Music Features

Free Again: the Story Behind Alex Chilton's "1970" Sessions

Some people are equally blessed and cursed. Take for instance Alex Chilton, who at age 16 was riding a wave of popularity as front man for the Box Tops. Their signature tune, "The Letter", had shot straight to the top of the charts in 1967, but there was a price to pay for the teen singer. Transitioning into adulthood can be difficult, but Chilton was going through this awkward stage in public, pimples and all. Moreover, his iron-clad contract with Bell Records bestowed all musical control to the band's producers. Two years later, disillusionment had sunk in. When he and guitarist Gary Tally decided to call it quits, their self-esteem was at its lowest ebb after realizing they'd been royally screwed by managers, lawyers, and promoters. Luckily for Chilton, he'd found by then a warmer creative environment at Memphis' Ardent Studios, where he was laying down tracks for a solo album. When the group split in 1970, he had enough songs to shop around major labels while he completed his last obligations as a Bell Records artist.

The album was to be called "1970". According to Holly George-Warren's illuminating Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction, Atlantic Records offered to release its lead-off track, "Free Again", as a single, holding back a commitment for the whole album. Chilton refused for a valid reason. In those heady countercultural days, only album-oriented acts got the respect of critics and festival-attending crowds. Despite four good albums, the Box Tops were regarded as a singles act, a tag that kept them in a teen-idol quagmire. Chilton had the determination not to fall into the same old trap; after all, "Free Again" was about taking command of one's destiny. Sadly, all the tracks languished in the vaults for years. When this time capsule was finally released by Ardent Records in 1996, a key song, "All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain", was missing. The 2012 edition contains the track, along with original mono versions of some songs and two demos.

"All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain" is one of Chilton's best songs, a country-rock ballad with heartfelt vocals and an arresting chorus. It is clear, though, why it was kept in the vaults until his death: There were some painful memories behind it. The Chilton that joined the Box Tops was a troubled teen with a drinking problem. He had been going though a depressive spell, certainly not the best mental state for a minor to start a professional relationship with an authoritative producer. If issues of trust were the bane of his existence, early marriage and fatherhood made no improvement, and by the time the "1970" sessions were recorded he was going through a divorce. The song may have served as a vehicle to vent out some deep-seated emotions, but these weren't meant to share with the world. Also, he had no intention of becoming a bitter has been at 19. Elsewhere, the tracks project an artist coming into his own as songwriter and guitar player, with a desire to explore new terrain and a drive to succeed.

The "1970" tracks allow us to witness Chilton's reinvention as he transitioned from the soulful pop of the Box Tops into the guitar-oriented rock of Big Star. Take for instance the new version of "I Can Dig It", his first songwriting credit, which first appeared on the Box Tops' Non Stop album. The original bears the imprint of American Sound Studio, with skilled studio musicians playing an elaborate horn-chart arrangement. Chilton's new version keeps the gruff vocals, but this time the power-trio arrangement leaves more breathing room for his phrasing. "Come On Honey" and "Just To See You" seem to be geared for rock concert venues, a move that had begun on the last two Box Tops albums. Yet a harder edge is displayed on "All I Really Want Is Money", a Motown homage with a dash of CCR choogling, where he takes a friendly stab at musical mavens like Berry Gordy and Chips Moman. With the aid of bassist-producer Terry Manning and drummer Richard Rosebrough, his version of "Jumping Jack Flash" leaves all subtlety behind, thrusting forward with a hard-driving beat that's more garage than blues rock. Then there's his version of the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar", a monumental lark with preposterous guitar solos, amps set to eleven. Chilton never adopted the rock-god attitude of his musical contemporaries; his refusal to take himself too seriously connects him spiritually with the mid-seventies generation of punk musicians, one of the reasons he holds a revered place among indie pioneers.

His off-kilter sense of humor reappears on "I Wish I Could Meet Elvis", sung in a snide Dylan voice. The music, however, is played straight, with tasteful country banjo and a touch of Sun-style echo. His love of country music is again displayed on "The Happy Song", a far better version than the one appearing on the Box Tops' l fourth album, which felt too rushed. Chilton's amazing vocal range allows him to navigate with ease through every musical genre, but he's at his best here with the folk and pop material. The melodic "Something Deep Inside", with its easy power-chord transitions, points the way to the Big Star sound. "The EMI Song (Smile For Me)" was inspired by a visit to Abbey Road Studio, but Beatles vibes led to something else, connecting him with a new voice that was all his own. This voice is displayed on "Everyday As We Get Closer/Funky National", where a delicate melody that is supported by a baroque harpsichord segues into a James Brown groove. Though this is actually two tracks recorded individually, their pairing reveals the workings of his personality. It could even sum up his career: his wild and tender sides joined at the hip. The two demos that end the album are all about naked emotions. Again, the personal nature of the songs kept them in the shelves for decades. On the piano-led "If You Would Marry Me Baby", Chilton not just sounds like a man in love, he actually is. The folky "It Isn't That Easy", with its delicate finger picking, seems to be a harbinger for the melancholia displayed on Big Star's "Thirteen".

After these recordings, Chilton moved to New York, soaking up the musical scene there before returning to Memphis, where he joined Big Star. The failure of that group affected his vulnerable spirit. He was still battling his demons as the group began to gain a cult status. Yet this was oddly liberating. Never again would he allow himself to become a puppet for the recording industry that had let him down. Instead, he trusted his instinct once again, becoming one of the most enigmatic figures in rock history, with many sides to his personality. There was enough room there for the inspired lunatic of Like Flies On Sherbert, the down-to-earth journeyman of the Box Tops' 1996 reunion, or the retiring intellectual who'd just sit content at home with a Thackeray novel. Through his last years, he remained true to himself, all strands of the quilt perfectly stitched in a glorious pattern.