“The Weight” makes a great first impression. The recent death of Levon Helm did one good thing: it got thousands of radio and TV stations to play that classic song by The Band. Hearing it again got me thinking about what it is that gives a song a strong start.
A good first impression gets a foot in the door. After that, you’ve still got to close the deal, but that first step can be a tough one. Sometimes it’s with a guitar riff. "Smoke on the Water", I’m looking at you. Maybe it’s a graceful piano intro. "Let It Be" comes to mind. Whatever it is, you hear it and you’re gone. You’re committed to listening to that song. For me, as a writer, I like engaging lyrics, especially an opening line that catches me and makes me want to find out what comes next. With that thought in mind, here are a few of my favourite opening lines. I define “opening line” in this context as being a complete thought, so it may actually be a couple of lines of text.
The Weight – The Band
Since it inspired this post, it’s only fair to give this song the lead. “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half-past dead,” says so much and sets the stage in a way you wouldn’t think possible in fewer than a dozen words. I hope to write ten words that good someday.
Kick Out the Jams - MC5
Rock and roll is all about making old people uncomfortable. The opening, full-volume command to "Kick out the jams, motherfucker!" must have done that in 1969. It may not be as eloquent as some opening lines, but it let's one know that you're in for a total sonic assault. For some reason, this YouTube entry continues with dead air after the song is over, but it's the beginning that matters.
Anarchy in the U.K. - The Sex Pistols
"I am an antichrist! I am an anarchist!" With that opening, in 1976, The Sex Pistols set out to make old people uncomfortable. It worked. It earned the Pistols attention and opprobrium. Many years after the release, I remember the woman I was seeing at the time, a former Catholic schoolgirl, being so uncomfortable with that line that she'd frantically twist the volume knob down when that song began playing on the mix-tape I'd made. I should have taken that as a sign things weren't going to work out.
Werewolves of London - Warren Zevon
Many Warren Zevon fans are unhappy that "Werewolves of London" is the only song by the artist that most people know. For a time, Zevon himself didn't play the song in his concerts. While it may be frothier than most of his work, the lyrics are still quite clever. "I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walking through the streets of Soho in the rain," certainly paints a picture and makes me want to know what happens next. Hint: bad things.
Underwhelmed - Sloan
"She was underwhelmed, if that's a word. I know it's not, 'cause I looked it up," kicks of this jangly-guitar rocker from Sloan. It's the tale of a grammar-loving pedant who falls for a woman who is his opposite. I can relate to it fully, though it is no longer an issue. I'm fortunate in that my wife is tolerant of my pedantry. All I need do is act as her spelling and grammar checker from time to time. This song should be on every single pedant's playlist as a reminder that, sometimes, you've just got to loosen up.
Certainly a very personal list, I grant you. I invite my ones and ones of readers to offer their own suggestions in the comments.