It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong — but it takes a much, much smaller man to take nearly 40 years to ‘fess up to his mistakes. And that’s just the kind of man I am. So here I am, stripped naked of shame and regret, chained to the Orockle doors, megaphone in hand, ready to scream into the howling wind: I WAS WRONG ABOUT ALEX CHILTON’S 1980s OUTPUT!
Like everybody else who came into rock maturity in the 1980s (other than E. Pluribus Gergeley), I fell deeply in love with Big Star upon hearing them as a pimply-faced college puke. Big Star had everything I needed as a budding music nerd, in overwhelming abundance: Impeccable song craft! Soaring harmonies! Clanging guitars! Doomed-to-fail braininess! I-know-more-than-you-do exclusivity!
I rhapsodized over the pop perfection of their first two albums, and made excuses for the shambolic weirdness of the third. I agonized over the band’s collapse, and cursed the world for not appreciating their greatness, even as I enjoyed being one of the select few who actually owned a copy of “Radio City” on the original Ardent label. I decided Alex Chilton was a genius.
Of course, I wasn’t the only music nerd in the 1980s to discover Chilton and Big Star, so a few indie labels decided it would make good business sense to green-light various Chilton “comeback” projects, which were targeted fairly specifically at people like me. And here is where I started to go very, very wrong — because, like almost everybody else at the time, I thought these albums and EPs sucked.
The critical take on Chilton’s first “comeback” album, “High Priest,” was basically: “huh?” Everybody, including (probably especially) me, just could not understand why the man we perceived as the creative genius behind the dense, powerful, proto-power pop of Big Star would debase himself with such a lazy throwaway album of obscure ’60s AM/soul radio material. The arrangements were sloppy — not insane, or non-existent, as on “Like Flies On Sherbert,” but stripped down, basic, elemental… yeah, “lazy.” Basically, if Alex had wanted to piss off all the people looking for a return to Big Star’s style and substance, he couldn’t have done a better job.
But — even as some critics twisted themselves into pretzels trying to convince us this was all part of a Chilton master plan to fool the world by deliberately making music that was beneath him — the truth is that this album, and most of the other stuff he released as an indie elder statesman, was great. Not Great with a capital “G,” but impeccably curated, played with honesty, clarity, and nuance, and generally pleasing to the earbulbs. I’ve grown into a place where I absolutely adore these records, and I listen to them far more often than the Big Star material (which I still marvel at, but find to be very much “of an era.”)
I should point out that I also love the original artists’ versions of the covers within this catalog. But Chilton’s soulful interpretations are unique, and meaningful. Like a bop jazz trio doing a set of Broadway show tunes, they’re measurably different from the originals, but respectful of the source material.
All this to say: go check out “High Priest,” or “Set,” and listen with an open mind. I think you’ll like what you hear.