A while back, we posted a selection of our favorite opening lines from literature -– everything from Albert Camus from Mark Twain. The whole thing stirred some healthy debate in the comments section (as did the follow-up post about closing lines), and we liked the idea so much that we thought we’d extend it to the world of music. So here’s a selection of our favorite opening lines of songs. As ever, feel free to add your own in the comments section!
“They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within” – Leonard Cohen, “First We Take Manhattan” Leave it to Leonard Cohen, one of the finest lyricists ever to grace the face of our planet, to pen an opening line that captures your attention.
“I’ve been contemplating suicide/But it really doesn’t suit my style” – The Boys Next Door, “Shivers” Similarly attention-grabbing is this line from the 1979 debut single from The Boys Next Door. Fronted by a young Nick Cave, the band would soon move to London and evolve into The Birthday Party, but arguably never again produced anything quite as perfect as “Shivers.” Cave didn’t write it, either – it was guitarist Rowland S. Howard, who wasn’t particularly impressed with Cave’s interpretation of his song.
“I don’t believe in an interventionist God” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “Into My Arms” Speaking of Nick Cave, only he could start a tender love song with a meditation on theology, and still make it sound beautiful.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine” – Patti Smith, “Gloria” Yes, it’s a predictable choice, but this is a classic for a reason.
“In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” – Silver Jews, “Random Rules” We rhapsodized about Silver Jews frontman David Berman’s poems recently, and his lyrics are just as wryly amusing and keenly observed. This account of ending up in hospital after some unspecified binge is both sad and self-deprecatingly funny.
“Son, I’m 30/I only went with your mother because she’s dirty” – Happy Mondays, “Kinky Afro” As if the idea of Shaun Ryder getting it on with your mum wasn’t horrible enough already, he’s laughing about it.
“I am not Jesus/Though I have the same intitials” – Pulp, “Dishes” Jarvis Cocker. Obviously.
“My love is bigger than your love/We take more drugs than a touring funk band/Sing it!” – McLusky, “To Hell With Good Intentions” As a whole, Andy Falkous’s lyrics strike a rough balance being searingly angry and searingly funny, and are often both simultaneously. He’s also a dab hand with an opening line –- we also considered “Gareth Brown Says” (“All of your friends are cunts/Your mother is a ballpoint pen thief”), but plumped for this one because of its use of a “touring funk band” as the apogee of drug consumption. Genius.
“Some people try to pick up girls and get called assholes/This never happened to Pablo Picasso” – Modern Lovers, “Pablo Picasso” It’s true. Pablo got away with murder. Bastard.
“What kind of fuckery is this? You made me miss the Slick Rick gig” – Amy Winehouse, “Me and Mr Jones” It’s a shame that Amy Winehouse is now more famous for her trashbaggery than her music, because Back to Black had some great moments – and anyway, we’re all for use of the word “fuckery.” Speaking of which…
“The bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife” – John Cale, “Guts” Apparently John Cale returned home one night in 1974 and found his wife in bed with Soft Machine bassist Kevin Ayers. He was not pleased.
“Assholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks/Aerosol/The bricks” – Ian Dury and the Blockheads, “Plaistow Patricia” Ian Dury had a way with words, all right. Also check out the Shane MacGowan cover version of this, which is even better than the original – if ever a man was born to slur swear words into a microphone, it’s our Shane.
“It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen/But you’ve no idea where that cock has been” – Arab Strap, “Packs of Three” You’d wouldn’t expect any less of a band who named themselves after an arcane sex toy, but Arab Strap went above and beyond with their tales of squalid sex, epic drinking sessions and casual drug use. Both Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton are great lyricists in their own right, and their collaboration produced some of music’s most sordid couplets.
“Sleeping in a van between A and B/Sucking dick for ecstasy” – Moldy Peaches, “Downloading Porn with Davo” This whole song could quite as easily have gone in the “hilarious” section, but it’s decidedly filthy – especially that opening couplet.
“I ain’t got no motherfucking friends/That’s why I fucked your bitch/You fat motherfucker” – Tupac, “Hit ‘Em Up” And with this, the West Coast/East Coast feud kicked into overdrive. Classy, Tupac.
“Baby’s on fire/Better throw her in the water” – Brian Eno, “Baby’s On Fire” Eno has said that his lyrics don’t mean anything (he once told Chrissie Hynde that he wished he’d called this “Baby’s On Hire”), but even so, there’s something unwholesome about this, something just a wee bit too salacious about the way he delivers this lyric.
“I am the raping sunglass gaze/Of sweaty man and escort agencies” – Manic Street Preachers, “Nostalgic Pushead” Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire’s lyricism could be overblown at times, but when they nailed it, they nailed it.
“We will laugh the day that Thatcher dies” – Hefner, “The Day That Thatcher Dies” It’s hard to disagree with the political sentiment (and anyway, the next line is “Even though we know it’s not right”) but again, the vitriol with this line is delivered is more than a little chilling.
“I trapped a spider underneath the glass/I kept it for a week to see how long it lasted” – Black Box Recorder, “England Made Me” Black Box Recorder have a selection of fine opening lines to choose from (cf. “I never liked George Michael much/Although they said he was the talented one”, amongst others), but there’s something singularly creepy about the opening to the title track of their debut single.
“I’ll fake it through the day/With some help from Johnny Walker Red” – Elliott Smith, “Miss Misery” This song was sad enough when it was released, and with the knowledge of how poor Elliott Smith’s life unravelled, this line makes for particularly difficult listening.
The really disconcerting
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root” – Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” The strange fruit are, of course, lynched black men. Still as eerie and sad in 2011 as it was in 1939.
“I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel” – Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt” Johnny Cash’s version of this is rightly acclaimed as one of the best covers he ever did. But the original is just as good – while Cash’s version carries the weight of a lifetime of loss and regret, Trent Reznor’s delivery is claustrophobic and frightening, as cold and sharp as the knife it describes.
“I kill children/I love to see them die” – Dead Kennedys, “I Kill Children” People generally see this as another fine example of Jello Biafra trying to annoy the moral majority – and no doubt it did – but “I Kill Children” is dead serious, albeit obviously not written from Biafra’s own first-person perspective. It was apparently his attempt to get into the mind of a serial killer, and was written when he was 18 – neither of which point to a particularly well-adjusted adolescence.
“Sweetness, I was only joking when I said/I’d like to smash every tooth in your head” – The Smiths, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” Well, yes, you’d hope so. It wasn’t funny, though, was it?
“Your eyes are almost dead/Can’t get out of bed/And you can’t sleep” – Big Star, “Holocaust” One of the most singularly depressing songs ever recorded, this portrait of junkie disintegration also features a heartbreakingly sad opening line to set the scene.
Setting the scene
“That’s how it starts/We go back to your house…” – LCD Soundsystem, “All My Friends” Ah, how we’ll miss LCD Soundsystem. The lyrics to this song about 30-something party fatigue and alienation play out like a letter, or a short story, or something – and the opening line sets the scene beautifully.
“I met her in a club down in old Soho/Where they drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola” – The Kinks, “Lola” Clearly, champagne doesn’t taste like cherry cola (or if it does, then God only knows what vintage you’re drinking). And “cola” is only there to rhyme with “Lola.” And yet somehow, this line works. Songs are strange things, aren’t they? [Edit: as per David Manning’s comments below, the lyric refers to “clip joints in [London’s] Soho (where you might meet people like Lola). Clip joints usually didn’t have a licence to sell alcohol. So the menus would list cocktails, and in small print, unreadable in the coloured lights, they would mention that they were non-alcoholic.” You learn something new every day, etc.]
“I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles” – Geto Boys, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” It’s the “four-cornered” that makes this line – you only notice the corners of a room when it’s empty, and you can’t imagine that the room that’s being evoked here is anything more than a sagging bed and the candles casting their flickering shadows.
“‘Which one’s the birthday boy?’ she said/‘I haven’t got all night’” – Drive-By Truckers, “Birthday Boy” The genius of this line lies in the fact that the lyrics don’t describe the scene at all – and yet, there’s no doubt what’s going on. You can almost see the crowd of Bud-toting men in baseball caps, pushing the vaguely reluctant birthday boy toward the stripper. Or hooker.
“When he’s holding, the streetlights seem an awful lot like spotlights” – The Hold Steady, “Charlemagne in Sweatpants” Again, there’s no actual description of the scene, but again, you can see it all – the night, the carpark, the nervous dealer, shifting from foot to foot as he waits for his connection.
“Daaaaaaaaaaaay/After daaaaaaaaaaaay…” – Violent Femmes, “Add It Up” The soundtrack to many, many an adolescent existential crisis.
“All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away” – Spiritualized, “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” Jason Pierce “adapted” Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to create the title track for his magnum opus, a forlorn ballad in the round that manages to be both sad and quite remarkably beautiful.
“When you have no one/No one can hurt you” – Palace, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” Will Oldham has crafted many excellent (if slightly creepy) lyrics in his time, but the simple, plaintive confessional nature of this couplet makes it particularly effective. And particularly sad.
“You used to get it in your fishnets/Now you only get it in your nightdress” – Arctic Monkeys, “Fluorescent Adolescent” The song’s title is pretty awful, but Alex Turner sketches a keenly-observed portrait of middle-aged suburban alienation here, and like many great opening lines, this couplet both sets the mood and summarizes the content.
“I’m so tired of playing/Playing with this bow and arrow” – Portishead, “Glory Box” Years ago, a reviewer in Q magazine (back when it was good) pointed out that Portishead deal in adult loneliness, and that adult loneliness is more crushing than its adolescent counterpart because the latter at least promises some respite once you can move away from your high school/hometown/parents/whatever. It was (and is) an excellent observation, and exemplified by this line, evoking a desire for an end to singledom, not because of any romantic urge, but just because of sheer weariness of solitude.
“I was a terror/Since the public school era” – Notorious BIG, “Party and Bullshit” He probably was, too.
“Don’t call it a comeback/I’ve been here for years” – LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out” LL’s bravado was admirable, but this most definitely was a comeback – his previous album had bombed, and people were starting to wonder if ladies really did love cool James after all. This single was a resounding riposte to the haters.
“I am an Antichrist/I am an anarchist” – Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the UK” Surely the greatest declaration of intent in rock’n’roll, even if the rhyme is decidedly dodgy.
“I don’t have to sell my soul/He’s already in me” – Stone Roses, “I Wanna Be Adored” Also, as far as statements of intent go, the opening track to the The Stone Roses’ debut album rates pretty highly. The title said enough already, but the opening line took the band’s self-aggrandizement a step further – we don’t need the devil! We already own that shit!
“I’m the trouble starter/Fucking instigator” – The Prodigy, “Firestarter” Grandmothers everywhere took one look at the video and fainted. And even for the rest of us, it certainly wasn’t a stretch to imagine the shaven-headed, pierced lunatic on screen as a genuine pyromaniac who might just be by later on that night to burn down your hedge.
“Some of those that work forces/Are the same that burn crosses” – Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name” Zack de la Rocha’s delivery is a bit garbled, and it’s never entirely clear what “work forces” actually means, but the sentiment is as clear as day.
“Fuck the police/Comin’ straight from the underground” – NWA, “Fuck tha Police” It’s easy to forget what an impact this song had on its release. A bunch of angry, young black men denouncing the police? On record? Middle America nearly had a fit.
“Don’t everyone like the smell of gasoline?/Well, burn motherfucker, burn American dreams” – Outkast, “Gasoline Dreams” It’s a mark of the impact that NWA had that a little more than a decade later Outkast could release an album that started with this line, and get rave reviews everywhere. And rightly so – great song, great album.
“Goddamn Europeans! Take me back to beautiful England/And the gray, damp filthiness of ages” – PJ Harvey, “The Last Living Rose” Biting sarcasm, delivered in the sweetest voice you’ll ever hear.
“In France a skinny man/Died of a big disease with a little name” – Prince, “Sign o the Times” Prince’s finest moment, and a pleasantly subtle piece of writing -– it takes a moment to realize that the “big disease with a little name” is, of course, AIDS.
The strange and nonsensical
“In the time of chimpanzees/I was a monkey” – Beck, “Loser” As far as a statement of outsiderdom goes, this is certainly effective, even if the whole primate business makes for a decidedly strange metaphor.
“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time/Y’all have knocked her up” – Funkadelic, Maggot Brain The lyrics here are really beside the point – it’s the ten-minute guitar immolation that follows that makes “Maggot Brain” a classic – but even so, these are decidedly strange words with which to start an album (as are the reference to Mother Earth “drown[ing] in her own shit”).
“I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit/And your dog refused to look at it” – Galaxie 500, “Fourth of July” This is very touching and all, but it does dodge the question of quite how one actually goes about writing a poem on a dog biscuit.
“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand” – Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London” Apparently, this was voted the best opening line in history in a BBC poll a few years back. We’re not going to argue – it’s certainly a good ‘un.
“Confidence is a preference for the habitual voyeur of what is known as: parklife” – Blur, “Parklife” Yes, it was meant to be nonsense. And, well, nonsense it certainly is.
And finally, we’ll leave you with an unarguable profundity from The Cramps: “Life is short, filled with stuff/Don’t know what for, I ain’t had enough.”
So, who have we missed?