R.I.P. Alex Chilton


Alex Chilton (far right in this picture) died yesterday, and if you weren’t paying attention, you might not have noticed. That’s sort of the story of the guy’s life. Chilton’s band, Big Star, is famous for not being famous back in the 70’s when they made their music, but then for becoming famous after the fact in the 80’s and 90’s, when Big Star’s brand of anthemic “power pop” became the sound nearly everyone was going for, from U2 to Bon Jovi.

So what was/is power pop exactly? Suffice it to say that back when the Beatles broke up in 1970, the rest of the music world that had always copied the Beatles sort of broke up too. In the U.S., groups mostly  began following The Band and The Grateful Dead into folksy-Americana territory. In Britain, they splintered off into genres like Brit-folk, virtuosic prog-rock,  and glam, a tongue-in-cheek sort of pop led by Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie.

In short, there was no one left to carry the torch of playing straightforward, melodic, non-ironic love songs like the Beatles did in the early-to-mid 60’s. Arguably the only bands left doing this were Badfinger in the U.K. and Big Star in the U.S. Despite a healthy push by the Beatles themselves via a contract with Apple Records, Badfinger never really struck it as big as they were supposed to. Meanwhile, Alex Chilton and Big Star barely ever got off the ground, let alone came crashing back to earth. The music world just wasn’t that into Bealtesque pop in 1972.

So should Alex Chilton & Co. have even bothered carrying on this tradition when they did? I think it’s debatable. After all, R.E.M. and the Bangles and whoever else didn’t need a post-Beatles Beatles imitator to draw on when they were crafting their anthems… the power-pop genre sort of suggested itself in the synth-happy 80’s. Yet most hipsters will defend Big Star to the death, just as they defend other, current types of retro pop by the likes of Belle and Sebastian and The New Pornographers.

Maybe, on the occasion of his untimely death, we just let Alex Chilton’s music speak for itself? “Thirteen”, “September Gurls”, and “In the Street” all sound great today. And to imagine Big Star laboring in complete obscurity to create this kind of back-to-basics pop, the rest of the scene be damned, would appear to make them proto-punks more than anything else.



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