My favorite scene in Bullit, the 1968 cop flick staring Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullit, comes near the end of the movie: Shady Senator Walter Chalmers tells Bullit -- who’s been through hell and back, dodging death, knee deep in intrigue, and jumping up and down the hilly streets of San Fran in that ’68 Ford Mustang G.T.390 Fastback -- “We all must make compromises.” “Bullshit!” Bullit growls.
I like to imagine Alex Chilton saying the same thing when asked by some clueless record execs to tame down his 1980 debut, Like Flies on Sherbet. Maybe the label just didn't, you know, get it -- their unfeeling commercial aspirations unable to grasp the artistic boldness and significance of Chilton’s masterwork. This is his What’s Going On, his Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Bravely, Chilton decided to press a meager 500 copies of the album himself; 500 copies of no-compromise attitude, DIY grit, and triumphant artistic expression.
Yet listening closely to Like Flies on Sherbet reveals that, sadly, my imagined Chilton, creative and courageous, might be exaggerated. Likes Flies is one of the most damaged records I’ve ever heard; not damaged in the way Pig Destroyer sounds “damaged,” but I mean totally wrecked. It’s as if no one involved in the performance, production, mastering, or duplication of the album was sober at any time during the process. The playing is sloppy: in-the-red guitars blast-mask any subtlety underneath, the vocals careen out of tune, studio clatter remains audible, and vocal flubs are left brazenly on display. It’s so ruined it can’t be accidental. Gleefully out of control, the record sounds like someone exiting the New York punk scene, someone enamored with The Cramps (who Chilton had produced), inspired by that snot nosed attitude, aiming to deconstruct rockabilly, blues, and country music, and to rebuild them in his own image.
All of which wouldn’t be so surprising if it wasn’t for Chilton’s pedigree: At 16, the Memphis kid was fronting The Box Tops, gallivanting about the country on the strength of the group’s massive hit, “The Letter,” which found the young Chilton sounding impossibly gruff. Eventually, he left The Box Tops, frustrated by a lack of songwriting input, and headed home where he joined the fledgling Big Star. Over the course of three albums, Big Star would define American power pop; they laid the foundation for everyone from The Replacements to R.E.M. and garnered a cult following that still obsesses over every sound on those three records. But commercial success eluded the band, and by the time Third/Sisterlovers was released, the strain was audible. The final album to bear the Big Star name was haunting and disparate, created largely by Chilton alone. A fractured psyche is revealed, capable of chiming power pop as well as tortured balladry (listen to “Oh Dana” followed by “Holocaust”).
Despite an ongoing debate over Third/Sisterlovers' status as a one-man effort, Like Flies remains Chilton’s first definitive solo album. Holed up in Sam Phillips & Ardent Studios with Big Star producer James Luther Dickinson, Chilton leads a group of session musicians through a rambling set of covers and half-formed originals. “I’ve Had It” showcases the album's most out-of-key performance, with multi-tracked vocals stumbling across the room. KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” (the first track or not included at all, depending on which rare pressing you hunt down) features another glorious mistake: Chilton comes in with the vocals too early and in the wrong key. “Girl After Girl” goes for prime Elvis and ends up sounding like dead-toilet Elvis, while the Carter Family standard, “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena,” features some high, lonesome vocals that don’t entirely fail until Chilton begins uncontrollably laughing amidst the tale of slavery and loss.
It’s not that these tracks are without merit, though. The playing, still messy and loud, is positively gleeful and, on Chilton’s originals, surprisingly appropriate. “My Rival” stomps with Sonic Youth joy, driven guitars chugging along with complete abandon, and “Hey! Little Child” re-imagines Big Star’s lovelorn “Thirteen” as a Catholic school girl call out; with its repeated chorus of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” the song fits alongside “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night!” and “Hey ho! Let’s go!” in the pantheon of deliriously stupid and wonderful rock ‘n’ roll mantras. The album's title track, “Like Flies on Sherbet,” is an ace card: a pounding piano-driven rocker embellished by avant-garde synth and guitar squeals that sounds something like a Here Come the Warm Jets B-side covered by Badfinger.
To say that Like Flies on Sherbert is a masterpiece of lo-fi punk would be a misnomer. Chilton wasn’t a punk rocker, even if he wanted to be. But to decry the album as an utter failure would be just as faulty. Chilton’s work has grown increasingly stale over the years, the oddball madness of early albums replaced by cool ambivalence and easy listening forays into jazz and blues. Modern Chilton doesn’t seem to care about anything, but the Chilton of Like Flies seems to care about not caring. What he found so exciting about punk was its engagement of the audience. Like Flies is G.G. Allin tossing excrement on his crowds; it’s Iggy Pop rolling around in broken glass and peanut butter; it’s Elvis Costello cutting the band off mid-song on SNL and launching into “Radio Radio” instead. Like Flies is the sound of a musician railing against the indifference he felt his career had endured.
Chilton may not be the “rock-hard” Bullit, refusing to compromise, but his album at least recalls that film’s famous car chase. There’s one scene where the camera is hit by one of the cars, causing the shot to shake violently before cutting out. The scene was left in the movie. Perhaps the director wanted to make it known that the chase was real, that there was tangible danger and risk involved. Like Flies on Sherbert is an entire album of that shot. It certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s absolutely real.