By one of those funny coincidences, on the day Alex Chilton died I’d been listening to Big Star – arguably one of the most important bands of the seventies – for the first time in months, if not years. It was St Patrick’s Day, and I’d met an old friend in the centre of town for a drink. My friend, to avoid the idiots in foam hats, had chosen a Sam Smith’s pub: they don’t serve Guinness. We didn’t spend long, but in the hour or so that we had we touched on:
- Two teenage deaths: tragic, but weren’t they more likely a result of alcohol and the heroin substitute methadone, which they’d also taken; and what was wrong with Es anyway?
- I’d just got one: did that make me a berk? He wanted one, but didn’t fancy a two-year contract, which lead on to . . .
- His wife had just turned forty. They were talking about having another, but that would mean him giving up his job for childcare. He was unsure; I thought it would be a good thing
After, we said goodbye and hugged on the platform at Tottenham Court Road, and I hopped on to the Tube heading to Liverpool Street. It was half-empty, relieved after rush hour. The couple of pints I’d drunk were warming up the light in the carriage. I scrolled through my iPod, settling quickly on the joint re-release of Big Star’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City. I skipped the first track, ‘Feel’: a fine song, but really just a taster for the one that follows, ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’. As the guitar introduction chimed, reminding me of the myriad times I’d enjoyed it, I reflected on my good friend and the hour we’d just spent: how we were getting old; how much I loved him. And I smiled to myself. And I felt a little emotional, thinking about my friend, listening to Big Star.
As with many people who weren’t there first time round, I came to Alex Chilton via another band. In my case, it was Teenage Fanclub. It could just have easily been REM. Or The Replacements. The influence of his second band, Big Star, was acknowledged by pretty much everyone who mattered in the late eighties and early nineties.
I’m not sure which album I had, now. I think it was the third, Sister Lovers. What I do remember is that it was on a C90 cassette, and when I listened to it, even though I didn’t know the songs, they seemed intimately familiar.
The Box Tops. Big Star. #1 Record. Looked at alone, they seem clumsy, contrived. Like something Simon Cowell might dream up. Your dad’s idea of cool. Poptastic.
But to me, and to many I suspect, these names are not clichéd, they are alchemical. And this notion of being both one thing and another is as good a way as any to try to understand Alex Chilton’s greatness. So, in ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’, the limpid vocal harmonies that underpin his voice are subtly phased – that most synthetic of effects. His signature guitar sound, driving, choppy and quintessentially ‘rock’, rarely distorts. The themes of his songs are both aggressive and sentimental, complex and uncomplicated. A Rolling Stone review said of the first album that ‘even the prettiest tunes have tension and subtle energy to them’.
Despite the critical acclaim, beyond his Box Tops chart hits Alex Chilton did not enjoy a great deal of commercial success. And it’s fair, I think, to say that his renown is cultish: when I mentioned yesterday to colleagues that he had died, the typical response was ‘Alex Who?’ ‘Big What?’
But if you listen, you’ll recognise the songs. Even if you’ve never heard them before. Such is his genius.
Alex Chilton, 1950–2010