ALEX CHILTON Like Flies On Sherbert (Sanctuary/Castle Music)
In 1975, the fast disintegrating Big Star recorded what was to be their final studio album and, like the two that preceded it, it met a horrible end, so savaged by record company disinterest that it wouldn't be released for three years, picked up by British label Aura after achieving almost mythic status among discerning record collectors. Following five years hanging around the punk scene, producing The Cramps and forming the occasional chaotic, short-lived aggregation of his own, Big Star kingpin Alex Chilton offered up "Like Flies On Sherbert", his first released solo LP.
There's something perversely fascinating about the music artists fashion when teetering on the brink of total psychological collapse. Think - and here come the usual suspects - Nick Drake's "Pink Moon", Neil Young's "Tonight's The Night", The Beatles' eponymous double, Lou Reed's "Berlin", anything by Joy Division, or the grandaddy of them all, Big Star's "Third/Sister Lovers", my nomination for the greatest album of all time. "Like Flies On Sherbert", though, takes those feelings of desperation, fear, persecution, whatever makes listeners to albums like those listed above feel like they've been put through the wringer, or even the meatgrinder, and zigzags haphazardly past them. The lunatics have taken over the asylum, and every night is cabaret night.
The entertainment begins with a stuttering, staggering revision of KC And The Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes" that practically sounds prolapsed. There's something either poignant or suspicious about "My Rival"'s lyric "My rival drives a Triumph sport car" given that Chilton's former Big Star partner died when his TR6 hit a telephone pole in December 1978. "Hey! Little Child" is about as close to convention as "Like Flies On Sherbert", uh, skirts, its Glitter Band stomp perhaps not being inappropriate for a leering, lecherous song seemingly fixated on Catholic schoolgirls and their uniforms. And thus does "Like Flies On Sherbert" totter unsteadily onwards, a procession of warped, fractured almost songs, inbred country cousins to the kind of power pop genius Chilton once owned, stranded in a no man's land of false starts and suppressed giggles. There's a gruesome Elvis impersonation dragging down "Girl After Girl" (which doesn't have far to fall in the first place), and his version of Ernest Tubb's "Waltz Across Texas" has the kind of ghost town yodel that would nestle snugly on the jukebox in a David Lynch film's barroom. "Alligator Man" at least has some kind of ramshackle charm to it - maybe the Memphis mauler could relate to this tale of a man who "very seldom sees dry land". The near-titular "Like Flies On Sherbet" is the ultimate expression of the album's aesthetic, an agonising, flyblown Phil Spector production, all lurching keyboards, disembodied voices and pigeon German. "Its so fine", yells Alex, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. For Chilton completists this reissue also boasts the b-side Carter Family cover "No More The Moon Shines On Lorena", a somewhat unsettling tale of love on the plantation.
The fun doesn't end there, although you might wish it had. Castle have generously thrown another CD into the package, the contemporaneous "Live In London", which finds Alex backed by a pickup band featuring musicians drawn from The Soft Boys and The Vibrators. At least it shows that he can successfully reproduce the uncontrolled mania of his studio recordings on stage. More enjoyment can perhaps be found in the smattering of Big Star songs that dot the setlist. A rough tumble through "In The Street" validates at least some of the claims made for the man's guitar-picking genius with its shrapnel-sharp solo. "Nightime" loses something compared to the icily observant original, and "Kanga Roo" appears dragged out and distended (although nowhere near as much as it would at the hands and throat of Jeff Buckley). His greatest hit, "The Letter", sounds red-eyed with desperation, although his greatest non-hit, "September Gurls", is treated almost reverentially in comparison.
If you're reasonably sure of what to expect or simply must own "Like Flies On Sherbert" in some form, this double CD undoubtedly represents some kind of value for money - as well as the extra album the package includes informative sleevenotes and a useful raft of press cuttings. But otherwise it might be advisable to avoid this horrific road accident of an album.