Alex Chilton – Like Flies on Sherbert – Classic Music Review
The original title was Like Flies on Shit. Most of the recordings were made on flaky equipment by musicians in varying degrees of drunkenness. Vocals are mumbled, lyrics often unintelligible. On some songs it feels like Alex Chilton asked himself, “What are the most abrasive and obnoxious noises I can come up with?” and then made absolutely sure he captured those annoying sounds on tape. The producer filled in as guitarist because Alex thought he was a terrible guitar player. All the tracks contain multiple fuck-ups like missed cues, false starts, accidental noises and background chatter. The name of the frozen confection that replaced the word “shit” in the title is misspelled, but the title still evokes an image of something totally disgusting. And though the final mix took a year to complete, Like Flies on Sherbert was universally condemned on release for its poor sound quality, terrible balance and utter lack of professionalism.
Goddamn, I love the fuck out of this record.
Alex Chilton had hoped to turn his success as lead singer of The Box Tops into a more satisfying and successful career as songwriter and creative force behind Big Star, but ran into a series of obstacles from the get-go. The first was that despite a series of chart-toppers with The Box Tops, his name was curiously unfamiliar to the listening audience. My Big Star fan father explained it this way: “The Box Tops were a white soul pop band who weren’t taken all that seriously, so there wasn’t a lot of background chatter about them in comparison to the heavies of the era. People knew Jagger, Daltrey and Robert Plant. I didn’t know who Alex Chilton was until I discovered Big Star. And even then I couldn’t believe that was the same guy on ‘The Letter’ and ‘Cry Like a Baby.'” That delightfully gruff voice, a product of sore throat and plenty of Camels, gave way to a mid-to-high range voice with greater emotive capability.
The second problem Chilton ran into is that his melodic rock—the precursor of power pop—was yesterday’s news. “Rock had gotten a lot heavier, and Big Star sounded like something out of the mid-sixties,” dad commented. “If they’d released some of those songs in ’66, people would still be singing them today.” The failure of Big Star to catch on—certainly aggravated by indifferent promotion and distribution by Stax and Columbia—led to an unstable lineup and uncertain direction. Their last release—attributed to Big Star only for marketing purposes—was pretty much an Alex Chilton solo effort. Like all the Big Star releases, Third/Sister Lovers was critically acclaimed and commercially ignored. “I was and I think I still am the only Big Star fan I know,” claims my dear father, extraordinarily proud of his early discovery of a band that became quite influential over the years.
Commercial failure, over-the-top substance abuse and tenuous mental health resulted in the darker songs that pop up about halfway through Third/Sister Lovers. Those songs revealed a depth and complexity missing from his previous work, and one could have easily imagined Alex moving in a more contemplative direction in the future, accompanied by piano and strings rather than guitar and drums. Instead, we have Like Flies on Sherbert, which AllMusic critic Stephen Erlewine called “a front-runner for the worst album ever made.”
Other critics jump through hoops trying to connect the darker songs on Third/Sister Lovers to what they perceive as its disastrous follow-up. The narrative goes something like this—failure led to substance abuse, depression and mental instability, and Alex Chilton brought all that into the studio, providing irrefutable, recorded evidence that he was well on his way to self-destruction. The man was suffering and he chose to dump all his psychic shit into our unsuspecting ears.
But was he really suffering on Like Flies on Sherbert?
I don’t buy that explanation for a second. First, it sounds like Alex had a helluva good time! Like Flies on Sherbert is loaded with humor, sometimes black, sometimes Pythonesque, often beautifully accidental. The “mistakes” are a hoot because everyone knows they’re mistakes and none of them detract from the feel of the music. “So, you fucked up. Who gives a shit? Welcome to the human race.” In several cases, the mistakes improve the song, a paradox that challenges our sacred beliefs regarding professionalism. “Then why should any musician bother to get the song right?” you ask. “Exactly!” I reply. Like Flies on Sherbert is not so much a musical experience as an experience that demands an attitudinal adjustment on the part of the listener.
The attitudinal adjustment you need to appreciate Like Flies on Sherbert sprang from an attitude shift on the part of one Alex Chilton. That shift began with blown expectations, a common feature of all journeys that turn out to be worth the trip. Alex’s original plan for the album—an intimate recording session with producer Jim Dickinson and “one or two other people”—was blasted to bits when he showed up to find Dickinson had brought his entire band. Alex’s reaction to it all was the classic response of the improviser—say “YES!”
I thought . . . “hmmm, well, this isn’t what I had in mind really!” . . . but I didn’t say anything. I just thought we should try it an’ see how it goes.
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 215). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I think what happened next is that Alex began to reconnect with his teenage self. In the period leading up to the recording sessions, he had been taking in the emerging punk scene in New York and was trying to introduce punk to the hometown crowd in Memphis. Although Like Flies on Sherbert does not embrace the model of three-chord rock played at lightning speed, the attitude is pure fuck-it-all punk—and Young Alex was a guy with attitude. His thirteen-year-old girlfriend described him thusly: “He was funny and good-looking. He had a swagger and held a Camel like no other.” Young Alex was James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, smirking, smoking, setting off firecrackers—a part of himself that he’d revealed in late-period Big Star shows but very rarely on record. Shedding the expectations that had followed him since the days of The Box Tops, Alex reconnected with his rock essence, with his inner James Dean . . . though the consummate professional musician still had his doubts:
We started recordin’ an’ I thought, ‘Man, these guys don’t know the songs . . .’ an’ I was trying to teach them, and they’d go, ‘Yeah, we know the songs,’ and then just go and play the first thing they thought of. So we were rollin’ the tape and we were doin’ all this outrageous soundin’ stuff. . . . An’ I thought ‘Man that must sound terrible.’ But when I went in and heard what we’d been doin’, man, it was just this incredible soundin’ stuff.
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 215). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The second reason I think critics have gone too far to dismiss Like Flies on Sherbert as evidence of instability comes from Alex’s own testimony:
“My life was on the skids, and Like Flies on Sherbert was a summation of that period,” he later reflected. “I like that record a lot. It’s crazy but it’s a positive statement about a period in my life that wasn’t positive.”
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 239). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The history of the artist in every branch of art is riddled with fragile sanity, drugs and alcohol, as if an artist is a person doomed to exist in a purgatory where one door leads to creation and the other to self-destruction. After all, an artist is a person who chooses to differentiate him or herself from the status quo, and the status quo always informs our definition of sanity. It’s no wonder that “mental instability” is a common thread in art—we wouldn’t have art if artists were always “mentally stable.” Therefore, it’s not at all surprising that Alex Chilton would do some of his best work while suffering and searching for the thing inside that he needed to express. It sounds to me like the recording sessions to Like Flies on Sherbert were actually a healing experience for him, a temporary respite from the downs and a reconnection with the reason he wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll in the first place:
Good rock & roll started from the rockabilly singers of the fifties. It has always been wild and out of control, and you had a real chaotic sense, and the punk thing has brought that back pretty strongly. To me, it’s just good rock & roll. Rock & roll is supposed to be out of control, and it’s crazy and it’s supposed to drive you crazy.
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 223). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
And if there’s one album that epitomizes wild, out-of-control chaos, it’s Like Flies on Sherbert.
There are three different versions of Like Flies on Sherbert. My dad has the Aura version (British), so that’s what you’re going to get. Though I don’t target music consumers on this blog, let me give you a heads-up: you can get the vinyl version on Amazon for about two hundred bucks.
Thank my lucky stars for a father with a great vinyl collection!
The Aura version opens with “Boogie Shoes,” a B-side from K. C. and the Sunshine Band. Like all of K. C.’s offerings, the original is slick, sexless and thoroughly overproduced. Alex Chilton’s version is messy, hot as yours truly on a Saturday night and as for production, well . . . Alex misses his cue and starts his vocal too early, the bass player takes a few measures to get in sync with the drummer and the fills feature an electric guitar with treble knobs on both guitar and amp set to the max, in shocking contrast to the bass-heavy bottom. I guarantee that when you listen to the album on headphones the first time, you will yank them off your head when the guitar comes in. Jim Dickinson turns into an absolute madman on the piano, taking over the groove and driving the forward movement. About two-thirds of the way through the song, the electric guitar overloads one channel, destroying everything in its wake for a few seconds. Somehow the band manages to pull itself out of the precipice to put together a pretty hot guitar duet, leading to the rather anticlimactic ending with Alex mumbling his way half-heartedly through the closing line. As a statement to Big Star fans expecting lovely harmonies, professional production and further development of Alex Chilton’s songwriting skills, “Boogie Shoes” is one stiff middle finger; as a statement of returning to the essence of rock ‘n’ roll and its inherent amateurism, it is a goddamn masterpiece—an absolutely gorgeous, sloppy mess of opener.
Next up is “My Rival,” our first Alex Chilton original. The buzz around this song focuses on its “darkness,” to which I respond, “Is there a music critic in the house with a fucking sense of humor?” Alex Chilton takes on the ever-present cave man mentality of insecure American men raised on the silly belief that women are property that other men can steal from you. Alex—who had recently been cast aside by a girl for a drummer, no less—fits nicely into the role of the cuckolded loser who blames his loss of pussy on his rival, the evil shadowy figure who “has muscles and is a deceitful person,” and “stole my girl away.” Feeling safe enough to dish out the trash talk when alone in his bed, he takes his bitterness to the logical conclusion:
And I haven’t got nothing
And I’m dropping off to sleep
And I had rather be a killer
I’m gonna shore my confidence up
My rival I’m gonna stab him on arrival
Shoot him dead, my rival
Exposing one’s worst thoughts through verbalization is a fairly effective way to show you how silly you are, so my take on the song is Alex is telling himself, “What the fuck were you thinking, man?”
The “arrangement” for “My Rival” is really no arrangement at all—it sounds like you’ve stepped into the garage and the band is about to take a shot at this new song they wrote. You hear Alex on distorted guitar playing the intro riff, but no one else in the band is quite ready, so you get some test runs on the Mini Moog before bass and drums step in—probably after looking at each other with the “Am I supposed to come in now?” face common in jam sessions. It takes a few bars for the drummer to take control of the rhythm, but once he does, the song settles into a dark and sexy groove. Meanwhile, Jim Dickinson is “just turning knobs” on the Mini Moog, adding a patina of general weirdness to the mix. “My Rival” doesn’t end so much as it collapses, with no one stopping at the same time and Alex commenting, “Sounds pretty hot.” I echo that sentiment—for all it’s sloppiness, “My Rival” is a great rock ‘n’ roll song—sexy, quirky and definitely anti-establishment. And as for Alex’s madness and its influence on Like Flies on Sherbert, lo and behold, there was a method after all:
At the same time Alex focused on playing distorted guitar, looking for new ways to attack the instrument. “Alex was at a juncture,” Sid Selvidge recalled. “He’d had a real bad experience with the Big Star stuff and was trying to distance himself from his acceptable past, I felt, because what he would do at the Procape would chase people off. They didn’t understand it. His whole concept was, If I were a thirteen-year-old right now, and I were just learning my instrument, how would I play guitar? People don’t realize what an accomplished guitar player Alex is, his versatility. He’s a consummate guitarist. So from that level of sophistication, he was trying to play without knowing all that he knows. He was trying to play note for note what somebody who doesn’t play the guitar would play like. That’s a pretty convoluted concept, but that was his idea. And it fits perfectly into rock & roll. This was popular music to him— from where he came at it and got his hits in the first place.”
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 188). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Keeping it as hot as my girlfriend in a studded leather bra, “Hey! Little Child” comes next, and though it takes about twenty seconds for the band to achieve the tightness this song requires, they do get there, grooving to the straightforward beat and nailing the repetition of the word “Hey!” that serves as the chorus. The beat drives the song, but the guitar fills are a delight, uncovering more melodic possibilities in the simple chord structure. The only oddity in the song is the use of a toy piano (or a horribly recorded real piano), but somehow it manages to lighten the overall sound without weakening it. The little child in the song is a Catholic teen girl in her school uniform, the ultimate symbol of superficially repressed but ready-to-rock sexuality. The stiff and steady beat reflects both her faux formality and the observer’s scarcely disguised desire to slip his stiff one in between her skirt, missionary style. With its disciplined simplicity and strong forward movement, “Hey! Little Child” is the most obvious evidence of Alex Chilton’s time in the New York punk scene.
By contrast, “Hook or Crook” has the breeziness of early Stones records with a touch of country, featuring a series of hot guitar licks to remind the listening audience, that yes, Alex Chilton knew how to play. Easily the most mistake-free song on the album, “Hook or Crook” turns out to be the least interesting track. “Bring back the fuck-ups!” I shout with brimming impatience, and the band responds with a cover version of The Bell Notes’ 1959 hit, “I’ve Had It.” Jim Dickinson takes the lead vocal on this one, making a game attempt to try to find the right key during the intro. He finally sort of gets there, delivering a performance that falls somewhere between bad karaoke and last-drunk-at-the-party. Alex sings in the second-fiddle position to give the vocal some depth, throwing in a little falsetto here and there that’s also a little off. The piano tends to stray from the percussion role from time to time with block chords that bear little or no relation to the theme. The ending is executed with no precision whatsoever, and I’m as happy as a slut with hard ones in all three available orifices.
And I’m even happier (if that’s possible—three at once would be an awesome experience!) with “Rock Hard,” a song that Alex re-jiggered during the mixing process. Even with the rewrites and overdubs, the feel remains loose and underproduced, and Alex sings this song like his penis is ready to explode. The lyrics essentially riff on the multiple connotations of the phrase “rock hard,” forming what is in essence a sexual meditation:
Have a party
Way on down
Alex does attend to the penis later in the song, thrillingly connecting a rock hard member to BDSM tendencies (fuck yeah!):
Nice and mean
Is really sweet
It’s gettin’ hard
Like a shot
The low-fi Duane Eddy-like riff is pure classic rock, and Alex’s solos (one repeating a single, twangy note) stick to the beautiful basics. I would have liked the piano to sound a bit more Fats Domino, but as it is, “Rock Hard” is one seriously hot number.
We now get three cover songs in a row, each from different genres. “Girl After Girl” is a fairly faithful rendition (vocally speaking) of Troy Shondell’s (real name Gary Wayne Shelton) hit that earned him the completely deserved status of a one-hit wonder. The song is bloody awful, and because Troy Shondell, re-named after early 60’s matinee idol Troy Donahue, tried with all his might to sound like Elvis, we get an Elvis impersonator’s version of an Elvis impersonator. After asking “What song is this?” Alex dives with great intensity into what proves to be a false start. When the band gets going, they manage to pull off a decent reproduction of bad surf music. It’s okay, but probably the weakest track on the album.
In the mid 1960’s, “Waltz Across Texas” was a big hit for Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubadour. The contrast between Tubb’s strong, confident vocal and Alex’s sloshy mess couldn’t be greater. It’s like you walked into the worst honky-tonk bar in the world at 1 a. m. and, because it’s a slow night, the bartender-owner decided to let the busboy pull out his gee-tar and play for the two or three drunks propped up against the bar. Unfortunately, the bus boy can’t sing worth shit and has the habit of spitting out the word “Texas” like he’s spitting out bloody teeth. Alex finally goes fucking mad towards the end, clearly identifying the piece as satire.
The best of the three in this clump of covers is “Alligator Man,” where Alex delivers his vocal in his natural voice with genuine enthusiasm over the thumps, labored guitar and general uncertainty of his fellow band members. The song was sort of a novelty hit for Jimmy C. Newman, a guy who spent his career wobbling between country and cajun. Alex plays and sings with gusto, clearly carrying the band, who really don’t sound all that sure about this cajun stuff.
The title track closes the album, a perfect end to our journey into chaos, a song both grand and ridiculous, a performance so dysfunctional yet so perfect. The grandiosity of the piece comes from the synthesized theme, the big booming drums resembling timpani and the introduction of choral voices as the song builds to the finale. The ridiculous dysfunction comes from the fact that the synthesizer sounds like crap and the choral voices are the voices of rank amateurs. The lyrics are almost completely unintelligible, with “It’s . . . so fine” serving as the only clearly understandable line in a word salad consisting of German and perhaps another language (or English in a generic imitation of a foreign accent). The progression of the song is defined by the character of Alex Chilton’s voice, which moves from Beach Boy-quality falsetto to the screams of the first guy out the door when the inmates take over the asylum. I can’t give you a musical or technical explanation as to why this song works, I have no idea why I get happy when it comes up and I am completely unable to identify the part of my personality that causes me to sing along to a song whose words I CAN’T FUCKING UNDERSTAND . . . but to me, “Like Flies on Sherbert” is a hoot, a grand send-up of the pomposity of album closers that present themselves as serious, meaningful reflections on life but are as empty as the vacuum of space.
And once again, it sounds like Alex is having the time of his life, shedding years of frustration and a whole slew of expectations. Various accounts from those in the studio during the Sherbert sessions describe Alex Chilton as moody, prone to extremes and an absolute prick at times. The booze, coke and crystal meth probably didn’t do much to foster a sunny disposition, and there is little doubt that he was a man in need of professional assistance. Still, there are many moments on Like Flies on Sherbert when he sounds as happy as a teenage punk scoping out the chicks with a cigarette dangling from his lips, fully wired to the energy source that drives rock ‘n’ roll—the sweet spirit of defiance, the glorious rejection of taboos, the lightness of the freed soul.
And that’s the Alex Chilton I choose to remember.