Cover Versions, demo, Gone but not forgotten, Live!

Bathed In Light Of Love

Dubiety surrounds the release of Big Star‘s third album, ‘Third’. Was it a true Big Star album in the way #1 Record and Radio City were? Given that the recordings were enhanced by an ever-revolving rotation of session musicians who’d play around the axis of Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens – Steve Cropper on the version of the VU’s Femme Fatale, for example, and given that Chilton wrote the lion’s share of the original music, it’s oft been considered the first real Chilton solo album. Studio tracking sheets from the time show references to Sister Lovers (Chilton and Stephens were in relationships with a pair of sisters at the time) which may or may not have been the intended name for the new record, or indeed, a new name for a band far-removed from its original identity. Despite the poor sales of the first two albums though, Ardent were dead keen to market it as a Big Star release and so, with little fuss or fanfare, Third was sent out into the world, Big Star’s ‘difficult’ third album with unfinished songs and little of the sparkling power-pop jangle that dusted the first two.

Big StarJesus Christ

Towards the end of side 2 you’ll find Jesus Christ, a mid-paced, straightforward celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus. On top of the occasional Spectorish tumbling toms and a honeyed Stax sax break that gives birth to Clarence Clemons and the E Street Band, you’ll spot references to angels and stars and Royal David’s City. The song is carried by Chilton’s instantly recognisable guitar style and sound, a welcome relief following the bleak and self explanatory Holocaust that precedes it on the record.

It’s a properly great Christmas tune, uplifting and joyful, yet as far-removed from the normal records that get played ad infinitum in shops, cafes, taxis, bars, wherever at this time of year. Indeed, the only time you’re liable to hear Jesus Christ in the changing rooms at TK Maxx will be from my mouth as I recoil in horror at the ill-fitting shirt from last season’s Katharine Hamnett collection that I struggled to get on and struggled to get off again. Jesus Christ, it was tight. Forgive me father etc etc…

Big StarJesus Christ (demo)

Chilton’s demo of Jesus Christ is great. Just Alex and a finely strummed acoustic 12 string, it has all the hallmarks of high watermark Big Star; Chilton’s ad libbed ooh-oohs, cracked, at the end of his range vocals on the high notes and the requisite sparkling jangle. What a great canvas for the other musicians to paint on.

Teenage Fanclub (of course) do a terrific version of Jesus Christ. Released on one of the two CD singles to promote Ain’t That Enough, the lead single from the gold standard Songs From Northern Britain album, TFC were in a rich vein of writing form at the time, firing out guitar-fuelled and harmony-filled songs with ridiculous ease. That Ain’t That Enough was released in June with a cover of an obscure Christmas song as an extra track (the other was a nod and a wink cover of the VU’s Femme Fatale, funnily enough) mattered not a jot. Recorded at perfect head-nodding pace and employing the twin vocals of Norman and Gerry, it’s proper, vintage Fanclub. A heady sheen of fuzzed-at-the-edge electric guitar, a tastefully twangin’ Raymond solo and a heartfelt, sympathetic take on the original make this one of TFC’s best covers.

Teenage FanclubJesus Christ

My job in education has changed in recent years, meaning that nowadays I don’t get to drag my class up to sing a Christmas song in the church. I always liked the challenge of this. It was the one time of year I could put my guitar skills to proper use and I was always on the lookout for a left-of-centre song to tackle. Jesus Christ was one I often considered, but it was forever overlooked in favour of something else.

The arrangement was going to be a full-on Phil Spector epic too; some tinkling pitched percussion at the start, eking out the melody against my plaintive strums, a single voice – probably the quietest girl in the class – singing the opening lines, the whole class coming in on the ‘Jesus Christ was born today! Jesus Christ was born!‘ Then there’s my bit – “MY BIT, BOYS ‘N GIRLS!” – where I do my Alex/Norman run up and down the frets before the second solo voice – this time a boy – “And o! They did rejoice!” brings us back to the whole point of the song.

By the second chorus, the entire group is swaying side to side in time to the guitar’s rhythm. By the third, they’ve added handclaps, like a peely wally west of Scotland gospel choir. They’ve lost most of their self-consciousness by this point too. Jack at the back is still fidgeting with the zip on his school trousers and Chloe, front row and centre, has still to lift her eyes from the rich red carpet in the vestry, but look! One or two of them are even smiling. And I’m in my element, pushing it towards the end.

The chorus is repeated a couple more times before we finish in a blaze of frantically scrubbed acoustics, clashing glockenspiel and rapturous applause from the assembled parents in the pews upstairs. The head teacher, as usual, fails to acknowledge both the effort and the spectacle and we move swiftly on to the next class who shamble their awkward way through Santa Baby to the embarrassment of all in attendance. I miss these times most of all.

*Christmas Bonus!

Here’s Alex Chilton’s fantastically louche take on TFC’s Alcoholiday. Teenage Fanclub have never hidden their love for all things Chilton-related, but on this tune the gamekeeper turns poacher. He just about steals the show too.

Alex ChiltonAlcoholiday


Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

You Scratch My Back Catalogue, I’ll Scratch Yours

In the early 90s, there was no finer sight in music than when the three frontmen from Teenage Fanclub stepped up to the mic as one and filled the room with honey-coated harmonies that surfed across the top of their ramshackle fuzz. Lest we forget, in the year that saw both REM’s Out Of Time and Nirvana’s Nevermind released and racking up gazillions of sales, Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque sat proudly at the top of Spin Magazine’s ‘Albums Of The Year‘ list. And rightly so. Bandwagonesque is classic Fanclub; a welding together of God-sent melodies with a clanging calamity of sweet-sounding guitars. To achieve the overdriven sound that defines much of the album, the band had the amps turned up as loud as they would go, put behind a closed cupboard door and close mic’d up. The effect is a cobweb-dusting thing of beauty, but you knew that already.

tfc 90s

On account of their ability to conjure a slightly wobbly three-part harmony out of thin air, fans of the band renamed them The Bellshill Beach Boys. Lazy writers at the time were less generous, waxing lyrical about the band’s obvious debt to the three Bs – The Beatles, The Byrds and Big Star.

This was the first time I (and I suspect many others) had ever encountered the names ‘Big Star‘ or ‘Alex Chilton‘ and the hastily re-released #1 Record/Radio City twofer that followed on the heels of Bandwagonesque confirmed that Teenage Fanclub had indeed tipped their hat in the particular direction of their 70s idols. Other bands are guilty as charged when it comes to blatant sticky-fingered plagiarism, but Teenage Fanclub were clever enough not to steal whole songs, lock, stock and barrel from Big Star. The overall mood though of Bandwagonesque, from the mid-paced strumming and guitar sound to the uplifting melancholy that sticks itself to many of the tracks (The Concept is essentially a sad song, but it’s sky-scrapingly magnificent. Likewise, December and Guiding Star) is very Big Star. Nowt wrong with that of course.

bandwagonesque reviewPatronising idiot.

Bandwagonesque remains an early high point in a discography embarrassingly rich in high points. Will the new album ‘Here‘, released in just over a month, have the same impact? Going on the strength of the lead single I’m In Love, with its trademark harmonies, fancy chords and Thin Lizzy-ish guitar solo, the early indications are good, but let’s remember that Bandwagonesque was released a quarter of a century ago. That Teenage Fanclub are still releasing records to an always-appreciative audience is fine in its own right.

Alex Chilton and Teenage Fanclub would play a few shows together. They also released a limited single via the NME, where Alex was backed by TFC on one side, and TFC were backed by Alex (kinda) on the other. At some point or other, (I’d like to imagine it was during the sessions for the NME single, though we’ll maybe never really know), Alex and TFC ran through a gloriously ragged live take of Bandwagonesque‘s Alcoholiday.

alex chilton bwAlex ChiltonAlcoholiday

The track is credited purely to Chilton, but if you listen carefully between the clanging chords and underneath Alex’s world-weary, 30-a-day Marlboro-coated voice, you’ll be able to make out Norman Blake’s ooing and aahing backing vocals. It’s a beautiful thing. Perhaps even more beautiful than the original….

Teenage FanclubAlcoholiday

tfc and alex c

Teenage Fanclub have also dipped more than a toe into the extensive Chilton back catalogue. An early US-only single from around the time of Bandwagonesque saw them zip through a brilliant version of Free Again, replete with a kazoo solo, a key change and seemingly, the kitchen sink.

Teenage FanclubFree Again

Free Again is a post Box Tops Chilton three chord boogie that would first see the light of day on 1977’s The Singer Not The Song EP, from a period in time when no-one seemingly gave a damn about Alex. Given the shambolic mess that made up the EP, this was also a period in Chilton’s life when he seemingly didn’t give a damn about folk either, but that’s another article for another day.

Alex ChiltonFree Again

tfc  badges




Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten

I Am The Cosmos double whammy

A couple of weeks ago I was window shopping in Glasgow when I chanced upon a wee stall selling replica football tops and assorted football related t-shirts – Scotland Argentina ’78 -inspired designs and the likes. Unfortunately, the Celtic-inspired tops seemed to be the best – the Ramones logo re-done with the names of the Lisbon Lions, the Dylan ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ video where Bob discards 3 cards saying “It’s A “, “Grand Old Team“, “To Play For“. Umpteen Larsson tops. That sort of thing. Amongst all the Archie Gemmell and Old Firm crap I found a brilliant New York Cosmos t-shirt. I had to buy it.

I remember the Topical Times ’79 football annual having a big piece about them and I was something of a nine year old trans-Atlantic fan. They attracted all the best players, just as they entered the final stages of their playing career. In some cases, players came out of retirement, lured by the big bucks of the club’s financial backers. Pele, Beckenbaur, Neeskens, to name 3, all played in the team’s colours. The badge was even designed with Pele in mind – incorporating the Brazilian football team colours of yellow, green and blue, the owners believed this would appeal to Pele. And it did, not just to Pele, but also to Carlos Alberto, captain of the famous Brazil ’70 World Cup winning team. This was a masterstroke by the owners – when Pele signed in ’75, average attendances rose from 3500 to over 10,000. Anyway, here’s the music part…

The Cosmos were founded by Atlantic Records’ Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, so in turn they were funded in no small part due to the success of a mid-70s global shagging Led Zeppelin. You could say that for every copy of Led Zep IV sold, some of the profits would go into funding terrible acts like Bad Company and some of the profits would line the pockets of footballers on the wrong side of 35.

Not on Atlantic Records, and therefore nothing to do with any of the above useless trivia was Chris Bell, Alex Chilton’s foil in Big Star. Since Chilton died the other week, it’s been said that one of the reasons he underplayed the recordings he made with Big Star is because he knew how much of the Big Star sound had been created by Chris Bell and not by himself. If you listen to Chris Bell’s solo album I Am The Cosmos (d’you see what I did there?), there may be some clout in this opinion. The title track itself is a fantastic slice of mid 70s rock – easily on a par with The Stones Exile On Main St or much of The Faces back catalogue. It’s loose, it’s sloppy, it’s full of soaring vocals, there’s a fabulous twin guitar break in the middle; all the ingredients required to make the hairs on this particular neck to stand to attention. In fact, while I’ve got your attention, I’d like to offer up the opinion that it’s this record (link updated again!) more than anything from #1 Record or Radio City that gave Teenage Fanclub the blueprint for everything they recorded at the sessions that produced Bandwagonesque. Not a bad point of reference at all.

In total contrast to the original above, there’s another version of I Am The Cosmos currently released and charming the pants off me. Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson recorded the songs that would form the ‘Break Up’ album in 2006 but  they only saw the light of day at the end of last year. I’m not normally a fan of actors making records (or vice versa) and this album is just OK. It’s nothing spectacular and had Yorn made it with N. E. Singer, I doubt I’d even have gone out of my way to find it, let alone listen to it. But for Miss Johansson I can make exceptions. Her voice is decent enough and her duet with Yorn on their version (link updated) of I Am The Cosmos is indie/lo-fi at its best. They claim to have been influenced by Serge Gainsbourg’s recordings with Brigitte Bardot, but I can’t really hear it. I could, however, quite happily listen to it/her all day long. Indeed, if she gets in the queue behind Zooey Deschanel and plays her cards right, Scarlett Johansson could yet be the next Mrs Plain Or Pan. Mind you, I’d need to make sure I’m not wearing that new Cosmos t-shirt. I’m not nine years old anymore. I bought a medium, but I really should’ve gone for a large. I knew at the time, but who was I tryin’ to kid?

Cover Versions, entire show, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Alex Chilton

Fuck. Just heard the news. This keyboard is awash with tiny tears as I type. It’s always the way, but why do the good guys go first? I can’t believe I’m writing about Alex Chilton in the past tense. His music, especially with Big Star, means as much to me as Them There Beatles, it really does. Whether he was bedroom balladeering or bar-room bawling and balls-out rocking, his songs hit a nerve that jangled all the way to the auditory part of my brain like one of those fancy pants chords he could tease out of his guitar.

If you’re reading this you probably know all about him. Teenage Box Top. Cult hero in coulda been shoulda been Big Star. Producer of The Cramps. Friend and collaborator with fellow enthusiasts/obsessives Teenage Fanclub. All round nice guy, he wrote and recorded some of the best pop songs you’ll hear. Seek out #1 Record or Radio City or 3rd/Sister Lovers for proof. Sometimes bleak, often uplifting, always soulful. But you knew that already. Given our track record for celebrating the artist in death rather than life, Alex Chilton may yet become somewhat ironically a Big Star.

I’m glad I caught Big Star live. Just the once, when they first played Glasgow as part of their initial reunion tour. I stood on the balcony of the QM Union looking down onto the stage where Chilton led his band through non-hit after non-hit after non-hit. The crowd knew every word. So too did Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies, similarly Teenage Fanclub-like in their obsessiveness about Big Star, and on-stage playing out their own version of Jim’ll Fix It on bass and guitar. Chilton himself played a mean guitar that night. And I mean mean in the economic sense. No frills, no pedals. Just him, a nice warm valve amp and a couple of vintage guitars. What a sound! Often overlooked in the scheme of things, Chilton was a fantastic guitar player – proof? – His version of My Baby Just Cares For Me is still up for grabs via this post.

He could play anything. Anything. Rock. Pop. Stax-inflected southern soul. Doo-wop. Jazz. E-nee-thing. He was a player’s player. A dude. And he once, sorry twice, played the 13th Note in Glasgow with Teenage Fanclub as his backing band. Naturally I found out about this the day after the second show. It was a Tuesday morning and a colleague from work casually mentioned it on the phone. Pre internet days, I’m afraid. Pissed off? You better believe it. Especially as the bootleg sounds amazing. Here‘s the entire show. No artwork. No tracklisting (I’m far too lazy/far too busy to type it out). First track is a rockin’ September Gurls. There’s covers of T-Rex, 60s pop standards and, yep, Stax-inflected southern soul. Get it and remember him this way.

Thanks for the music Alex.

Alex Chilton. December 28th 1950 – March 17th 2010