(photo of Alex Chilton graced the cover of Holly George-Warren’s biography of him, A Man Called Destruction.)
BY STEVEN ROSEN / SONIC BOOMERS / 2010
The respect shown to Alex Chilton upon his recent death — from the press, blogs, fellow musicians, South by Southwest attendees, the pop world in general — revealed just how well-loved his work with the band Big Star had become.
Not that Chilton, who was just 59 when he succumbed to a heart attack in March, had done nothing besides sing/compose/play guitar for the short-lived Big Star. He had been the teenage lead singer with the Box Tops previously, had a long and varied (and controversial) career as a solo artist after Big Star, and even occasionally played and recorded with an updated Big Star II from the early 1990s onward.
But it was the two albums that the youthful Memphis band Big Star put out on Ardent Records (and recorded at Ardent Studios) in 1972 and 1974 that are considered his classic, most enduring work. More, they’re considered rock classics, period — game-changers that pointed the way out of album-rock’s virtuosic excess and toward sometimes-quietly introspective, sometimes-celebratory, always-tuneful and intelligent alternative rock.
They also showed at times an intimately disquieting, disaffected edge that rejected the braggadocio of the era’s strutting big stars in favor of the more intimate, maybe more melancholy, work of the Beatles of “Norwegian Wood” or “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” (A third album bearing the Big Star name, but recorded under different conditions and with a different spirit, came out in 1978 after the band had ceased to exist.)
The band’s legacy has now outlived Chilton, just as it has the band’s originator and co-writer/singer (on the first album), Chris Bell, who left before “Radio City” and died in 1978. And it seems a safe bet it will keep on lasting — “Keep an Eye on the Sky,” a four-disc retrospective with a variety of previously unreleased material, came out just last year.
But Big Star’s ongoing power isn’t the result of the strong sales or radio play that accompanied 1972’s “#1 Record” and 1974’s “Radio City,” despite their deceptive titles. Both were ignored in the marketplace — partly because of problems that Ardent’s parent company, Stax Records, had with its national distributor, Columbia Records.
Rather, the Big Star legacy is due to something that now seems quaint and even endangered in this Internet/download/“American Idol” age — the power of the print press, especially music critics, to champion and call attention to a band’s music at the time of its initial release. They made Big Star stand out — and while it took time, eventually the world noticed, especially other musicians who found themselves attracted to the same unpretentious values.
In Big Star’s case, the initial press came as the result of an extraordinary one-of-a-kind event that once seemed comical but, as time passes, can now be seen as extraordinarily prescient. It was the convention of the National Association of Rock Writers, sponsored by Ardent and held in Memphis over Memorial Day weekend in 1973.
More than 100 — some sources say as many as 175 — rock writers descended on Memphis from all over the U.S. (and England) for the event. Among those who attended were Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, Bud Scoppa and a teenage Cameron Crowe. On the final night, a three-piece Big Star closed a multi-act concert and wowed the attendees, resulting in many loyal champions and good press when their album “Radio City” came out the next year.
The “comical” aspect was due to the fact that rock-writing was not a highly evolved “profession” at the time and a lot of the people who came didn’t have much money. That meant they were eager for the free food and drink made available by Ardent. (According to anecdotal reports, the writers angered Memphis hookers because – unlike other conventioneers – they had no spending money.)
But some of the historical accounts make it seem like freeloading was all they were interested in. There was more to it than that – there was even hope of starting a union. “The context of the time was that music criticism was not taken seriously by mainstream anything,” recalls Billy Altman, who attended from State University of New York — Buffalo, where he had started an irreverent fanzine called Punk that had put the 1960s garage band the Seeds on its cover. “Nobody outside our little community thought anything we did had any validity. So what we were doing was to at least validate our own existence.”
In retrospect, with Big Star they did. But it took time for the word to get out. “I felt after that convention that it wasn’t happening — rock critics were really powerless,” recalls Jon Tiven, who had started New Haven Rock Press and had become a writer for several national music magazines while still attending college. He had helped organize the convention at Ardent’s request. “Here we had Big Star and all the critics liked them, but rock writers didn’t have impact at all and it was very frustrating. But I proved myself wrong,” Tiven says.
(As an aside, I supervised the pop-music section of the Harvard Coop’s record store when “Radio City” came out and remember featuring and promoting “Radio City” because of its great press. I also tried to order in “#1 Record” but Columbia Records — Ardent/Stax’s distributor — wouldn’t fill requests. So I know first-hand how crippled the band was by distribution problems. I also saw them play the Performance Center in Cambridge on a short tour supporting “Radio City” and opening for Badfinger, although only Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens from the original line-up were left. I can attest they were indeed magical live.)
John King III, the Ardent promotion manager who was close friends with head of Ardent Records/Ardent Studios John Fry, came up with the idea for the convention based on the good reviews “#1 Record” had received in the still-small rock press. The two believed in Big Star. But with Bell gone, Chilton, Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel were struggling to stay together. They’d recorded a few new songs but were undecided.
“I wanted Big Star to stay together and have a venue where these writers who really seemed to like them a lot could come into town and see them,” King recalls. “I had hero worship. Here were these guys who were passionate about music, while sometimes I was more passionate about the business. So I had a fascination with their magazines. And at that time, I really did hope an association could be formed from the meeting because these people weren’t getting paid.”
If the convention was dreamed up by King as a way to showcase Big Star, it became something more in order to get Stax approval. Primarily a soul-music label, Stax had signed a journeyman British rock band called Skin Alley and saw the event as a way to announce its intentions to move into rock. (Skin Alley’s presence helped lure the British press.) Another act on Ardent, Larry Raspberry and the Highsteppers, were soulful rockers with a volatile live act, fronted by the former lead singer of the Gentrys (“Keep on Dancing”). They were beloved by Stax co-head Jim Stewart.
By setting up a convention-ending show at a venue called Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square – featuring Don Nix (a Southern-rock singer-songwriter who was on Stax’s Enterprise label), Skin Alley, Raspberry and finally Big Star – King guaranteed funding from Stax. “That’s how the Rock Writers Convention squeaked through in getting approval,” King says. He estimates it cost Stax about $100,000. “That was a substantial sum, but I tried to protect Stax too, from things like long-distance calls from hotel rooms, without being a chintz ass,” he says.
King turned to Tiven for help because he was among the first to herald “#1 Record.” His story on it appeared in Boston’s Fusion magazine, a rival to Rolling Stone, and was teased on the cover. “I remember how many thousands of Fusions we had with ‘see page 56’ on the cover,” King says.
As a result of Tiven’s coverage, and before the Rock Writers Convention, Ardent had invited him to Memphis to see the studio, and then flew him to San Francisco to attend a Bill Gavin Radio Convention where the label was pushing Big Star. “They made me part of the team and I was happy to be part of the team – I was very happy to be part of t he team,” Tiven says.
Tiven, now Nashville-based and a record producer whose recent projects include new albums by soul-music veterans Howard Tate and Garnet Mimms, has complicated feelings about Big Star today. After befriending Chilton, he had a difficult time trying to produce his 1975 solo session that resulted in the 1977 EP “The Singer Not the Song.” In fact, during this interview, he told some horror stories about Chilton’s conduct during the period, both during the recording sessions and afterward. Also during the mid-1970s, Tiven moved to Memphis and got to know Bell.
“I found out Chris Bell was what I liked about Big Star,” Tiven says. “His songs were great – the songs that had his stamp on it were the things that really had struck me the hardest. By the time I was interested in Big Star, everybody was pushing Alex because Bell had left and nobody wanted him to meet anybody.”
There were some other events at the convention, headquartered at Holiday Inn – a screening of “The T.A.M.I. Show,” a bus trip past Graceland, a party on a Mississippi riverboat that featured music by bluesman Furry Lewis. And drinks did indeed flow. There was also a lot of talk, formally and informally, about rock writing.
And there was the big show. However well the other acts on the bill played at the convention, Big Star’s show defined the event. “Their performance was really terrific,” Altman recalls. “It was a tough gig because they were doing a show for rock writers, but everybody was blown away. They were really doing more of their newer stuff – songs most of us weren’t familiar with, but they sounded really good. I do remember being impressed with how good a guitar player Chilton was, because in the Box Tops he was a singer.” (The band also threw some oldies into the mix, including a version of the Box Tops’ “The Letter.”)
And that success convinced Chilton to stay with Big Star, at least long enough to record the great “Record City.” The critics supported it – Altman still calls it “lightning in a bottle.”
“They nailed it,” King says of Big Star’s performance at the convention. “And Alex was going to leave the band. I talked to him and said, ‘You’ve got all this publicity, it’s foolish to throw it all away. Do another album. That’s why they stayed together.”
They didn’t stay together that much longer, actually. Just long enough to become iconic. As for the National Association of Rock Writers – it changed its name after the convention to Rock Writers of the World. Nothing much happened with that. But, all these years later, they have proved their worldwide influence by supporting Big Star.
(In addition to interviews with Altman, Tiven and King, I also used as resource material a variety of articles available at rocksbackpages.com, including Barney Hoskyns’ “The Great Lig in the Sky” and his 2000 Big Star article for Mojo. Bruce Eaton’s 33 1/3 book “Radio City” and the pamphlet accompanying Stax’s 1992 re-release of the first two Big Star albums were also sources.)