Listen to this track by power-pop pioneers and superlative pop song architects Big Star. It’s “Thirteen”, as taken from their 1972 LP #1 Record. It’s possible that someone has written a song that more perfectly gets inside the head of a teenager, specifically a teenaged boy. But, I can’t think of anyone else right now.
Sad, wistful, innocent; this song is all of those things. It describes a point of view that is in transition, in place for a millisecond, and soon to be replaced by perhaps a more practical, ‘realistic’, grown-up worldview, never to be revisited again. Perhaps that’s the sadness at the heart of this song.
And what a song it is.
“Thirteen” is a shining jewel in its simplicity, timelessness, and poignancy. But, as with so many truly great pop songs, the band and its writers Alex Chilton and Chris Bell wouldn’t get this song, or any other song, to the top of the charts. Rather, they’d be banished into cult status for many years, an would not see the results of their influence while still a band, or even by the time they broke up in late 1974. Yet, the reach of this band would go far beyond simple chart placements, and record sales figures. It would even go beyond the life of the group itself.
Big Star started in Memphis, and signed on to a legendary label, although not a label known for jangly pop guitar music: Stax, a label known more for soul music. The band was keen to put across pop/rock music that captured the melodicism of the Beatles and The Kinks, along with the vocal sunshine of the Beach Boys, the jangly folk-rock of the Byrds, and with something of the grit of mid-60s The Who as well.
In that mid-60s period where these bands were moving rock music in a grander direction, Alex Chilton (formerly of the Box Tops, and “The Letter” fame) and Chris Bell, co-founders of Big Star, were that magic age; thirteen. It would be in this awkward, teenaged headspace that Chilton and Bell would craft an approach to songwriting that would help to feed a singular approach to writing rock songs with pop song hooks: power pop.
This musical form would be a balance of jangly-crunchy rock ‘n’ roll against a more sensitive, even vulnerable, lyrical points of view. And much like the best in rock music, it would speak directly to the heart of where a teenaged audience was coming from. A lot of rock music of the time was about bravado, or about lofty quasi-spiritual imagery. Power pop was, and remains to be, about working up the nerve to ask that girl out, she who is so unattainable, sometimes winning her, but most of the time not, and in three minutes or less.
That’s where this song comes from; a place of awkwardness, yet hopefulness too. It suggests that period of transition between being a child and being a man. That’s really what this song does best; it cuts right to the heart of how that moment feels during one of the more uncertain, yet at the same time very certain when one is in it, periods in one’s life. The melancholy built into it comes from looking at it years later, remembering what that moment was like in retrospect. In this way, the song works on so many levels, and from so many perspectives all at the same time. It is eloquent.
Amazingly, “Thirteen” wasn’t released as a single, which may give you an idea of how good the rest of the album is, despite its challenges commercially at the time of its release. Yet, decades later, it would be recognized by the mainstream music press as one of the greatest tunes of rock history; #396 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Songs of All Time.
Big Star themselves would be celebrated at the top of the power pop tree as a band whom many consider to be among the genre’s founding fathers. Many, many bands have cited them as an influence, from the Cars, to REM, to the Jayhawks, to the Posies, to Fountains of Wayne, just to name a few. Their song “In the Street” would be better recognized as the theme from the sitcom That ’70s Show, yet another song that captures the essence of being a teenager. And “Thirteen” would of course, appear in several episodes, being as it is the perfect tune for adolescence, no matter which decade it’s set in.
For more information about Big Star, check out Big Star on All Music.