John Sieger

Sieger on Songs. The Legacy of Alex Chilton

The leader of Big Star lives on in songs like “September Gurls.”

By - Jun 10th, 2016 03:33 pm
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Chilton performing with Big Star at Hyde Park, London, 2009. Photo by Marcelo Costa (Big Star @ Hyde Park) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Chilton performing with Big Star at Hyde Park, London, 2009. Photo by Marcelo Costa (Big Star @ Hyde Park) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Did the 70’s happen? You might not know it reading this blog. I’m sort of light on people who aren’t dead, I have to admit, but Kanye and Beyonce are already probably getting enough attention. The history of music resembles a vast ocean in my imagination. Still we tend to reflect only on the pretty reflections on the surface without diving too deeply. Some never leave the little corner they sail in, like the Sea of American Music. Guilty as charged — but in my defense, it’s a very wide body of water.

When I dive for pearls there, I tend to hang around the 50’s and 60’s, surfacing quickly through anything above those depths. So yes, the 70’s did happen, but so did polyester. I look on it as uneven decade that was saved by more than a few brilliant artists. It was like a hangover from the 60’s and by then some of the innovations were getting stale: Multi-tracking was the norm and studio trickery was on the rise. Disco happened, no problem there, because I liked a lot of those hits, in a slightly guilty way, but there was an absolute glut of soft rock and, like Jimmy Webb’s cake, it wasn’t designed to withstand the rain.

After a decade of phenomenal B-bands like, The Beatles, Beach Boys and The Band, we had The Bee-Gees and Bread. Guess who I have more of in my record collection? I won’t provide a list of the overbearing and under-talented who topped the charts, but it seems like a lot of coke was going up the noses of artists and producers with frightening results. Meanwhile, when things were right they were often overlooked — and I’m just catching up on one of them.

Alex Chilton had separate 60’s and 70’s personas. First he was the teenage singer in the Box Tops. He was a surprisingly mature sounding blue-eyed soul singer. He handled material brought in by Dan Penn, his producer, and Chips Moman like he’d been on the Chitlin Circuit for years. He had a smoky, seasoned baritone and an uncanny ability to sound comfortable in any setting.

In the 70’s he got much younger. His voice seemed to move up an octave and gained just the slightest touch of a British accent as he sang in the now legendary Big Star. Modern critical opinion will always favor the latter band, a solid pop outfit with enough quirk to inspire a large chunk of Alternative Rock. I was slow to the show, admiring them when I taught their songs to guitar students, but not bedazzled in the way I was when I listened to “The Letter” or “Soul Deep.”

Then last week I taught “September Gurls” and I had to reconsider. My rigidity drives me nuts sometimes. The fact that Chilton took control of his artistic career and didn’t do exactly what I would have expected is my problem, not his. Stevie Wonder did much the same thing. And a good song is a good is a good song. Gertrude Stein said something like that and it applies to this gem and, I’m sure, much of the rest of this group’s catalog.

Big Star was a two headed monster, with songs written and sung by Chilton and Chris Bell. After their first record tanked, Bell left. This one, from their second album, Radio City, was written by Chilton and sung by him. It’s probably their best known song.

September girls do so much
I was your butch and you were touched
I loved you, well, nevermind
I’ve been crying all the time

December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad

September girls, I don’t know why
How can I deny what’s inside?
Even though I’ll keep away
They will love all our days

December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad

When I get to bed late at night
That’s the time she makes things right
Ooh, when she makes love to me

September girls do so much
I was your butch and you were touched
I loved you, well, nevermind
I’ve been crying all the time

December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad, ooh

© Alex Chilton

This track is both thick and chimey — borrowing heavily from British pop. The forward-looking aspect of Big Star was their lyrics; they literally gave permission for R.E.M. to go further outside the box later on. The Replacements wrote an adoring song called “Alex Chilton.” There are probably tomes on how they got that sound and maybe more than a few Pro Tools plugins designed to deliver it. But without standout performances, like the ones delivered by Jody Stephens on drums and Andy Hummel on bass, it’s pointless to try for it. Showing the seasoning of their early days in bars, the band locks up by force of habit. By the time they made this, their ESP was in fine working order.

There’s a whole lot of Beatles, Badfinger and Kinks blended into this pop stew. And the sound of these groups, in turn, borrowed from Memphis, where Chilton grew up, living day to day in the presence of Blues, Gospel, Soul and Rock and Roll giants in that town.

Chris Bell died at 27, the most dangerous age in rock. Chilton lived long enough to enjoy a long solo career and he received adulation for a reformed version of the band in the 90’s and the Aughts. He died in 2010 with heart problems. He had known stardom early and followed his instincts rather than the scent of crisp folding money.

I used to be more judgmental, but I realized in time that a large majority of people really love music. And a high percentage of musicians work at it because of their passion. The only thing that taints it is when you sense the love of money is at the root of what you’re listening too. Ironically, that makes it sound cheap. Alex Chilton had a great compass, always set for true north. He sounded expensive.

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