Alex Chilton has earned his place in the annals of rock’n roll history, both for his talent and his often notoriously prickly behavior. First coming to prominence as a teenage singing sensation with the band The Box Tops, that group fell apart after delivering one classic single, “The Letter.” Chilton formed the Power Pop-defining Big Star in the early 1970s, and although the group never achieved the success they deserved during their brief existence, and have since been recognized as one of the finest unknown groups of the rock’n roll era. Chilton would launch a solo career in the late 1970s, would reform Big Star in the 1990s, and performed with them until his death in 2010. Over the last few months a handful of archival releases have appeared documenting several aspects of Chilton’s career.
Big Star’s 1974 live recording on WLIR in New York City has long been a popular bootleg, one that saw official release in 1992 and is being released now as part of Omnivore’s ongoing archival series. Though the band was near its demise––Chilton and Jody Stevens are the only original members here, with the the duo joined by John Lightman on bass—the set is equally loose and light hearted yet exemplifies the band’s high level of songwriting and performance as they run through the majority of Radio City. Sloppy in the rock parts and transcendent in the sad parts, Big Star Live On WLIR remains a vital document for the fans of the cult band.
The Death of Rock: Peter Holsapple vs Alex Chilton (Omnivore) is a recently discovered studio session recorded in Memphis in 1978, and it is a testament to the creative process of both musicians. It stems from Chilton hearing some of Peter Holsapple’s recent studio recordings and declaring them terrible, to which he halfheartedly and drunkenly promised to show him how to be better in the studio. The two musicians trade off on songs; Holsapple’s songs are tentative, Big Star–inspired rockers that don’t particularly serve his legacy. Though “Bad Reputation” and the unfinished “Mind Your Manners” are good, the rest are mostly forgettable, leading one to wonder if Chilton’s seemingly cruel comment wasn’t without some merit. For his part, Chilton’s songs are equally as loose and simply feel like him goofing around to show his young friends how it’s done. Best of the lot is “Tennis Bum,” with Chilton amazingly taking inspiration from Love You–era Brian Wilson. The set concludes with rehearsals from that day, including a dead on red-hot version of “In The Streets.”
In the 1980s, Chilton relocated to New Orleans, and steadily released albums and EPs that followed his creative whimsy with little consideration for commercial appeal. From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar/None) rounds up the best of the lot of some of the more obscure releases from this era. He may have been a wandering creative spirit at the time, but he was far from being a spent creative force. R&B, blues, rock’n roll, and a little bit of rockabilly inform the music here; covers of The Hondas “Little GTO,” Dan Penn’s “Nobody’s Fool” and Isaac Hayes’ “B-A-B-Y” fit nicely alongside excellent originals like “Thing For You,” “Lonely Weekend,” “Paradise” and “Underclass.”
Yet it is the final release of the bunch that is the most surprising and most enjoyable. Songs from Robin Hood Lane (Bar/None) is a collection of jazz standards Chilton recorded over the course of his solo career. He grew up in a household where such music was prevalent, and it’s clear that he both loves these song and knows them inside and out, as he performs them with an austerity he rarely showed in his other recordings. Chet Baker Sings is referenced in the liner notes as an album that heavily influenced Chilton, and it’s quite apparent that such is the case. It’s quite startling to hear the often unapologetically sloppy rocker taking on songs such as “Let’s Get Lost,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” and ”Like Someone In Love” in such a sophisticated and serious manner, but it’s never less than a fantastic set of performances, whether he is playing by himself or playing with a small horn or woodwind combo.
No matter what he did, Chilton was a talented personality and did things his way, irrespective of how they came out. These reissues help to show the wide range he had on offer, and that in spite of his often abrasive and acidic personality, he was a superb musician at heart.