Monday, September 14, 1987
The Michigan Daily
By Beth Fertig
In 1967 Alex Chilton was a big
star. As the 16 year-old lead singer
for The Box Tops, Chilton's husky
voice made "The Letter" a number
one hit. That song still plays in bar-
room jukeboxes as a hazy reminder
of the purest of '60s pop.
But his music and influential
songwriting is more than a memory
of yesterday. Chilton is still around
and is a living, breathing reminder of
the vitality of pop music from both
the past and present. For further
proof, just check out his per-
formance tonight at the Blind Pig.
When music critic Ellen Willis
caught a live performance by the
Box Tops in 1969, she wrote this
prophetic review of Alex Chilton in
the New Yorker:
"He may be confused about what
to do next. He has brains, talent, and
presence; if he got hold of a decent
band and courted the 'serious'
audience, with a little luck and some
smart management he could graduate
from the teeny circuit."
Chilton was clearly fed up with
his teeny-bopper band, a product of
its management more than anything
else. But he also had a lot more
talent to offer than the other players.
When the '70s rolled around, he
found a new vehicle- Big Star -
one of the most seminal rock groups
of that decade.
Big Star, as the cover photo of its
debut LP would suggest, was named
after the supermarket chain of the
same name. Like the Box Tops, Big
Star was indelibly rooted in
Memphis. That soul sound just
couldn't help but creep through the
songs, although the band took some
decisively hard rock turns. It was
clearly ahead of its time: taking a
cue from the Beatles' strong sense
for melody, Big Star expanded in
every which way. The band's three
albums contained acoustic guitar
ballads, screaming hard rock, surging
pop songs like the glorious
"September Gurls" and "Back of a
Car," and a wealth of experi-
mentation, especially on the delayed
Sister Lovers LP (which was ac-
tually more of a solo outing). The
artificially husky voice of Chilton's
teen days was replaced with a sweet,
soulful tenor. Naturally, the formula
was more suited to critical than
commercial success; Big Star never
sold many records.
Big Star's records got around,
though. The Chilton/Big Star
influence can now be felt in material
by newer groups such as the dB's,
the Replacements, Dumptruck, Let's
Active, Game Theory, and even
R.E.M. But until a few years ago,
Alex Chilton remained one of the
best kept secrets in pop music.
Then, as patience and long held
belief would predict, the cycle
reversed. Alex Chilton was revived.
These days we've got the Bangles
covering "September Gurls" (albeit
dreadfully), and the Replacements
have even penned a song about him.
It was a slow careful step from
the obscure back to cult-status
prominence. After the demise of Big
Star (officially in 1974, although
Sister Lovers wasn't released until
'78), Chilton traveled, released solo
records, and played with Panther
Burns, a raw, boogying Memphis
blues-rock band. He settled down in
New Orleans and supposedly made a
living washing dishes. Then he
released the1985 EP Feudalist Tarts
(on Big Time Records); it was hailed
as his comeback record.
For Chilton fans, the record came'
as no real surprise. Tarts was an
album by an artist who had gone'
back to his roots and who was now
playing covers of songs by ,
Memphis and New Orleans players,
Gradually Alex Chilton was re
discovered; he toured, did interviews,,
and became the darling of college,
The follow-up single was a clever,
little gem called "No Sex," a song
which satirizes the '80s AIDS panic
and sexual de-evolution. It had load4l1
of hit appeal and got a little airplay;.s
but was stifled by its use of the "f'"'
word. Just this month Big Timeg
released Chilton's new LP High
Priest. Like his career, the record has
its ups and downs. Although his
fans are drooling for new material,)
he has once again come up with an
album that's mostly spotty coves
songs - the worst of which it
"Volare" and the best of which is
"Take It Off." Those Chilton.
originals are still the best tracks;' U
"Don't Be A Drag" and "Dalai'
Lama" reveal his sense of humor and
seem a lot more effortless than some'
of the other material. Chilton''
voice is naturally suited for soul and'
blues, but when it's not the right
material he can sound painfully
white. Hopefully his next outing
will contain more of Alex Chilton
and less of other artists.
Tonight's performance at the
Blind Pig should provide a healthy
dose of Alex Chilton's best material
- past and present. His last Ani)
Arbor show featured a playful
rendition of "The Letter" as well as
Big Star tunes, his squirmy
"Bangkok" single, and lots of blues'
and roots rock in the Memphis/New"
Orleans tradition. Opening for
Chilton will be Ann Arbor's owns
Folkminers, featuring Sam Lapides
(of West Engineering Arch fame),
The music will probably start by 1
Pop legend Alex Chilton will be back at the Blind Pig tonight. Warming up
the stage for him will be Ann Arbor's Folkminers.
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