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Music Review: Getting The Boxtop’s “The Letter”

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When this single came out in late 1967, I'm surprised I paid it any attention. Sgt. Pepper's had been released the preceding summer, changing the pop music landscape forever; besides, I was still at least partly a Tiger Beat-programmed adolescent, who'd evolved (if you can call it that) from the Fab Four on to Herman's Hermits, the Monkees, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. But I know I was hearing other tracks on the radio, primarily a lot of Motown — hits like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "I Was Born to Love Her," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," and "I Second That Emotion." Some part of my brain was wired to love that sweet soul music too. So when this single by a new band called the Boxtops rocketed onto the air waves, how could I not love it?

I didn't know that the lead singer, Alex Chilton, was just a teenager, barely a couple of years older than me. I didn't know the band was from Memphis; I doubt I even knew whether they were white or black. I sure didn't read about them in Tiger Beat. But this was a song you could not deny. I bought the single (which, given my paltry allowance, was a serious vote of faith) and listened to it so often, every beat was branded on my memory. It's one of my candidates for Most Perfect Single Ever.

It's only 2:03 and it doesn't waste a second; the drummer knocks half a dozen brisk strokes on the rim of his set, the guitar nimbly plucks another half-dozen notes, then Chilton's voice rips in urgently, "Give me a ticket for an aeroplane / Ain't got time to take a fast train," the melody jittering back and forth between two notes, words accented off-beat, everything jumpy as hell. He's at the ticket window, hair rumpled, out of breath — a man on a mission. "Lonely days are gone, I'm a-going home" he proclaims, then his voice drops into an awestruck growl: "My baby just wrote me a letter" — and his hoarse shiver on the word "letter" seals the deal for me. That explains why he's hopping from one foot to the other, telling the ticket agent, "I don't care how much money I gotta spend / Got to get back to my baby again."

He doesn't even need to tell us what the letter said, though he does in the bridge: "Well, she wrote me a letter, said she couldn't live without me no more / Listen, mister, can't you see I got to get back to my baby once a more" — pregnant pause here, while the horns swing around, the drummer knocks twice, then Chilton's voice swoons wildly — "Any way, yeah!" That's pretty much it, except for a long fadeout where the oddly perky electric organ repeats its calliope-like refrain and you hear a jet take off (I've always heard a seagull squawk too, though I could be wrong).

Though this record wasn't released in the summer, it still feels like a summer song to me — I have a distinct memory of standing on the midway at the Indiana State Fair, eating a corn dog, watching the Tilt-A-Whirl, standing transfixed while this song blared over the PA system.

Nobody writes letters anymore, I know — but I just can't imagine this song being updated to "My baby just sent me a text message." Just like Paul McCartney asking to hold your hand, that letter is code for the whole sexual shebang, and it's Chilton's gritty, earthy voice that puts in all the subtext. He may have just been imitating the Muscle Shoals and Sun Records r&b singers he'd grown up around, but that groan of longing, that husky urgency, means just one thing. I was even younger than Alex Chilton when I first heard this record, but I could feel the heat all right. Whew.

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About Holly Hughes

  • Vern Halen

    I’d never considered it, but you’re right – short & sweet & tight & not a not or lyric wasted. Good call.

    (BTW – your review is a reflection of the song itself – well done!)

  • zingzing

    isn’t it strange that as an teenager, chilton sounds like a gruff soul singer, but by the time he hit 30 he had regressed almost to the point of being a child?

    that said, “like flies on sherbert” is one of the finest examples of slop-rock in existence, just as much as “third” is rock music at its best, “radio city” is brilliant pop rock and “#1 record” is… well, it’s no “radio city.”

    i came to the box tops in a rather backwards manner… knowing alex chilton from big star, and having read of the box tops and this “the letter” song… it took until i put the record (some rhino best of) on for the first time to kinda stand back and say, “wha??? that’s the box tops? [having heard the song before, but never connecting what i had read to what i was hearing] THAT’S ALEX CHILTON!?”

    i was shocked. actually, i’ve been listening to “third” for the last couple of days… i finally get “big black car.” that’s a mother fucker of a song. so, that’s why i’m babbling so much right now… i just love alex chilton. the man is a goddamn genius. and a wonderful blue-eyed soul singer! ok. ok. i’m done.

  • Vern Halen

    Alex Chilton – definitely had his moments. Did you read the Chris Bell article on bc a couple weeks ago?

  • zingzing

    no, i didn’t see it. i shall go searching. chris bell never quite did it for me… “#1 record” is my least favorite big star by some way, and i kinda blame that on him. also, the solo bell stuff is beautiful, but whiney. but i shall go read… maybe download a few of the better bell songs… i think i remember liking the one about a sister, or something like that.

  • Oddly enough, zingzing, I never knew Alex Chilton was in Big Star; I never even focused on Big Star until about 2 months ago — although of course, once I listened to Radio City and Record #1 I realized that several of those songs had floated in and out of my consciousness for years. To tell the truth, even though I owned this single as a kid, I didn’t learn the name of the Boxtops’ lead singer until I heard the Replacements song “Alex Chilton.”
    I’ve read that Alex Chilton DID NOT LIKE that Replacements at all. Can’t figure out why …

  • zingzing

    that’s funny… alex played guitar (and maybe sang a little) on “can’t hardly wait” from “pleased to meet me…” which, funnily enough, was produced by the same man (jim dickinson) who produced big star’s “third.” then again, alex didn’t really get along with anybody. bastard he is, i guess.

    (also, did you notice the “i’d don’t go anywhere too far, without a little big star” line in “alex chilton?”)

    if you’ve heard and liked “#1 record” and “radio city,” you should hunt down “third,” as it is easily the best of the bunch… one of the greatest rock albums of the 70’s. it’s almost abstract at times, with bits and pieces of musical stuff all interacting strangely to make pop out of chaos. definitely alex’s “genius” moment… unfortunately, he’s obviously falling apart at the time… which is maybe where that genius comes from.

    “kangaroo” is probably the most famous song off of the album… it’s also one of the strangest. (it’s about alex jerking off on a lady at a party.) it’s been covered by jeff buckley, this mortal coil and some former prince protege named jill jones, whom i will totally have to hunt down.

  • I’ve known this song all my life and never thought of it as being such a well-executed pop single until you pointed it out. I guess I kind of took it for granted, but you made a strong case for it.

    As for that “perfect” pop song, I’m still partial to another 1967 gem, “Happy Together” by Flo and Ed…er…The Turtles.

  • Curtis

    That review struck a chord with me. The Boxtops had another perfect single – “Cry Like A Baby”. And let’s not forget the Boxtops single that sang the praises of prostitutes. Google the lyrics to “Sweet Cream Ladies”.

    I’ve never listened to a note of Big Star – something I need to address. But your review of the Boxtops brought a smile to this old fart’s face.

  • Marcia L. Neil

    ‘The Boxtops’ is an album theme and a wartime release which demonstrates the change from ‘bap’tist mentalities to ‘box’top.

  • “Cry Like a Baby,” ah, yes, another Boxtops gem. But “Sweet Cream Ladies” — I was definitely too young to understand THAT song when it came out! I suppose I thought it was about hippie girls who liked French pastries.

    Funny you should mention “Happy Together”, Pico — that’s another of my candidates for Most Perfect Pop Single Ever. Talk about opening up the vault…

    And zingzing, you should know by now that all roads lead to Jim Dickinson.

  • Vern Halen

    Happy Together is right up there, fer shure!

    And how about Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’?

    And if I start on all my bubblegum 60’s faves, I’ll be here all day.

    Kangaroo is about WHAT???? I’m gonna have to pull out my Buckley albums and listen to that one again.

  • zingzing

    holly–all roads going south do end up at jim dickinson. if i had a choice of lives to lead, it might just be his. sun records, muscle shoals, screamin’ jay hawkins, big star, the replacements… the guy was there for everything and did everything.

    vern–buckley’s version of kangaroo is rather a abstracted version… of an already whacked-out song. but here are the lyrics:

    I first saw you
    You had on blue jeans
    Your eyes couldn’t hide anything
    I saw you breathing, oh
    I saw you staring out in space

    I next saw you
    You was at the party
    Thought you was a queen
    Oh so flirty
    I came against

    Didn’t say “excuse”
    Knew what I was doing
    We looked very fine
    ’cause we were leaving

    Like saint joan
    Doing a cool jerk
    Oh, I want you
    Like a kanga roo

    people get all wrapped up in the incredible production, the voice, everything but the lyric… it just doesn’t seem that such a beautiful, cracked song could really be about being a nasty, horny drunk. lovely.

  • Vern Halen

    But Jeff Buckley could sing the phone book and make it beautiful…. or strange, or both at the same time. What a loss.

  • zingzing

    yes he could. the man had a voice, i tell you. really though, his version of kangaroo is one of my least favorite of his songs… maybe it’s just because i find it disappointing compared to what it could have been… i mean, jeff buckley doing kangaroo!? it’s almost unrecognizable… which kinda sucks.

  • zingzing

    huh. xiu xiu also does a cover. must be new.

  • Nancy

    Zing, how is ‘Xiu Xiu’ pronounced? Thanks.

  • zingzing

    i think it’s kind of like “zhoo-zhoo,” although i’ve also heard “sue-sue.”

    it’s up to you. xiu xiu doesn’t have the most difficult name to figure out how to pronounce… that syntax is fucked… there’s a band called !!!, that’s three exlamation points, that’s their name…

    they say you can pronounce it pow-pow-pow, uh-uh-uh, etc. but mostly they are called chk-chk-chk. and they are funky, no matter what their name is.