I haven’t written much about music because I haven’t been listening to much but the same old stuff I’ve listened to for years. Case in point, today I was listening to Nirvana’s In Utero (1993; can you believe it’s been twenty years?!). The satisfying dissonance of the opening chord of “Serve the Servants” kicked in, and I thought a thought I always think when I put it on: what a brilliant opening line. “Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old.” It serves as a sort of idiomatic update, a response almost, to the equally powerful opening line to an album almost thirty years before it: the UK edition of The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath (1966), which opens with “Mother’s Little Helper” and its unforgettable opener: “What a drag it is getting old.”1
Of course Cobain (25 at the time) was neither then nor ever old, and Jagger (21 at the time) was not singing from his own perspective, but rather from the point of view of disillusioned diazepam-popping mothers. And yet the songs are kindred in spirit. Consider: “The pursuit of happiness just seems a bore” (“Mother’s Little Helper”) and “That legendary divorce is such a bore” (“Serve the Servants”).
Anyway, these two songs got me thinking about what makes a good opening for an album. Not that many people think in terms of albums these days, but I’ve decided I think that the Nirvana opening to In Utero is effective for three reasons: it’s a great song on a great album, it opens the album with words that are forceful in their own right, and it perfectly sums up the album to follow.
There are not as many of these at you might at first think. There are loads of songs with great openings which aren’t at the start of albums: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” or “It’s a godawful small affair to the girl with the mousy hair”. Likewise there are lots of great albums which have a lackluster opening song—David Bowie’s Low (1977), for example, which starts with “Speed of Life”. Or there are downright deceptive openings, like The Talking Heads’ Fear of Music (1979), whose “I Zimbra” opening has a raw energy that contrasts with the cerebral beauty of what is to follow. Neil Young’s On the Beach likewise starts on a strangely upbeat note with “Walk On”, before lowering it a notch in “See the Sky about to Rain”, and then dropping the absolute bombshell of “Revolution Blues” in the third track. There are even great albums with great opening songs which lack that opening line—Tom Waits’ Bone Machine (1992) for example, opens with the deeply memorable “Earth Died Screaming”, but this song begins with the mumbled “Rudy’s on the midway and Jacob’s in the hole.”
Clearly some musicians consider this in different ways, as The Beatles, PJ Harvey, Elliott Smith, and Elvis Costello have consistently brilliant openings (memorable2, brutal, stark, and clever, respectively). And occasionally albums are commenced in a quite self-conscious way:
You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.
— N.W.A, “Straight Outta Compton”, Straight Outta Compton (1988)
Let me take you on a trip, around the world and back, and you don’t have to move you just sit still.
— Depeche Mode, “World in My Eyes”, Violator (1990)
How’s this for opening lines? We’d like to blow your minds.
— !!!, “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough get Karazzee”,
Louden Up Now (2004)
Some evocative openers
Here’s a thirty-odd of my favourite openers in terms of how well they condense the album into a concentrated burst, evoke the feelings on the album, or enapsulate its tenor. They’re not all brilliant lyrics in their own right, but if you know the album it’s difficult not to experience the rush of that album when these lines drop. In my opinion, they are all great songs and all great albums. In an order that probably only makes sense to me:
I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down. I feel my heart start to trembling whenever you’re around.
— Carole King, “I Feel the Earth Move”, opening to Tapestry (1972)
Tie yourself to me. No one else, no, you’re not rid of me. You’re not rid of me.
— PJ Harvey, “Rid of Me”, Rid of Me (1993)
I was born in the desert, I been down for years. Jesus come closer, I think my time is near.
— PJ Harvey, “To Bring You My Love”, To Bring You My Love (1995)
It doesn’t matter if we all die.
— The Cure, “One Hundred Years”, Pornography (1982)
Monday, Monday. So good to me. Monday morning, it was all I hoped it would be.
— The Mamas & the Papas, “Monday, Monday”,
If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966)
Bruce Berry was a working man, he used to load that Econoline van.
— Neil Young, “Tonight’s the Night”, Tonight’s the Night (1985)
Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired, and you can have anyone that you have ever desired, all you gotta tell me now is why, why, why, why?
— Elvis Costello, “Welcome to the Working Week”, My Aim Is True (1977)
I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t wanna touch. I don’t wanna see you ’cause I don’t miss you that much.
— Elvis Costello, “No Action”, This Year’s Model (1978)
Oh I just don’t know where to begin. Love doesn’t wait forever. It’s now or never.
— Elvis Costello, “Accidents Will Happen”, Armed Forces (1979)
— The The, “Infected”, Infected (1986)
We just want to emote ’til we’re dead. We all suffer for fashion. Or whatever.
— Of Montreal, “Suffer for Fashion”
Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (2007)
You know the day destroys the night. Night divides the day. Tried to run, tried to hide, break on through to the other side.
— The Doors, “Break on Through (To The Other Side)”, The Doors (1967)
Eat what you want while you’re falling apart and it opened a can of worms!
— Mclusky, “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues”, Mclusky Do Dallas (2002)
Who took the bomp?
— Le Tigre, “Deceptacon”, Le Tigre (1999)
Shaky threw a party that lasted all night, everybody drank a lot of something nice.
— David Bowie, “Watch That Man”, Aladdin Sane (1973)
I know when to go out and when to stay in. Get things done.
— David Bowie, “Modern Love”, Let’s Dance (1983)
It’s time the story were told of how you took a child and you made him old.
— The Smiths, “Reel around the Fountain”, The Smiths (1984)
There’s a new sensation, a fabulous creation, a danceable solution, to teenage revolution.
— Roxy Music, “Do the Strand”, For Your Pleasure (1973)
It began when they come took me from my home and put me on Dead Row, of which I am nearly wholly innocent. And I’ll say it again: I am not afraid to die.
— Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “The Mercy Seat”, Tender Prey (1988)
Got me a movie I want you to know! Slicing up eyeballs I want you to know!
— Pixies, “Debaser”, Doolittle (1989)
I was blind, but now I see. You made a believer out of me.
— Primal Scream, “Movin’ on up”, Screamadelica (1991)
I have life. Ordinary wife. I have car. A favourite bar. I have job. Of moderate wage. I get the pains that come with age. I am so ordinary.
— Soft Cell, “Frustration”, Non-stop Erotic Cabaret (1981)
I believe them bones are me. Some say we’re born into the grave.
— Alice in Chains, “Them Bones”, Dirt (1991)
I am smelling like the rose that somebody gave me on my birthday deathbed.
— Stone Temple Pilots, “Dead & Bloated”, Core (1992)
I am the voice inside your head. I am the lover in your bed.
— Nine Inch Nails, “Mr. Self Destruct”, The Downward Spiral (1994)
I’m harboring a fugitive, defector of a kind and she lives in my soul, and drinks of my wine, and I’d give my last breath to keep her alive.
— Indigo Girls, “Fugitive”, Swamp Ophelia (1994)
Something’s happening don’t speak too soon. I told the boss off and made my move, got nowhere to go.
— Elliott Smith, “Son of Sam”, Figure 8 (2000)
Last stop for a resolution, end of the line, is it confusion? So go; go see what’s there for you. There’s nothing new. Nothing new for you to use.
— Elliott Smith, “Coast to Coast”,
From a Basement on a Hill (2004)
And if the snow, buries my, my neighborhood.
— Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, Funeral (2004)
I could feel at the time there was no way of knowing, fallen leaves in the night, who can say where they’re blowing?
— Roxy Music, “More Than This”, Avalon (1982)
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older? Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long.
— The Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, Pet Sounds (1966)
My my, hey hey. Rock & roll is here to stay.
— Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)”,
Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
I’m lying in my bed, the blanket is warm, this body will never be safe from harm. Still feel your hair, black ribbons of coal, touch my skin to keep me whole.
— Jeff Buckley, “Mojo Pin”, Grace (1994)
Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed.
— Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”, Blood on the Tracks (1975)
These shattering openings are great because they set the tone for the album but they’re also like a condensed version of the album, so when the line drops you get a stiff tincture of what is to come.
Finally, the best of the best, those that combine lyrical genius with the distilled emotion of the album, and get stuck in your head for days. I’m not going to number them but they are loosely in increasing order of how good they are:
Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits. Raised on a diet of broken biscuits.
— Pulp, “Mis-Shapes”, Different Class (1995)
Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution. No more free steps to heaven. It’s no game.
— David Bowie, “It’s No Game, Part 1”, Scary Monsters (1980)
Cut this picture into you and me. Burn it backwards, kill this history.
— Elliott Smith, “Sweet Adeline”, opening to XO (1998)
I am on a lonely road and I am travelling, travelling, travelling, travelling.
— Joni Mitchell, “All I Want”, Blue (1971)
Dirty people take what’s mine. I can leave them all behind. They can never cross that line, when I get to the border.
— Richard & Linda Thompson, “When I Get to the Border”,
I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
London calling to the far away towns, now war is declared, and battle come down.
— The Clash, “London Calling”, London Calling (1979)
The screen door slams; Mary’s dress waves. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.
— Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”, Born to Run (1975)
If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dream…
— Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks”, Astral Weeks (1967)
Farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes; hemmed in like a boar between arches.
— The Smiths, “The Queen is Dead”, The Queen is Dead (1986)3
Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.
— Patti Smith, “Gloria”, Horses (1975)
History repeats the old conceits. The glib replies, the same defeats.
— Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”, Imperial Bedroom (1982)
Once upon a time you dressed so fine, you threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
— Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
And my favourite of all time:
Remember when you were young? You shone like the sun.
— Pink Floyd, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Pts 1-5”,
Wish You Were Here (1975)
I’m sure I missed lots. I also know that sometimes there are a few spoken or sung words before these lines; I’ve gone with what I think of when I imagine the start of the album, wrong though I may be. It’s pretty rock-centric and like I said I haven’t listened to that much new music, so please comment and tell me your favourites! I promise to listen to the whole album.
- The US release of Aftermath has a different but equally familiar and assertive opening: “I see a red door and I want it painted black.” [↩]
- “Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC”, “Well she was just seventeen”, “Oh yeah I’ll tell you something, I think you’ll understand”, and “Asked a girl what she wanted to be” are all impressively memorable. [↩]
- Yes, there’s the “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” sample at the beginning, which I also love, but this is the first non-sampled bit. [↩]