In 2009, I put up a blog post on my blog Stoning the Devil about a strain of poetry which went under the name "post-avant." Before then, no one had particularly defined what "post-avant" poetry was. I gave post-avant two definitions; one was meant specifically for post-avant as a form of poetry, one could be used as a catch-all phrase for any kind of art which could be deemed post-avant. That definition was "anything with an edge." If you want to apply a dictum to Alex Chilton's m.o. in everything musically significant he did other than (and including) Third/Sister Lovers, "anything with an edge" fits like a glove. Several works need specifically to be considered: Big Star's Radio City and parts of #1 Record, the Alex Chilton solo record (Jim Dickinson produced) Like Flies on Sherbert, and some of the material Chilton recorded in NYC in the Swinging Seventies. The Chris Bell solo album I Am the Cosmos, released fourteen years after Bell's death in '78, also counts, and fits under the "anything with an edge" rubric. Much of what came out of Memphis in the Seventies does fit under the post-avant rubric, and Jim Dickinson's whole fethishistic approach to making records was a post-avant approach. The Memphis crew which sustained these guys was edgy. Of all the accomplishments just mentioned, Big Star's Radio City is the most vaunted and, in fact, often goes higher on some rock critics' lists than Third/Sister Lovers does, so we'll deal with Radio City first.
Radio City is a collection of twisted power-pop songs which were recorded after Chris Bell left Big Star. Several key components of the songs distinguish the album. First and foremost is Alex Chilton's guitar-playing. He uses complicated arpeggios extensively and uniquely, so that Radio City is hardcore as a rock guitar player's wet dream; an album of indie guitar heroics. Chilton's playing isn't grandiose the way you'd expect to hear from Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, and Page, but it's phenomenally tasteful and expressive just the same. The way the guitars are mixed is dense, and the tone of the Radio City guitars is trebly in the extreme. Some musicians hear Byrds-like "jangle" in Radio City, but there's also a certain amount of Keith Richards "crunch." That's one of Radio City's big musical equations: the Byrds magically melded with the Stones, McGuinn with Keef. What makes the album so edgy is that the song structures and the lyrics are unconventional, and oddly formed. Though the melodies are catchy and solid, Big Star sound, always, on the edge of a nervous breakdown, with cacophony and chaos right around the corner. The songs have awkward breaks and pauses, Jody Stephens' punctuations on drums are abrupt and emphasize how combustible the musical approach is, and there's always a hinge to disarray. Lyrically, there's plenty of mischievous sex, in the Chilton tradition, but there's also a sense that Chilton is playing edgy games to thwart the inclusion of cliches: he sings "you're gonna get your place in the scene/ all God's orphans get fates in the dream/ now, you get what you deserve" in "You Get What You Deserve," or "She tells the men Go to Hell/ and where that's at is where I'm comin from" in "She's a Mover." The album has a number of centerpieces: "September Gurls" is a straightforward slice of hard rock candy, with a memorably trebly guitar break, and "Daisy Glaze" is a tempo-changing, warped bit of inchoate angst which includes some of the most intricate arpeggiated guitar work in the rock canon. Those who prefer Radio City to Third/Sister Lovers like the twisted approach and that many of the songs are uptempo; the edginess of the approach is that all the power-pop elements are inverted away from standard usage. Radio City influenced the approach of 80s bands like the Replacements and 90s power-popsters the Gin Blossoms, and for AmerIndie and college radio remains a reference point.
Like Flies on Sherbert, Alex Chilton's late 70s classic, is more an exploration of kitsch, a swan-dive into total cheese that listens like an attractive junk-heap. The cover photo, by Memphis native William Eggleston, has the same aesthetic; if the picture (affixed to this post) seems to veer towards misogyny, it's with a twist towards lightness and satire rather than serious intentions. The title of the album can also be taken as a kind of metaphor; Chilton, Jim Dickinson and their cohorts were themselves like flies on the great big "sherbert" of kitshcy Americana, where pop music was concerned. This album is about "roots" retooled, and mixes covers like "Girl After Girl," "Alligator Man," and even K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes," with unsettling, drunken Chilton originals like "Hook of Crook" and "My Rival." Chilton's songs have an undertone of violence here which is lacking on the Big Star albums for the most part: he sings "I would kill to pursue my will," or "my rival/ I'm gonna stab him on arrival/ shoot him dead with my rifle." Still, the feel of the album is jovial, and Chilton sounds (somewhat unlike on the Big Star albums) like he's thoroughly enjoying himself. Chilton mixed the album himself, and in true, edgy "junk-heap" fashion, stray "white noise" and detuned instruments are let in to enhance the ambience of intoxication and the outre. The major piece Chilton recorded himself in NYC, "Bangkok," fits neatly into this vein; it's an exploration of sleazy, deviant sex done up in rockabilly finery. It also functions as an embrace of kitsch (which could be taken as a rejection of the Big Star ethos): "Margaret Trudeau, Jackie O/ Madame Nu and Brigitte Bardot/ Bangkok!" Chilton was clearly frustrated by the inability of "serious" material to sell (Sister Lovers wasn't even released until '78), so that diving into the frivolous was a kind of escapism for him and his Memphis cohorts.
The music Chris Bell was recording all through the Seventies in Memphis was much more earnest and less demented than Chilton's. Bell stayed in confessional mode after he left Big Star. He also converted hardcore to Christianity. A song like "Better Save Yourself" is dark to the point of bleakness, also uses arpeggiated guitars placed up in the mix, and represents a state of torment which gives a clue as to why Bell died at a young age (27) in 1978. Bell's recordings have an interesting ambience, as he was dedicated to studiocraft as well as songcraft, and the airiness he built into Big Star's #1 Record is present on I Am the Cosmos, too. But he doesn't twist things the way Chilton does, and his edge has to do with psychological collapse and ambivalence: "I really want to see you again/ I never want to see you again" he sings on the title track. "Speed of Sound" manages to sound lush in spite of Bell's torment, and the acoustic guitars are miked in such a way that they define a large amount of auditary space. Clearly, Bell was attracted to how Big Star's #1 Record, the one on which he played the largest role, sounded, and his solo recordings are a natural companion to #1 Record.
In terms of "post-avant" rock music, others in the Seventies, from Fripp, Bowie, Eno, and Byrne on one side to punk and New Wave on the other, were attracted by a post-avant approach. David Bowie, in particular, made a conscious attempt not to put out anything that didn't demonstrate some kind of edge, and for Bowie (whose intentions were at least partly commercial) this was a risky move. Chilton and Bell didn't not bear the weight of holding up a commercial edifice the way Bowie did; they were safely tucked away in the margins. They worked without being "welcomed to the machine." As such, they had almost complete artistic freedom. What they chose to do with that freedom carried with it the extremity of their personalities, and the extremity of the Memphis subculture which gave birth to those personalities. Mid-Town Memphis, in the Seventies, was its own nexus and its own center of gravity. If it remains worth looking into, it's because it had its' own way of nurturing talent, and the musicians drawn like flies to both the auto-destruct and the twisted ambience of the place produced works of popular musical art rich enough to be called sherbert. William Eggleston's "Dolls '70" proves conclusively that this ambience was felt by other artists in other disciplines as well; whatever it is, it's something about America, freedom, sex, despair, and good times which won't quit.