So what makes a great opening lyric? Should it grab your attention instantly? Should it make you laugh? Should it intrigue and draw you in? Should it set up the songs core narrative? Should it be really catchy and iconic, or should it be cryptic and confusing?
In all honesty there is no right way, it can be one word, one line or a three line set up joke. It can be incredible literal or totally surreal and ironic. So rather than pontificating about what makes a great opening line, let’s take a look at our writers favourite opening couplets.
5. David Courtney – Rancid (lyricist, Tim Armstrong)
“Well all you motherfuckers, criminals will be suckers if you don’t step aside for David Courtney”
So good they sing it twice, this is Rancid’s loving tribute to British gangster David Courtney and this opening line sets up the rest of the track which is brimming with East End inspired rhyming nonsense that you’d normally find in a Guy Ritchie film.
“I’ll tell you something, baby that’s a fact, never see a hearse, with a luggage rack”
Mike Ness is one of punk’s finest poets and he’s showing no sign of slowing down with this one from earlier this year. A song that exemplifies the old adage that you can’t take things with you when you die the opening line says it all really.
“Recruiting the ill fated for the war, a legion of uneducated bankrupt souls, with a lust for revenge answering the call, from New Yorqatar to Calirarabia”
Dave Mustaine’s lyrics run the gamut from the profoundly stupid to the insightful and it’s when dealing with one of his favourite lyrical subjects, politics and the state of the world, he tends to be at his best, like with this tongue-in-cheek call to arms shows.
“I got a letter from the government, the other day, I opened and read it, it said they was suckers”
One opening line that perfectly sums up Public Enemy front man Chuck D’s feelings on the US Government. They’re suckers.
“Early one morning while making the rounds, I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down I went right home and I went to bed, I stuck that lovin’ .44 beneath my head”
There’s a reason Johnny Cash spent most of his career in black and it suited him so well, he was a genuine bad ass and that made songs like ‘Cocaine Blues’ so believable. Being a cold blooded killer relaxed enough to sleep with the gun he did the crime with never sounded more cool.
5. Fleetwood Mac – Dreams
“Now here you go again, you want your freedom; well who am I to keep you down?”
Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were a couple when they joined Fleetwood Mac, but after they splintered apart they wrote their own break-up songs for the classic ‘Rumours’ LP. Buckingham’s was the bitter kiss-off of ‘Go Your Own Way’, but before Stevie had heard it, she wrote ‘Dreams’ as a fond farewell. She doesn’t apologise, she doesn’t mourn and she doesn’t storm, she just wishes him well and tries to move on. There’s no hidden aggression in this opening line; it’s pure honesty.
“He’s a twentieth century boy with his hands on the rail, trying not to be sick again and holding on for tomorrow.”
Blur’s ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ was the lone voice of British peevishness in a world saturated with squeaky-clean good-time pop about love and parties and American Nirvana-wannabes singing about “feelings” far too earnestly to be considered believable. Straight from the off, this song is about hangovers, boredom and travel-sickness; and brit-pop was born.
“Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream; it is not dying.”
That’s the psychedelic manifesto right there. After thirteen fairly earthbound (perfect) pop songs, The Beatles threw a curveball at the end of ‘Revolver’ in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (which only had one chord in it!). Lennon said to the recording engineers that he wanted to sound as if he was on the moon, but in this lyric, he effectively instructs us to escape to wherever we like.
“Yeah I got busted, so I used my one phone call to dedicate a song to you on the radio.”
I could sing Jens Lekman’s praises until one of us dies. This opening line to ‘You Are The Light’ creates and defines an entire character in one fell swoop: a romantic goofball caught between smart jester and love-struck idiot whom you can’t help but cheer on his way.
“In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name, by chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same.”
After making poorly performing albums AND movies, Prince’s record company were crying out for him to make another commercial monster like ‘Purple Rain’. ‘Sign O The Times’, the double LP that he eventually released (trimmed down from an unfinished triple album) was not as big a hit as ‘Purple Rain’, but it was perhaps his greatest artistic statement. If you want to make a money-spinner, it’s probably not recommended to kick off your record with a song about death, gang violence, drugs and infanticide. The opening lyric alone made history, making him the first mainstream musician to openly talk about AIDS. Right away, this made you sit still, shut up and listen.
5. Nine Inch Nails- Hurt
‘I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.’
Trent Reznor has always been an exceptional lyricist but NIN classic ‘Hurt’ is just utter brilliance. Dark, strong and hugely personal this brooding tale of regret is just pure genius and really hits the nail on the head (sorry).
‘Desert Rose, why do you live alone? If you are sad I’ll make you leave this life’
Lasting around 29 minutes ‘Art Of Life’ is an astonishing piece of work and lyricist Yoshiki really sets the standard high. His beautifully metaphoric lyrics are astounding and even more so when you consider English isn’t even his first language. A true masterpiece.
‘One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.’
I think this line just really sums up Bob. He lived for music, constantly trying to unite people through song and he did it bloody well. So much so that when he died an estimated 100,000 people attended an open casket viewing just to catch a glimpse of their hero. His music truly touched people and this opening lyric is a good example of why.
‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’
Originally a Van Morrison song, Patti covered the track for her album ‘Horses’, she did make some adjustments however including this cracker of an opening line. Its simple yet bold, Patti knows she’s made mistakes but refuses to take the blame for everything. One of the great punk musicians of all time and she had great lyrics that packed a punch.
‘I am an architect, they call me a butcher. I am a pioneer, they call me primitive.’
The song in general confuses me but then I am not alone as Richey and Nicky from Manics also find it confusing and they wrote it. What I do understand is that the song really touches on Richeys tragic self harm, and the opening lyric is a testament to this. It gives me mixed feelings really. I don’t want to like the subject matter but then I really like the strength to open up about your issues and show your true feelings. That’s why I chose it as one of my favourite lyrics of all time.
This was tough, especially as Adam and Joe pinched three of my favourite lyrics (Prince, Cash, Beatles), and to be honest I love so many opening lines. I could do a 20 Smiths opening lyrics, 20 Costello opening lyrics, etc…and so in the process of picking just five, I decided to go with my five favourites, the one’s that mean the most to me, as there are far too many good ones.
So these aren’t the five best per se, but they’re five that I’ve always found personally affecting over the years.
5. David Bowie – Rock n Roll Suicide
“Time Takes A Cigarette, Put’s It In Your Mouth”
My fellow writers have picked out some stunning opening lyrics so far, but no line sends shivers down my spine quite like this one. Part of the line’s power derives from Bowie’s quivering vocal, as a piece of story telling “Rock n Roll Suicide” is near unparalleled. With subtle shifts in tone Bowie goes from bottom of a shot glass nihilism, to the bitter regrets to lounge singer, to an enduring, and increasingly rapid message of (plead for) hope. It’s a theatrical masterwork, but it’s all set up by that opening line.
It’s such an enduring sentiment. It’s the weary grind of life, it’s the sound idealism succumbing to cynicism, it’s hope fading away and being replaced by crippling acceptance, it’s the inevitability that we all endevour to escape from, but so few us manage to allude.
“The Sweet Pretty Things Are In Bed Now Of Course, The City Fathers They’re Trying To Endorse, The Reincarnation Of Paul Revere’s Horse, But The Town Has No Need To Be Nervous”
“The Tombstone Blues” is one of those fantastically fulfilling and frustrating songs, it says everything you could possibly want to say better than you could ever say it. It’s a scathing political tirade, all surrealist imagery, and sardonic snarling snipes. In one fell swoop Dylan points out the lunacy and hypocrisy of politics with his gorgeous, looking down his nose at you, sneer. It’s a bitter and urgent thrill ride, it’s the exact type of track you wish young songwriters were penning today, but sadly, despite gravity of our socio/economic climate, we just aren’t producing that radical rant or that unifying call to arms.
Dylan just did it better than anyone else. There is a wonderful universality to his contempt, even when being remarkably precise, his language was so lucid, vivid, and elusive that it meant something and nothing to everyone everywhere. And no image is more alluring than the false promise of “Paul Revere’s Horse”.
“Sometimes I Find Myself Just Sitting Back And Reminiscing, Especially When I Have To Watch Other People Kissing”
Yeah Lily Allen above Bob Dylan, but what the hey this is my list of the opening lines that I find the most affecting. This lyric is a two-fronted assault; first of all Lily’s delivery is sublime. Her voice is remarkably poignant because it’s so weak, but never fragile. It’s resigned, you can practical feel, that big deep intake of breath and that quasi-dirty frustrated stare that accompanies forlorn memories, and yet that tinge of warmth remains in voice. After all, few memories are more crushing than those of a bygone happiness.
In short the delivery is just perfect, and the line is so resonant in its simplicity, because it’s something that hits everyone, whether it’s other people kissing (I’ve been there), an old photograph that catches your eye or some silly object that brings a world of hurt and reflection flooding back.
“Everybody Makes Mistakes, But I Come Alive When I Come Undone”
James Murphy is one of the most underrated lyricists of the past decade, and this is one of the purest sentiments I’ve ever heard expressed; the idea that you only truly live when things are falling apart, when you fuck up, and when your heart’s broken.
Sure the cosy middle ground feels great, and happiness may appear more fulfilling than frustration, but it’s those moments of doubt and ambiguity that enliven us, the dizzying chase, the sleepless nights, the nagging regrets, the peril, the struggle, the ache, the trials and the tribulations, the pain and the stumbling blocks that make life worth living.
“They Heard Me Singing And Told Me To Stop, Quit These Pretentious Things And Just Punch The Clock”
I don’t think I’ve ever in my life found any song or any line (well two lines), more meaningful, heartbreaking or important than those of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”. “Sprawl II” is the young man’s dilemma, that moment when your life feels directionless, you find yourself drifting, and it’s time to find your calling, it’s time to settle down, and get on. The world, your friends, your family, and the talking heads on the TV will say it’s time to abandon the frivolous ideals of youth, and “just punch the clock”.
“Sprawl II” with it’s shimmering disco offers the renewed ideology of youth and the words that you desperately need to hear. It fills you with belief that you can escape the grind of mediocrity and conventional wisdom, you live for the moment and revel in frivolity and expression, you will find your calling, and you will find your kind: “These Days It Feels As Though My Life It Has No Purpose, But Late At Night The Feeling Swim To The Surface, Cause On The Surface The City Lights Shine, They’re Calling At Come Find Your Kind”.