Derivatives of Chilton: A mathematical history of power pop and Americana
Mike Donovan | Wednesday, March 1, 2017
You’re trying to start a band, and you have a few simple components — gritty guitar melodies, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, relaxed vocal harmonies and endearing snappiness. The resulting sound is familiar: It’s one carried on by the likes of Pinegrove, Whitney, Wilco, Twin Peaks and (bear with me) Ryan Adams. Some might call it Americana. Snobbier souls might argue that it’s more akin to power pop. But, genre specifics aside, you like your little creation. Yet as a person of integrity, you want to cite your sources first. So, you do a little math, integrate and research to find the formula that started everything.
Every clue, it seems, leads back to the name Alex Chilton. The Memphis native started as a teenage prodigy on the local scene, absorbing soul, blues and pop licks with sponge-like efficiency. In 1967, the 16-year old released his first chart-topping hit “The Letter” as the frontman of his garage-soul group The Box Tops. They would drop several more mildly popular singles before the end of the decade.
Meanwhile, at the top of the industry food chain, the Beatles and the Beach Boys were revolutionizing pop music. Chilton, if his later work tells us anything, had his ears open in 1966 when the Beatles unveiled their proto-psychedelic masterpiece “Revolver” and the Beach Boys released their spellbinding opus “Pet Sounds.”Chilton saw an opportunity to combine his Memphis Soul with these innovative pop aesthetics in a new and brilliant musical idea.
When Big Star materialized in 1971, the band’s chemistry was immediately apparent. Founding member Chris Bell’s pensive scruff and Chilton’s soulful musicality were stylistic soulmates — an ideal combination for a chart-topping sound. The band released their first LP, the haughtily titled “#1 Record,” with starry-eyed expectations. Major music publications graced the album with glowing reviews. In his review, Rolling Stone writer Bud Scoppa eloquently defined the band’s appeal: “‘#1 Record’ isn’t revolutionary — the group works within well-defined forms — it’s just exceptionally good.”
While the critics raved, the Big Star’s young Memphis label Ardent proceeded to shoot the band in the foot. Delayed distribution and botched marketing doomed “#1 Record” to minuscule sales figures though. The media created demand, but the label failed to bring the supply.
Shortly after “#1 Record’s” release, Chris Bell left the band, citing severe depression. Alex Chilton took over as the sole creative force. Big Star’s second LP, 1974’s “Radio City,” was effectively a Chilton solo effort. The disgruntled songwriter doubled down on pop sensibility, his eyes fixed on success. He packed the record with affecting, chart-worthy tracks like “September Gurls” and “I’m in Love with a Girl.” Again, the reviews glowed. Again, the label failed to execute.
By 1978, Big Star was on its last legs. Their underground following, however, started to expand. To appease this small but eager cohort of devotees, the Chilton and the band released and unfinished collection of tracks under the unassuming title “Third.” Like the “Radio City” singles, “Third’s” had some spunk to them, but they also exhibited a certain experimental quality. Many consider Third to be Chilton’s creative peak left undeveloped and unrealized.
Big Star’s efforts inspired a wave of equally niche groups over the next decade. For some, like the Replacements and Young Fresh Fellows, commercial success was never in the cards. They mimicked their hero in every way. For others, like R.E.M, the industry gods shined favorably. Their music, and thus the Chilton sound, would finally reach the popular consciousness.
Chilton, who passed away in March of 2010, persists spiritually in today’s musical landscape. Former Whiskeytown front man Ryan Adams now bears the Chilton torch on the mainstream stage. His latest release, “Prisoner,” is a respectable if imperfect testament to the magic of a well-executed combination of pop and attitude. Last year’s stellar power-pop / Americana efforts from Pinegrove, Whitney and Twin Peak adapted the Chilton style for a younger generation of listeners, and carry the promise of a full-fledged Chilton revival. French Canadian Rocker Tim Darcy has already jumped on the train with his intriguing album “Saturday Night” — an inventive foray into the stranger depths of pop-rock.
We owe this web of musical achievement to a single, fiery southern man with an unvarnished vision. Chilton developed a brand Rock n’ Roll to impress both the music snob and the lay listener. Even his weaker attempts struck this critical balance, leaving a legacy indicative of unbounded success.