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.
Talk about a cry for help! Is your mid life crisis really THAT bad?????!!!!!!
After years of reading about how amazing Big Star’s albums were, I remember all too clearly my sense of “is that it?” when I finally found them, and took them back the same day to trade for something else.
What drove you to reinvestigate Alex Chilton’s later output? Do they play it on the radio over there?
I always enjoy discovering I was wrong about something I’d previously dismissed as mediocre or dreadful. That’s why at festivals, given the opportunity, I’ll always go and see acts like Yes or Wishbone Ash, approaching with genuine hope that my brain might have caught up over time. Along with Curved Air, neither of those persuaded me I was wrong. Any number of others have, though. Atomic Rooster, for one, and Joan Armatrading for another. I often struggle to find others with a similar spirit of adventure, a bit like trying to persuade friends to give The Fall another chance live. Which, sadly, will never happen again.
In the spirit of experimentation, but mainly because it came with a postcard signed by almost at the top of my bucket list for autographs Arthur Brown, I just treated myself to the Kingdom Come box set. I love the first album but found the rest distinctly patchy thirty years ago. I’m looking forward to giving them another go.
But where to draw the line? I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I’d open my mind to This is the Modern World, or even, according to the link on the last thread, the Clash’s greatest album, Give Em Enough Rope. Those, I suppose, are different, having truly great moments on either side.
I was so prepared to lay into you for going soft, HVB. BUT, that live Hook Me Up version is good. I dig his singing and playing on that for sure. You can really see/hear/feel how he and Ben Vaughn were kindred spirits.
I like the Chilton solo stuff. The drummer he had on High Priest and for about ten years after that, Doug Garrison, was really good.
There is a new record, Alex Chilton and the Hi Rhythm Section, from a live performance at a benefit in 1999. In the liner notes, the show’s producer says that he asked Alex to come to Memphis (from New Orleans) to help move some tickets.
“I’m sorry to hear about Fred, but there are no musicians in Memphis I can play with,” responded Alex.
Feeling my back against the wall, I replied, “How about the Hi Rhythm Section?”
“That will work.”
That encapsulates Chilton’s later work. He had standards, but they were his own standards. He didn’t care much what anyone else thought, particularly not what might be thought of as a career strategy. He was going to do what he wanted to do, and he would get by.
Chilton was living in New Orleans when he made those records, and I used to go see him sometimes when he played Tipitina’s. He had an excellent band with Memphis drummer Doug Garrison and local boy Rene’ Coman on fretless electric bass. (They’re playing on No Sex.) It was really cool to see him in a bar, and the relaxed atmosphere was perfect for the mostly covers repertoire.
A new live album just came out last month — Boogie Shoes: Live On Beale Street (1999) attributed to Alex Chilton and the Hi Rhythm Section. This was apparently a one-off, and I found it kind of meh, even though it seems like a match made in heaven. It’s definitely not bad, but Alex should have stuck to singing. His guitar has pedalitis (you can get a little taste of that processed sound in the Hook Me Up clip), and it sounds out of place when he solos. The band sounds great, very rehearsed and professional, qualities one does not associate with solo Alex. Worth a listen though.
Btw did you know Alex was a serious devotee of astrology? And that during the time Ray Davies was living in New Orleans he and Alex got to be good friends?
I did not know about the Chilton-Davies connection, BigSteve!
I haven’t tried listening to those albums in years. Perhaps I’d like them a little better after all this time, but I will say that I saw him with that rhythm section from New Orleans on the High Priest tour. He was excellent. Those stupid songs were much better live. Best part of all, though, was his encore, which was about 8 songs from the Big Star catalog capped off with a beautiful version of “The Look of Love.” I enjoyed that show greatly. I don’t want to listen to those stupid records again in case I spoil it.
On the Tom Waits covers album “Step Right Up”, Alex’s version of “Downtown” is maybe the best track on the record. I like his loose and blues-funky style (great band) much better than Wait’s early faux jazz style.