Did you ever wonder what Mick Jagger was on about when he talked about being born in a crossfire hurricane; about howling and such? Or did you just sing along, hum along with Keef’s riff and then next thing it’s alright (“in fact it’s a gas”).
I reckon a lot is riding on the way a song opens – lyrically. That first line sets it off, sets it up. If it’s doing its job correctly it hooks you in. It doesn’t have to mean a lot – or for that matter even make sense – but it has to do something to you, or for you; a visceral charge…it has to offer something, a business card (in a way) for the rest of the song.
Nick Cave gets it right (for me) with We Came Along This Road – after the minute-long piano intro that first line has to mean something, or set a scene, and he nails it with “I left by the back door with my wife’s lover’s smoking gun”. That keeps me listening for the story (both musically and lyrically).
There’s less of a build up when Bruce Springsteen busts out the opening line to Born To Run: “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream”. But it provides that hook, three minutes of charging Roy Orbison reinvention told in run-on sentences.
I reckon I first noticed opening lines, well, first noticed how an opening line can hook you in – no matter how weird – when I heard Lou Reed’s Wild Child. I always loved the way that song started, “I was talking to Chuck in his Genghis Khan suit and his wizard’s hat…” I first heard it when I was about 12 years old, maybe 13. I loved it. Hearing the song again recently took me back to that moment when I first discovered it. The opening riff is cool, sure, but it’s when Reed drawls the line about talking to, presumably, his mate in the weird outfit…that’s when the song sticks.
It’s about as meaningful as most of the lines from Stairway To Heaven but it’s cool – it hooks you in. It makes you want to know what’s next…
That’s the thing with the opening line. The lyric of a song has far less time than a short story, but it has to set a scene, create a mood, offer a tone (maybe all of those things). So how do you hook someone in?
Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is a mad fantasy-world of mock-opera and mock-rock. It’s superb and pompous (maybe, in this case, it’s superb because it’s pompous). And maybe those mock-worlds are set-up, at least in part, with that opening line, that opening question, “Is this the real life?” The listener knows right away that if it actually is the real life it’s already being questioned.
But, for today, the one I’m going for is Tom Waits from his song Frank’s Wild Years which is not on the album Frank’s Wild Years. That opening line sets up the story/song perfectly: “Well Frank settled down in the Valley and hung his wild years on a nail that he drove through his wife’s forehead”.
Yeah, um, so with that happy ending to a post about opening lines it is now your turn.
What song/s do you think of when you think of a great opening line? I reckon the opening line can be a lyrical hook as weighty, as important, as a great riff. So what would be your favourite opening line? Do you like something that introduces the story elements of a song? Or do you like songs that open with a line that ensures you keep guessing?