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Music Pioneer Alex Chilton Dies at 59

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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.

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About Anthony Tobis

  • Greg Barbrick

    Nice memorial. R.I.P. Alex

  • Tony

    Thank you Greg. I know Big Star isn’t really “unknown” anymore but I really felt like his passing got way too little coverage. He contributed so much to everything that followed.

  • zingzing

    his passing actually got a good load of coverage. i was surprised by the amount of coverage i saw, but i was looking for it. he was actually eulogized on the floor of congress (you can see footage on cspan). chilton was one of my favorites, up there with anyone. and his late-70s period of personal destruction made some for some of the greatest music i’ve ever heard. “like flies” and “dusted in memphis” are pure catharsis put on tape. and his later r&b stuff was the purest enjoyment of music you’re likely to hear anytime soon.

    he’s a true legend and his time came too soon. in a lot of ways.

    i’m so sick that i never saw him.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/a-geek-girl A Geek Girl

    An incredibly moving tribute Tony. If others could express the significance of his loss as poignantly as you have perhaps the world would understand.

    “his late-70s period of personal destruction made some for some of the greatest music i’ve ever heard”
    zing, I just wish I could give you a hug and hold your hand right now. I understand.

  • Tony

    I guess relative to the exposure of the band historically his death did get a fair amount of “coverage” but I was shooting more for the point that it is pathetic that someone who contributes nothing culturally to this universe can be plastered on the news for three days while Alex Chilton gets a few articles in music publications and maybe a mention on the news. Didn’t hear about he Congress thing though; very cool.

    And thank you for your compliment agg.

  • zingzing

    geek girl: “zing, I just wish I could give you a hug and hold your hand right now. I understand.”

    i think he’d rather we slapped each other around a bit and then flopped around like dying fish. a tribute!

    tony: “I guess relative to the exposure of the band historically his death did get a fair amount of “coverage” but I was shooting more for the point that it is pathetic that someone who contributes nothing culturally to this universe can be plastered on the news for three days while Alex Chilton gets a few articles in music publications and maybe a mention on the news.”

    true. he didn’t rate til he died. unfortunate. he hadn’t been at his peak for years, but the stuff that made him a legend didn’t help him because: a) no one knew it was him or b) no one knew it existed. as a name, he flew under the radar his entire career. but he’s up there with the greatest ever. one of the great songwriters, one of the great guitarists, one of the great vocalists and one of the great personalities in rock. he’s a national treasure.

    “bangkok” rules my world.

  • http://www.soundclick.com/bands/default.cfm?bandID=463156 JC Mosquito

    Not much to add here that hasn’t been said already.

    “Lonely days are gone / I’m a goin’ home.”

  • http://thismeaneveryone.blogspot.com James A. Gardner

    Tony: Thanks from me, also, for a very nice appreciation of an under-appreciated artist. I was always fascinated at how Alex Chilton had three distinct careers in music — the Box Tops, Big Star, and his solo work — that could have been the work of three distinct individuals.
    The same guy wrote “Jesus Christ” and “No Sex”?! Sang “The Letter” and “Thirteen”?!
    This has been a rough stretch for losing musicians who mean a lot to me–I’m still playing Willy DeVille music in tribute. I appreciate reading a piece like this that captures some of the loss a lot of us are feeling.

    “Lo, they did rejoice, fine and clear of voice / and the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail”

  • Tony

    I’m glad everyone felt like I did this well because, as James said, it was very hard to illustrate my feelings towards his three styles. Obviously I was introduced to Alex through Big Star — and I’ve always loved that band — but then through that I was exposed to the Box Tops and his solo work and was absolutely blown away in two distinctly different ways, and in a different way than by Big Star.

    It is so hard to sum up such a collage of beautiful work into a few words. I felt like I could made this 10 pages long but than no one would have read it.

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com Christopher Rose

    Yet another sad loss.

    I had the pleasure of working with Alex Chilton for several years and he even stayed at my place during one UK tour.

    He was a great bloke and a great musician; indeed, I still listen to his stuff to this day.

  • Tony

    That’s unbelievably cool Chris. I’m assuming that must have been during solo career.

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com Christopher Rose

    Hi Tony,

    Yes, it would have been from around ’85 to the early 90s and through Alex I also got to work with people like Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, who were quite possibly even cooler.

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