Time has been most kind to the transitional set of recordings Alex Chilton made in 1969, those that have subsequently become known as “1970”. A moment caught between the dying embers of the Box Tops and the incipient birth of Big Star, these exploratory sessions have the heady and compelling air of an artist breaking away from stylistic restraint to seek their own true voice. And this newly refurbished edition further illuminates a fascinating period in the career of one of pop’s most enigmatic talents.
As a habitué of the Ardent studio on National Street in Memphis in the late 1960s, Chilton had become friendly with youthful engineer Terry Manning, and together the duo hatched a plan to feature Chilton on a set of his own songs. Pitched unsuccessfully to Atlantic, the incomplete album lay dormant for a quarter-century, with only fragments circulating on lo-fi cassette amongst Big Star and Chilton completists. In 1996, Manning remixed the recordings and presented them on Ardent as the “1970” album, so-called because there was residual nervousness over the fact that, at the time the sessions occurred, Alex was still technically a Box Top. “Free Again: The ‘1970’ Sessions” appends that first release with bonus material for a reappraisal of what is, frankly, an overlooked gem.
The core songs of the project are revealed as embodying the same diversion that Chilton would often exhibit in his post-Big Star career. They run the gamut of joy, elation, introspection and musical perversity, but it is clear that, as much as he was finding his feet musically, Alex understood that the song was key, and for the most part, his songcraft was already remarkable. The lilting country rock of ‘The Happy Song’, the tough pop of ‘Something Deep Inside’, the jagged soul of ‘I Can Dig It’ – just three examples of his confident ability in any genre he should care to tackle. Manning’s unobtrusive production brought out the best of the material, particularly on a pair of gorgeous ballads, ‘Every Day As We Get Closer’ and ‘The EMI Song (Smile For Me)’. One tune in particular intended for the original album was left off the 1996 release, for reasons that become fairly apparent upon first listen. ‘All We Ever Got From Them Is Pain’ is a shockingly personal item that the singer originally declined to make public, but it resonates with the brutal honesty that can later be traced in “Third” and other Big Star material.
The reissue of the “1970” recordings had been in discussion for some time before Alex’s unexpected death in 2010. The handsome clear vinyl LP approximates the shape the project might have taken, had it come out as intended at the time. During the research for Big Beat’s “Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story”, original mono mixes for some of the songs from the sessions were located in the studio’s vault. These have been added to the CD line-up, as well as a new Manning remix of the title song, featuring the alternative vocal track Chilton quixotically overdubbed in the 1980s. As a further bonus, there are two previously unheard Alex publishing demos. Presented in conjunction with our friends Omnivore in the US, “Free Again: The ‘1970’ Sessions” is the last word on this brief but fascinating moment in Alex Chilton’s fulsome body of work.
By Alec Palao