Alex Chilton – Free Again – the “1970” Sessions (Big Beat/Ace) review
When an artist changes musical styles, it rarely happens overnight. Alex Chilton had been the blue-eyed soul singer of the pre-fab pop group the Box Tops. After that group’s demise, he would re-emerge with the power pop band Big Star. Yet, it would be difficult to find any similarity between the two bands – Chilton stopped forcing his voice, and as a result, ended up sounding like a completely different singer. This transformation is one of the most drastic in all of rock. Free Again – the “1970” Sessions gives us a rare opportunity to see just how that transition took place.
First of all, the quotations in “1970” are there for a reason – Chilton was still under contract in 1969, when these tracks were actually recorded, and didn’t want legal action taken against him. He had fronted the bubblegum Box Tops for over two years, first scoring a number one hit at the tender age of 16 with “The Letter” in 1967. But, the Box Tops, like the Monkees, found themselves controlled by a team of studio producers and writers, which left little room for creativity for Chilton, a budding songwriter in his own right. Eventually Chilton quit the band and formed Big Star, giving him more control of his own work. But, as Free Again shows, there was another period in between, kind of like finding a missing chapter to your favorite book. Chilton began secretly recording some of his own compositions at Ardent Studios in Memphis with producer Terry Manning. Unfortunately, these tracks would linger in the archives for decades, with some of them finally getting a proper release in 1996.
The first thing you notice when listening to the album is the prominent steel guitar of Jeff Newman. This was, after all, 1969; Elvis came back to his roots for “Suspicious Minds,” and the Byrds had turned in the Nashville-tinged Sweetheart of the Rodeo, so the country-infused element was not a surprise. The first track, “Free Again,” has a driving pop beat not unlike the Box Tops, with Chilton still singing in the gruff delivery of his old band. He later re-recorded his vocal in a more relaxed singing style, and both versions are included here, making for an interesting contrast. There’s a heaviness to some of the tracks, especially “I Can Dig It,” that’s reminiscent of White Album-era Beatles. In fact, much of the album rocks, with a spirited reworking of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” being one of the highlights. Then, there’s the gorgeous melody of “The EMI Song (Smile For Me),” which was written by Chilton after visiting the famed Abbey Road studios. The track’s ethereal quality and delicate vocal show that Chilton was becoming a force to be reckoned with. Sadly, it was never completed – there’s an instrumental break that should’ve contained an orchestral arrangement.
Free Again also shows off some of the wry rumor that would dominate Chilton’s later solo career, especially in his devolving of the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” into blistering heavy metal, and the somewhat true “All I Really Want is Money.” Much of those tracks have the live-in-the-studio-jam feel of Big Star’s rough-hewn third album. Yet, for all the stepping out of bounds, there’s several songs that could’ve easily been included on a Box Tops’ record, such as “Something Deep Inside,” and “The Happy Song.” As an added treat, they’ve tacked on two stripped-down demos, the piano led “If You Would Marry Me Babe,” and the stark acoustic “It Isn’t That Easy,” which sounds more like Nick Drake than either the Box Tops or Big Star.
There are many great “transition” albums throughout the years – Face to Face from the Kinks and Mr. Natural from the Bee Gees are two examples of records that give us hints of greater things to come. Free Again – The “1970” Sessions helps paint a clearer picture of Alex Chilton as an artist and where he was headed in the late Sixties. Above all, it showcases some great songs, many of which stand up to the best material he ever recorded. –Tony Peters