Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton died. He was in a band called Big Star, who were around in the early 70s but didn’t sell many records, and were probably my favourite band when I was seventeen.

I was having trouble negotiating everyday teenage life with an undiagnosed autistic spectrum condition, and their music, listened to on second or third generation tape copies, made perfect sense to me. Their three albums, which would be classified as power-pop, although they transcend any easy definition, seemed to form a perfect trilogy. The first, #1 Record, is optimistic and sunny. It represented for me the life I hoped to attain, but curiously couldn’t get to, due to some mysterious blocks in my head. The second, Radio City, is rawer and more ragged, with Chilton’s co-leader, Chris Bell having departed. Although it still had joyous moments, such as their iconic song September Gurls, a darkness had sunken in. It was as if a realisation that life was harsher and more cruel than they’d previously imagined had now taken hold.

The third album, known as Sister Lovers, or simply Third, and nearly a Chilton solo album in all but name, took this to an extreme. The songs had become strange, and sounded on the verge of falling apart, with gaps in the arrangements that produced a chilling effect. Nevertheless, there was never a descent into nihilism which, in 1993, was what I felt I was being offered by the grunge records someone of my generation was ‘meant’ to buy. Instead I clung to the cautious advice that Chilton offered: ‘Take care not to hurt yourself/Beware of the need for help/You might need too much/And people are such…’

On a wave of interest sparked by Teenage Fanclub and others claiming them as an influence, Chilton fronted a new version of Big Star that year. I saw them live, performing to an adoring audience.

I saw them perform again a couple of years ago, to a roomful of uninterested chattering London hipsters (who I hope are fucking pleased with themselves now), struggling with a bad mix. Now there’ll never be another chance.

Of course, I didn’t really know Alex Chilton, and from the trail of bad feeling he left behind him, I suspect we wouldn’t have got on at all. But when he died, it finally hit me just how important he was to me. I’d forgotten just how much of myself was embedded there, in old copied tapes from 1993.

Big Star on Spotify
#1 Record
Radio City
There are various different orders for the track-listing of Third/Sister Lovers, as the album was never officially sequenced. This is my own personal order that I find produces the most satisfying listen.


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