Thursday, April 1, 2010

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | Ken Stringfellow on Alex Chilton

When I was just starting out in my band the Posies, the first band I had that made records and toured, etcetera, back in 1988, we were introduced to the music of Big Star. People heard our early music and assumed, correctly, that we'd find the pure harmonies, heartbreaking sentiment, and mix of rock power and Byrds-like jangling bliss a great inspiration and sympathetic vibration to our own music. It was something of a revelation, one that has probably confounded thousands of listeners when they discover these records for the first time, "How could this band not have been hugely popular?”

And that, my friends, is where the dichotomy began.

Before Big Star, if the critics loved it, if it was quality, word got around, and artists who were influential artistically, like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, the fucking Beatles, for fuck's sake, sold millions. There was crap too, also selling millions. The only band that didn't sell was The Shaggs.

Big Star was not part of a rebellion, like the punks would be soon after. They were a hot band in Memphis, with great songs, and a huge music machine (CBS) behind them. And they failed, spectacularly. It was a tree falling in the woods though - nobody knew the band, so no one knew what they were missing. But so began the idea that there were two worlds in music - the crapmosphere of the latest pop idols, and the quality control layer that was just for those in the know. Suddenly, the idea prevailed that the better a band was - the less likely it was to sell. And in fact, the ability to turn away listeners was a sign of quality. In many ways I agree. In many ways, Big Star has nothing to do with this argument.

I digress. Big Star became heroes because they satisfied every test for quality you could apply, but also they were the ultimate underdogs, a symbol of the unjust whims of popular taste. Something was wrong with the system and here was the proof. The star factory couldn't even makes stars out of Big Star.

I knew Alex first through this context and through his music. We were fans - fans enough to consider taking our first big budget from Geffen Records and spending it at Ardent Studios in Memphis where all of Big Star's albums (and albums we loved by the Replacements, REM, Led Zep, ZZ Top) were made. We eventually decided to stay in Seattle, but via his position as the company's A&R/PR/business gettin' guy, Big Star's Jody Stephens became a fan, a friend, and a friendly familiar face when we were at events like CMJ, South by Southwest, etc.

When some college kids from Missouri threw the dice and had the boldness to enquire if Big Star would reunite for their spring concert...and Alex said yes, Jody called us to fill in the missing posts formerly held by the late Chris Bell and the retired-from-music Andy Hummel. Our first rehearsal in Seattle was where we met Alex for the first time. At first a bit of a cipher, or perhaps a sphinx, he kept his words spare. But even in those first rehearsal days we were talking about Dostoevsky... and it seemed Alex wasn't like other musicians we had played with - more interested in their bongs or their thinly-supported intellectual aspirations, if not practices. Alex was disciplined, and curious, a formidable combo.

But Alex was more than a great intellect (he was widely read, widely interested, willing and able to discuss at length virtually any subject except Big Star). He was charming, challenging, spontaneous and generous. He proposed after a short time of Jon & me playing with Big Star that our contributions merited equal pay. He drove me around Memphis pointing out the housing project where Elvis had lived at one point. We played tennis and had dinners together in his frequent visits to Paris. He introduced me to the music of Faron Young, Rodd Keith, and more. Though he had a reputation for being difficult, the Alex that I have tour managed for the last decade has been the Alex of, “Yeah, cool...whatever. No problem.”

He didn't do interviews. He didn't have email. You had to call him to ask him a question. Isn't that more sociable? I think he thought so. And it is for that sociability, as well as that integrity, that stand out among the many things I will miss about Alex.

Ken Stringfellow will join Jon Auer and Jody Stephens in a tribute to Alex Chilton at the Levitt Shell in Memphis, TN on May 15th. More special guests to be announced soon.

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | John Davis on Chris Bell

John Davis on Chris Bell's I am the Cosmos Deluxe Edition from Rhino Handmade

The day after Alex Chilton died, I was asked by an interviewer how I felt about his sudden passing. I told him that, obviously, I felt sad and surprised and a great sense of loss. However, equal to the sadness, I also felt happy that Chilton was able to know, while he was still alive, just how much people loved him and his music. Granted, his persona was one of a cranky, mercurial recluse but, beneath that exterior, he surely must have known how much be meant to people and found some pleasure in that. Chilton’s one-time bandmate in Big Star, Chris Bell, was not as fortunate.

Before his death in a car accident in the waning days of 1978, Bell only had an inkling that interest in Big Star was starting to grow. Shortly before Bell’s death, EMI Records reissued the first two Big Star albums, “#1 Record” and “Radio City,” as a double album in the UK. John Fry, the founder of Ardent Studios and the band’s engineer and mentor, told me that the reissue excited Bell – particularly that the words “EMI Records” could be found emblazoned on its cover, just like they were on the records by his idols, The Beatles. Despite being witness to this first step in the resurrection of Big Star, Bell never knew the belated hosannas his music would eventually receive.

As interest in Big Star grew in the years to come and Chilton’s reputation as an eccentric genius was cemented, so did interest in the work of the band’s /other/ genius. Bell was only an official member of the band for “#1 Record” - though he appears uncredited on “Radio City” - but the pairing of Chilton and Bell was magical. Many wondered what had happened to Bell after he quit the band. Other than a two-song single issued shortly before he died (featuring the transcendent “I Am The Cosmos” and the plaintive “You And Your Sister”), there was little else available from Bell.

Much as a reissue sparked the resurgence in Big Star, it was a reissue of sorts, 1992’s “I Am The Cosmos,” that laid out just what a special songwriter and singer Bell was. Compiled with help from Bell’s brother, David, “I Am The Cosmos” contained the two songs from the 1978 single and also another ten magnificent, searing songs that had never been released to that point. There were rockers like “I Don’t Know," “I Got Kinda Lost,” and “Get Away” and there were more plangent pleas like “Though I Know She Lies” and the absolutely crushing “There Was A Light.” Everybody loves to find a buried treasure and here was a small, but potent, cache of gems from a somehow overlooked voice. Like Gene Clark or John Lennon’s early solo work, Bell’s expressions were one of a deeply wounded man searching for answers and relief. Evidence suggests that Bell never really found either, which makes the music he left behind all the more heartbreaking now.

I had long wondered what other Bell tracks might lay in the vaults and it seems that the recent Deluxe Edition of “I Am The Cosmos” has answered that question definitively. In terms of solo compositions, there is little new on this deluxe reissue (which adds an entire second disc of rare and previously unreleased material to the original’s twelve songs), but the copious alternate versions hold their own. The alternate version of “I Don’t Know” adds a crunching, Badfinger-style opening that manages to make the song even more buoyant. The mellotron added to the alternate “You And Your Sister,” finds this take less tortured than heavenly. A different version of “Get Away” reunites Bell with Chilton and the results sound like prime Big Star. We can only wonder what would have happened had the two kept writing and recording together.

The only downside of this latest Bell reissue is that it seems like there may be nothing more to unearth. The reissue’s inclusion of nice, but unspectacular, songs that Bell recorded with other musicians (namely, Keith Sykes and Nancy Bryan) indicates that the well is dry. If that’s so, it’s hard to complain, even if we’re left wishing that there was more.

It’s easy to think about what we lost when Bell died far too young, but it’s even easier to listen to what we have and smile. He may not have known it but to a modest few, Bell matters just as much as his heroes did to him. Thanks, Chris, you are the cosmos.

Chris Bell's I am the Cosmos Deluxe Edition can only be purchased at

Chris Bell - I am the Cosmos (Mp3)

John Davis is the writer/arranger behind the band Title Tracks which emerged in mid-2008 from the still-smoldering ashes of Georgie James. Title Tracks debut full-length album, "It Was Easy." was released on Ernest Jenning Records in February 2010.

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | Star & Micey

Growing up in Memphis, I remember fondly now defunct record stores like Cats Music and Tower Records. When I would go into these stores I would be completely overwhelmed with all the choices. It was like going into a book store and not knowing what to read. I learned about some great music through these stores, mostly on my own. I tried to hold true to a theory that former Red Hot Chili Pepper’s guitarist John Frusciante once said, "If the cover looks cool, pick it up. You never know."

That's how a friend of mine found out about a band called The Format. Great album artwork can sometimes go a long way.

I recently went to a record store in Springfield, MO called Stick It In Your Ear Records. I spent about 2 hours there and ended up spending a long time speaking to the owner whose name escapes me at the moment. I ended up purchasing a Buffalo Springfield album before I left. It was an album I might never have listened to if it weren’t for my experience that day in a Record Store.

Vinyl seems to have crept its way back into popularity these days. I just recently acquired a turntable and finally have been able to listen to my vinyl album collection, which consists of everything from The Best Of Sam & Dave, to Ray LaMontagne. Lucky for me, my father just happens to have the biggest collection of vinyl I've ever seen. It’s over 1500 records and some of it is completely out of print, so I basically have my very own Record Store to peruse. I’ve become obsessed with the way old vinyl sounds and I’m looking forward to the chance of recording to tape at Ardent Studios, like so many of my musical heroes have. We would love to put out some of our own music on vinyl, hopefully that will be one of the next dreams we get to see come true.

There is really no way to express what it feels like to have the opportunity to record at Ardent. The history, the people, the gear - its all pretty mind blowing. In a million years I never would have thought I would be recording music in a place of its stature. We’ve come a long way from the bedroom. Recently, Ardent started cutting vinyl again. They have the original cutting lathe from Stax Records that Larry Nix used on so many of those old legendary albums. It’s pretty cool that there is still that option to have music in that format. As a matter of fact, every thing about that place is cool - to be in the same building where great engineers such as John Hampton, Jeff Powell, Curry Weber, and Pete Mathews work, all who are Grammy award winning/nominated engineers/producers, is just mind-boggling. And let’s not forget the studio manager is Big Star's Jody Stephens.

Back to Record Stores; I really wish I grew up in a time where they were more prominent and important (circa 1960s through the 1970s). These days Memphis still has several record stores going strong and spreading the musical love. Stores like Shangri La and Goner Records are world renowned staples of Memphis music. They are places that you can go in and spend hours just dreaming and learning about music. It’s one of the best ways I can think of to spend an afternoon. So long live vinyl! And long live Record Stores!

—Geoff Smith
Star & Micey

Star & Micey - So Much Pain (Mp3)