Thursday, April 20, 2006

Open up

So U2 are deemed to have written the greatest single lyric of all time, even if the line chosen as representation by VH-1 isn't even the best lyric in the song. Beyond watercooler debate all this is highly subjective, of course - people are moved by different things within the words and there are as many ways to write as there are to skin a cat, whether the former poet using the rock fraternity to get their message across or the workaday hack aiming straight for square one. Similarly many would move it to the pub for worst lyrics bartering but that'd just boil down to the whole Des'Ree/ghost/toast business and it'd get us nowhere.

The great opening line, though, is another discipline entirely. It catapults the listener into the song's core just as well as a well placed riff can, if not better in most cases. A lot of people can write great lyrics, but those that can write a cracking opening line to set the scene, the mood or the worldview straight off are a whole other subsection. Here, in a list that spiralled rapidly out of control, are 40 magnificent opening shots, in no order but alphabetical, all of which set out to do a job and do that job with elan. We're guaranteed to have missed some, what with all the half-lines and unexplored pop crevices, so all comment suggestions are welcome.

Accidents Will Happen (Elvis Costello)
"Oh, I just don't know where to begin"
Not an un-bold way to begin a song, you'd have to say. The first line as double bluff, a tactic that actually applied to most of Elvis' lyrics around 1979.

Another Girl Another Planet (The Only Ones)
"I always flirt with death, I could kill, but I don't care about it"
Peter Perrett's various substances intake was legendary and this always turns up just after There She Goes in lists of Songs You Thought Were About Girls But Are Actually About Heroin Innit. It does pretty well in the stakes of expressing how little you care about the rest of the world whatever the intention.

Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos (Public Enemy)
"I got a letter from the government the other day/I opened and read it, it said they were suckers"
What sort of form letter was that, then? They should have run that one past the team leader, or whatever the US government equivalent is, before sending out a letter with something like that included. We're certain there should be more rap in this list then there is, but here's everything you need to know about Public Enemy's single handed private army in one go.

Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen)
"In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream"
Almost stereotypical Boss, the working man toiling while the imagery of glamour disappears, but Springsteen's always been a great poet for the people who can't speak up coherently for themselves.

Cactus (Pixies)
"Sitting here wishing on a cement floor/Just wishing that I had just something you wore"
The intenations make you shiver, don't they? Black Francis usually at least waited until the second verse before dropping this kind of thing in.

Child Psychology (Black Box Recorder)
"I stopped talking when I was six years old/I didn't want anything more to do with the outside world"
There seems to be a pattern relating to childhood, and specifically childhood going wrong, in many of the words Luke Haines and John Moore wrote for Sarah Nixey. This is the one with the refrain "life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it", but it's all gone pitch black well before then.

Come Dancing (the Kinks)
"They put a parking lot on a piece of land/Where the supermarket used to stand"
Years after Ray Davies' Village Green Preservation Society was closed down he could still be found raising the rose-tinted glasses to progress overtaking old England.

Delia's Gone (Johnny Cash)
"Delia, oh Delia, Delia all my life/If I hadn't-a shot poor Delia, I'd have had her for my wife"
It wouldn't have worked in many people's mouths. The first Cash song worked on with Rick Rubin, it proved his spiritual alignment with the wrong side of the law was as strong as it had been at San Quentin.

Experiment IV (Kate Bush)
"We were working secretly for the military/Our experiment in sound was nearly ready to begin/We only know in theory what we are doing"
But you're intrigued and not a little scared, aren't you? In fact it turns out to be sonic devices that kill people, turning the joy of music back on itself. She doesn't half sweat the small stuff, does she?

First We Take Manhattan (Leonard Cohen)
"They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within"
Again, for best results apply to as deep a deadpan voice as you can find. He'll never be able to kick back at materialism, but he'll give it a damn good try. Pop fact: this song helped Shakira learn English. That explains a lot.

Gareth Brown Says (McLusky)
"All of your friends are cunts, your mother is a ballpoint pen thief"
What? What? Simultaneously making no sense and all sense, and it's hardly as if it's a one-off by their standards.

Gloria (Patti Smith)
"Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine"
The pause before the 'but' makes it completely. It's a hell of a way to mark out your territory and blasts the anti- attitude of most of her CBGB scene contemporaries right out of the water at the off.

God Only Knows (Beach Boys)
"I may not always love you/But as long as there are stars above you/You never need to doubt it"
An incredibly brave line to start what already sounds like a love song off with turns out to be the McGuffin in a sentiment giddy with its own possibilities.

History Lesson Part II (Minutemen)
"Our band could be your life"
Surely the statement that lies at the heart of everyone who ever formed a band.

I Am The Party (Million Dead)
"Well you can tell by the way I move my feet that I'm a genuine insurrectionary"
Great for three reasons: it set out the cult defunct Anglo-Aussie hardcore outfit's manifesto in one go, it can only be sung with complete conviction, and it partly goes towards showing how their often unwieldly lyrics looked horrible on paper but perfectly reasonable on vocal take (cf the same album's Charlie And The Propaganda Myth Machine. You heard.)

I Found That Essence Rare (Gang Of Four)
"Aim for the body rare, you'll see it on TV/The worst thing in 1954 was the bikini"
Finding middle ground where leftie ideology and fashion critique can go hand in hand. Actually, the worst thing in 1954 here were the nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll, which actually started in 1946 (as did the leisurewear) but presumably that didn't scan as well.

Into My Arms (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds)
"I don't believe in an interventionist God"
Only Nick Cave could have written this line. It needs stating, though, that while everyone was recovering their breath from that one Cave slips in the rejoiner "but I know darling that you do/but if I did I would kneel down and ask Him/Not to intervene when it came to you".

Jumping Jack Flash (Rolling Stones)
"I was born in a crossfire hurricane"
There's a theory this is a reference to Keith Richards being born during a Doodlebug attack on Dartford. Whatever, you wouldn't want to get in the way of Jagger if he's in this kind of mood.

Kinky Afro (Happy Mondays)
"Son, I'm thirty/I only went with your mother cos she's dirty"
And so we welcome Shaun Ryder into the pantheon of lyricists people just don't get for reasons other than their songwriting.

Levi Stubbs' Tears (Billy Bragg)
"With the money from her accident she bought herself a mobile home"
It's either genius or careless that Bragg doesn't remember at any point to explain any of this in the rest of the song, but it sets it up beautifully.

No Thugs In Our House (XTC)
"The insect-headed worker-wife will hang her waspies on the line/The husband burns his paper, sucks his pipe while studying their cushion-floor"
You just know that something's about to go horribly wrong in this bit of suburbia. And, through a policeman turning up to question the son about a racial assault, so it does.

Packs Of Three (Arab Strap)
"It was the biggest cock you'd ever seen/But you've no idea where that cock has been"
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Aidan Moffat.

Plaistow Patricia (Ian Dury and the Blockheads)
"Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks"
And all ideas of an easy ride are cancelled. Even the punks who hung around Stiff Records' offices expressed shock when they first heard the tale of teenage heroin addiction's opening rail against everything.

Random Rules (Silver Jews)
"In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection"
Where do you go from there? David Berman's approach to Pavement-aided alt-country remains skewed, but he might well never get over this.

Razzmatazz (Pulp)
"The trouble with your brother, he's always sleeping with your mother"
Again, put the mental pause in before 'with' for best results. Jarvis Cocker is good at setting his wry stall out from the start - see also Dishes' "I am not Jesus though I have the same initials"

Rebel Rebel (David Bowie)
"Got your mother in a whirl/She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl"
You really couldn't tell the boys from the girls, as the cliched Top Of The Pops-watching father would have it, and having opened the door to the murky world of direct pop sexuality Bowie wasn't about to pretend it had nothing to do with him.

Reel Around The Fountain (the Smiths)
"It's time the tale were told/Of how you took a child and you made him old"
From these deeply unapologetic beginnings it actually becomes a love song inspired by feminist tracts, but really about 40% of the Smiths catalogue could have qualified. Because nobody else does, a word must be put in for I Want The One I Can't Have's far too tempting "On the day that your mentality/decides to try to catch up with your biology".

Reward (Teardrop Explodes)
"Bless my cotton socks, I'm in the news"
Some lyrics defy analysis at the end of the day. What on earth does this mean? Who cares, it sounds triumphant and that's all that matters.

Saturday's Kids (The Jam)
"Saturday's boys live life with insults/Drink lots of beer and wait for half time results"
Weller tightrope walks the line between condemning and emphathising with what he knows are his own type. 25 years later another provincial songwriter wise beyond his soundbite quality would muse about much the same people in "knackered Converse or tracky bottoms tucked in socks", proving that it takes one to know one.

Serve The Servants (Nirvana)
"Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm bored and old"
Plenty quoted this lyric when Kurt died as proof of his hatred of the 'jocks' Nevermind picked up, but really it works as the apotheosis of what to do when you get everything you didn't know you wanted nevertheless.

Sign O' The Times (Prince)
"In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name"
In among everything else Prince's lyrical abilities in his prime have often been overlooked, but for someone often portrayed as sex mad it proved that he wasn't going to treat his difficult subject with kid gloves.

Song From Under The Floorboards (Magazine)
"I am angry, I am ill and I'm as ugly as sin"
Howard Devoto's projected self-loathing expressed as self-mocking. When his lyrics, both here and with the Buzzcocks, weren't being dark they were actually amusing.

Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday)
"Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root"
A candidate for the single most haunting song of all time (we've got an excellent version on the Weekender Visual list) and still the greatest anti-racism tract ever. To quote Holiday, "The first time I sang it, I thought it was a mistake. There wasn't even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping."

The State I Am In (Belle and Sebastian)
"I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975"
This was the first time anyone outside their music college course had heard anything of Stuart Murdoch, and his intentions were nailed to the floor straight off - wry, quietly nostalgic, loudly forlorn. Murdoch is another who can pull off a first line - "he had a stroke at the age of 21/it could have been a brilliant career" for another example.

Time For Heroes (Libertines)
"Did you see the stylish kids in the riot?"
Yes, Pete, and now they all try to look like you. It turned round and gave him a healthy boot up the arse eventually, but while Albion has always been better in thought than execution this line alone captures the essence of poetry from the soul against the odds.

Tomorrow Never Knows (Beatles)
"Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream"
Yet earlier on the same album John had suggested relaxing (in bed, on I'm Only Sleeping) and floating upstream. What's going on? Well, everything, as even before he comes in it sounds remarkable and strange, only adding the obvious in relation to the soundscape. What it must have sounded like to the 1966 pop conisseur hardly bears thinking about.

Thousands Are Sailing (the Pogues)
"The island it is silent now/But the ghosts still haunt the waves"
Not that he's done himself much in the way of favours down the years, but Shane MacGowan's love of romantic Irish poetry shines through should it be given half a chance what with everything else going on in Pogues records. This is his tribute to the native Irish diaspora.

Up The Hill And Down The Slope (The Loft)
"Oh, my magpie eyes are hungry for the prize/Give me the money and I'll shoot it right between the eyes"
The second line in the selection to lend its title to an excellent history of a time and genre, we find a wide eyed Pete Astor standing just outside the big music world hoping for his chance to experience the glitz and glamour. He never got it, which probably turned out for the best.

War Pigs (Black Sabbath)
"Generals gathered in their masses/Just like witches at black masses"
For sale: rhyming dictionary, barely used. Does its job in spades, though, hinting at there being none more black as those in charge plot against their own people, desiring to destroy. It's an anti-Vietnam song, actually. Original second line: "Bodies burning in red ashes". That's just rubbish.

Werewolves Of London (Warren Zevon)
"I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand/Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain"
It doesn't actually mean anything, apparently, but what an image, not least because the apparent lack of side means you can mould it in whatever shape you want, should you be so inclined.


The Ledge said...

"I was slowly dying in a clinic just outside of LA"
The Go-Betweens, Spirit Of A Vampyre

"I knelt, I aimed, I missed, I ran"
The Triffids, Chickenkiller

And yes, 40% of The Smiths' back catalogue, but right up there has to be "I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour..."

ian said...

A fine list. One that didn't have me spluttering with indignation unlike a certain other list. Did your mother never say "Bless my Cotton Socks"? Mine still does, on occasion.

Can I submit, for the consideration of the panel,

She's staring as the lights are curling off into the dark
And the fuel tank's erupting underneath a rain of sparks

Prefer you Dead, by that bloke off The Office's brother.

If we get dropped, I will sail out the window, clutching the artwork to my debut single
Moving to California, Straw

For a small girl, Barbara sure has got a big crush
Barbara H, Fountains of Wayne

Any chimp can play human for a day, Use his opposable thumbs to iron his uniform and run for office on election day
It's A hit, Rilo Kiley.

Question: Is the increase in intangible music purchasing, and the consequent lack of sleevenotes contributing to a demise in the appreciation of lyrics?

Brig Bother said...

I was going to say Dishes (Pulp), but you've mentioned it already.

Chris Brown said...

Can I, then, add 'Everyone Says You're So Fragile' by Idlewild ("I'm not that medieval, sometimes I write my thoughts down") and on my brother's behalf, 'Come Out 2nite' by Kenickie? I'd also like to expand that Fountains Of Wayne quote to "...Barbara sure has got a big crush, the kind that makes you want to break stuff and blame it on a man you don't know"

I'd echo other commentators in praising the original list, and for noticing the upstream/downstream thing on Revolver. I was very pleased to spot XTC there; I think that may just be Partridge's greatest-ever lyric, and have the original 7" of that song with the puppet theatre; I also have the BBC recording where Partridge has the husband suck his paper and burn his pipe.

Oh, and for a long time I thought Julian Cope was saying "Bless my cotton socks I'm in the nude," but in my defence that doesn't make any less sense.

Things Snowball said...

Wonderful list, cheers! Wholeheartedly agree with the Silver Jews and McLusky suggestions.
Unsurprisingly i have a few favourites to suggest..

"I hope that our few remaining friends give up on trying to save us" Mountain Goats/No Children

"Yeah, I got busted, so i used my one phone call to dedicate a song to you on the radio" Jens Lekman/You Are The Light

"Baby learns to crawl watching daddy's skin" Paul Westerberg/Baby Learns To Crawl

"Oh, launched all the world’s nukes this morning
Hoping it would kick-start something" Dismemberment Plan/8 and a half minutes

And i consider it a travesty no one has mentioned the Weakerthans, who are reigning kings of opening lines - for example
"had one of those days when you wanna try heroin, drink driving some sort of soft suicide"

"they're tearing up streets again, they're building a new hotel, the mayors out killing kids to keep taxes down"

"morning bright, rise. Go over your lines. Iron your carefully crafted disguise."

"Held like water in your shaking hands are all the small defeats the day demands"

"So you don't get to be a saint. Martyrs never last this long."

Simon said...

Fine suggestions, all. Must investigate the Weakerthans at some time, actually. Should also mention that the forthcoming Young Knives single, which if it ever starts working is playing on our Myspace, opens "who are these people? They are too stupid to be your real parents"

Ian: surely if anything lyricism is coming back into fashion, what with the attention towards Pete Doherty's assorted ramblings, Alex Turner and the like. It's gratifying too to see the revival of late of the apprentice poet going into pop as a method of spreading their worldview, even if at the moment it's the likes of Doherty and Edward Larrikin. As for the other point, I'm not sure she ever used those exact words, but with Cope it's all about the context that it just seems to mean next to nothing initially.

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Tom said...

Fantastic list - Patti Smith must have the best opening line to a debut record ever. Few more:

"I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song/I'm twenty-two now but I won't be for long" Billy Bragg, A New England

"Hello Kitten, I don't miss sex/It's just the feeling of skin against skin that I want."
Hefner, Hello Kitten

"I've heard there was a secret chord, that David played, and it pleased the Lord/But you don't really care for music, do you?" Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah

"The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in 'sixty-eight/And he told me, All romantics meet the same fate" Joni Mitchell, The Last Time I Saw Richard

And, most poetic of all:

"I don't care/About the state of my hair" The Jesus And Mary Chain, Blues From A Gun

Anonymous said...

Shame that nobody mentioned Gram Parson's "Wont you scratch my itch/Sweet Annie Rich", from "Return Of The Grevious Angel" Not very "Cosmic" but very much America circa 1973.

Anonymous said...

I am angry I am ill and I'm as ugly as sin
is actually the opening of a Dostoevsky novella
Notes from the Underground

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be picky but: "I always flirt with death, I LOOK ILL but I don't care about it."

Anonymous said...

Billy Bragg's heroine had been stabbed by an abusive husband, it says it later in the song.

"And her husband was one of those blokes
The sort that only laughs at his own jokes"

"One dark night he came home from the sea and put a hole in her body where no hole should be."

Anonymous said...

Thousands Are Sailing wasn't written by Shane MacGowan. It's by Philip Chevron, the Pogues' guitarist.

Cracking song, though.

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