Editor’s note: This is part of a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Morgan Enos fronts the bands Other Houses and Hollow Sunshine.
Big Star began as a Beatlesque power-pop outfit from Memphis, TN, in 1971. By 1974, they had flamed out just as quickly as they began. Their odd, rather undefinable 1974 final sessions, initially released as Third in 1978, have gained a mystique throughout the decades as a document of the disintegration of the band’s mercurial leader, Alex Chilton.
Since then, Third has been brought up as a “chaotic album,” one that purports to display its author’s mental unraveling as he succumbed to Big Star’s commercial failure and personal troubles. Although its experimental tendencies have proved an inspiration to later generations of bands like Wilco, R.E.M., and The Replacements, this narrative has always felt a bit overstated. Now, with a comprehensive boxed set of the sessions, Complete Third, a fresher perspective of the album can be understood by Big Star’s cult fanbase and newcomers alike.
Everything about Third, from its conception to release, was shrouded in a strange energy, like it didn’t want to congeal into a whole. With co-founder/guitarist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel having quit the band, the late 1974 sessions at Ardent Studios in Memphis turned a holistic collaboration into leader Alex Chilton’s strange vanity project. The resulting songs collide bizarrely, from bursts of joy (“Stroke It Noel”) to harrowing depths (“Holocaust”). The sessions – over ten reissues later – remain impossible to categorize under a proper album name, or even as a Big Star project. Said Chilton before his passing, “We never saw it as a Big Star record. That was a marketing decision when the record was sold in whatever year that was sold. And they didn’t ask me anything about it and they never have asked me anything about it.”
After the tragic deaths of Bell (in 1978), Chilton (in 2010,) and finally, Hummel (in 2010,) it’s ever the more tempting to frame Third as a record borne of madness and turmoil, due to its chaotic birth and tortured mix of moods. To wit – Chilton was in the midst of relationship turmoil with his girlfriend, Lesa Aldridge, and drummer Stephens had no opportunity to rehearse his parts, resulting in cyclonic, improvised drum performances throughout every song. While this is intriguing and one hell of a story, the most important aspect remains, that Third contains some of the most gorgeous, jewel-like tunes in American song.
One need not go further than the first ten tracks on Complete Third, where the lion’s share of the songs are demoed alone by Alex Chilton on twelve-string guitar and piano before the album’s recording. Hardcore fans might recognize these renditions from the excellent Rhino boxed set from 2009, Keep An Eye On The Sky. Chilton’s version of The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” found here, is the song’s definitive version, almost blinding with its loveliness. The rest of Third’s song-cycle – “Lovely Day,” “Blue Moon,” “Kanga Roo,” etc – appears fully formed, sober and sparkling. An improvised, shambling mess, as critics have tended to posit? Hardly.
After these 10 demos, the mood becomes a bit wobbly. Aldridge, Chilton’s girlfriend at the time of the record, and the muse toward whom many of Third’s songs are directed, appears on a faded, strange cover of John Lennon’s “I’m So Tired.” Rehearsals with the studio band begin – mostly a motley crew of Ardent Studios session musicians in the mid-’70s, tightly-wound backing singers, and a hired string orchestra. As curdled and odd as these takes are, Chilton appears on these sessions as a great songwriter being freed up to make music in his own personal sandbox. Do you think it’s possible that Chilton might have been having fun? He tries everything here – boogie-woogie piano, moonlit ballads, spirited covers of The Kinks, Nat King Cole, and T. Rex. The loopy “Downs,” presented in a rough mix, bounces off the studio walls in a cacophony of steel drums.
This is not to deny that Third’s centerpieces “Kanga Roo” and “Holocaust” remain heart-stopping, the bleakest songs in their entire oeuvre. The former takes an unremarkable scene of noticing someone at a party and shatters itself over and over in waves of desperate noise. “Holocaust,” especially in this cello-heavy take, remains a molasses-paced trip down the Lethes, containing Chilton’s greatest line: “Everybody goes, leaving those who fall behind.”
After Complete Third rattles on through its second and third discs, through its various mixes and permutations, we arrive at the final masters on disc three. Depending on what version of the original Third one may buy (many reissues have been released by Ardent, Rykodisc, Aura Records, etc), they might be treated to a wildly different tracklisting, or several key songs omitted altogether.
But, it’s all here, and this new sequence is the whole, definitive way to experience the Third song-cycle. It’s the finest way to put this puzzle together – the joyous “Stroke It Noel,” a paean to one of the session’s orchestral players, Noel Gilbert, leads us off, and then we’re treated to the deeply weird “Downs.” From there, Third reveals its true form – not as an improvised downfall, but of an eclectic mess, a haunted house. A cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” rubbing elbows with the psychedelic “Kanga Roo”? Check. The fatalistic, bitter “You Can’t Have Me” next to an enthusiastic rendition of The Kinks’ “Till The End Of The Day”? Yep. That’s what Third is. A “Holocaust” meeting a “Lovely Day.” An incredible songwriter with a few screws loose, but finally, free again.
– Morgan Enos
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