Page last updated at 17:17 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Alex Chilton: Rock's unsung hero

Alex Chilton at at the South by Southwest Music Festival in 2004
Big Star's Chilton also enjoyed a solo career spanning many genres of music

Fame and fortune may have eluded him - or he eluded them - but US musician Alex Chilton, who died on Wednesday, has been hailed as a major influence on modern music.

Chilton had a US number one aged 16, fronted the band Big Star, whose 1970s output is cherished by rock connoisseurs, and produced the punk trailblazers The Cramps, as well as forging a solo career.

Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, who describes him as "a genius of rock 'n' roll", joins Teenage Fanclub singer Norman Blake to outline the impact Chilton had. And below, BBC Chart Blog author Fraser McAlpine assesses the musician's legacy.


Alex sang on, made, wrote and produced some of my favourite records ever.

Records like The Letter by the Box Tops, which he sang. Then the Big Star stuff. Sister Lovers, the third Big Star album, is one of my favourites. September Gurls is an incredible single.

It's as good as The Byrds or The Beatles. It's that good.

Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie
I think we're witnessing the death of rock 'n' roll when these guys pass

When we started Primal Scream, Alex was a huge influence on us. And he still is. Even if he'd only ever produced the first few Cramps singles and the first Cramps album, he'd still be one of my rock 'n' roll heroes. But he did a lot more than that.

He made so many great records. They were art records, beautiful records, mournful records, sad records, joyous records. Alex Chilton was one of the greats.

From the very beginning of our band in the mid-80s right up to his death, he was one of our gurus, one of our heroes. I never knew the man or met the man but he's been with us all the time in terms of being a constant inspiration.

In 1991 we went to Ardent Studios in Memphis, where Big Star made their second and third albums. It was a great experience and I'll never forget it.

That's how much we love Alex Chilton - we went to the studio where he made his records. It was like some kind of pilgrimage. When you hear Get Your Rocks Off, that was recorded at Ardent.

Guys like Alex Chilton are too far out, they're too hip, too advanced for most people to recognise. I think he made far out rock 'n' roll records - real mad crazy art punk rock 'n' roll. I think that insanity's too much for most people to take in.

As each year goes past, we lose guys like Alex Chilton, Lux Interior from The Cramps, Ron Asheton from The Stooges, Roland S Howard from The Birthday Party.

There's less real rock 'n' roll left on the planet. I think we're witnessing the death of rock 'n' roll when these guys pass.

What people play these days is a form of rock music but it's not rock 'n' roll. These guys are the real thing. And it's sad when they die.

When you look at the way music is now, it's truly safe. Indie music is supposed to be outsider art. But what purports to be indie music is actually mainstream, bland music.

Alex Chilton made outsider art. The Cramps were outsider art. And I just think it's too much for most people to take. It's too wild, it's too free, it's unconstrained and uncontrollable.

Bobby Gillespie was speaking to BBC 6 Music


Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake
You ask any contemporary band and they'll be aware of Big Star and Alex Chilton

We were lucky enough to play with Alex. He came to Glasgow about 15 years ago and we did a couple of shows with him.

He was great fun - he was really interested in music and had a great knowledge of music. He had a great sense of humour and was a fabulous musician.

Alex didn't think much of the Big Star legacy. He was always down on the Big Star records and saw himself foremost as a musician.

And he was an incredible guitar player - I think people often miss that and just focus on the Big Star songs.

There's a kind of purity about what he did with Big Star. Songs like September Gurls are just incredibly beautiful, simple constructions. That's the song that most people would identify as Big Star's signature song. It's just a beautiful two-and-a-half minutes of glorious pop. It's fabulous.

You ask any contemporary band and they'll be aware of Big Star and Alex Chilton.

I think it's like the Velvet Underground - the first album didn't sell a lot of records but the people that bought it were all musicians, and all those people went out and make albums and the record became legendary. You could say a similar thing about the Big Star records.

It's a sad day because he was one of the greats.

Norman Blake was speaking to BBC 6 Music


Anyone who has strapped on a spangly electric guitar, fired up some angelic harmonies and tried to melt hearts while moving asses, owes a debt to Alex Chilton.

The first two Big Star albums alone are a kind of sonic blueprint for much of what we now call "indie" music, although, coming out of Memphis, there's a lot more to it than the choirboy voice and the Byrdsy jangle.

His songs ache and twist, they're a fight between pain and joy, they sob, even when at their toughest.

It's that quality, together with the lost-genius tag brought on by the band's poor record sales, which has drawn artists to pay tribute for years. REM appropriated the bliss and mystery, Teenage Fanclub the sonic architecture, and Jeff Buckley the emotional weight of his later, darker Big Star songs. The Cramps simply hired him as their producer.

In 1987, the Replacements even named a song after him, singing "I never travel far, without a little Big Star", which manages to be sage advice for the weary traveller and ambitious indie rocker alike.

BBC Chart Blog

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Cult musician Chilton dies at 59
18 Mar 10 |  Entertainment


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