Being a fan of 80’s guitar jangle that I am, it’d come as no real surprise that I’d consider Alex Chilton to be one the forms exemplary talents. Once anyone gets into the litany of bands from that era that regularly spoke of his expansive influence—REM, the Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream, the Posies, Soul Asylum, X, and on and on you could go—you would get to the point that you’d be almost tired of the namecheck and do the homework for yourself. What you’d find, first in the Box Tops records of the mid to late 60s (where his blue eyes soul vocal stylings were second to none) and then specifically the Big Star records of the mid-70s, is some of the most bristling guitar pop of that or any era. Big Star evoked a touching individualistic honesty that immediately marked the songs to his unique perspective (but, lets also not discount Chris Bell’s work with the band too; a fact his genius posthumous I Am the Cosmos LP more than bore), but the three records, as critically heralded as they were, sold poorly and the band remained mere cult darlings. These poor commercial showings strained the bands relationship with the label, and no doubt affected the psyches of Chilton and Bell. Thus, after three records (all of masterpiece quality), the band called it quits.
Having a selection of my ‘Songs I Love’ series here would have been easy; I love several Big Star tracks, from the aching depths of ‘Holocaust’, to the ramshackle abandon of ‘O My Soul’, to the half-dozen other highly melodic marvels that evoked the pop heights of classic era Byrds. But, as I’m often wont to do when discussing a cult-figure, I often think that digging even deeper, into the even more idiosyncratic works you find an even purer distillation of what made that person (or group) so very special. Sure, Big Star was grossly unheralded, but compared to Alex Chilton’s later solo work, they appear as certifiably ‘mainstream’ by comparison. His work herein represents, by Chilton’s own admission, an incredibly dark period in his life and with that in mind, the work is a remarkable window into both his creative and personal process. His first solo LP, and I feel his best, 1979’s poetically titled, Like Flies on Sherbert, bares the heartbreak of Big Star’s failure coupled with the knowledge of punk’s bursting ascension into guitar based pop music. The record is filled with anarchic whimsy and loose ends; the playing (and recording) at times remarkably rough and crude, the sign that many of the songs are being played on broken, untuned instruments, by players who listed other instruments entirely as their preferred one. Chilton was an accomplished guitar player at this point, so naturally he had producer Jim Dickenson play a good portion of the parts on the record because, “he played it [the guitar] like he was 14 years old”. It’s no surprise then that when reading some of the takes on the record, it split opinions right down the middle. Some feeling it the “worst record ever made”, while others seeing its noisy experimental beauty showing clearly through. For my tastes I can’t see how any professional critic could not see immense charm and wonderment it what Chilton was able to capture, each song a kaleidoscope of invention and melody.
The last track shares it’s name with the albums title, so it seems as great (and representational) a pick as anything else on the record. It’s a wonderful pop explosion, becoming a Spector Wall of Sound like idea within a collage framework; audio levels within the stereo setting fly in and out, up and down. Drums going from echoed thunder, to soft hush; lyrics range from softly cried in pitch perfect melody to deranged screaming. It’s a perfect modern pop single, as trippy as it is manic; as light as it is unbearably heavy. In a career like Chilton had, I can’t think of a better representation. Can we get this thing back in print?