Q Magazine

Q List: Fluorescent Adolescents—The Greatest Songs Written by Teenagers

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If rock ‘n’ roll invented the idea of the teenager as a cultural phenomenon, then it has often been teenagers who have provided some of music’s most thrilling moments. From a 14-year-old Paul McCartney penning a future classic on the family piano to an 18-year-old Alex Turner twisting his English Literature lessons into a tale of swagger and lust in northern nightclubs, the kids are not only alright, they’re often inspired. Smells like teen spirit, indeed…

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Ritchie Valens, “Donna” (17 years old, 1958)

Rock ‘n’ roll’s most tragic forever-teenager, Ritchie Valens earned immortality through his classic reworking of the Mexican folk song “La Bamba.” But it’s his greatest original composition, “Donna,” that gives us the fullest picture of the sort of precocious talent that was lost in that Iowa plane crash. Written in tribute to his girlfriend, Donna Ludwig, the song is still as crystalline an expression of high school yearning and puppy-love as you’re likely to ever find. "Donna” was sitting a No. 3 on the Billboard chart on the day Valens died, making it the first and only hit single he would get a chance to enjoy in his lifetime. —Andrew Barker

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Pete Townshend, “I Can’t Explain” (18 years old, 1964)

In 1964, the Who were already becoming the talk of the town with their onstage guitar-smashing exploits, but they were struggling to find a record deal, and after the band discovered that they might’ve secured a contract during their most recent audition if only they’d played some original material during their audition, Pete Townshend made it his mission to write some material to fit the band. After striking creative paydirt with “I Can’t Explain” and discovering that they had a chance to audition for Kinks producer Shel Talmy, Townshend revealed in his memoir, Who I Am, that he “tried to make it sound as much like the Kinks as I could so that Shel would like it.” As it turned out, Shel did, but the band’s frontman didn’t. Per Townshend, “Roger [Daltrey] considered ‘I Can’t Explain’ to be ‘soft, commercial pop’ and said he wouldn’t record anything so anodyne again.” —Will Harris

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Van Morrison, “Gloria” (18 years old, 1964)

Van the Man had been performing in bands since he was 15 before he joined Them in 1964… and by then had already composed what was to become one of the most influential B-sides of all time. “Gloria” – later co-opted to devastating effect by Patti Smith – was written while touring Germany with previous band the Monarchs as a kind of extended jam lasting anything up to 20 minutes, and a dramatically-truncated version used on the flip side of Them’s cover of “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Six decades later it’s still a staple of pretty much every pub rock band in the world. —Dominic Utton

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Stevie Wonder, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” (15 years old, 1965)

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Stevie Wonder’s 1965 hit – and the first that he co-wrote – is that by the time of its release it was seen as a career-saver. A star since he was 11, by the age of 15 he was already being talked about as yesterday’s man – or, er, boy. “Uptight” changed all that. The propulsive rhythm, unique vocal phrasings and sassy lyrics about falling for a girl from the right side of the tracks is the sound of a talent blossoming into greatness. —D.U.

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Paul McCartney, “When I’m Sixty-Four" (14 years old, 1967)

The idea that 14-year-old Paul McCartney would have been thinking so far ahead to this age is not surprising. One of the first songs he wrote by himself, it dates back to the period when rock ‘n’ roll was getting revved up in Britain, but McCartney later stated he had no clue where that would lead. His childhood was wrapped up in cabaret and ragtime, due to his father Jim having led his own Jim Mac’s Band in the 1920s. Included on 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the song was still being tweaked during the recording sessions in December 1966. John Lennon said at the time: "Paul wrote it in the Cavern days. We just stuck a few more words on it like 'grandchildren on your knee' and 'Vera, Chuck and Dave' … this was just one that was quite a hit with us." McCartney also suggested that his voice be sped up to make him sound younger: "I wanted to appear younger, but that was just to make it more rooty-tooty; just lift the key because it was starting to sound turgid." —Amy Hughes

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Paul Weller, “In The City,” (18 years old, 1977)

The Jam’s debut appeared after releases by the Sex Pistols and the Clash in 1977, but that didn’t stop Rotten and Co. nicking the bassline for the intro to “Holidays in the Sun.” Clocking in at just two minutes 16 seconds it’s a defiant blast of teenage longing and defiance. As Weller told Q in 2011: “As far as we were concerned, the city was where it was all happening; the clubs, the gigs, the music… it was a young man’s song, a suburbanite dreaming of the delights of London and the excitement of the city.” —D.U.

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Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights,” (18 years old, 1977)

Written in a single evening at the piano in March 1977, Kate Bush’s first single was unlike anything the charts had heard before – and every bit as strange and beautiful as the novel that inspired it. The achievement would be astonishing in itself, but given that she also had another 100 songs in the bag before she turned 19, it was merely the first public indication of one of the century’s great musical geniuses. —D.U.

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Johnny Marr, “Hand in Glove” (19 years old, 1983)

The indie classic started life when the 19-year-old Marr was playing around with what he later described as a “Chic riff” played with “Iggy chords” and a hook stolen from David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” After he raced 'round to Morrissey’s house to record it on his portable tape machine, Morrissey wrote the lyrics in just two hours. “Hand in Glove” would become the band’s debut single a year later…and for many the first introduction to Marr’s hugely influential guitar style. —D.U.

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James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, “Seek & Destroy” (19 years old, 1983)

By the time they got around to their second album, Ride the Lighting, Bay Area thrash metal titans Metallica would be writing long, compositionally intricate epics about nuclear war, the death penalty and Lovecraftian deep-sea demons. But when they stumbled into the studio to record their first, songwriters James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich were still just pimply 19-year-olds, loaded up on cheap beer and Judas Priest LPs, trying a little too hard to sound tough. This was all part of the band’s early charm, however, and nowhere is their youthful exuberance more infectious than on this chugging riff showcase, which remains a staple of Metallica setlists 40 years later. —A.B.

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George Michael, “Careless Whisper,” (17 years old, 1984)

If more proof were needed that the late and lamented George Michael was a criminally underrated musical talent during much of his early career, the fact he wrote what would become one of the defining songs of the 1980s when he was just 17, and before Wham! even had a record deal, is surely enough to convince even the most die-hard anti-pop snob of his brilliance. According to popular mythology, he even came up with the sax solo whilst paying for a bus ticket. —D.U.

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LL Cool J, “I Need a Beat” (16 years old, 1984)

A self-described “nerdy kid” from Hollis, Queens, James Todd Smith started rapping at the age of 10, but it wasn’t until he was 16 that he resolved to get serious and find himself a producer. Unsure where to start, he decided to call the phone number printed on the label of one of his favorite records, T La Rock’s local hit “It’s Yours,” and the voice on the other end eventually invited him over. Expecting to show up at a record label office, James instead found himself sitting in the filthy N.Y.U. dorm room of a 21-year-old aspiring producer named Rick Rubin. The two wrote “I Need a Beat” on the spot the day they met (with help from Rubin’s 18-year-old buddy, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz), recorded it a few days later, and released it as a 12-inch a few months after that. The single would go on to sell 100,000 copies, launching the careers of Rubin, his nascent label Def Jam, and his first signing, LL Cool J. Not bad for a cold-call. —A.B.

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Black Francis, “Here Comes Your Man” (14 or 15 years old, 1989)

His full name is Charles Michaela Kittridge Thompson IV, but Pixies fans know him best as Black Francis, and he’s been writing songs since he was 12. It wasn’t until he was “14 or 15,” however, that he wrote one of the Pixies’ most revered songs. In an interview with New Musical Express, Black said of the lyrics to “Here Comes Your Man,” “It’s about winos and hobos traveling on the trains, who die in the California Earthquake. Before earthquakes, everything gets very calm — animals stop talking, and birds stop chirping, and there’s no wind. It’s very ominous.” The song took a while to finally make its way onto a proper Pixies release, but it was recorded as far back as the band’s legendary Purple Tape, which contained the material from the band’s very first recording session in 1987. More unabashedly commercial in sound than anything else in the Pixies’ catalogue, the band might never have put it on an album if it hadn’t been for Doolittle producer Gil Norton. Per Francis in a 2004 Spin interview, he “threw [Norton] a bone” and agreed to record it for the album. The rest is alt-rock history. —W.H.

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Nas, “Halftime” (19 years old, 1992)

In the early 1990s, New York hip-hop was generally still a small, insular world. So it sent minor shockwaves through the community when an entirely unknown 17-year-old appeared on the opening verse of Main Source’s posse cut “Live at the Barbecue” in 1991, armed with a preternaturally assured flow and some of the most outrageous punchlines ever committed to wax. Then calling himself Nasty Nas, the reclusive Queensbridge rapper quickly became a word-of-mouth curiosity across the Five Boroughs, but whispers turned deafening when he released his first solo single the following year. A dizzying showcase of multilayered wordplay and intricate internal rhymes—as Eminem would put it years later, “there are rhyme schemes on there that most rappers to this day probably can’t do”—"Halftime” earned Nas comparisons to Rakim and raised expectations for his debut album sky-high. Amazingly, he delivered. —A.B.

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Gaz Coombes, “Caught by the Fuzz” (18 years old, 1994)

While the rest of the world worried about Blur v Oasis, three lads from unfashionable Oxfordshire called Supergrass blindsided all of Britpop with a set of quirky, irresistibly poppy songs that sound as fresh today as they did 30 years ago. The first of these – and the opening track on debut LP I Should Coco – was “Caught by the Fuzz,” a fizzing and frenetic, yet somehow entirely endearing, two-minute tale of a teenage Coombes being stopped by the cops in possession of cannabis… and worried what his mum will say when she finds out. Bless. —D.U.

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Prodigy and Havoc, “Shook Ones, Pt. II” (19 years old, 1995)

“I’m only 19, but my mind is old.” Even on a song that includes multiple baroque threats of violence—"rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose-bone" being just one—it’s Prodigy's reminder that he and his Mobb Deep partner Havoc were both still just teenagers when they recorded it that always comes as the biggest shock. From producer Havoc’s ingenious manhandling of Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock samples to Prodigy’s ultra-convincing lost-boy nihilism, everything about “Shook Ones” speaks of wisdom-beyond-years. An instant gangsta rap classic, the song has since gotten shout-outs in a Tony-winning Broadway musical and an Oscar-winning film (as well as another song further down this list), and it set a high bar that Mobb Deep, for all their brilliant later work, never quite managed to clear. “Sometimes when I’m producing people still ask me, ‘Hey, can you make me a “Shook Ones”?’” Havoc told Variety in 2020. “You do have the burden of living in that shadow. But trust me when I say there could be much worse burdens.” —A.B.

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Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson, “MMMbop” (13, 11, and 9 years old, respectively, 1996)

When this track, the first single from Hanson’s debut Mercury LP, Middle of Nowhere, was released in 1997, it was virtually inescapable on the airwaves. But if the song hadn’t gotten an upgrade after the band signed to a major label, it might never have gone anywhere. “MMMBop” made its initial debut as the title track of the trio’s 1996 independent album, but it was considerably slower in tempo. It was the production work by the Dust Brothers with Stephen Lironi that turned it into the chart-topper that listeners remember today. “What that song talks about is, you've got to hold on to the things that really matter,” Zac Hanson told SongFacts in 2004. "‘MMMbop" represents a frame of time or the futility of life. Things are going to be gone, whether it's your age and your youth, or maybe the money you have, or whatever it is, and all that's going to be left are the people you've nurtured and have really built to be your backbone and your support system.” As for the music, that was “inspired by The Beach Boys and vocal groups of that era – using your voice as almost a doo-wop kind of thing.” —W.H.

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Amy Winehouse, “Stronger Than Me” (19 years old, 2003)

Amy Winehouse’s 2003 debut single was a no-holds-barred statement of intent in every sense. Musically it swaggers with the confidence of a decades-long veteran of long nights in smoky jazz clubs, held together with a voice no 19-year-old had any right to possess. But it is lyrically where the real astonishment lies. Unapologetically politically incorrect and fantastically confident, it’s the sound of a girl declaring: “This is who I am, this is what I want, and screw you if you have a problem with that.” —D.U.

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Alex Turner, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” (18 years old, 2005)

Smashing straight into the top of the charts on its release in 2005, Arctic Monkeys’ debut single is a thrilling three-minute paean to that most teenage of obsessions – trying to impress a girl at the local nightclub. In the 18-year-old Turner’s hands, however, it also sparkles with wit and intelligence, with pop cultural references including Duran Duran’s “Rio,” and, in a cheeky wink to Romeo and Juliet, arguably the rhyme of the decade – “There ain’t no love, no Montagues or Capulets / Just banging tunes and DJ sets.” —D.U.

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Adele, “Hometown Glory” (16 years old, 2007)

Supposedly the first song Adele Adkins ever wrote, “Hometown Glory” was penned in just 10 minutes in response to her mother’s attempts to persuade her to leave their south London suburb to go to university. If some of the songs on this list could only have been written by teenagers, Adele’s ode to West Norwood soars with an assurance and maturity far beyond her years – and marked the beginning of a career that would do the same. —D.U.

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Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (17 years old, 2008)

Given she began working as a professional songwriter aged just 14 and released two LPs before she was 20, we could have picked any number of Swifty’s songs… but we’ve gone for her 2008 smash “Love Story” (the second song on this list to draw inspiration from Romeo and Juliet – English Lit syllabuses in the 2000s have a lot to answer for) simply because of the great tale her mother told about it: “By the time she was 17 years old her dad and I disapproved of a certain young man and rightfully so. But she was mad, she was real mad. She went to her room and she closed the door and she came out about an hour later with a song called ‘Love Story.’” Now that, kids, is how you throw a real tantrum. —D.U.

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Ed Sheeran, “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” (15 years old, 2011)

"The weird thing about that song was that every single industry person who heard it hated it, and every single fan loved it," Sheeran remembered. This from a now prolific and gifted performer who began the song when he was only 15. Over the years, Sheeran had added blitzkrieg rap verses and stuffed the track with vitriol as a lesson to the naysayers at what he perceived was the wishy-washiness of the music industry. First released on the 2009 EP You Need Me, Sheeran gained massive exposure on British entrepreneur Jamal Edwards YouTube channel SB.TV. After going viral and gaining success with the British hip-hop crowd, Sheeran bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and impressed the likes of actor Jamie Foxx . This rocket ship ride led to a record contract, and Sheeran re-recorded the song for his 2011 debut album +. —A.H.

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Earl Sweatshirt, “Chum” (18 years old, 2013)

The evolution of the Odd Future crew from an anarchic gang of gleefully offensive LA scene kids into thoroughly mature, innovative adult artists has been one of the most unexpected pop music stories of the last decade. But for all the critical plaudits that have since rained down on Frank Ocean, Syd tha Kyd and Tyler, the Creator, it was the youngest member of the crew who took the biggest early leap. Infamously absent from the group’s early brush with notoriety, 18-year-old Earl returned from exile in Samoa with this stunningly honest and complex work of bloodletting, tackling everything from father issues and racial anxiety to his own artistic awakening and deep distrust of fame. So confident in his vision for the song that he rejected an offer to have Thom Yorke contribute the hook, “Chum” announced Earl as an artist who would follow his own muse no matter where it led him. —A.B.

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Billie Eilish, “Bad Guy” (15 years old, 2019)

The song that made Billie Eilish a superstar was written with older brother Finneas O’Connell when she was just 15, and if some listeners were a little shocked at the rather adult-themed lyrics, the story behind the distinctive backing track is pure teenage kicks: the hook for the chorus comes from the sound of a pedestrian crossing recorded on Eilish’s phone, and there are also, ahem, “homages” to the theme tune to Disney show The Wizards of Waverly Place and the annoyingly addictive iPhone game Plants vs Zombies. Duh. —D.U.

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Olivia Rodrigo, “Drivers License” (17 years old, 2021)

Listening to some of the oldest songs on this list back-to-back with the newest, it’s remarkable how much they have in common. Sure, it’s hard to imagine Ritchie Valens or Stevie Wonder sneaking an f-bomb onto a radio single, and the general tenor of the lyrics here may owe more to Instagram than Irving Berlin, but Olivia Rodrigo’s breakthrough hit deals in all the same outsize, primary color emotions. As far as we may drift from our teenage years, we never forget the roiling stew of longing, lust, insecurity, melancholy and melodrama that made that time so wonderful/miserable, and a song as brilliantly crafted as “Drivers License” can make it all come flooding back. —A.B.


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