Alex Chilton has become something of a hero to multiple generations of alternative rockers, power pop enthusiasts, and music lovers in general. First rising to fame in the late ’60s with the band The Box Tops, Chilton was just a teenager when the band’s debut single, “The Letter,” became a number one hit. For three more years, the group continued to release hits, though after multiple lineup changes, the group split.
Having been the frontman of a successful band for multiple years, Chilton could have done whatever he wanted. He contemplated going to college, he worked on multiple solo songs, and he was even considered for the position of singer in Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Instead, he decided to do none of these things and went on to form a band called Big Star.
There could easily be an entirely separate article about how great Big Star is, and maybe that will come down the line, but I’ll keep it simple here and say that Chilton should have easily had another hit group under his belt. Big Star’s first two albums were incredibly well orchestrated, written, and produced, with folk-tinged ballads meeting soaring power pop and heart-pounding rock. However, due to mismanagement at the band’s label, the albums didn’t receive the widespread release they should’ve, and despite critical acclaim, sold poorly upon initial release.
Many bands would’ve indignantly tried to get more attention from the label by trying to make more commercial material and perhaps cater more towards what the executives wanted. However, Chilton refused to do this. With Big Star only being a two piece after the first two albums, he decided to take advantage of the situation and experiment more than ever before. The production became looser, the songs less structured, and the instrumentation more varied. The resulting album, Third, was so strange that it was shelved for many years, and Big Star broke up.
Now that he was once again on his own, Chilton could’ve tried again with a different group and perhaps had better luck with his label. However, he again decided to go down the path less traveled, moving to New York and jumping into the rising club scene there. Inspired by the punk, new wave, and psychobilly bands that he was hearing, Chilton decided to take part, releasing solo material in the latter half of the ’70s that not only sounded nothing like what he’d made with Big Star but also seemed to turn a cold shoulder to anything that resembled pop. He loosened up his approach to music even further, which is on full display on the live album Ocean Club ‘77. This performance sees Chilton tackle a mixture of songs from his Box Top and Big Star days, as well as other covers and originals, with reckless abandon. The tight and gloriously arranged Big Star classic “September Gurls” is transformed into a sweaty, out of breath punk tune. It’s a far different vibe than anything that Chilton had done before, which is precisely the idea.
When the ’80s came around, Chilton further moved to avoid the spotlight, largely shirking solo music for the first half of the decade and working with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, a band in which he decided to cede the frontman position in favor of just being a guitarist and producer. However, Chilton’s talent was still inspiring many, with the rock band The Bangles even covering “September Gurls” on their album Different Light. Another rock band, The Replacements, also named a song after him. Chilton then began to make solo records again, becoming quite prolific for the next few decades.
Alex Chilton sadly passed away in 2010. In that moment, the world lost a strange visionary. He proved that there was fulfillment to be found in resolutely sticking to your own path, that there was a legacy to be made in the underground. Had he continued making pop music for the rest of his days, there’s a possibility that he would have had less of an impact. Instead, he blazed his own trails, and his talent shone through regardless. There is so much more to say about the man, but the best way to explore his true contributions to music is to listen for yourself.