WEDNESDAY, MARCH 30, 2016|
Posted by: Don Saas
There are countless contenders for the best opening line to a book. "They call me Ishmael" (Moby Dick). "The Man in Black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed" (The Dark Tower Pt. 1: The Gunslinger). "A screaming came across the sky" (Gravity's Rainbow). I could go on for a while. But what about the best opening verses to songs? They're somewhat unsung. These are the lines that immediately draw you into some of the most beloved songs of all time. So, yeah, needless to say, we decided to pick our 10 favorite opening verses of all time (and these are in no particular order cause that would be like choosing children).
Shaolin shadowboxing, and the Wu-Tang sword style
"Bring Da Ruckus" by Wu-Tang Clan
If what you say is true,
The Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous
Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?
En garde, I'll let you try my Wu-Tang style
I'm slightly cheating here right out of the gates. The opening "line" of this track is actually lifted from the 80s kung fu movie, Shaolin & Wu Tang. But, that's also the perfect introduction to Wu-Tang Clan who would make an entire career around references to comic books, martial arts, and any other nerdy interest that was bouncing around their head.
"Millstone" by Brand New
I used to be such a burning example,
I used to be so original.
I used to care, I was being cared for.
Made sure I showed it to those that I love.
Brand New's The Devil & God Are Raging Inside Me is the definition of a cult fave (much like Wu-Tang's Enter the 36 Chambers), and it could easily be called Millennial Angst or How I F***ed Up And Ruined Becoming An Adult: The Album, but that doesn't quite have the same ring to it. "Millstone" is the record's second track, and it immediately anchors the thematic core of the rest of the record.
"Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac
Isn't the right thing to do
How can I ever change things
That I feel
Sometimes "simple" is better, and if you ever need a summary of what precisely Rumours was about, the beginning of "Go Your Own Way" hits the nail right on the head. Here's a band singing pop songs about their own imploding romantic entanglements and holding absolutely nothing back.
"What's Love Got To Do With It" by Tina Turner
You must understand though the touch of your hand
Makes my pulse react
That it's only the thrill of boy meeting girl
You must try to ignore that it means more than that
Talk about lyrics that will get you hot under the collar! Tina Turner made an entire career out of embracing and exaggerating outsized sexuality, and the opening verse of "What's Love Got To Do With It" is a perfect explanation of how sometimes sex is just sex, and it isn't always something else (though part of the genius of the song is how that's the narrator trying to rationalize what are likely actual romantic feelings due to fear of a broken heart).
"This Charming Man" by The Smiths
On a hillside desolate
Will nature make a man of me yet?
Oh, Morrissey...never change. Well, maybe work on the misanthropy but never stop being one of the most gifted lyricists to ever grace this humble planet. "This Charming Man" is a classic "story" song (albeit one with a typical, transgressive Morrissey twist; it's about an older gay man propositioning a younger man for sex), and I'm hard pressed to name a line that sets a more evocative scene than "Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate."
"Hurricane" by Bob Dylan
Pistols shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out "My God they killed them all"
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.
And we've got another story song. Bob Dylan's "Hurricane" (my pick for Dylan's second best track...narrowly behind "Tangled Up in Blue") was the true story of boxer Rubin Carter who spent two decades wrongly imprisoned for murder due to corruption and racism from the Paterson, New Jersey police department. And right out of the gates, Dylan sets the scene of the tragic story that's about to unfold.
"Pictures of You" by The Cure
I've been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they're real
I've been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are
All I can feel
I reject The Cure's reputation as a primarily "sad" band. One of the reasons that I love Disintegration the way that I do is because it is an album of almost breathtaking beauty. That said, "Pictures of You" is the great "weepy" track on the record, and it's been one of my go-to "breakup" tracks for years and years now, and that opening line expertly channels the track's romantic desperation.
"Here Comes Your Man" by The Pixies
Outside there's a box car waiting
Outside the family stew
Out by the fire breathing
Outside we wait 'til face turns blue
I know the nervous walking
I know the dirty beard hangs
Out by the box car waiting
Take me away to nowhere plains
A concept track about a love story between two vagrants/train hoppers? Only the Pixies. Seriously though, "Here Comes Your Man" is one of the defining tracks of the nascent years of "alt rock" and the picture that the Pixies immediately create on this track shows that they're a band of more imagination and poetry than most of their peers.
"The Boxer" by Simon & Garfunkel
I am just a poor boy.
Though my story's seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises
All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.
I'm probably a little biased here. "The Boxer" isn't just my favorite Simon & Garfunkel song. It's only surpassed by "God Only Knows" to be my favorite song of all time. I didn't go out of my way to have two songs about boxers on this list, but Simon & Garfunkel's track takes a more existentially desperate route, and there's something about that opening verse that speaks to the inherent disappointments of life even if you don't know what the word pugilist means.
"Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman
You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Anyplace is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
Me, myself I got nothing to prove
Last but certainly not least, we arrive at Tracy Chapman's 80s masterpiece, "Fast Car." The unlikely anthem about the brutal cycles of poverty and domestic disillusionment would prove to be Chapman's most notable contribution to pop culture (though fans will eagerly tell you how deep her catalogue of tracks is). And it's opening verse is a heartbreaking invitation to step into the world and story she's about to spin.