You Can Take Alex Chilton Home All You Want, But You Can't Make Everyone Like It
by Byron Coley

The late American songwriter Alex Chilton was a weird, weird cat. He first hit public notice as the lead singer for Memphis bubble-soul/pop band, the Box Tops. The Box Tops existed under the thumbs of local producers/songwriters such as Chips Moman, Dan Penn, Wayne Carson and others. While this experience must have had its rewards, Chilton usually viewed it in bitter terms when he could be goaded into talking about it. And one presumes it is the source of his abiding disdain for many of the producers with whom he'd subsequently work.

The Box Tops went through a few line-up changes before Chilton left at the end of the '60s or so. Their label, Bell, continued to use the name for archival recordings, new tracks and even live shows with a Chilton-less version of the band. On his own, Chilton went into Ardent Studios with a couple of the studio's utility players (Terry Manning and Richard Rosebrough) plus string wiz, Jeff Newman, to record a solo album. Apart from a few tracks that surfaced on the 1986 New Rose/Fan Club anthology. The Lost Decade, this album was only a rumor until 1996, when Ardent issued it on CD as 1970. Omnivore did an expanded version as Free Again: the 1970 Sessions in 2012, and it's a cool listen — loose and grubby and soul-blasted, with a feel not dissimilar to Chilton's work post-Panther Burns with some extra production. Supposedly Atlantic offered to put it out, but Alex was hoping that Brother (the Beach Boys' label) would do it, so he held out. And nothing happened. But that may been for the best.

It was while he was trying to get the album sold that he started fooling around with Chris Bell, which resulted in the whole Big Star thing. That band's first two albums were lauded in fanzine/collector circles during my college days, and I have owned both of them more or less continuously since they were first remaindered. But the music on them was not what I wanted to hear in the early '70s. To my ear, Big Star sounded like variations on mooks like the Raspberries or Badfinger or something. And that was far from my personal taste. I have to admit I eventually came around to them, but that was by working backwards from the more whacked-out Chilton recordings that would follow the first pair of Big Star records (#1 Album and Radio City).

I'm not sure where I first heard talk of the third Big Star album. For some reason I think it might have been Lester Bangs who mentioned a test pressing of it, in the dawning days of punk. It was reputed to be a lovely, despair-wracked mess. When I finally caught a listen to one of the test presses floating around, maybe late in '76, there were certainly songs that lived up to the description. The record was still a bit overt in its rock moves for me (Steve Cropper's tasty licks, et al.). I liked it, but it didn't blow me away. It would require me to hear artists whose sound was very much shaped by Big Star's moves (the dBs, Game Theory, etc.) before I would really start to get Big Star. But it was definitely a cool record. And the fact that no label would put it out was certainly an argument in its favor.

It must have been 1977 when I next heard of Chilton. He was coming up to New York to produce a Chris Stamey single for Ork and was also gonna have a new EP on the same label. The EP was Singer Not the Song and had five tunes that were quite great. There was a nice raw edge to the arrangements (pointing in an almost punk direction, perhaps?) (well, at least new wavey) and lyrics to tunes like "Take Me Home and Make Me Like It" were of a piece. Live shows at the time were excellent raw drunk nights out, with a real garage-oid sound and lots of attitude. And I kept hearing that there was a lot more of the material recorded for the EP session that wasn't used. Turns out that Jon Tiven (who'd run The New Haven Rock Press — a 'zine continually mocked by Meltzer and the guys at Teenage Wasteland Gazette) had recorded a full album's worth of stuff down in Memphis, and this EP was just the tip of it.

Chilton was living in NYC by then, releasing the exceptional "Bangkok" single for Charles Ball's "Fun Records" (a division of Lust/Unlust), and playing pretty regular shows (documented on the second side of Trio's 1978 LP, One Night in NYC, and Norton's recent Ocean Club '77 set, both of which are very worthy documents). The lost Big Star record finally got issued (as Third on PVC/Jem in the US and in edited form on UK Aura, as Sister Lovers), but people kept wondering about rest of the Tiven tapes. Until all other thoughts were blown out of our collective consciousness by the 1979 release of Like Flies on Sherbet on Peabody.

Produced by Chilton and Jim Dickinson back in Memphis, the record starts with a throat-punching chunk of surreal reductionist boogie called "Baron of Love Pt. II" (crazily, when Aura issued it in the UK a year later, they dropped the track). The album flows from there, with an insane array of freaked-out roots investigations, newer tunes like "My Rival" and "Hey! Little Child," and a vibe that's equally marked by booze, drugs and Southern Gothic weirdness. The Peabody issue — cover by Eggleston, video lettering by Gustavo Falco, etc. is so perfectly whipped an artifact it began to put the rest of Chilton's recordings in perspective. And after a while we really began wondering where those other Tiven tapes had gotten to. Thankfully, we didn't have to wait too long to find out.

At the time, Chilton's new recordings were limited to places like the Lesa Aldridge single on Barbarian (one of the most truly fucked sessions ever) and work with Panther Burns. But Germany's Line label approached Tiven about releasing some of the '75 sessions, and the resulting LP was 1981's Bach's Bottom. A rather maniacal record, Bach's Bottom showed how the road to Flies had been paved. Five of the songs (or versions of them) had been part of the original Ork EP, but five were all new (though they'd mostly been played in recent live sets). Listening, you got the idea that the sessions may have not have been the healthiest for anyone involved, but the music they document is the purest, nutsiest kind of rock & roll imaginable.

It feels as though this was a very dark period in Chilton's personal life. But things seems to have taken a turn for the better soon after when he hooked up with Panther Burns, and dealt with some of his personal demons. At the same time, it had been a very fertile period in which he allowed his Dionysian side to operate freely and just explode. The songs and covers he chose to do from '74 - '79 are a gorgeous and inspiring landscape of serial trainwrecks.

After Bach's Bottom was released, there were a few more peeks into this particular era of recordings. There was a boot called Dusted in Memphis, which Discogs says was from '80, although I remember it being after that (and which has been supplanted by a recent 2LP version I've yet to see). The single album version is an exciting hodgepodge, with other tracks from the '75 Tiven sessions, others that are credited as being recorded in Wallingford (presumably at Trod Nossel Studio, where the Stamey 45 for Ork was done), and NY tracks from '78 that rumor has it were paid for by some major label. As random as that all sounds, the music is totally fantastic and the sound's very good.

The other main piece of the puzzle was the aforementioned Lost Decade, a 2LP set, released in France in 1986. It has one side of mid '70s recordings, one side of 1970 material, and two sides of mid '70s material Alex produced (and sometimes played on) in Memphis. Although many different takes of Alex's '70s songs are floating around, the sound quality and programming of the LP featuring him as an artist is excellent. And the LP of Chilton-produced material doesn't seem to have been released anywhere else. So it's the only example of Alex's production work before he did that Stamey single, followed by a long run of Cramps records. The stuff sounds cool, if not revelatory. It's mostly blues based grunt of a sort that was popular in Memphis, Tulsa and elsewhere between '72 and '74. The most interesting section is the side of material by Scott Adams whose band consists of Big Star's studio rhythm section (Rosebrough & Lightman) and Chilton. Sorta reminds me of Ron Nagle's Bad Rice album, maybe crossed with some of the more "inside" moments of the Hampton Grease Band. Good stuff.

Which brings us to the matter at hand — Munster's new Chilton collection, Take Me Home and Make Me Like It. The music represents out-takes from Bach's Bottom. This means it was recorded in the Fall of 1975, in Memphis. As far as I can tell from Jon Tiven's bitter-but-resigned liner notes, some of these are the same takes as other releases, but clearly also some are different. And while Tiven mourns the death of his friend, the pop-musician Alex Chilton, who was a master of light, many of us will happier with Alex Chilton, master of darkness.

I vaguely recall getting hammered somewhere at a table with Alex and some other people — maybe rock writers? — back in the late '70s. Could have been at the Bells of Hell on 13th Street? Don't know. Don't really care. But it was a lot of fun. And isn't fun why they invented the Dark Side in the first place? If this record was a bunch of bubble-ass out-takes from some stupid pop record, I can't say I'd give much of a rat's ass. But it documents years of decline and intentional madness. As such, it's all but essential.

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