“Oh I just don’t know where to begin,” sang Elvis Costello way back in 1979. But who was he trying to kid? He’s always known how to begin a song, right from track one, side one of album one, Welcome To The Working Week: “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired …”
You can take a sentence like that and run with it in all manner of directions, which is what all the very best opening lines do: they tease, titillate or torment, set a scene or state a case. Whatever, once heard, you’re hooked and there’s no going anywhere until the song is sung.
Come gather round people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown.
Words with worth can compensate for inferior melodies too, as Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are-A Changin’ attests to: “Come gather round people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown.” It opens all manner of metaphorical doors for Dylan to open, which he did so well the song immediately ranked itself among the iconic anthems. Yet despite countless covers it remains a song devoid of a musical hook. As Neil Finn once wrote: “Try whistling this.”
Equally, great melodies don’t necessarily need great lyrics to remain in light, as Michael Jackson’s catalogue attests to. Or Paul McCartney’s. Or Madonna’s. Or any number of popular artists. This is not a slight on their songwriting, it merely highlights how often the notes on a page mean more than the words typed underneath them.
And if great lyrics are less than common, then great opening lines are even rarer.
All popular songs have opening lines embedded into our brains, simply by force of repetition, but that doesn’t make them great pieces of prose. Take Blurred Lines – “If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say, if you can’t read from the same page” – it’s passable but it’s in your brain thanks to the bassline.
Let’s switch genres, to rap. Jay Z, Magna Carta Holy Grail, track nine: “Arm, leg, leg, arm, head – this is God body.” Just as well he has Beyonce to stroke his ego.
Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime – didn’t you.
Let’s switch timelines, to 1990. Now this may be a case of shooting fish in a barrel but Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire did make it to No.1 despite arguably the worst set of lyrics ever passed by a publisher. Here’s how it began: “Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnny Ray, South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio.” And it went on, and on – and up the charts.
But what about songs that aren’t just popular, the ones that are revered? Of Rolling Stone magazine’s all-time top 10 songs – Like A Rolling Stone, (I Can’t get No) Satisfaction, Imagine, What’s Going On, Respect, Good Vibrations, Johnny B Goode, Hey Jude, Smells Like Teen Spirit, What’d I Say – only two (Aretha Franklin’s Respect and Ray Charles’s What’d I Say) lack a first verse of substance.
No surprise to find Bob Dylan coming up trumps on his typewriter (“Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime – didn’t you”), the Stones can’t help but pass thanks to the sheer sexual angst embedded in the title, John Lennon’s first line is a hall of famer (“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try”) and Marvin Gaye nails it right from his first anguished breath (“Mother, mother there’s too many of you crying, brother, brother there’s far too many of you dying”).
However, Respect, written by Otis Redding, relies more on its saxophones and chorus (“R.E.S.P.E.C.T find out what it means to me”) than its first line (“What you want, baby I got it”) for its place in posterity.
Beach Boy Brian Wilson gives his iconic love song a bright, breezy and beautiful beginning (“I love the colourful clothes she wears, and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair”) and Chuck Berry emerges from the blocks well enough (“Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods in the evergreens”), although it isn’t obvious where his story is heading until the next line or two. Lyrically, it’s almost a rap, way back in 1958.
Like so many of Paul McCartney’s songs, Hey Jude suffers a little from its saccharine storyline (“Hey Jude don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better”) but the initial words set the scene adequately enough. Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, the newest of these 10 songs, is open to interpretation – my guess is it’s about heroin (“Load up on guns and bring your friends it’s fun to lose and to pretend”), but that will take too long to explain. Nevertheless the lines (ahem) that open the song are intriguing and beguiling.
Then there’s What’d I Say? “Hey mama don’t you treat me wrong, come and love your daddy all night long”. The songs is a riff writ large and the lyrics are more or less superfluous. He could sing Shakespeare or the phone book and the song would still work.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood on the root.
What is obvious from the millions of songs that have been written since the turn of last century is it’s just as hard to write a good lyric as it is to write a memorable melody – and even harder to start a song with a stand-alone line. Even gold-plated lyricists such as Tom Waits and Lou Reed have struggled to do it.
The biggest impediment can be the song’s structure – many begin with too little room to say something of substance – or the topic (yes, Paul, some people really do think the world is full of silly love songs), or musical genre (funk/soul/R&B are more about feel than phrase).
One of the earliest opening lines of excellence was Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood on the root.” Rich in metaphor it still chills 75 years after it was written. It just may be the most powerful lyric ever set to music.
Other artists down the line have chosen to follow Holiday’s enigmatic lead:
Prince: “In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.” (Sign O’ The Times)
John Lennon (The Beatles): “I once had a girl, or should I say she once had me.” (Norwegian Wood)
Paul McCartney (The Beatles): “Well she was just 17, you know what I mean.” (I Saw her Standing There)
Neil Young: “The world is turning, hope it don’t turn away” (On The Beach)
Paul Simon (Simon & Garfunkel): “Hello darkness, my old friend.” (The Sound Of Silence)
Leonard Cohen: “We find ourselves on different sides of a line nobody drew.” (Different Sides); “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.” (Bird On A Wire)
Bob Dylan: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” (Blowin’ In The Wind)
Sam Cooke: “I was born by the river in a little tent and just like the river I’ve been running ever since.” (A Change Is Gonna Come)
Bruce Springsteen: “I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade.” (Growin’ Up); “Fat man sittin’ on a little stool, takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you.” (Tunnel Of Love)
Elvis Costello: “I’ve been on tenterhooks ending in dirty looks.” (Pump It Up)
Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb (Bee Gees): “You can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man – no time to talk.” (Stayin’ Alive)
Jeff Tweedy (Wilco): “I will throw myself underneath the wheels of any train of thought.” (Open Mind)
Others preferred to come straight to the point:
Patti Smith: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” (Gloria)
Roger Waters (Pink Floyd): “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control.” (Another Brick In The Wall)
Johnny Lydon (The Sex Pistols): “I am an anti-Christ.” (Anarchy in the UK)
Nick Cave (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds): “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” (Into My Arms)
Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails): “I hurt myself today to see if I could feel.” (Hurt)
Pete Townshend (The Who): “People try to put us down just because we get around.” (My Generation)
Bob Marley: “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war.” (War)
Others can be mystical and/or enchanting:
Van Morrison: “We were born before the wind also younger than the sun.” (Into The Mystic); “If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaduct of your dream.” (Astral Weeks)
Bob Dylan: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet.” (Visions Of Johanna).
Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin): “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold.” (Stairway To Heaven)
Roy Orbison: “A candy-coloured clown they call the sandman tiptoes to my room every night.” (In Dreams)
Paul Simon: “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar.” (Graceland)
Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones): “Please allow me to introduce myself I’m a man of wealth and taste.” (Sympathy For The Devil)
Morrissey (The Smiths): “I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour.” (Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now)
Or contemplative and/or humourous:
Neil Young: “Old man look at my life I’m a lot like you were.” (Old Man)
Paul Anka, Claude Francois, Jacques Revaux, Gilles Thibault (Frank Sinatra): “And now the end is near.” (My Way)
Bernie Taupin (Elton John): “It’s a little bit funny this feeling inside.” (Your Song)
Leonard Cohen: “Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey and I ache in the places where I used to play.” (Tower Of Song)
Ryan Adams: “Well I was waitin’ around for somebody to die, nobody did but part of me died, I suppose, from all that waiting (Natural Ghost)
Billy Bragg: “Take the M For Me and the Y for you out of family and it all falls through.” (Take The M For Me)
Frank Porter is an Australian music writer.