Like most of the people out in cyber-nation I have been an ITunes user for several users. My album-purchasing habit has not subsided per se – but I tend to lean on the digital delivery. What ITunes and Napster has accomplished more than anything else is change the culture of our music consumption from the album to the song.
I mean, singles had always been produced. I remember purchasing tape singles when I first started being aware of music on the radio (Poison: “Your Mama Don’t Dance”/”Look What the Cat Dragged In” – nobody accused me of having taste). Singles sales were a big deal on the Billboard Charts, but had diminished in importance. I mean who just bought singles? Albums was where it was at then. I remember when compact discs first rolled into town, and the ecologically disasterous longboxes would line shelves. The long boxes were like a crawfish or crab shell – a whole ton of crap to get through to the tiny treasure inside.
Back then (wow do I sound old), the notion of an album as a unit was a huge deal. Artists planned for it (and still might) – the logic of the songs and the ordering was apparent. It was not like a Family Guy episode where you can re-arrange the scenes without loss of generality. Opening songs were the way to get you hooked. Is the rest of the album worth it? It’s not that a great album requires a great opening track, but it is hard to overcome a bad one.
These thoughts came back to me reading NQ’s post on Beck’s “Devil’s Haircut”, one of the best of all opening tracks – which supplemented one of the best albums of the last 20 years or so in Odelay. What I notice is that great opening tracks come in a couple of flavors. The first is the “explosion”. This is the sort of track that “Devil’s Haircut” is. Borrowing NQ’s words:
The first thing you notice about Devil’s Haircut is the crisp sound that greets you. It really pops. The famous Dust Brothers produced this album, and they seemed to be a great fit for this artist and this album. The song, like some of their work for the Beastie Boys, has all kinds of things going on in it. It starts off with a peppy drums and a loud guitar riff, then the guitar drops out while Beck begins his lyrics. Keeping in line with Mellow Gold, his lyrics border on the nonsensical, but like with the previous album, somehow it works.
The album starts with the big sound right away – it is telling us it can’t be ignored. In general, this seems to be the preferred tack for opening tracks to take – although not the only type. The other major sort of opening track is the “warm-up”. This is the sort of track that starts innocently enough, but sort of builds its power. The epitome of this track is “Tax Man” on the Beatles Revolver album. Here, we start with the riff – nothing showy but just setting the tempo of the song. Then the lyrics come in – “Let me tell you how it will be.” – then two hard chords – then back to the riff – “There’s one for you, nineteen for me” – two hard chords – then the chorus. The effect is an alarm clock or someone shaking the listener out of the slumber of a pre-album world. Another great example is “Bring Da Ruckus” by Wu-Tang Clan from their 1993 Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers):
Ultimately, when it comes to first tracks, it’s about energy. Quoting again from NQ on the Black Keys:
The other thing is that there is a pent up energy in this track. The song ends with Dan sayin “alright” as the drums stop and the guitar gives us a few more tortured bars. It’s almost like a declaration of ok, we’re warmed up now. You know these guys can let loose and rock the house, but you’re going to have to stick around to hear it.
A few of the best energy starters – stuff I go to when the topic pops up?
The Beatles – “Drive My Car” from Rubber Soul - another explosion type of song. Rubber Soul is the best of all Beatles albums, the album that resonates to their garage-pop-rock past and anticipated their arty Sergeant Pepper infused future. On it’s face it’s a silly song about girls – and Rubber Soul is not a terribly profound album generally – but it is the boys in full bloom.
NWA – title track to Straight Outta Compton – I’ve written about it before. No need to rehash it. But in an album of driving, intimidating, chest thumping hip hop greatness, this is the embodiment. I can’t quote a single lyric without having to warn the kids – just trust me.
Guns N Roses – “Welcome to the Jungle” from Appetite for Destruction – the consummate debut album of my youth. The song announced itself right away. “We’re the big leagues.”
The Clash – title track from London Calling - another explosion. This is one of the greatest start to finish albums of all time. In a lot of ways this is the consummate opening track for any album. Good pace, great hook. It is an inviting song, but it does not upstage the rest of the show.
In addition – the album gets bonus points for possibly the most famous (and maybe best – however it came about) hidden track of all time.