Big Star


Song Review by

Big Star's Chris Bell and Alex Chilton wrote some of pop music's most memorable melodies -- memorable for the relatively few listeners who were fortunate to hear them, that is. There are few songs that capture the aching innocence of adolescence as well as the ballad "Thirteen," and fewer that are as pretty as this song. Often compared to their most immediate influence, the Beatles, Big Star produced some "Here Comes the Sun"-like gems. "Thirteen" is from the Memphis band's debut, No.1 Record (1972). Over gorgeous folk-pop acoustic guitars, Chilton's vulnerable-sounding voice shakes with the tentative insecurity of the 13-year-old narrator tenderly trying to gain the affection of his crush: "Won't you let me walk you home from school/Won't you let me meet you at the pool/Maybe Friday I can get tickets to the dance/And I'll take you, ooh/Won't you tell your dad 'Get off my back'/Tell him what we said 'bout "Paint It Black"/Rock & roll is here to stay/Come inside girl, it's OK/And I'll shake you/If it's so, well let me know/If it's no, well I can go/I won't make you." Chilton's lyrics are so simple and so clear that they seem effortless. The song has a Zen/haiku-like quality in its concise, yet powerfully evocative form. The music is provided by acoustic guitars and vocals alone -- backing vocals run through a rotating Leslie speaker. The folky style foreshadows similar ballads that Chris Bell would write, including the sublimely beautiful "You and Your Sister" from his solo I Am the Cosmos (1978). The gentle guitar picking on "Thirteen" can be heard audibly quickening in tempo after the song's instrumental bridge. Whether by design or by accident, the effect is to add even more nervous tension to the third verse, wherein the narrator asks for a decision from the girl. "Thirteen" and No. 1 Record in general show a band following their own muse at a time when hard rock and large productions were the order of the day, not well-crafted, West-coast-meets-Anglo-pop music. They were at once ahead of their time (witness '80s and '90s alternative rock) and behind it. Big Star achieved cult status alongside such legends as the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, bands who never achieved huge commercial success, but whose influence on pop music and bands who followed is immeasurable. "Thirteen" alone has been covered by Wilco, Elliot Smith, and Garbage. It is the perfect melancholy ballad, a song for which the loop/repeat buttons on CD players were made.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
#1 Record/Radio City 1992 Stax / Fantasy 2:34