Arctic Monkeys' new album features one of the greatest opening lines of all time; we look back at the competition.
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” Alex Turner drawls at the opening of Arctic Monkeys’ new album-cum-lunar leisure resort ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’. Forgetting that it would actually be awful to be one of The Strokes these days – the drug damage, the endless waiting, the jazz – the lyric instantly slots into the highest echelons of album opening lines. Those memorable, shocking, hilarious or deeply poetic lyrics that drag you into the most important records of your life. Here are my choices, tell me yours.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, ‘The Boatman’s Call’ (1997)
Opening lyric: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” – ‘Into My Arms’
A bold philosophical opening gambit so starkly opposed to the fragility of the plaintive piano refrain that opens Cave’s tenth album that it stands amongst the most memorable opening lines in history. That line alone somehow makes ‘Into My Arms’ Cave’s most romantic song – try finding a church that’ll let you use it as bride-arrival music for a wedding though…
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born To Run’ (1975)
Opening lyric: “The screen door slams; Mary’s dress waves/Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays” – ‘Thunder Road’
Just as Bruce was proving himself the grandmaster of highway rock, he was also coming into his own as the prime post-Dylan purveyor of backwoods American lyricism. ‘Thunder Road’’s evocative opening line captures the dry-aired romance of a mid-western dusk so perfectly you can almost hear the engines of teenage freedom thrumming in the distance.
Blur, ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ (1993)
Opening lyric: “He’s a 20th Century boy/With his hands on the rails/Trying not to be sick again/And holding on for tomorrow” – ‘For Tomorrow’
‘Modern Life…’ set out to capture the end-of-a-century British malaise, and spearheaded Britpop as a result. The entire purpose and philosophy of the move was summed up neatly in these introductory lines; protagonist, band and fan were all holding on for dear life as the future rushed upon them.
Elvis Costello, ‘King Of America’ (1986)
Opening line: “He thought he was the king of America/Where they pour Coca-Cola just like vintage wine” – ‘Brilliant Mistake’
Snappy opening lyrics? Just call E. Costello’s Wry Post-Punk Poetry Hotline. Who could forget the bark of “I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t anna touch” that fired us into ‘This Year’s Model’ or the snarl of “Blood and chocolate! I hope you’re satisfied what you’ve done” that launched the brilliantly feral and vengeful ‘Blood And Chocolate’ album in 1986? But arguably Costello’s finest intro line was from his down-home Americana album ‘King Of America’, a line both honouring the country folk storytelling tradition and exposing its facile homeland at the same time. Bravo, Elv.
N.W.A., ‘Straight Outa Compton’ (1988)
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Opening lyric: “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”
And how. A sentence that would resonate through the coming decades of rebellious hip-hop, the intro words of N.W.A.’s seminal debut acted as a blueprint and mission statement for the entire genre.
The Verve, ‘Urban Hymns’ (1997)
Opening line: “’Cause it’s a bitter-sweet symphony, this life/Try to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money, then you die” – ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’
Yup. Pass the whiskey.
The Beatles, ‘Revolver’ (1966)
Opening line: “Let me tell you how it will be/There’s one for you, 19 for me” – ‘Taxman’
In which the lovable, wobble-headed mop-tops of ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ fame turned round and bit at HMRC’s grasping hand in what might well be the first example of Top Bracket Blues. ‘Help!’ had hinted at fresh darkness at the heart of The Beatles’ previously exclusively boy-meets-girl songs, but ‘Taxman’ was where the mask of respectability really came off and the anti-establishment rebels reared up. Next stop, uncontrollable beards.
Pixies, ‘Doolittle’ (1989)
Opening line: “Got me a movie, I want you to know!/Slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know!” – ‘Debaser’
Righteous indie rock, cult movies and gore – all key elements of Pixies’ aesthetic and all crammed into the rip-roaring opening seconds of their masterpiece ‘Doolittle’. A tribute to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist 1929 short film Un Chien Andalou, which does indeed involve sliced eyeballs, ‘Debaser’ became the most ultra-violent indie club banger the right side of ‘Smack My Bitch Up’.
David Bowie, ‘Station To Station’ (1976)
Opening line: “The return of the thin white duke/Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”, ‘Station To Station’
More eyeball-ruining frolics, as Bowie enacted his umpteenth major chameleonic shift in style in just two lines, introducing the callous Thin White Duke character and succinctly setting us against him – really, after this, the Nazi salute was kinda overkill. The birth of Berlin Bowie.
Primal Scream, ‘Screamadelica’ (1991)
Opening line: “I was blind, now I can see/You made a believer out of me” – ‘Movin’ On Up’
The moment that rave became an official religion.
PJ Harvey, ‘Dry’ (1992)
Opening line: “Oh my lover, don’t you know it’s alright/You can love her, you can love me at the same time” – ‘Oh My Lover’
Frailty, desperation, determination, warped romance – the opening lines of Peej’s debut album seemed a flip-book preview of her entire early career. That they also introduced one of the most overwhelming songs of her catalogue, packing an emotional punch like being rear-ended by Ant McPartlin, only made them more impactful.
The Smiths, ‘Meat Is Murder’ (1985)
Opening line: “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools/Spineless swines, cemented minds” – ‘The Headmaster Ritual’
The brutalised youth of the fledgling indie scene flocked to words such as these, back in the days when Morrissey was the poster boy for teenage ennui rather than far-fight Islamophobic politics.
Patti Smith, ‘Horses’ (1975)
Opening line: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” – ‘Gloria’
Pink Floyd, ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975)
Opening line: “Remember when you were young?/You shone like the sun/Shine on, you crazy diamond” – ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond Pts 1-5’
Dedicated to the Floyd’s erstwhile singer and LSD casualty Syd Barrett, ‘Shine On…’ was a lustrous beauty made all the more tender and tragic by the fact that Syd turned up at the studio while it was being recorded, but had put on so much weight that half the band didn’t recognise him.
Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)
Opening line: “Load up on guns, bring your friends” – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
The long-term significance hangs heavy over ‘Nevermind’’s first words, but as a call to arms for the grunge generation it was a pithily astute piece of nihilistic poetry.
The Clash, ‘London Calling’ (1977)
Opening line: “London calling to the faraway towns/Now war is declared, and battle coming down” – ‘London Calling’
The very best album opening lines act as summations of the album in question, and also the times that album is documenting. So Strummer’s declaration of punk warfare epitomises late 70s Britain – and, indeed, Britain ever since.