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That '70s Singer: Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

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Alex Chilton, a great American songwriter, died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack in New Orleans, at age 59. First with The Box Tops but most importantly with the Memphis band Big Star, Chilton all but invented American power-pop, even if most people will know him more by the bands he influenced than by his own spectacular work.

TV fans are probably most familiar with him, indirectly, through “In the Street,” the Big Star aimless-cruising anthem that Cheap Trick covered (as “That ’70s Song”) as the theme to That ’70s Show. Above, you can see a reunited Big Star play the song on Jay Leno in the early ’90s (listen to the studio version here).

I don’t want to run down Cheap Trick here; they’re a good band in their own right and they recorded the song, in a style probably more sellable for an upbeat sitcom, as a party anthem. (Also, fitting network TV, their lyrics omit the line “Wish we had a joint so bad.”) But the Big Star version, besides being a celebration of hanging out, is a little story—a vignette of teenage ennui that rocks but has a plaintive, melancholy undertone. (A shading that, actually, That ’70s Show had, though it didn’t emphasize it.) I don’t know if Richard Linklater ever listened to Big Star, but “In the Street” is basically a capsule version of his own ’70s movie, Dazed and Confused.

Chilton’s biggest hit came before Big Star, with The Box Tops’ two-minute pop classic “The Letter.” At a time when every week of American Idol includes debates over whether a given singer is performing a song “too old” for him and her, it’s worth remembering that Chilton himself was a child star. He was 16 when he recorded the song, and damned if he doesn’t sound 36 in that gravelly, whiskey-soaked performance.

Big Star never had the commercial success The Box Tops did (despite critically-worshiped albums like the ironically named #1 Record). And in contrast to the swaggering blues of “The Letter,” its songs—while there were plenty of rockers—had a more delicate side to them, combining Southern rock licks (on songs like “Don’t Lie to Me”) with folk and Brit-pop melodies and a recurring note of wistfulness. Big Star’s handful of albums include some of the most beautiful ballads to come out of the decade, including “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Nightime,” “Thirteen” and “I’m In Love With a Girl” (the latter two, by the way, were among the Big Star songs That ’70s Show used as soundtrack music during its run). They inspired countless other bands, including The Replacements, who immortalized their hero in the song “Alex Chilton.”

The greatest Big Star songs combined the band’s sentiment with its rock chops; “September Gurls,” a testament to the drunkenness and heartache of young love, is simply one of the greatest pop songs ever. It’s been used, among other places, on the soundtrack of Friday Night Lights, which in its way–with its full-hearted stories of small-town kids looking for love and meaning–owes a little to the spirit of Big Star’s music.

Chilton would have been visiting Austin, where FNL is shot, to play a showcase with Big Star at the SXSW festival Saturday. Instead, remember him with this YouTube tribute set to “September Gurls,” a song that is like bells ringing in your heart. RIP, Alex:

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