Some people take time to blossom, others show their mad skills early. We take a look at some cracking tracks written before their creator was 21.
It’s 10 years since Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the Sheffield post punkers’ debut LP, worked the UK music press into a critical lather. A frenetic no-frills bombardment of angular guitars, snarly distorted vocals and urgent drumming matched with blunt tales of northern town life delivered in Turner’s distinctive South Yorkshire whine, it was – and still is – fucking brilliant.
At the time of release, Alex Turner, Jamie Cook, Andy Nicholson and Matt Helders were still teenage scallywags. The four formed the band at school, rehearsing at lunchtime and going on to play increasingly packed gigs, where they gave away CDRs of demos that soon hit the internet. Remarkably, they managed to turn online sharing to their advantage, playing gigs where the crowd knew all the words before they’d even released a single.
Garage rock has always appealed to the kids, but what set Arctic Monkeys apart was Turner’s lyrics, his hardscrabble tales unflinchingly documenting the seedy side of suburban life with wit and a wisdom that belies his years.
It would be easy to pick I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, the single that catapulted Arctic Monkeys to the top of the charts, and it’s still an absolute corker. But Fake Tales… was always my favourite, and was one of the first songs the band officially released in May 2005 (on their own Bang Bang label), so I’m sticking with it.
A smartarse call to arms for bands to stop with the industry wankery, its advice to hipsters to “gerroff the bandwagon, put down the ‘andbook” still stands, and the line “Yeah but his bird said it’s amazing, though / So all that’s left / Is the proof that love’s not only blind but deaf” always makes me grin.
The Moody Blues – Nights in White Satin
This 1967 hit is the ultimate ode to yearning love from afar and was written when lead singer Justin Hayward was just 19.
Get this though, I found this song when I saw Scorsese’s Casino at 16 and someone in my media studies A-level class had the soundtrack on a copied cassette tape. The handwritten track list listed the song as Knights in White Satin. Knights! Not Nights! So for years I believed the song was about the KKK. Even though they’re never referred to as ‘knights in white satin’.
My active imagination thought the song was about a man who has fallen in love with a woman who isn’t racist and doesn’t want him to be in the KKK. Listen to it right now with that in mind and it makes it a way, way more interesting song.
Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens – Trouble
Sometimes with music, context is everything. Sure, if we all knew what all songs were about we wouldn’t get to laugh when people misunderstand Born in the USA or Every Breath You Take.
But, for the most part, knowing the what/where/why of a song’s genesis only makes it more glorious and there’s no better song (outside of perhaps Elliot Smith’s Waltz #2) to prove that than Trouble.
Yes, it can make a perfectly good generic soundtrack to a ‘my life’s a bit shit’ mood. And if 2016 was going to be represented in musical form, this has to be a hot contender. But, in truth, it was written when the then Cat Stevens was recovering from a serious illness, one both he and doctors thought he would probably die from. When he sings, “I’ve seen your eyes and I can see death’s disguise hanging on me”, he really means it. And when I remind myself that he was only 20 at the time, it completely blows me away.
Stevie Wonder – Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
*In a high pitched voice denoting incredulity* Stevie Wonder’s real name is Stevland (not a name) I learned, writing this. No, really, I even checked another source other than Wikipedia. Stevland Hardaway Judkins (none of these are names). But anyway, he’s very good at music.
But, he’s been very good at music FOREVER. It’s easy to forget how long forever actually means in Stevie Wonder years, which I think must be equivalent to at least as many as human years are to cats.
‘Little Stevie’ as once he was known, had in fact released 16 albums by the time he was 21. OK, some of them were live albums, but he’d created so much music that he’d even released two greatest hits compilations by the time he was 21, and so many that it’s almost impossible to pick one song that exemplifies his quite incredible talent. But I will.
It’s almost unbelievable to comprehend that Wonder was only 15 when Uptight (Everything’s Alright) was released. The song, one of the first co-written by Wonder, marks something of a turning point in his career. Then at risk of being dropped by Motown – his dropped balls rendering him no longer a commercially viable artist, thought the label chief Berry Gordy – the song reinvented him from the child star he had once been to, well, we all know the rest.
Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights
When I was 18 I’d fucked up my A levels, failed to have any meaningful human relationships, had several bad haircuts (including a number-one dyed bright red and grown out to feature brown roots and faded orange tips) and had no discernible talents to my name apart from getting drunk at other people’s 18th birthday parties and bashing my head against walls to show off.
Kate Bush had written Wuthering Heights.
I might just stop there but she reportedly wrote it in a couple of hours. By the time she met David Gilmour (who introduced her to EMI), she’d apparently written more than 100 songs. When she was 19 she became the first woman to achieve a UK No 1 with a self-written song.
By the time I was 19 I had become the girl in my village most likely to die in a ditch. And it gets better. Bush overruled the record company to release Wuthering Heights from her debut album, The Kick Inside, instead of James and the Cold Gun. The latter is a cracking song and all but it’s very hard to imagine generations of music graduates weepily bashing it out at end of term soirees or nervous literature students listening to it on repeat on their windowseats.
I repeat. She was 18 when she wrote Wuthering Heights.
PS Please NEVER listen to this version of it ever:
Buddy Holly – Everyday
I remember when I discovered Buddy Holly, my best friend from school invited me to come and see a musical with him. We caught a matinee performance of Buddy! at the Novello Theatre. It was a sweltering summer’s day in 1999 and the theatre was so hot they gave out free fans.
I was surprised how much of Holly’s music I already knew, that bubblegum rock and roll in his distinctive, stuttering voice. I immediately went out and bought one of his CDs and proceeded to listen to it over and over again. I loved his style.
If you are talking about prodigious talent at a young age, you can’t get much better than Buddy Holly. In his short career before his death at 22, he released several hits, pioneered new styles of recording rock music, (notably the use of double tracking) and alongside Elvis Presley, was one of the innovators of the rockabilly style.
After his tragic death in a plane crash alongside Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, he continued to inspire emerging artists. His trademark glasses became so iconic that they were adopted by performers like John Lennon and Hank Marvin. Don McLean’s ballad American Pie was based on Holly and the day of his fatal plane crash and calls it ‘The Day the Music Died’.
Even a band as legendary as The Beatles owe more than just a passing nod to Buddy Holly. When Lennon and McCartney had just begun working together, they studied Holly’s records, learned his performance style and based their act around his persona. Inspired by Holly’s insect-themed Crickets, they came up with their own band name.
It strikes me as both incredible and tragic that a performer with such genius was snatched from us with so much left to give. What might the future have held for the musical movement that Buddy Holly was creating? Sadly we’ll never know but we are so lucky to have a wealth of vibrant and engaging songs.
Lili La Scala
Taylor Swift – Love Story
In the past, and admittedly usually when a drink has been taken, I have been known to get a bit hipster about Taylor Swift. I knew her before. Before all the hype, and the squad, and the feuds, her honest brand of confessional, romantic country pop was the guilty pleasure soundtrack to many of my past crushes.
No song more encapsulates the simple joy of crazy, adolescent love than Love Story, a play on a boy-meets-girl Romeo and Juliet story, where a disapproving daddy almost stands in the way, before capitulating and agreeing to give Taylor’s hand in marriage.
The video for this is an absolute fairytale dream to watch, all corsets and spiral staircases. It is a beautifully written time capsule to teenage love where you dreamed of being swept off your feet. It’s easy to be a bit cynical and sneery of this type of song, but she managed to tap into my romantic heart with the nostalgia and the innocence and the chorus is catchy as hell.
Taylor Swift may now be an iconic press magnet powerhouse but we can’t forget that she is an incredibly talented songwriter as well, who has been making accessible, relatable pop since she was 15… Fair play to her, I couldn’t even motivate myself to revise for my GCSEs.
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