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The masterpiece that either honoured or mocked ‘Paint it Black’


The explosion of pop culture in the 1960s was such a liberating boon to the generation that followed that the end of virtuosity in music and the beginnings of punk was inevitable. In some ways, punk even became a misnomer for folks racing towards self-expression and not caring about the scratchy results.

The magnificent Jonathan Richman was one such artist who felt almost bewildered by the blanket term. “Back in the States at that time,” Jonathan Richman told Andrew Bird when recalling his time in the Modern Lovers, “us and the Ramones too and all those bands, we all just thought we were rock bands.” In the amended words of ‘The Stranger’, ‘Now ‘punk’, that’s a title that nobody would self-apply where I came from.’ 

All Richman wanted to do was “to express [himself] in front of an audience and have rock music happen.” In a paradoxical way, that has since become part of the expressive definition of punk, but when you take the distortion out of it, the same can be said for millions of tunes that unfurled in the 1960s, much like Alex Chilton’s Big Star masterpiece that simply oozed with the venting of youth’s honeyed vigour. 

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The Big Star anthem ‘Thirteen’ is one of the finest exponents of adolescence captured in the ambient amber of music that there has ever been. And the beauty of it is, Chilton was “still learning to play and stuff” when he had a bash at it. Perhaps if it wasn’t for the riotous impetus of emerging rock ‘n’ roll that went before it, he would’ve waited to develop his craft first, and maybe he would’ve waited for a label that could’ve given Big Star the support they deserve. But in the process, the sincerity would’ve been lost, and the rose-tinted specs of retrospect would’ve coloured the tune with a foggy hue of pastiche rather than the expressionist real McCoy. 

The beauty of the song’s immediacy is that it is rendered with specifics and points of contrast. Although it has the innocence of early romance about it, it also has lines like, “Come inside where it’s okay, and I’ll shake you.” Albeit he was in his very early 20s when he wrote the song, he was close enough to the event not to airbrush or misremember the reverie of passionate youth. 

‘Paint it Black’ similarly seethed with passion. The song was angsty in the extreme like a proto-emo song. Naturally, the youth loved it. And it is a mark of how quickly things moved at the tail end of the 1960s that only five years later, when Chilton was writing his more levelled and sanguine look back at adolescence fuelled with love rather than lost, he viewed the song as the sort of classic that the father of a ‘Thirteen’ year old might remember fondly. 

As Chilton writes, “Won’t you tell you dad ‘Get off my back’, tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint it Black’, rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay.” It is a line that honours the legacy of the impetus that the ‘60s served up for the next generation. With his humble ode to young love, Chilton captured the way we find expression and identity in the celebrated individualism of rock ‘n’ roll perfectly. And it is a fitting send up to a song that helped to establish the tenets of attitude in rock ‘n’ roll…

…Unless, of course, he is mocking it in a middle finger to his girlfriend’s father and calling the old song overblown in a call for music of fresh sincerity to move on from the past. That may be the case given the humility of his own sanguine anthem in light of the bleakness of covering everything black. But that seems unlikely given the number of times he has covered The Rolling Stones in the interim years.

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