In the early 1970s Alex Chilton and Chris Bell of Big Star were essentially laying down the template for what would become "power pop." Drawing on the British Invasion groups of the '60s, and Chilton's soul influences from his former band The Box Tops for their melodies and the harder edges of American rock and punk for their lyrics, Big Star created three of the greatest pop rock records in the history of music.
The critics took notice but the fans did not, and despite ambitious titles to their albums like their début #1 Record the masses failed to generate the expected sales. And the band that would influence groups from The Replacements to REM went largely unnoticed by all but the avant garde until the aforementioned bands themselves brought Big Star into the public consciousness with their citations of influence and constant praise.
Sadly, on March 17, 2010 Alex Chilton, lead guitarist and vocalist of the band, died in much the same way as he and his band existed; unfortunately and unfairly unnoticed. Acknowledged by the music community which always saw the genius in Chilton's compositional abilities, he died of a heart attack at age 59, and had garnered far less recognition than someone who contributes nothing to society or the cultural landscape like, say, Anna Nicole Smith. Which is an obvious and yet illustrative demonstration and commentary on the current state of the aptitude, pop cultural education, and appreciation of quality art amongst the general public.
But for fans of bands as varied as The Kinks, Beck, Brendan Benson, Wilco, and even Cheap Trick — who covered the Big Star song "In the Street" off of #1 Record from the second season of the sitcom "That 70s Show" and on — Big Star is an essential band. The combination of Alex Chilton and his talented songwriting partner and original band leader Chris Bell was a tumultuous concoction that created a rock/pop fusion sound that at times borders on near perfection.
And for fans of whatever power pop, modulated crap that record companies are currently trying to shove down the throats of teenagers these days, turn off the insubstantial radio music immediately and purchase, at the very least, #1 Record and Radio City. Big Star's third release — Third/Sister Lovers — is thematically different than the first two records, does not feature Chris Bell as part of the band, and is geared more for fans who already have an understanding of the intricacies of Alex Chilton's unique approach to music.
Chilton himself realized the enormity of #1 Record and the challenges of ever topping it despite its lack of commercial success, seemingly with a solid amount of self-deprecation: “I guess that my life has been a series of flukes in the record business. The first thing I ever did was the biggest record that I'll ever have.”
R.E.M.'s Peter Buck placed Big Star's third (Chilton's) record in high company, confessing, "We've sort of flirted with greatness, but we've yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star's Third."
Rolling Stone Magazine — which included all three of Big Star's albums on their 500 Greatest Albums list — also commented on Chilton and Big Star's far-reaching influence stating that the band "created a seminal body of work that never stopped inspiring succeeding generations of rockers, from the power-pop revivalists of the late 1970s to alternative rockers at the end of the century to the indie rock nation in the new millennium."
But Chilton himself never had such faith in his abilities, stating, “I never thought of myself as being a good songwriter. There are a ton of other people that are good songwriters, but I don't think I'm in the club. What I do well is perform, sometimes sing pretty good, and accompany myself well and arrange fairly well.”
He may not have known it, but those with refined tastes always saw the immense talent Chilton possessed. And hopefully from the tragedy of his death, at least a few more people will be turned on to a band and an artist who actually put effort, care, and skill into the substance of what he/they created. In any case, the music community has lost a pioneer that sadly many never even knew that they had.