Underrated Iconoclast: Alex Chilton's Lasting Influence

Dead at 59, the power-pop progenitor had a tremendous impact

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Power-pop godfather Alex Chilton died of a heart attack Wednesday at 59. His career spanned four decades and influenced the likes of R.E.M., Wilco, The Replacements and countless other bands. He's best known for singing with the '60s pop-soul outfit the Box Tops but he also earned a cult following for his '70s band Big Star. Viewers of That '70s Show will recognize Big Star's anthemic hit In the Street, the show's theme song. Chilton's untimely death comes days before he was to be celebrated at this year's South by Southwest Music festival. Here's what music critics are saying about his life:

  • Indisputably Underrated, writes Jim DeRogatis at the Chicago Sun-Time: "Despite two brilliant records whose titles evinced Chilton's sardonic sense of humor and ingrained skepticism about the music industry--'#1 Record' (1972) and 'Radio City' (1974)--and the warm embrace of pioneering rock critics such as Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe, the band's label, Ardent Records, was unable to break the group on radio, and it struggled to find an audience during its original incarnation."
[Chilton's] chiming guitar-playing and lush, layered arrangements would influence a generation of rock bands, including R.E.M., Wilco, the Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, Primal Scream and the Posies, whose Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow were instrumental in reforming Big Star in 1993. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck famously said, "We've sort of flirted with greatness, but we've yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star's Third."
  • An Iconoclast, writes Tony Sachs at The Huffington Post: "To the end, Alex Chilton was one of a very rare breed -- a veritable rock icon who also managed to be a first-rate iconoclast, especially when it came to himself. His ceaseless decades-long puncturing of his own myth practically became a myth in itself."

In the mid-'70s, Chilton began what would be a polarizing solo career, releasing several albums of material, including 1979's Like Flies on Sherbet -- a strange, chaotically recorded mix of originals and obscure covers that divided fans and critics.

Chilton also began performing with local roots-punk deconstructionists the Panther Burns.

In the early '80s, Chilton left Memphis for New Orleans, where he worked a variety of jobs and stopped performing for several years.

But interest in his music from a new generation of alternative bands, including the Replacements and R.E.M., brought him back to the stage in the mid-'80s.

He continued to record and tour as a solo act throughout the decade. Finally, in the early '90s, the underground cult based around Big Star had become so huge that the group was enticed to reunite with a reconfigured lineup.

  • A Memphis Hero, declared Steve Cohen of Tennessee in a moving address to the House of Representatives this morning.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.