I have been thinking about Alex Chilton quite a lot lately after hearing that the Big Star mainstay passed away from a heart attack on 17 March, and I have since had the highly enjoyable boxed set Keep an Eye on the Sky, which came out on the Rhino label late last year, on high stereo rotation. This set should be absorbed in a single sitting because it becomes apparent that amid all the beautiful harmonies, energised rock’n’roll and intimate lyrics, an important thread emerges which might make a person wonder about the role of the mainstream entertainment industry in encouraging free creative expression.
The detailed liner notes included in the set reveal a band that never wavered from its artistic vision despite record label misfortunes. It also turned out that a small, dedicated audience that was assisted by much deserved critical praise for the band, quietly derived nourishment from Big Star’s amazing music over the years despite the small number of records sold.
But the Big Star story is also quite a sad one. In the boxed set liner notes Robert Gordon expresses bafflement at how such appealing music could be relegated to cult status. Gordon notes that like The Beatles – a valid comparison, by the way – Big Star had “something for everyone…the music within is melodic, alternatively aggressive and soothing: ballads, anthems, hard rock, acoustic tracks.” Very much like The Beatles, this band crafted the most beautiful melodies that would settle under the skin and remain there. These could make the listener feel better about the world and his or her place in it at those moments when doubts might start to creep in, which of course happens to the best of us.
Even a cursory listen to the set reveals a high number of carefully constructed tunes, beautifully performed and arranged, and featuring the perfectly realised adolescent musings of songwriter/vocalist Alex Chilton, and Chris Bell on the earlier material. Bell never witnessed the cult following phase of the band’s career, having died in a car crash in 1978 following a bout of depression that was precipitated, in some part, by the sinking of the cheekily named debut album #1 Record upon its 1972 release.
The story goes that Big Star signed to the Stax label which had done well with Southern soul and blues and was looking to reach a broader audience. Stax had made a deal with Columbia Records which was an exciting development – at first – because Columbia had both an incredible roster and the clout to get albums into shopping mall record shops. But while the business side of things was being sorted out, Big Star’s #1 Record with its inclusion of crunching rock’n’roll tracks ‘Feel’ and ‘Don’t Lie to Me’ and achingly beautiful ballads like the Chilton penned ‘Give Me Another Chance,’ was left to wither on the vine and never troubled the shopping mall music consumer who would surely have lapped up the delicious harmonies and genuine emotional expression contained within.
Chris Bell subsequently left the band and ended up working in a family owned fast food restaurant before the fatal car accident finished him off. Alex Chilton, on the other hand, stuck to his guns and the band delivered a power pop classic with second album Radio City in 1974 that nevertheless went the same way as its predecessor. This album contains the sparkling gem of a track ‘September Gurls’, which brought forth all sorts of desirable feelings when I first heard it. The tragedy of non-attention played out again with the band’s final masterpiece Third/Sister Lovers that was recorded in 1975 and remained pretty much unavailable until the Rykodisc label gave it the release it always deserved in 1992. This is around the time I discovered the band because R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck had been saying good things about it in interviews.
At that point, I had recently commenced undergraduate university studies, and was fast becoming a fan of music whose rewards transcended convenient labelling. Big Star was most certainly a welcome discovery, as I had spent the previous seven years at a single sex college and consequently found myself somewhat socially awkward when it came to the cornucopia of amazing girls turning up to university classes each day. The struggle to have one of these intellectual nubiles come to accept that I really was worth the effort was alleviated by the music of Big Star and not just because of the heart-melting melodies. In actual fact, Alex Chilton’s talent at turning into art the many travails of love struck youth bordered on the profound, and it was heartening to be able to identify with his perspective.
But this story is about something other than the many cringe-worthy moments comprising my inauspicious love life. When I heard that Alex Chilton had died, it was saddening to recall that Big Star never sold more records in its brief lifetime, but there is another, more positive, dimension worth considering. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck has described the mostly word of mouth discovery of Big Star by music fans over the years as a rite of passage, and there is always something satisfying about taking the trouble to seek out good quality music that is off the radar as far as commercial radio and television is concerned. Furthermore, Chilton died knowing that Big Star had over the years achieved a level of recognition from fans, fellow musicians and reputable sections of the music press that far exceeded what the band had managed when those fantastic records were originally recorded.
And this is the heart of the matter: regardless of the many financial considerations driving the mainstream entertainment industry, all it takes is a little effort from the music fan to keep afloat the artist whose creativity deserves exposure. One good place to start is to hop off that couch, switch off the TV, the X-Box or the mobile phone, and head down to the local pub to check out some live music. It might be the case that a potential Big Star is performing a show just a few suburbs away.