Peter Holsapple Talks Strained Working Relationship With Alex Chilton, Shares Unreleased Track 'Tennis Bum'
Peter Holsapple is a bit ambivalent about having some of his "young, green and inept" recordings from 1978 being unearthed and released Oct. 12. But because these represent a trove of unreleased Alex Chilton music, he's ultimately "fine with it."
The Death of Rock: Peter Holsapple vs. Alex Chilton, whose "Tennis Bum" premieres exclusively below, is a 19-track set hailing primarily from a 1978 session at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis. The fledgling Holsapple, just before joining the dB's, had come to town a self-proclaimed "complete acolyte" of Chilton's Big Star, initially hoping the band's Chris Bell would listen to and produce his songs. He wound up with engineer Richard Rosebrough, and ultimately with Chilton after the latter -- who was in the midst of moving away from the "sweet pop" of Big Star, which Holsapple was pursuing -- heard what the younger musician was doing and informed him that "it really sucks," promising to join him and show Holsapple "how it's done."
The duo recorded a selection of Holsapple songs and a few new Chilton tracks, such as "Tennis Bum" and "Marshall Law" -- the latter inspired by a police and fire strike going on in Memphis at the time -- and covers of Tiny Bradshaw's "Train Kept A Rollin'" and Bo Diddley's "Hey Mona." A set of "Bonus Abuse" material includes rehearsal and alternate versions by Holsapple.
"To say the least, Alex Chilton and I had a tenuous relationship," Holsapple tells Billboard. "He had a way about him, and I don't think anybody likes to feel like somebody listens to your stuff and think it's dreadful, especially somebody who’s opinion I cared about so much. I don't think he liked me very much, and I understand why now, having seen him with fans over the years and knowing he just couldn't get into (the hero worship) anymore. I understand that.
"And of course he had changed. He was doing more psychedelic stuff and a lot more R&B, 'cause that was what he really wanted to do. He was going one way and I was going another and we kind of passed each other."
The Holsapple-Chilton tapes have been in storage since 1978, though some of the former's songs surfaced with the dB's ("Bad Reputation," "We Were Happy There") and the Troggs ("I'm In Control," aka "The Death of Rock"). According to Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings, Rosebrough's family allowed the company to go through his tapes after the passed away, which led to the discovery of this particular session.
"I was actually looking for source material on another project when I came across these sessions," says Pawelski, who got a green light from the Chilton estate as well as Holsapple. "The creative approach/intent was to show these two artists crossing at transitional points in their respective careers. Alex was recording Like Flies On Sherbert and would go on from there to produce The Cramps' debut. Peter was just about to join the dB's. So with this release, we get to listen in on the pivot point, as if we now have a soundtrack to a page in each of their biographies. It's a fun and wild listen."
Holsapple recalls that he and Chilton were "obviously cut from different cloths," especially at that stage of their careers. In the liner notes he writes that, "I caught Alex exiting the world of sweet pop that I was only just trying to enter, and the door hit me on the way in." But Holsapple -- who released Game Day, his first solo album in 21 years, last month -- says he did learn quite a bit from his truculent collaborator, about recording techniques and philosophies and also about just being in the music industry.
"The most important thing I learned was not ever put anyone on a pedestal," he says, "because pedestals are basically made of sand and water. It's puts on onus on you to continue believing like that, and it puts an onus on somebody else to live up to it. It's not very healthy, and it's wrong. So that was the biggest takeaway I got from those sessions."
But as painful as the experience was, Holsapple remains an ardent fan and is happy to see more Chilton music make its way into the world. "I'm sad there's no Alex Chilton and no Chris Bell and no (Big Star bassist) Andy Hummel around anymore," he explains. "They did such great stuff. I'm glad I got to live in a time when that music came out. I've spent so much time trying to explain to people why Big Star is such an important legacy of brilliant music. I'm sorry we're not going to hear any more music from them. So if this adds something to people's appreciation for (Chilton), I'm happy about it."
The track list for The Death of Rock: Peter Holsapple vs. Alex Chilton includes:
"House Is Not a Home"
"We Were Happy There"
"the Death of Rock"
"Take Me Back"
"Mind Your Manners" (backing track)
"Heart and Soul"
"Train Kept A Rollin'"
"Bad Reputation" (long version)
"tennis Gum" (rehearsal, with Alex Chilton)
"O My Soul" (instrumental/rehearsal)
"In The Street" (instrumental/rehearsal)
"Baby I Love You" (rehearsal)
"The Death of Rock" (rehearsal"
"Someone’s Gotta Shine Your Shoes" (rehearsal)
"Mind Your Manners" (with vocals)