Alex Chilton’s enduring popularity stems almost as much from his stature as a true rock ‘n’ roll rebel as it does from his musical talent. Chilton was commercially successful at a young age as the lead singer for the blue-eyed soul group the Box Tops; he was only 16 when “The Letter” hit #1 on the pop charts. As the story goes, Chilton was chained creatively by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, songwriters and musicians primarily known for churning out gritty southern soul work with the likes of James Carr and Aretha Franklin. Not content to provide vocals and guitar to the compositions of others and live at the mercy of market success, Chilton eventually broke free from his artistic captivity and took a hard left musically, innovatively incorporating the British pop sound into his soul roots and going on to gain the ultimate hip credentials by forming a band — Big Star — that was not very popular during its time but eventually inspired a large number of rock groups (especially in the indie heyday of the ’80s), due to its rare combination of rock force and gently harmonized lyrics.
The music on Free Again: The 1970 Sessions was recorded by Chilton secretly at Ardent Studios in Memphis (where Big Star later recorded) while Chilton was still under contract with Moman at American Studios. It could not be released until his original contract expired in 1996. Re-released as Free Again, this collection shows why Chilton’s legend endures: more than a rebel, he was also a versatile songwriter, equally capable of singing with remarkable sensitivity or proto-punk aggression, of playing country-tinged ballads, funky numbers, or driving, melodic guitar pop (sometimes switching within the same song). He goofed around with big hits and classics when he covered them, but balanced his irreverence with a wild and enthusiastic appreciation of all forms of pop.
The 1970 Sessions show signs that Chilton was enjoying every bit of the autonomy that his secret recordings provided him. On “Free Again”, a mellow chugger with twanging guitars, Chilton sings, “Free again, to do what I want again/ free again, to sing my songs again/ free again, to end my longing/ to be out on my own again.” The song is supposedly about leaving a girl who couldn’t understand him, but the message of individuality and personal control over his artistic process is strong. Later on “Every Day As We Grow Closer/Funky National”, Chilton emphasizes this again: “Travel a brand new highway / Doing things finally my way / And now at last my life feels full / Every day seems brighter/ all of my dark seems lighter / I see happiness when I look at the world.” He likes to do his own thing.
And he does his own thing really well — Free Again contains 13 songs, two demos, and five repeats that are recorded mono instead of stereo; more importantly it doesn’t have a single bad song. The 15 different songs can be roughly grouped according to style: country-ish tunes, pop, guitar heavy rock, and ballads. Chilton’s country-inflected songs often build off simple bass lines — a pronounced first note, followed by a quick cluster of notes — and steady acoustic guitar strumming. An electric guitar or perhaps slide guitar plays high, accentuated notes. “Come On Honey” plows forward and includes some keyboard licks, while “The Happy Song” bounces carefree and folksy, an ode to the pleasing power of music. Chilton sounds a bit like Dylan, affecting a nasally drone, on another sturdy country rocker, “I Wish I Could Meet Elvis”. It’s funny when he sings, “I wish I could meet Elvis, and see what’s behind that crooked smile,” but Chilton is also sincere in his appreciation for another musical innovator who hopped and combined genres.
The pop and ballads will be of most interest to Big Star devotees, as they foreshadow his early ’70s work with Chris Bell. “Something Deep Inside” has Rubber Soul era Beatles-esque chord changes when it transitions between verses. Chilton’s lyrics are always straight forward, and their charm stems from their direct honesty — “Something deep inside of me tells you to love me and will not stop.” The high lead guitar moves fluidly and meticulously upward during the verses. “The EMI Song (Smile For Me)” may be the most reminiscent of Big Star, balancing sweet, pure lyrics of love with a thudding rhythm section, though pianos are more prominent than guitars, while Big Star’s albums were largely guitar oriented. The demo “If You Would Marry Me” is a pretty little piece of piano pop that evokes the work of the British group the Zombies.
Chilton also spends plenty of time flexing his guitar muscles, either with raucous covers or volatile, fiery workouts. His playing can be every bit as raw, loud, and loose — in the tradition of a garage-rock group like the Sonics — as it is detailed and liquid on the smooth pop of “Something Deep Inside”. “I Can Dig It” is gritty funk-rock, with chicken scratch guitar and a searing solo. It shows Chilton’s chops with R&B — he may have disliked his indentured servitude under Penn and Moman, but he certainly learned something from them. “All I Really Want Is Money” shows Chilton’s vocals and guitar at their hardest and heaviest. Hidden underneath the fuzzed lead guitar, another guitar picks an exact countering rhythm. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” takes Keith Richards’s signature riff from the Rolling Stones’ classic and makes it even meaner and sludgier. Chilton plays the chords — skipping or improvising notes when he feels like it — like he’s wielding a battering ram. His singing is every bit as sleazy and murky as Mick Jagger’s, and he issues rough screams, slurring his words like a drunken maniac. “Sugar Sugar/ I Got The Feelin’” is another deconstructive and destructive cover, where Chilton takes the #1 pop hit “Sugar Sugar” and breaks it down into its bare bones, then puts it back together by pumping up and distorting the riff, fudging the last note, screaming and howling. It’s passionate and boisterous, immensely satisfying rock and roll.
Just as Chilton can drawl and growl with the best of them, he can communicate sorrow and melancholy with sweet, careful phrasings. “All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain” is a mournful ballad. Chilton’s only backing is his acoustic guitar. He lightly caresses the strings, but his voice gets the spotlight. The heartbreaking chorus — “All we ever got from them was pain/ every time was us that got the blame/ they never gave a damn for us, never gave a hand to us/ all we ever got from them was pain” — is sung in harmony to give it additional poignancy. “It Isn’t Always That Easy”, a demo, is another affecting acoustic track.
Free Again: The 1970 Sessions shows Chilton working in top form in a wide variety of genres; it’s as good as anything Chilton recorded — including his Big Star albums. Unfortunately, Chilton’s sense of individuality and his musical productivity were frequently at odds over the years. But when they worked in conjunction, Chilton was a flexible, resourceful musician with a keen ear for enduring melodies.