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Memphis Flyer The War

Two Alex Chilton reissues uncover the dangers of dredging up the forgotten past.

By Mark Jordan

JUNE 21, 1999:  The gold rush days of the record industry are over.

Actually, they've been over for a few years now. If you recall, it was just around 1997 that record sales took a dive, effectively killing the alternative-music format and sending A&R men across the country into a tailspin. The problem wasn't just the final fading of grunge, however; it was that the industry's financial boom of the previous 10 years had been manufactured in the first place. In addition to buying new records, aging music heads spent much of the late '80s and early '90s updating their record collections, replacing their old vinyl with shiny new CDs. By '97, the conversion was pretty much complete.

Don't blame the record industry. They tried to drag it out as much as they could, releasing every B-side, outtake, and live track they could find in the vaults. But by now any hidden gems have long been unearthed, and all that remains is tossed-aside offal of little interest to anyone but obsessive completists.

This certainly applies to Nobody Can Dance, the latest from Big Star. That's right -- the latest from the Memphis power-pop pioneers who broke up 25 years ago. Released on Norton Records, the tracks on this disc have been culled from rehearsal tapes and a concert at the Overton Park Shell, all recorded in 1974. This is the period just after the release of the band's second studio album, Radio City. This is also Big Star on its last legs. Founder Chris Bell and Andy Hummel are gone, leaving just kingpin Alex Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens, and Hummel's replacement on bass, John Lightman. In this respect, Nobody Can Dance is reminiscent of Live, Rykodisc's 1992 release documenting another '74 concert with Lightman on board.

The record gets its title from a stage comment made at the opening of the live set, just before the band tackles a cover of Marc Bolan's "Baby Strange."

"Is everybody having a good time?" says an emcee, who sounds suspiciously like Chilton co-hort Jim Dickinson. "Okay, let's keep it that way. I talked to the lady at the park commission, and she said nobody can dance. I'm sorry. [Crowd screams, "Why?"] I don't know. Ask her. In the meantime, don't dance. I love you. Take care."

Unfortunately, that, plus the great photo of the Shell that adorns the otherwise skimpy liner notes, are the highlights. Not that the record is bad. The studio tracks are vital and the live stuff overcomes obvious technical glitches quite well.

The problem is there is just no reason for it all. Except for the Bolan cover and Chilton's appropriately trashy but unremarkable take on his own Box Tops hit "The Letter," everything on this disc is an inferior version of tracks that appeared on either #1 Record (Big Star's stunning debut) or Radio City.

Meanwhile, the other recent reissue featuring Alex Chilton is certainly not necessary but is endlessly interesting. Originally released (and heard by no one) in 1979, Like Flies On Sherbert is an esoteric, almost experimental album that finds Chilton exploring the sort of roots revisionist sound that's come to be called psychobilly. Joining Chilton on the trip is a pantheon of Memphis counterculture in the '70s, including co-producer Dickinson, Lee Baker, Ross Johnson, Richard Rosebrough, and Sid Selvidge,whose Peabody Records label issued both the original and this rerelease. Furthermore, the photography is by William Eggleston and the "titleing" by Gustavo Falco.

On first listen, the record sounds like a goof, the product of a series of drunken parties conveniently held in recording studios. And it may well be that, but behind the seemingly sloppy, incongruous guitar work, the primitive drumming, and the strained vocal is a refined punk sensibility. With their primal twanging, Chilton and the gang put twists on such Southern music standards as the Carter Family's "No More Moon Shines On Lorena," Cordell Jackson's "Dateless Night," and Ernest Tubb's "Waltz Across Texas." (One of the album's many "what were they thinking" moments comes with Chilton's seemingly mocking version of KC & the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes," not on the original release, added along with three other tracks to an early '90s French reissue, and included here.)

Curiously, buried amid the cow punk are glimpses of what could have been a brilliant Chilton record -- or even two. Songs such as "Hey! Little Child" and "Hook or Crook" display Chilton at his pop-songcraft best, while the bizarre "My Rival" and "Like Flies On Sherbert" are the beginnings of some interesting (if self-indulgent) avant-rock explorations.

Among Chiltonites, Like Flies On Sherbert has taken on the status of a cult masterpiece. This is largely a case of the emperor wearing no clothes. Ultimately, it falls well short of that mark. If there is genius here, it's of the kind you see in war films by Kubrick, Coppola, and Malick, espoused in seemingly profound koans by some half-mad, shell-shocked G.I. Chilton is the madman. Like Flies On Sherbert is the war.

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