Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Goodbye Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel RIP. Your band, Big Star, was like The Beatles, if the Beatles Had Come From Tennessee


I’ve been thinking a lot about Big Star since Alex Chilton died in March. His sudden passing produced a flurry of tributes. Suddenly, just as it was too late, Chilton seemed to be everybody’s favourite. Now the group's bassist Andy Hummel has succumbed to cancer, the tributes are flowing again.
So what was it about Big Star? How can they be so many people’s favourite band, yet remain so obscure? They never really sold any records. Not when the albums were first released, when they were too soulful and strange, and not later, when they were too weirdly melodic.
The first thing to acknowledge is that Alex Chilton didn’t always make the best case for himself as a genius of rock'n'roll. He may have been arrogant – some people have said as much – but he gave every impression of being suffused with embarrassment whenever a compliment was thrown his way. And let’s be clear, the compliments were justified, even if Chilton’s custodianship of his career seemed careless. His teenage adventure with the Box-Tops, and their hit with The Letter, would have been enough for one great life. But those two Big Star albums are as heartbreakingly beautiful, and prickly and innocent, and eternally unknowable as any in rock, while Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers is an unmatchable essay in desolation. Chilton knew how to make a melody, and he knew how to break one. If perfection threatened, he liked to smash it.
Chilton’s solo work is patchy, lazy, and barely available, but there may be a case for rediscovering that, too. Gerard Love of Teenage Fanclub – the Glasgow group who did much to keep Big Star’s name alive – told me recently that while the first two Big Star albums represented “chiming guitar pop in its perfect form” he remembers the Fanclub being more influenced by Chilton’s later work. “I remember us listening more to the Third album and to Alex’s solo records such as Bach's Bottom, Like Flies On Sherbert, High Priest and Black List as we travelled around in vans in our early years. There was always a real mixture of different sounds and different approaches to his songwriting, and to his recordings, and I guess that this eclecticism would have inspired us more than the perfection of early Big Star.”
Eclecticism is the word. But it wasn’t a word you’d hear from Chilton himself. In interviews, he could be taciturn to the point of rudeness. I tried once, for Radio Forth, and Alex couldn’t have been less cooperative if I’d suggested performing root canal surgery with a hammer. We were in a dressing room in Glasgow, with Alex’s cohorts lined up behind him, listening in. As he affected increasing disdain, there was a sense of him playing to the gallery, as if it was better to impress the five people in the room than the thousands who might be listening to the radio.
That was my memory, anyway. But I recently came across a transcript of that interview, and it made me wonder whether I had misinterpreted Chilton’s intentions. On the page, deprived of his languorous disengagement, Chilton’s words contain little animosity. Reading them now, I can see that he was doing whatever he could to avoid being trapped under the shadow of his reputation. Of the Box Tops, he said: “They were a group that had a connection with some big independent record producers in Memphis, and, uh, they just did whatever the producers said. There was no concept involved from the group at all. So it wasn’t meant to be anything. We didn’t mean anything.”
And of Big Star, this: “Well, you know, it was another group. I guess that people join groups because they don’t think they’re good enough on their own. So it was a group that I joined, and sort of submitted myself to the will of the group.”
That seems oddly reductive, but it makes some sense. A couple of years ago, I visited Ardent Studios in Memphis. Ardent was modelled on Abbey Road by the engineer John Fry, who modelled himself on George Martin.
Third/Sister Lovers was recorded in Ardent’s current location on Madison Avenue, the first two albums were made at the old address on National Street. But the sense of history was all around. Fry pointed to studio’s original four-track recorder in the lobby. “That had four whole tracks, and we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. Four tracks. By 1968 we had eight. By 1970 it went to 16. 1973-4 to 24. Then you lock two 24s together and you’ve got 48. We’ve got 32 track digital machines. That’s not enough? Two of those together and you’ve got 64. Now, because of HD you’ve got as many as you want, which is something more than what you need.”
Jody Stephens at Ardent
Jody Stephens (right), Big Star’s drummer, now manages the studio. He was happy to talk about Big Star, and was quick to confirm that he never made any money out of the group. (Chilton would have done OK when In The Street was used as the theme for That 70s’ Show, but he also vetoed concerts where the band would have reprised their albums in full).
Stephens met John Fry in late 1970, but teaming up with his bandmates was, he said “the most amazing experience. Up until that point my brother Jimmy and I had been in a band, and we did some originals, but then to meet Andy (Hummel) and Chris (Bell, the other creative spark in Big Star)… They were working with a guy called Steve Ray. Steve played drums, and they were playing this song called All I Need Is You. It just blew me away.
“To go into the studio with just a blank canvas,” Stephens continued, “it was the opportunity to create a vision. It was exactly way I wanted to do.”
Chilton joined after Ray left, so his observations about submitting his will to that of the group may not be entirely facetious. 
At this point, we were joined in the studio by Scott Bomar, a Memphis musician (with the Bo-Keys, among others), who recorded the soundtrack for the film Black Snake Moan at Ardent. He led me to the room where the Mellotron which features on Third/Sister Lovers is stored.
“The third Big Star record is cinematic to me,” Bomar said. “I hear that record, it’s like a film. It was really cool to be able to come here and use the Mellotron that was on Big Star’s Third. It’s a very special instrument to me. There are tape loops in it – there’s a flute, a cello, a violin. And when you press the key down, there’s a motor – each key is like a tape machine in a way – the notes hold for eight seconds.
“In a way, it’s the poor man’s orchestra. It’s considered one of the first samplers, because they recorded people playing. If you have it on a flute sound, you’re hearing the sound of someone playing who was recorded elsewhere.”
For a few minutes, Fry and Stephens reminisced with Bomar about some of the groups who have recorded in Ardent, a roll call which stretches from Led Zeppelin to Primal Scream and Jack White. When Fry excused himself, Stephens gestured towards the mixing desk, which was identical to the desk at the legendary Stax studios. “The guy building these consoles called in to see John, and he said ‘Hey, this is the console I’m building for Stax’. John probably had some say and guidance as to what he wanted. I mean, he knows what the knobs do, but he could also take you through the wires and tell you the path of the signal and how it’s affected by each little piece of electronica.
“In those Big Star sessions - it happened once or twice – John called it ‘window editing’. He’d have a two-inch piece of tape, and there’d be an undesirable sound in a place where you couldn’t comfortably get rid of it without endangering something that you really wanted to keep. So he’d go in and locate the sound and put the tape on the editing block, and just take a razor blade and cut it. I don’t know how the hell he did it, but with a razor blade, he’d cut that noise out, and there’d just be this hole in the tape, the right spot – the exact location. It was always like: ‘Drum-roll please!’ We’d be sitting in there and there’d be complete silence. And he’d do it, and we’d put it back on the machine, and it was in exactly the right place.”
All of which gives some indication of how Big Star was, as Chilton acknowledged, more than one person’s vision. It was a sound established by Chris Bell (whose contribution requires a chapter to itself), by Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens, playing Chilton’s songs against a backdrop created by a genius producer.
Or, to put it another way, it was the Beatles, if the Beatles had come from Tennessee. Just as Ardent is a very Memphis studio (adding Stax manners to the studio experiments of the Fabs) Big Star was a very Memphis band. Chilton, in one of those answers which seemed to evince nothing, but may just have been truthful, said as much.
“Music that comes from Memphis, that’s what I am. I didn’t really get interested in rock’n’roll music until The Beatles came along. Before that I had been listening to my dad’s jazz records.
“I just thought [The Beatles] was exciting music. There had been a few bad years of pop music in the early 1960s. I guess if I’d been of a sufficient age when Elvis came along, I would have been more swept up in that. He was passé by the time I got to be 12 years old, so there wasn’t really anything to look up to.
“I’ve always been influenced by rhythm and blues,” Chilton said. “You know, all the African-American music, pretty much.
“A lot of times, I’m sort of anti-intellectual about music. I think that the best music is not always made by the best musicians. It’s made by the most inspired people with the best idea.”