Updated: Jun 6, 2020
Nowadays, it seems relatively common that some incredible songwriting prodigy (normally from the Brit School) springs up and delivers incredibly mature works as there way of introducing themselves to a hugely receptive audience; it's another of those reasons why it's naive to write off new music as "not as good as the old days". In truth, a teenager I'm the past was normally a face-renter, a heartthrob, developed by some pop impresario to capture their audience of peers and younger siblings by demonstrating a matching concoction of equal parts naivety, rebellion and youthful vigor.
Think Little Cat in "Absolute Beginners".
Artists will now signal their maturity even in their album titles - Adele's "19" or Taylor Swift's "1989" are fully intended to let you know how they have managed to cram in a disproportionate amount of emotional understanding in less than two decades on earth. Incredibly, Adele wrote :"Hometown Glory" when she was 16 and Amy Winehouse had penned "Stronger Than Me" at 19 - both are incredibly incisive pieces of work - especially while the rest of us would have only just got over the giddiness of being served in a pub without showing any ID..
It's very much de rigeur these days but it wasn't always so. And so i thought I would look at five songs that were written and performed by precocious teenagers of yesteryear bucking the trend to be pop idols but serious artists at a very early age. This rules out fantastic bands like Arctic Monkey and The Undertones whose initial breakthrough success came with especially teenage themes, though no less commendable for that.
in fact, what first piqued my interest to write about this was listening to "Frampton Comes Alive" for the first time in ages - if this was 1976 it would have been on constant loop as it was the best-selling 'Live' album for many years.
I recalled that Peter frampton had played on one of my jukebox 45 favourites by a short-lived Swinging London pop band called 'The Herd". He was the good-looking vocalist and guitar prodigy, who, as a result of his exposure, was called "the Face of 68" by Rave Magazine. By the end of the afore-mentioned year, he had in fact, quit the band for the more serious and heavier Humble Pie with Steve Marriott from the Small Faces almost as a means of shedding any of his pop idol accoutrements (Marriott was probably doing the same). It would take another seven years and a move across the ocean to be able to put them back on again.
Still, "I Don't Want Our Loving To Die" ws a big hit across Europe - one of three they had that year and is a Kings Road 'Granny Takes A Trip' time capsule of a 45 even now - part hippy, part jug band part R'n'B. And should you be interested the keyboard player was Andy Bown, who was the 'fifth member' of Status Quo, writing hits including "Whatever You Want".
Incredibly, Kate Bush wrote her first album before she was 17 and had a number one single with "Wuthering Heights" aged 19, which was the first number one to be performed and written by female artist. It still remains as a jaw-dropping introduction to an unique performer but if I'm honest, a well-read teenager singing about Emily Bronte's novel still doesn't seem that generationally surprising.
The follow-up single on the other hand...
"The Man With The Child In His Eyes" has a blistering sense of lyricism and emotional depth to it. What is even more incredible is that she wrote it when she was 13 and recorded it 3 years later under the guidance of Pnk Floyd's guitarist, David Gilmour. This is no ordinary sixth-form poetry but an outpouring about a fictitious older man who retained the ability to communicate on the same level to a young girl embarking on life's journey because they never lost their boyish motivation and spark (Kate's interpretation not mine - i was still looking for high scores on Galaxian at the time).
When interviewed back in 1983, Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera was asked what his band gave to the world and his reply was 'Alchemy' which he described as the ability to take all the base emotions and turn them into a beautiful little thing (again his description not mine). Again, there is this incredible maturity in writing that you just wouldn't expect in your average teenager.
His inclusion is particularly pertinent for me as I was only 18 months younger at the time and he looked like the sort of star you wanted to be with his Byrds-styling and high cheekbones. He had a fantastic voice, carried his Gretsch like a weapon and he obviously had not been hit with the ugly stick. Of course this last issue created a huge dichotomy for him as the record company desire to make him an indie pop idol jarred with his own serious musical mission. Indeed, it has taken Frame many many years to come to terms with his output from the time but is now much more at ease with the enormous affection its fans have for this period of his career.
"High Land And Hard Rain" is an album that even the perfectionist Frame says that he spent too long thinking about and crafting but like Kate Bush's "The Kick Inside" it genuinely stands up as a wonderful work of art whose swings go light to shade generate a consequent power to move the spirit - even now with its rather dated percussion sound.
"Oblivious" is one of the few moments I really wanted to be a rock star.
Quite what the 'Pebble Mill At One' audience will have made of Aztec Camera, we sadly shall never know.
I am not tremendously knowledgeable about rap or hip hop but I quite liked the period when rap was a little bit hippy with bands like De La Soul and into the same oeuvre emerged another bunch of teen prodigies, A Tribe Called Quest.
I have to be honest there is little of their work I still go back to except for "Bonita Applebaum" and the ecstatic "Can I Kick It" which most of us came across soundtracking various football related commercials.
In 1989, sampling really was still in its infancy and yet "Can I Kick It" is a masterclass, stuffed full of a whole panorama of rock history. There's Ian Dury's "What A Waste" and some Archie Bell & The Drells but of course, it's held down by the slinky baseline of "Walk On The Wild Side" by Lou Reed, played by Herbie Flowers. Sampling wasn't so much in its infancy that Lou didn't manage to secure all the proceeds from the release.
I think we should put it down to youthful exuberance.
By the way, the "Err you can" sample is ex-Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee.
Now, this list is in no way definitive but I think it would be remiss not to finish with music's greatest child prodigy since Mozart, Stevie Wonder. As an 11-year old, he had burst onto the scene with the incredible "Fingertips" in 1963 as Little Stevie Wonder but had struggled to follow up on his success over the next two years so that by the time he turned 15, the Motown label was wondering whether to keep him on their books. Added complications by way of his changing vocal range also put doubts in the label management's head.
A very different history of Motown and all popular music would have resulted if it wasn't for the first song Stevie chose to write (along with his collaborators Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy) - the timelessly effervescent "Uptight (Everything's Alright). Apparently, having toured with the Rolling Stones, he wanted to create something with the beat of "Satisfaction" and so was created a driving stomper complete with an almost angelic brass fanfare riff and a hip-ness that screamed 60s dance floor. Two and a half minutes of sheer joy.
Play it now and see if you don't smile - not least when you think how much worse off we might have been without this breakthrough classic.
We are lucky to live in an age where music encourages more than just style from its young artists where a "Chasing Pavements" can develop an appeal that transcends generations. So before you berate me for my choices, I love the visceral power of "Teenage Kicks" or "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" but wanted to celebrate some works that possessed a remarkable creative or emotional depth from their seemingly inexperienced authors.
And of course, I constantly wonder if I should have used my time more profitably.