The first line of a track is crucial. In a few words a songwriter needs to set up a story and a mood that will keep the listener engaged, especially in today’s attention-deficit world. From St Vincent to Prince and Jay-Z to The Kinks, here’s 55 of the most memorable opening lines in song.
“I don’t believe in an interventionist god / but I know darling that you do.”
Somehow Nick Cave manages to combine the wildly romantic with the nerdy and weirdly theological at the outset of ‘Into My Arms’.
“It’s so relieving / To know that you’re leaving as soon as you get paid.”
Kurt Cobain could be catty when he wanted to be, and on ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle’ he laid out his stall and his opprobrium from the very beginning.
“Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate.”
It might have sounded like a throwaway description of a Groundhog situation, but this one line received more column inches than any other Annie Clark has written thus far. Thankfully St Vincent’s genius is so vast that people find plenty of other things to talk about her too.
“As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party.”
By 1974 the glam rock party was waning, and one of its progenitors David Bowie was immersing himself in art rock and a concept album about a dystopian future. ‘Diamond Dogs’ still rocked in a glamorous kind of way though.
“For my theme song / my leather black jeans on.”
A brilliant track with a killer opening line, Kanye was at his most focused on ‘Black Skinhead’, which playfully inverted racial stereotypes and presented them in way that was as thought-provoking as it was confrontational.
“In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.”
Prince wrote with sensitivity and insight on ‘Sign o’ the Times’, moved as he was by the day’s bete noires. The big disease with the little name everyone was talking about was of course AIDS.
“Like a bird on the wire / like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free.”
Few if any can lay claim to the incredible innate ability Leonard Cohen has with words. He effortlessly elevates mere lyrics to poetry, as the opening line of ‘Bird On The Wire’ attests. The music is pretty great too.
“All the leaves are brown / And the sky is grey.”
It’s a lyric you hear so often that it’s easy to forget how evocative it is. The Mamas and the Papas brought us a little Autumnal sadness in amongst all that sunshine pop on ‘California Dreaming’.
“Street’s like a jungle / So call the police / Following the herd / Down to Greece.”
‘Girls and Boys’ was written by Blur’s Damon Albarn as he holidayed in the mediterranean, observing the mating rituals of the Club 1830’s and all the chaos and depravity that ensues. The resulting song is a snapshot of copulating Brits in 1994.
“Son I’m 30 / I only went with your mother cos she’s dirty.”
Factory Records label boss Tony Wilson used to say Shaun Ryder was a poet “on a par with W.B. Yates”, and when you see a line like the opener of the Happy Mondays’ ‘Kinky Afro’ it’s not difficult to see why.
“Here’s comes Johnny Yen again / with the liquor and drugs.”
‘Lust for Life’ by Iggy Pop has become synonymous with the movie Trainspotting, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less brilliant. The Johnny Yen of the opening line is a reference to William Burroughs’ The Ticket That Exploded in case you were wondering.
“I am a lineman for the county / And I drive the main road / Searchin’ in the sun for another overload.”
The opening line to ‘Wichita Lineman’ where Glen Campbell laid out his stall, is one of the most evocative in pop history, and its no surprise, having been written by Jimmy Webb, a man whose cherished contribution to the American songbook is vast.
“You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar.“
‘Don’t You Want Me’ by the Human League works as a narrative between two characters who are clearly miffed with one another, and the first line sets the whole thing up beautifully.
“It was Christmas Eve babe / in the drunk tank / an old man said to me / won’t see another one.”
The ultimate aggressive duologue in song arrived in 1987 between Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, but the surprise Christmas smash Fairytale Of New York is more than a song, it’s the great American novel played out over four minutes.
“Get your motor running / get out on the highway.”
Steppenwolf took the American dream and subverted it, empowering the drifter, whose only ambition is the open road ahead. ‘Born To Be Wild’ precipitated a million Hell’s Angels fantasies for those stuck in dead end jobs in the arse end of nowheresville.
“A candy-coloured clown they call the sandman / Tiptoes to my room every night.”
‘In Dreams’ by Roy Orbison is one of those rare songs that astonishes each time you play it, and that’s before anyone’s told you that none of the sections in the song ever repeat. The opening line is peculiar, and you suspect it was what drew David Lynch in (he used the song in Blue Velvet).
“Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night.”
The 60s had its great lyricists, but none were more sharp than Ray Davies, whose sardonic observational style influenced everyone from Damon Albarn to Jarvis Cocker in the 90s. And then there was a song like ‘Waterloo Sunset’, which was beautiful from start to finish.
“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…”
You probably know the story; When ‘Yesterday’ first came to Paul McCartney, he went round singing it to people convinced it already existed. “Scrambled eggs”, he sang, “oh my baby how I love your legs…” Thankfully he changed it, and one of the most iconic lines in the history of pop was born.
19Arctic Monkeys 2006
“You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your night dress.”
Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys may have only been 19 when he wrote ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’, but he’d already seen the future and worked out that youthful desire might well be a transient thing. Perceptive.
“I may not always love you / But as long as there are stars above you / you never need to doubt it…”
Brian Wilson changed his lyricists throughout his time at the helm of the Beach Boys, but none ever hit the sweet spot more than the Tony Asher did with the opening line to ‘God Only Knows’.
“There’s a song playing on the radio / Sky high in the airwaves on the morning show.”
Brett Anderson is a lyricist with a unique vision, with motifs becoming defining characteristics of Suede songs. ‘The Wild Ones’ tapped into this lexicon of language, though the doomed romances of so many songs just became pure romanticism in this instance.
“Hey kids, shake it loose together / The spotlight’s hitting something that’s been known to change the weather.”
‘Bennie & The Jets’ was the song that unexpectedly sent Elton John to no.1 in the US, thanks to it being played on R&B stations. The Bernie Taupin lyric is about a futuristic glam rock band led by the fictional singer Bennie, and it’s surely Elton’s coolest ever song.
“We care a lot about disasters, fires, floods and killer bees / About Los Angeles falling in the sea…”
Faith No More garnered some worldwide attention when they released ‘We Care a Lot’ in 1986, a song that parodied a relatively new phenomenon in the 1980s: the compassionate celebrity. It was like a charity single but they kept all the money themselves.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins / but not mine…”
Influenced by a long line of poet maudits from Rimbaud to Dylan, Patti Smith has in turn influenced everyone from REM to PJ Harvey, and more contemporarily Savages. Horses is full of great lines, but this first one from ‘Gloria’ really stands out.
“You can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man…”
When a directionless Bee Gees broke up briefly towards the end of the 60s, nobody could have guessed they’d return to become one of the best selling acts of all time; even weirder that they did it as figureheads of disco. ‘Stayin’ Alive’ is fantastic though, so props!
“Bass, how low can you go?”
Has any hip hop record ever started more promisingly than Public Enemy’s ‘Bring the Noise’, with Chuck D’s rhetorical opening line so emphatic that you almost expect bass to answer him.
“Birds flying high you know how I feel / Sun in the sky you know how I feel…”
Nina Simone is ‘Feeling Good’ and she wants you to know about it, and when she sings those lyrics you’re with her all the way. Muse covered it and it sounded pretty great then too.
“All your friends are cunts / your mother was a ball point pen thief…”
90’s Welsh rockers Mcclusky were kings of the jaw-dropping opening lyrical gambit, though perhaps ‘Gareth Brown Says’ is the funniest and most jaw-dropping of all. Andrew Falkous’ present outfit Future of the Left are just as lean and mean lyrically.
“Don’t start me talking / I could talk all night.”
Elvis Costello emerged out of the brutal energy of punk, but with songs like ‘Oliver’s Army’, it was clear he had a lot more to say. The first line has something of the pub philosopher about it, the reference to Oliver Cromwell in relation to the concomitant troubles in Northern Ireland was inspired.
“I’ve been caught stealing once when I was five / I enjoy stealing, it’s just as simple as that.”
Perry Farrell came clean about his kleptomania in the very first line of ‘Been Caught Stealing’, although it wasn’t the first line if you’re a dog. Jane’s Addiction sampled a hound at the outset of the song, perhaps giving chase to Farrell as he runs off with your milk.
“Muthafuckas say that I’m foolish / I only talk about jewels/ Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?”
Jay-Z answered his critics who accused him of loving the bling in the opening line of ‘Renegade’. One presumes he was raising his game at this point, because Eminem was the guest on the track, as we all know how he can steal the show.
“We skipped the light fandango / Turned cartwheels cross the floor.”
Procol Harum had a monster hit with ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ in 1967, although chances are you couldn’t whistle any of their other tunes. What a “light fandango” is exactly, who can say, but whatever it is, it sounds fantastic…
“Feigning joy and surprise / At the gifts we despise / Over mulled wine with you.”
Because of his propensity for silliness, Justin Hawkins often gets overlooked as a lyricist, but he certainly has his moments. Few lines have ever so succinctly summed up the misery yuletide sometimes brings than the Darkness’ ‘Christmas time (Don’t Let The Bells End).’
“There’s a new sensation / A fabulous creation / A danceable solution / To teenage revolution.”
Another lyricist who doesn’t necessarily get his dues is Bryan Ferry, and ‘Do The Strand’ was a frivolous melange of highfalutin references and clever in-jokes about a dance sensation that he’d made up, the wag!
“Why do birds suddenly appear / every time you are near?”
The Carpenters were apparently in the last chance saloon when they were offered ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’, and the song had been around for a while underachieving too. Richard Carpenter changed the syncopation, Karen Carpenter delivered two of the most gorgeous lines in pop, and the rest is history.
“Wasted and wounded, it ain’t what the moon did, I’ve got what I paid for now.”
Tom Waits delivers one of the finest lyrics there ever was about having a hangover on ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’.
“In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey.”
No lyric conveys outsiderdom in such an amusing way as this one by Beck on the hit song ‘Loser’. Artistry, pure and simple.
“She keeps her Moet et Chandon / In her pretty cabinet / ‘Let them eat cake’ she says / Just like Marie Antoinette.”
Ahh Freddie, so gifted and so, well, Freddie. The opening lines of ‘Killer Queen’ are characteristically flashy, funny and cheeky all at the same time. ‘Mama, just killed a man’ was another obvious contender…
“Bless my cotton socks I’m in the news.”
The Teardrop Explodes’ opening line to ‘Reward’ was inimitably Julian Cope, helping propel the band into the top 10 for the first and only time in 1981. Cope apparently recorded the song on acid, giving it that rather unique energy.
“I’m so tired / of playing / playing with this bow and arrow.”
The ‘I’m so tired’ line had been used before by both the Beatles and the Kinks, but adding the bow and arrow to the equation added something beautifully unhinged to ‘Glory Box’, one of the real classics of trip hop.
“Johnny’s in the basement / Mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement / Thinking about the government.”
It’s impossible to think of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ without imagining Dylan stood right of camera with a handful of cue cards. It’s perhaps the most iconic image of Dylan that exists. From a career of more than 50 years, that’s saying something.
“I never thought it would happen / with me and the girl from Clapham.”
Few have ever mastered the rhyming couplet with the wit and precision that Chris Difford of Squeeze managed. The opening line from ‘Up The Junction’ begins the greatest four minute kitchen sink drama ever written.
“Got me a movie I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs I want you to know.”
Clearly under the influence of the 1929 Buñuel / Dali film Un Chien Andalou, Black Francis beautifully conveyed the horror of seeing that eyeball being sliced, which still shocks to this day. So indeed, does the Pixies ‘Debaser’, a song of such dazzling ferocity.
“And now, the end is here / And so I face the final curtain…”
The Frank Sinatra song has become a favourite at funerals, and with a first line like that, it’s easy to see why. The lyrics were written by Paul Anka based on the music of French pop singer Claude Francois, who met his own end changing a lightbulb whilst stood in the bath.
“This is the end / beautiful friend.”
The Doors elegy to finality is the last song in this gallery; it can be just as well enjoyed in darkness with your eyes closed as watched over the incredible opening sequence to Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now. This is the end.