Sunday, 29 June 2008

Songs with great opening lines

Words are flying out like
endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe

Lennon, McCartney - Across the Universe. The Beatles provide a prime example of how the opening words of a song can help to capture our attention. Across the Universe illustrates something about us that many are unable to change. Whatever is happening elsewhere "nothing's gonna change my world".

It is often the opening lines of a song that grab our attention and define the music.

Rock and roll had not been famous for great lyrics. It was the rhythm, the beat that was all important. But all this was about to change.

As the "underground" flower power movement gathered strength, so the music and songs of the era grew in stature. The hippie culture was not just about drugs, but about expanding consciousness and awareness, seeking solutions to world issues from war to love to pollution. While there was always room for silly love songs, songwriters explored a range of issues, some political, many relating to the human condition. The words were no longer secondary to the beat but often reached the highest literary standards. Bob Dylan exemplified this in his use of words. The Times They are a Changing is an early example of Dylan's exploration of language:

Come gather round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth saving
Then you'd better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone
For the times, they are a changing

The opening lines of Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone again illustrate the skilled use of words to express a personal view:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People'd call, say, beware doll, you're bound to fall
You thought they were all kiddin' you

Consider the opening lines of Just Life a Woman:

Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside the rain
Everybody knows
That baby's got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls.

Bob Dylan's early works were often concerned with real political issues. The opening lines of Only a Pawn in their Game are an excellent example of powerful words to describe a social issue:

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim

Behind a man's brain
But he can't be blamed
He's only a pawn in their game.

Dylan's lyrics became more abstract - perhaps even obscure - as the sixties took their toll, but he returned to similar themes when confronted with injustice during the seventies. Hurricane is a prime example:

Pistol 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!

As Dylan became more and more influential in the music of the day, song lyrics gained in importance. The stars of the day were inspired to stretch themselves to explore the human experience, thoughts and emotions. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones became primary examples of this.

The Rolling Stones' Jumping Jack Flash (Jagger, Richards)

opens with the words

I was born in a cross-fire hurricane
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain,
But it's all right now, in fact, its a gas!
But it's all right. I'm jumpin' jack flash,
It's a gas! gas! gas!

Dramatic and visual, the words catch the listener's immediate attention. Jagger and Richards used a similar approach in Sympathy with the Devil:

Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
I've been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man's soul and faith

A song tells a story. Describing the hippie dream, Ruby Tuesday opens with:

She would never say where she came from
Yesterday don't matter if it's gone
While the sun is bright
Or in the darkest night
No one knows
She comes and goes

The Beatles' landmark album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ended with a powerful song A Day in the Life. Over the years, the song's words have be interpreted and re-interpreted.

I read the news today oh, boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph

The sixties was a time when music became a means of expression. Singer-songwriters became true poets. None less so than Leonard Cohen:

Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

Like Dylan, Cohen's work focuses on the human condition. Using a narrative format, The Partisan describes the life of a partisan during the Second World War. The song brings the experience close to us.

When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender,
this I could not do;
I took my gun and vanished.
I have changed my name so often,
I've lost my wife and children
but I have many friends,
and some of them are with me.

Pop music is not generally known for great lyrics, but these examples provide evidence that the medium can lend itself to some very profound and meaningful thoughts, ideas and true literary genius.

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