex Chilton is a washed up songwriter, departing the wreckage of The Box Tops for his hometown of Memphis. Label interference had put paid to his artistic ambitions and this time, he vowed, things would be different.

Big Star would only release two albums in their lifetime with a third, harrowing, collection following in 1978. Yet in their music it is possible to find something of the immortal adolescent. The band’s music draws from the stunning lineage of pop songs which littered American airwaves during the great summers of 1965, 1966 and 1967 – an era when the optimism of the Kennedy era had yet to fade.

Mixing Stax style R&B with glorious Byrds influenced harmonies, Big Star’s music sounds quintessentially American yet would be unthinkable without the British Invasion. The influence of the Beat boom is all over their output, adding to the sense of sighing nostalgia that permeates Big Star.

On songs such as ‘Thirteen’ the group bring to life the confusion of being young and in love. Yet even on this most innocent of tracks pop culture rears it’s head with Chilton urging his lover to tell her father “what we said about ‘Paint It Black’”. The band’s great power comes in their transference of the energy of the emerging counterculture into three minute pop songs at a time when the hippy era was collapsing into self-indulgence and drug abuse.

Big Star - Thirteen

- - -

Ah yes, drugs. Big Star implodes in 1974 after distribution problems pull down the shutters on their exploration of the mainstream. Co-songwriter Chris Bell is pulled into the fog of heroin abuse, eventually dying in 1978. Left alone, Alex Chilton begins to record a series of harrowing demos with Jim Dickinson which would go on to be released under the name ‘Sister Lovers’.

Deeply affecting, ‘Sister Lovers’ is the sound of an idol crying. Alex Chilton stood amongst America’s most gifted songwriters, yet the few people who heard his music were left cold by it. With his personal life in ruins, the singer retreated from his muse.

Yet the myth of Alex Chilton continued to linger. Press support kept the band’s name in circulation, despite the lack of any new material to support this. Coaxed out of retirement by The Cramps, Chilton’s expert knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll would infuse their debut album ‘Songs The Lord Taught Us’ with a sense of irreverent homage.

And then, the deluge. The Paisley underground movement saw a new wave of American acts grasp hold of Big Star with the likes of R.E.M. shouting from the rooftops about Alex Chilton. The Bangles took ‘September Gurls’ into the charts, while the Memphis singer himself began a series of R&B derived albums. Stubbornly refusing to return to his glistening 60s pop style, Chilton began a series of contrary moves that would finally divorce him from the record industry.

Over the next 20 years Big Star would become enshrined as one of the finest American acts of the 70s, dominating critical polls and sparking a series of re-issue projects. Yet Alex Chilton would spend most of his time on the road with The Box Tops, topping the bill on 60s revival tours. Yet the ghost of Big Star would not go away, and with a little assistance from The Posies would go back on the road.

Which is why the death of Alex Chilton is so tragic. While re-capturing the glories of Big Star’s peak was arguably beyond him – beyond anyone, in fact – the cult idol had begun to make his finest music in decades. 2005’s ‘In Space’ was a worthy successor to the Big Star legend, a collection of pop nuggets that demonstrated glimmers of his inspirational talents.

Dying at the age of just 59, Alex Chilton was denied the comeback that he had both deserved and shunned. Remaining a confusing, unknowable talent until the end Alex Chilton leaves behind a family, friends, admirers and a seductive slice of rock mythology.

Big Star - September Gurls

- - -

Follow Clash: