The Under Thirty Club

Every ten years or so  lists appear telling us what the 100 Greatest Records Ever Made are. Most of the records are created by, men and women under thirty years old.

If we take as gospel these lists – the finest work by musicians, is more often than not – released before they hit thirty. If this is true – why is that? Surely as an artist matures in age  so should their art. They have mastered their instruments and have more life experiences to influence the writing.

Whenever a music publication runs their countdown – it will have the same evergreens  with a few flavours of the months. The evergreens: Pet Sounds, Astral Weeks, Thriller, Born To Run, Blue, Songs In The Key Of Life, Dark Side Of The Moon, Bridge Over Troubled Water, etc. That is only a small selection, but around 80% of all the albums on these lists  are made by twenty-somethings. I asked Johnny Marr about the under thirty club, Maybe it’s that if someone was good enough to make a classic album – then they would have done it by the time they’re 30…?

I also spoke to Paolo Hewitt, why he thought this was the case: Maybe because they are bursting with a need to say something, a quality that diminishes over time. That they are determined to make their mark and nothing will stop them from making it in a significant manner. That by the time they are thirty they have achieved a lot and no longer feel the urge to compete so much.

Of course, Hendrix, The Doors and Nirvana, etc. didn’t have a chance to create anything else – because they paid the biggest price of fame. The Beatles split – before any of them hit thirty, same with The Smiths and countless other magical bands. Nick Drake and Brian Wilson were struck by illness: one didn’t pull through, the other did  but the illness took a lot of him.

A record that is deemed by the critics as a great work and also sells millions – could be another reason. This can be a dangerous combination. Sometimes there is no way back from this. The formula: make successful record  write about that success (and what comes with it) on the next. Oasis followed What’s The Story Morning Glory with Be Here Now, Michael Jackson followed Thriller with Bad, Guns N Roses Use Your Illusion 1 and 2 followed Appetite For Destruction. All these releases have their supporters  but something was lost along the way. Who wants to hear about how successful somebody is? This sort of arrogance rarely makes great art.

It seems the bands or musicians that have a great back catalogue – avoid being overly insular in the way of the above. Bruce Springsteen manages this. As much as his music is about him  it is more about others. He still manages to write songs equal to those on Born To Run. You’re Missing; a song which dealt with the tragedy of 9/11 (taken from The Rising, his 12th studio record) is an example. The subtlety of The Boss vocal brings a tear to the eye. It confirms that: if you can write about life from the heart, then the chances are others will feel it.

When I spoke to Johnny Marr about Bert Jansch, (another who made wonderful record after wonderful record) he said: His lyrical themes were as mature when he was young as they were when he got older. His stuff wasn’t reliant on his youth. It is the same with Neil Young. He is a storyteller with a gift of channelling cultures and ideas of people outside his own experiences.

After The Goldrush and Harvest are the evergreens on these lists. But where is Rust Never Sleeps or even Harvest Moon? The latter contains a song, which maybe surpasses everything the Canadian singer songwriter did on those earlier records. That song is Natural Beauty. That song was released in 1992. Neil Young was forty-seven years old. A man in his twenties could never write that song it has too much knowing in it.

A man in his twenties did write a song called Hurt, but it took a man old enough to be his grandfather – to truly make it come alive. I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel. Such a powerful line, but add Johnny Cash’s delivery – and you have the opening of a mini masterpiece. Cash is not, so much singing, but speaking the songs lyric, making it all the more poignant. Johnny Cash did not write Hurt  but it will forever be his.

Writing people off because of age is common. Younger bands thrive in it – their rite of passage. These bands, as John Robb says: Have no responsibilities, no kids and no fear of death. Youth’s limitless possibilities are the perfect time to indulge in creation.
Women have children and raise a family. No matter how important music is  it pales in comparison with the importance of family. Elizabeth Fraser and Harriet Wheeler are just two, who have been missing in action since the birth of their children.

But music created after the big three zero  as I’ve mentioned above – can also bring glorious results.

Joni Michell retired, but before retiring, she revisited her older material on Travelogue. Some of these updates outshine the originals. Cat Power’s best recording so far is The Greatest. She found her own style and voice on the 2006 release – at the age of thirty-four.

Van Morrison’s Ancient Highway, which was released on his 1995 album, Days Like This: is nearly nine minutes – getting lost in song. It shares the same meandering beauty as the magical material on Astral Weeks. The Belfast singer/songwriter was born with a gift for painting pictures with his songs  and that gift is firmly in evidence here at the tender age of fifty.

So, it seems more likely that solo artists are capable of creating great song  after great song  irrespective of age. It could also be that their instrument for inspiration – is an acoustic one:  sound not so affected by the changes in technology or production values etc., one of the advantages of acoustic music as Johnny Marr further told me.

A pre 30 Roddy Frame

Roddy Frame realised his first single as the singer/songwriter of Aztec Camera – when most of us his age were still reading Shoot! He was seventeen. The classic High Land, Hard Rain came out two years later. Frame’s solo record, Surf  which followed nearly twenty years later, to these ears – wipes the floor with it. But nostalgia can be a sod.

Who knows whether Jeff Buckley would have made a better album than Grace? Who knows, that if Lee Mavers ever decides to release more music, it’ll surpass what he did in his twenties? Will the next album by recently reformed The Stone Roses  go on to have young music lovers reaching for it instead of that wonderful debut?

So, there’s a warning here. Use these lists as an introduction only. Listen to the records  but never ever believe that the choices are the very best and that most of the creators featured – stopped being anything less than wonderful because of age. If I stopped listening to Springsteen after he hit thirty, stopped listening to John Martyn after Solid Air, stopped listening to Van Morrison after his 1970s records, only listened to Bert Jansch’s debut and only listened to Kind Of Blue and What’s Going On (Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye  two of the few over thirty) – I’d shove these lists where the sun don’t shine.

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  1. Great Post John. Although there are exception to the rule -I think the under 30 factor is sound as far as R and R goes. Personally -I think pure physical and mental energy is the major factor -no different to the decline in Sportsppl who seem to peak mostly in their 20s. One specific factor is the seeming inability writers have -post 30 -to come up with anything complex -chord wise. Compare Neil Youngs’ first album to his “post 30” ones. The latter often were great in different ways -but the complexity was gone. Same with any of The Fabs.

    This could change -but for now I suggest all post 30 artists work out for greater energy -and work harder on “killer” chord sequences.


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