Friday, January 15, 2010

Opening Lines

It's All About the First Impression.

A reader emailed me to ask about my favorite opening line for a song.

It depends on my mood. Sometimes I love lines like "I was born in a crossfire hurricane." Sometimes I'm in the mood for Robyn Hitchcock's intricate wordplay.

But, right now, off the top of my head, here's my list of Top 11 Opening Lines I love. (Tomorrow the list would be different and I might even be able to limit it to 10.)

11. The Nerves -- "Hanging on the Telephone"
I'm in the phone booth, it's one o'clock uh huh.
Yes, kids, before cell phones there used to be phone booths. Just ask Superman. (And, yeah, this song existed even before Blondie covered it.) It's the "uh huh" that gets me.

10. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers "I Need to Know"
Well the talk on the street says you might go solo.
Slick Hollywood posturing and powerful music covering up a broken heart.

9. Badfinger "Day After Day"
I remember finding out about you...
My second-favorite Badfinger song. (And a pretty great George Harrison slide-guitar solo, too.)

8. XTC "Dear Madam Barnum"
I put on a fake smile and start the evening show...
Best romance-as-circus-act metaphor ever.

7. Immaculate Machine "Broken Ship"
We are sailing on a broken ship and only one of us can survive.
Stripped-down instrumentation, simple sparse lyrics, and an emotional vocal that tries desperately to be hopeful despite the pervading sense of doom. (Plus, how can you resist a song that includes the line "cello, play us off"?)

6. Warren Zevon "Werewolves of London"
I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand walking down the streets of Soho in the rain.
I know I've had days like that... and I'm pretty sure you have, too.

5. Paul Simon "Kodachrome"
When I think back on all the crap I learned in High School it's a wonder I can think at all...

4. Joe Jackson "Is She Really Going Out with Him?"
Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street...
Just. Freaking. Perfect.
There isn't a guy alive who hasn't had this thought.

3. Graham Parker "You Can't Be Too Strong"
Did they tear it out with talons of steel?
Haunting song that explores a controversial issue from a point of view that's usually ignored.

2. John Lennon "God"
God is a concept by which we measure our pain...
The "dream is over" song... still beautiful and visceral 40 years later.

1. Billy Bragg "Life with the Lions"
I hate the asshole I become everytime I'm with you.
It's funny because it's true. And I know we've all been there.

So... there's my list. Tell me the ones you think I should've included.


Steve said...

What about the Beatles? I bet you could build an entire list of great/iconic Beatle opening lines:

"I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together..."

"Words are flowing out like endless rain inside a paper cup..."

"When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide..."

"In the town where I was born..."

"I once had a girl or should I say she once had me..."

"Got a good reason for taking the easy way out..."

"It was 20 years ago today..."

"I read the news today oh boy..."

"Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC..."

Well, you get the idea!

iaremusic said...

Paul Simon said that he tries to start every lyric with a true statement. As in,"One and one-half wandering jews, Free to wander wherever they choose.
Are travelling together
In the sangre de cristo..." or "I am just a poor boy, though my story's seldom told."

Anonymous said...

Billy Bragg "I was 21 years when I wrote this song..."

Anonymous said...

You missed, "Everybody Dance Now!"

Anonymous said...

"I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar..."

Kinky Paprika said...

"Five names that I can hardly stand to hear / Including yours and mine and one more chimp who isn't here."

Or how about "The bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife"?

And my choice for a knockout first line: "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine."

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Great, great list, Alex.

Three more lines that often come to my mind unbidden:

“When you're lost in the rain in Juarez & it's Eastertime too” – for capturing that lonesome stranger feeling just perfectly

“Cos he gets up in the morning and he goes to work at nine and he comes back home at five thirty, gets the same train every time” – sounded nightmarish when I was in high school, sounds downright enviable now … :-)

"There must be some kind of way out of here, said the joker to the thief" -- the ultimate invocation of that feeling you get when you suddenly realize you have no good options & are looking for a miracle

The Mad Monk said...

"It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees..."

whiteray said...

"It was raining hard in Frisco; I needed one more fare to make my night."

"Well, take me back down where cool water flows, y'all."

"Love is but a song we sing; fear's the way we die."

"There is a town in north Ontario with dream comfort memory to spare."

"Think I'll go out to Alberta; weather's good there in the fall."

"If today was not an endless highway . . ."

"Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball."

"Hovering by my suitcase, trying to find a warm place to spend the night."

"I took my chances on a one-way ticket home . . ."

"Spring was never waiting for us, girl . . . "

I better quit now, or I'll never stop. I may have to steal this idea for a post.

Alex said...

Great examples, everyone.

Whiteray, steal away by all means!

Holly A Hughes said...

Elvis Costello is always good for a few:

"I am starting to function / In the usual way..."

"He thought he was the king of America, where they bought Coca-cola just like vintage wine . . "

"We play these parlor games, we play at make-believe . . ."

"Oh I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused . . "

And a couple from the Kinks:

"The taxman's taken all my dough, and left me in this stately home..."

"I am a dull and simple lad, cannot tell water from champagne..."

The Boxtops:

"Give me a ticket for an aeroplane, aint' got time to take a fast train...

The Turtles:

"Imagine me and you, I do, I think about you day and night . . . "

Tommy James and the Shondells:

"Children behave, that's what they say when we're together..."

Bowie: "Ground control to Major Tom..."

Donovan: "Sunshine came softly through my window today . . ."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links to play the songs! I haven't heard the Nerves in forever. I remember it as having a more urgent beat than it actually does. Or is the treadmill just moving a lot faster these days?