CHRIS BELL & ALEx CHILTOn
Big Star’s two auteurs reveal the band’s past and future
CHRIS Bell and Alex Chilton only made one record together – Big Star’s 1972 debut, #1 Record – but 45 years later the pop romantic and the rock cynic are bound together in that band’s mythology. They could barely get arrested in the 1970s, but since then they’ve defined a new kind of stardom: the cult act, the also-rans rediscovered as geniuses, the patron saints of musical lost causes. Their band’s output has been compiled and reissued repeatedly, but this pair of compilations – one focusing on Bell, the other on Chilton – manage to find new insights into these two very different and often feisty creative personalities.
Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star is ostensibly about Bell’s development before meeting up with Chilton, but it’s more about the small Memphis scene that coalesced around Ardent Studios in the late 1960s, a loose circle of friends and musicians who kept late hours tinkering with pop songs and sounds. As such, it’s a compelling document of young Anglophiles rebelling against local history and embracing The Beatles and The Who over Elvis and Stax.
At times they’re pretty shameless in apeing their British Invasion heroes, but tracks by Icewater (featuring Bell) and Rock City (featuring former Stax engineer Terry Manning) rearrange those elements into bright new shapes. More crucially, this early version of the Big Star classic “My Life Is Right” and even the instrumental iteration of “Oh My Soul” reveal just how thoroughly Bell had refined that powerpop sound before he even met Chilton.
By 1974, Big Star had collapsed and Chilton had fled Memphis for New York, where he found himself on the margins of the city’s burgeoning punk scene. Take Me Home And Make Me Like It picks up with sessions for 1975’s Bach’s Bottom and 1977’s The Singer Not The Song (the latter released by the legendary Ork Records and anthologised on the Numero Group’s excellent Ork Records: New York, New York in 2015). Like his old cohorts Jim Dickinson and Tav Falco, Chilton was obsessed with deconstructing local R&B, soul and pop forms and reconstructing them in messy new configurations, which lends a perverse charisma to what ought to be shambolic and tedious performances.
Chilton emerges as a prickly figure, a frontman putting lots of effort into sounding half-assed. His take on The Beatles’ “I’m So Tired” either shows the extent of Bell’s influence on him or serves as a wicked dig at his former bandmate. Both of these releases are the very definition of for-fans-only, and Take Me Home in particular sounds like a bonus disc to a full album reissue. But they reveal new angles to the Big Star story and a new dynamic between its two antagonistic protagonists.
Big Star in 1972, with Chris Bell (left) and Alex Chilton (right)
CHRIS BELL Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star OMnIVORE 7/10
ALEx CHILTOn Take Me Home And Make Me Like It MUnSTER 7/10