|Great Opening Lines|
16 Lovers Lane
'Love Goes On'
“There’s a cat in the alley way/Dreaming of birds that are blue/Sometimes girl, when I’m lonely/This is how I think about you.”
16 Lovers Lane is an uneasy album whose shimmering guitar jangle barely conceals the menace that Robert Forster and Grant McLennan imbued in their songs about power dynamics and the primal elements of relationships. The album opener’s whiplash change from kitty cats, blue birds and daydreams to manipulation and nascent abuse is one for the ages.
'You're So Vain'
“You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht.”
The identity of the target of Simon’s all-time diss track remains unknown but nothing sums up the character’s insufferably cocksure decadence like this analogy. And no, it is not the best line on the song – when I do an all-time lyrics list, you can be sure that “You’re so vain/You probably think this song is about you” will be at the pointy end.
'Guns of Brixton'
“When they kick at your front door, how ya gonna come?/With your hands on your head or the trigger of your gun?”
Inspired by the Jamaican gang film The Harder They Come, the Clash’s deep love of reggae and outlaws met at their respective peaks with bass player Paul Simonon taking the mic. It’s tough, deliciously bad-ass and enters the song at the most exciting part of the story.
“Here are the young men/The weight on their shoulders.”
Across its six minutes, the final track of Joy Division’s posthumous album Closer feels like we are watching something slowly swirl away until it is swallowed by the darkness. ‘Decades’ is introspection inside introspection, a reflection of the melancholy forces that made the band so fascinating and ultimately led to its tragic end when lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide shortly after recording.
Let There Be Rock
“I never smoked no cigarettes, I never drank much booze/But I’m only a man, don’t you understand, and a man can sometimes lose.”
What separated Bon Scott from the groin-thrusting cock-rock imitators who followed in his wake was humour and self-awareness. There is a terrific weariness and vulnerability to this line, a snapshot of sincerity on an album of otherwise relentless red-blooded hard rock.
|7||Gang of Youths|
“Quit honking your horns/There’s five other lanes.”
There has never been a suicide song like ‘Magnolia’. A musical retelling of lead singer Dave Le’aupepe’s attempt one night in the Australian winter, the song is a mix of black humour, exaltation and delirium that opens with Le’aupepe drunkenly grumping at the drivers who he is hoping will deliver him from this world.
“As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party.”
The conceptual thread of Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs – a glam rock extrapolation of Orwell’s 1984 – was pretty patchy. The link to a futuristic totalitarian dystopia is especially tenuous on the title track but boy, when Halloween Jack kicks open the doors with this little beauty, nihilism never sounded like such a delicious mood.
'One Long Day'
“City life was closing in on me/The way things go, 30 years bus time share will be my eulogy.”
Regardless of how wonderful Cold Chisel’s discography is, we can lament that the Aussie quintet never fully realised the jazz stylings showcased in their debut album. Ian Moss does all but snap his fingers under a street light with his smoking jacket flung over his shoulder as he grimly but wryly quips about slowly suffocating in the 9-5.
'Out of Control'
“Monday morning/18 years dawning/I said, ‘How long?’”
Sometimes it really is about context. U2’s first single from their debut album Boy opens with the narrator stepping into his first day of adulthood with a deep, steadying breath and precious enthusiasm – both equally tangible in a handful of words. ‘Out of Control’ is a prescient beginning to the Irish quartet’s path to becoming the biggest band in the world.
'Cigarettes and Alcohol'
“Is it my imagination or have I finally found something worth living for?”
Chest bared, arms wide to the world and hollering as if he was living the greatest day of his life, Liam Gallagher rides on the wave of a nicked T-Rex riff as Oasis broke like a bold and fearless wave on the post-Nirvana scene. Liam’s brother and bandmate Noel reflected on the reaction the song got live. “People go fucking apeshit, for that song. It mentions drugs and shagging birds, social comment, boozing and drinking and listening to tunes. You know, what more do you want?!”
Highway 61 Revisited
“They’re selling postcards of the hanging.”
Dylan was at the peak of his powers on Highway 61 Revisited, laying the sounds and words that would make him a legend and “expand a pop song until it contained the whole world”, as Bruce Springsteen so reverently said. The opening image of the album’s finale came from a 1920 lynching of three African American men in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. Photos of the lynching made their way onto postcards and although Dylan was not born until 21 years after the event, he turned it into a symbol of a society where nothing is beyond commercial exploitation.
'Gold Dust Woman'
“Rock on, gold dust woman/Take your silver spoon and dig your grave.”
The in-house romantic turmoil during the recording Fleetwood Mac’s classic Rumours is as famous as the album itself. Feeding into the songs was that angst (and blizzards of Bolivia’s bad stuff, by the by), with the ex-lovers-but-still-bandmates trying to outdo each other with snarling jabs on tape. Ultimately, singer Stevie Nicks laughs last over guitarist Lindsay Buckingham with the windmill dunk that is ‘Gold Dust Woman’. It’s Shakespeare in a wild, wild west shoot-out between a group of developmentally arrested mid-70s coke heads. What, and I mean what, is there to not love?
Led Zeppelin III
“We come from the land of the ice and snow.”
It’s awfully impressive and convenient when you can tie the birth and existence of a sub-genre to a single song. So well done and cheers, Led Zep: may we present the genesis of Nordic death metal.
“I am my own parasite.”
Nirvana’s final album In Utero is just not a fun listen. Grating vocals, static-frayed feedback, rhythm sections blasted into oblivion… the sound is the distillation of lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain’s mental health problems, hatred of the band’s fame and spiralling drug addiction. The ugly mutation ‘Milk It’ is a reflection of his self-destructive behaviour and state of mind, one that is chilling even if you didn’t know where this story was going to end.
Blue Sky Mining
“Few of the sins of the father are visited upon the son.”
Left-wing rockers Midnight Oil’s anti-war anthem focused on the cyclical destruction that occurs when history lessons are consigned to the bin. Lead singer Peter Garrett cribs from Exodus scripture in a hoary imploration to remember the horrors of war and prevent its devastation from extending to the next generation. That the song is entitled ‘Forgotten Years’ is a grim indication to his hopes that such a plea will be heeded.
good kid, m.A.A.d city
“If Pirus and Crips all got along/They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song.”
It’s unlikely that the realism and narrative depth of Kendrick Lamar’s second album good kid, m.A.A.d city will ever age. The concept album spans one night in a gang-violence plagued city with Lamar both a perpetrator of the hate and bloodshed and painfully aware of its destruction. The opening line of ‘m.A.A.d City’ is a terrifying look into the impossible-to-escape web of intergenerational gang warfare, a final breath before we are dropped into three minutes of nerve-slashing tension.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
“Ain’t no question, if I want it, I need it.”
In his review of Kanye West’s fifth LP My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffied declared, “No one halfway sane could have made this album.” The Chicago rapper’s epic exaltation and examination of his own foibles begins with a solemn spoken admission of his hunger – be it materialistic, professional or sexual. It was one of the defining moments on an album that would become perhaps his defining statement.
“Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?”
By 2013, teen pop sensations had become more standard than stand-out. The emergence of a soft-spoken but straight-shooting Kiwi with slow fire in her eyes and deep velvet for a voice sent ripples everywhere. Lorde’s counter-culturalist, anti-conformity and determinedly unglamorous second single started with a numb keyboard and a question that sounded like the heralding of a new ruler in pop.
If I Should Fall From Grace With God
'Turkish Song of the Damned'
“I come, old friend, from Hell tonight across the rotting sea/Not the nail on the cross nor the blood of Christ can bring you hope this eve.”
Irish folk-punk gremlins the Pogues’ 1988 magnum opus If I Should Fall From Grace With God saw the band attempting many new styles but none as spectacular as this thrillingly ominous interpretation of Nordic death metal. “It’s about being possessed, but it’s also a bit of a laugh,” shrugged singer Shane MacGowan with typically unmerited modesty.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
Decades on from her 1976 debut album Horses, Patti Smith is revered as one of the most daring, influential and stoic poets to have been borne of rock and roll. From her truly iconic album-opening line, you could have seen all that coming. There is a drop-dead serious defiance, a strutting cool and a touch of the audacious in the line and its delivery. “People constantly came up to me and said, ‘You’re an atheist, you don’t believe in Jesus,’ and I said, ‘Obviously I believe in him’,” she said to Terry Goss. “I’m saying that, y’know, that the concept of Jesus, I believe in. I just wanted the freedom. I wanted to be free of him.”
“Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?”
Pink Floyd’s morose ballad opens with a child moving between the blissful ignorance of his early days to the realisation of the evils around him. It’s a sad enough line even without its place in the concept album: having lost her husband to war, the mother of the young narrator vows to keep her son safe – even if it is at the expense of him ever growing up.
Louder Than Bombs
'These Things Take Time'
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the sacred wunderkind/Who took me behind a disused railway line.”
Australian wordsmith Paul Kelly once said, “Nearly every first line from the Smiths’ songs is a killer.” High praise from a higher figure. You really could raffle the nominee for this list but nothing sums up lead singer/songwriter Morrissey’s verbose turn of phrase, show-stopping sense of humour and tender representation of weird and forbidden love better than this B-side on the ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ single.
Back to Black
'Tears Dry On Their Own'
“All I could ever be to you/Was a darkness that we knew.”
Describing the way in which two souls could bring each other down without even meaning to was one of Amy Winehouse’s songwriting specialties. This classic – which samples Marvin Gaye and Tammi Tarrell’s ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ - from her sophomore Back to Black is full of wry, self-effacing quips but the first one is the best.
“Oh, Alabama/The devil fools with the best laid plans.”
‘Alabama’ was not the first protest song Neil Young had composed against the institutionalised racism of the deep south but it was a far more mature effort than his scalding ‘Southern Man’. His sympathetic concessions of the complexities in dragging a culture out of its tradition fix the end sights on a hopeful future instead of trashing the present.
'The World Has Turned And Left Me Here'
“The world has turned and left me here/Just where I was before you appeared.”
Rivers Cuomo made anthems for the awkward, the self-conscious and the painfully frustrated of the mid-90s and this touchingly beautiful kiss-off to an old flame was full of all-time gestures to abandoned love. Opening with this declaration of a break-up as some divine intervention is histrionic – as it needed to be.
I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got
'The Last Day of Our Acquaintance'
“This is the last day of our acquaintance/I will meet you later in somebody’s office.”
There are two narratives unfolding here upon the death of a relationship. The first is that of the narrator, who sees the moment as the end of a momentous journey together of all she and her partner have endured. The second is the cold, dry reality in which it is carried out: in a sterile and anonymous office with pen and paper signing the couple into oblivion.
Slanted and Enchanted
'No Life Singed Her'
“Take me down from the ridge where the summer ends.”
Indie pop darlings Pavement carved out a special place in the alternative boom of the 1990s. From their debut LP Slanted and Enchanted, Stephen Malkmus’ love of oddball phrases and surrealism met with his sunny suburban background. For a split second on the white-noise freak out that is ‘No Life Singed Her’, he made a grand oil painting out of the end of summer.
The Marshall Mathers LP
'The Real Slim Shady'
“Y’all act like you’ve never seen a white person before.”
Before his output veered into mediocrity, tiresome tastelessness and downright cringe, there was a window around the turn of the century where Eminem was the best songwriter in the world. ‘The Real Slim Shady’ addressed both the controversy his extreme content had faced and the sneering dissidence with which hip-hop culture had treated the white kid from a trailer park. Inside of the next five minutes, Em emerged as the knockout winner of both battles.
|30||The Velvet Underground|
The Velvet Underground & Nico
“Sunday morning/Brings the dawning/It’s just a restless feeling by my side.”
This was where the world met the band who influenced alternative music more than any other. All pinging viola and overdubbed piano, ‘Sunday Morning’ could not sound more idyllic and Lou Reed’s airy vocal inhabits a sunny peace. However, after a few listens it becomes clear that the words are creeping up behind us: there is a more high-strung paranoia than meets the eye…
“I remember how the darkness doubled/I recall lightning struck itself.”
The most enduring legacy of the title track of Television’s debut album is that of one of the greatest guitar songs ever laid to tape. However, its brilliance was not totally within the interplay between Tom Verlaine and Andrew Lloyd: Verlaine’s surreal snapshot introduces a world in which forces beyond his control were changing forever. Apt that.
“Something filled up my heart with nothing/Someone told me not to cry.”
Arcade Fire’s magical debut album Funeral is an ornate tribute to the experiences of growing up. ‘Wake Up’ reaches for the skies as a desperate defiance to the march into a boxed-in adulthood – crying was a sign of a life fully engaged. The song became the band’s go-to concert closer: “like the big goodbye”, said singer Win Butler.
Suck It And See
'Love is a Laserquest'
“Do you still feel younger than you thought you would by now/Or darling have you started feeling old yet?”
Although the music bares no trace of country, Arctic Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner says he was influenced by the likes of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams in writing this lovelorn ballad that can be seen as either “really funny or really sad”. The narrator wants to believe that he has the self-awareness that his ex lacks… even as he obsesses over her.
|34||The Stone Roses|
The Stone Roses
'I Wanna Be Adored'
“I don’t have to sell my soul/He’s already in me.”
As briefly as they burned, self-confidence was never in short supply for the Stone Roses. The Madchester-pioneering lads made their intentions clear from the outset with singer Ian Brown referencing Jerry Lee Lewis’ immortal quote “How can the devil save souls? Man, I got the devil in me!”
'Road to Nowhere'
“Well we know where we’re going/But we don’t know where we’ve been.”
In 1967, Jim Morrison summed up the counter-culture of the young generation when he howled, “We want the world and we want it now!” Nearly 20 years later, David Byrne may well have placed himself in the shoes of the same generation. The hippie dream was nothing more than a memory and they were on the way to becoming what they had so reviled in their parents. A road to nowhere, indeed.
'Pictures of You'
“I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you/That I almost believe that they’re real.”
There are sad songs. There are heartbreakers. And then there is the full-tissue-box-soul-meddling-fuck-yes-it-hurts-so-good epic that is The Cure’s ‘Pictures of You’. The opening line is a song in itself: love that has faded and, no matter how desperate the narrator may be, will never come back. It somehow found a way to become even sadder when the TAC used it as the soundtrack to an anti-speeding ad.
“Dance to the beat of the living dead.”
Having carved out an incendiary but completely commercial unsuccessful three-year stint, the Stooges went down in flames on their final album Raw Power. Rampant lead singer Iggy Pop screamed like a man with one eye on the hourglass as the band’s stability and collective heroin addiction reached a tipping point – they truly were the dancing living dead of the title track’s opening line. The Stooges collapsed but within a few short years, punks on both sides of the Atlantic were paying their dues to Iggy and his band of not-so-merry gentlemen.
|38||Creedence Clearwater Revival|
'Run Through The Jungle'
“Thought it was a nightmare, Lord it’s all so true/They told me don’t go walking slow, the devil’s on the loose.”
Although this anthem has become synonymous with the Vietnam War, John Fogerty actually wrote it with the gun endemic on home soil back in the States in mind. The ominous throb of the drums and the low-slung guitar provides a thrilling backing to Fogerty’s Biblical chaos.
August and Everything After
'Perfect Blue Buildings'
“Down the street from your hotel, baby/I stay at home with my disease.”
From the criminally underrated August and Everything After, ‘Perfect Blue Buildings’ is the sort of song that recalls Greg Kot’s description of Elvis Costello as “uneasy listening”. We can’t quite put our finger on the root cause of the narrator’s misery but once singer Adam Duritz is murmuring, “I gotta get me a little oblivion/To try to keep myself away from me”, we decide we don’t want to know.
'U Don't Know'
“I’m from the streets where the hood can swallow ’em and bullets can follow ’em and there’s so much coke that you can run a slalom.”
Something changed for Jay-Z on The Blueprint. The Brooklyn rapper learned to apply charm and humour to his previously po-faced stories of the hood with this jaw-dropping verse a prime example. It’s the vivid narrative, potent imagery and irresistible braggadocio that makes ‘U Don’t Know’ such a showstopper.
“There came a man on a stolen horse and he rode right onto the page.”
Paul Kelly is a musical archivist of Australian culture and history who has immortalised figures who would otherwise have been buried in the deserts of time. When he turned his pen to Victorian bushranger Ned Kelly, the country’s most legendary outlaw of all, Kelly managed to encapsulate both the mythological impact and the often disreputable actions of the man who has become a symbol of courage and righteous resistance in his country.
“Gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us!”
“Hey, ho, let’s go!” may be the more famous Ramones’ catch-cry to the linked but not united community of weirdoes everywhere but this chant from their second album Leave Home is weirder and funnier – two things that the four bruddahs from Queens prided themselves on bringing to pop.
News of the World
'We Will Rock You'
“Buddy, you’re a boy, make a big noise/Playing in the street, gonna be a big man someday.”
Gang warfare, Freddy Mercury style. As punk was catching flame in the UK and its soldiers were trying to tear down the statues of grandstanding stadium rock bands like Queen, Mercury donned his circus strongman’s singlet and delivered this searing, tough yet still dramatically flamboyant shot to the impotent anger of the new kids on the block.
“Thirteen hard nights in a row/The cops drive past but they move slow.”
Australian punk pioneers the Saints caught fire at the end of their rope with their third album Prehistoric Sounds, which was their most musically accomplished and stylistically diverse but was marred by infighting amongst a draining European tour. The beauty of the paranoia crawling through vocalist Chris Bailey’s lyric here is that we know that things aren’t necessarily as the deliriously fatigued narrator perceives them – a neat trick.
|45||Guns N' Roses|
Appetite for Destruction
“Your daddy works in porno now that mommy’s not around/She used to love her heroin, but now she’s underground.”
Why were the Guns ’N Roses such an incendiary revelation when they emerged from the LA underground at hair metal’s peak? Because, unlike their glossy counterparts, they were feral. Just look at how much grot is packed into Axl Rose’s opening salvo: broken home, fatal overdose, dad responds to grief and midlife crisis by becoming a meat-movie main man. Ew.
|46||The Jimi Hendrix Experience|
'Voodoo Child (Slight Return)'
“Well, I stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of my hand.”
Many fans who saw Jimi Hendrix in concert were surprised that the guitar god who produced some of the mightiest waves of sound ever stood at less than six feet tall and was built like a waif. Powered by quite possibly his most tremendous riff, the cosmic bluesman sounds like a force of nature in the final studio song of his career as he foretells the unleashing of his wrath.
|47||The Smashing Pumpkins|
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
“I fear that I am ordinary/Just like everyone.”
The Smashing Pumpkins’ 1995 double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was the biggest and most pointed record on the tumultuous but talented quartet’s mission to defy the trends of the day. Lead singer Billy Corgan brays about the inevitability of sorrow, strife and recognising one’s own futility – and decides that it’s just all part of the parade we call life. All things considered, it’s probably one of the cheerier moments in the Pumpkin patch.
'Angry Young Man'
“There’s always a place for the angry young man/With his working-class ties and his radical plan.”
Although it was his following album The Stranger that made him one of the biggest stars of the late 1970s, Billy Joel’s superb and brilliantly eclectic Turnstiles is arguably his finest record. The dramatic ‘Angry Young Man’, apart from featuring some of his most high-octane ivory tickling, examines impotent rage and societal disillusionment. By song’s end, the eponymous character’s anti-establishment rancour has failed to translate into meaningful action, simply eating him from the inside out to ensure that “he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man”.
Greetings From L.A.
'Move With Me'
“I went down to the meat-rack tavern/To find myself a big old healthy girl.”
Tim Buckley moved from guise to guise across the first five years of his career and struck absolute paydirt with the most audacious leap of all: horny rhythm and blues lothario. Greetings from LA wastes no time making its intentions clear with the unveiled lust of its opening line; one of many saucy intimations, come-ons and metaphors in the album.
“I don’t remember how I felt/I never thought I’d live/To read about myself in my hometown paper.”
Few artists were as well suited to the role of national redeemer in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, the circumstances of The Rising fit the narrative of his career and image with ease (the popular yarn of ‘The Boss’ being told by a passer-by “We need you now!” while he was watching the World Trade Centre collapse is very hard to swallow). The passionate and emotional album spanned many characters and colours as it examined the reactions to the world-changing attacks with the sombre ‘Nothing Man’ written from the perspective of a New York first responder. The narrator is not changed by his experiences but has to deal with the massive shift in how everyone around him treats him.
Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
'This is Love'
“I can’t believe life’s so complex/When I just wanna sit here and watch you undress.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone bringing this line to life like PJ Harvey. Certainly, no man could have made it sound like anything other than juvenile navel gazing. Under Harvey’s treatment, backed up by a muscle-flexing two-chord riff, the line is an absolute crack-up and – much like the besotted narrator – we’re helplessly in love in seconds.
'At My Most Beautiful'
“I found a way to make you/I found a way/A way to make you smile.”
Michael Stipe established himself as a songwriter with knotty ambiguity and paranoia-inducing vagueness. So it was nice that he made this gorgeous, Beach Boys-inspired ballad to balance the ledger to open, innocent love songs by one point. A theory still lives that the song is dedicated to a partner in a coma, which would be just like Stipe.
“Well, I’m cracking one open with the boys/By myself.”
Zac Caplar has us in the first half, not gonna lie. This ridiculously catchy sing-along that captures the cyclic blame-shifting and self-loathing of alcoholism opens with a masterful sleight-of-hand: the narrator reveals the denial that has led him to hide himself from the desperate isolation of his addiction, completing the blindside of the listener.
|54||Rocket From The Tombs|
The Day The Earth Met The Rocket from the Tombs
'Ain't It Fun'
“Ain’t it fun when you’re always on the run?/Ain’t it fun when your friends despise what you’ve become?”
Cleveland proto-punks Rocket From The Tombs recorded only a handful of songs in barely a year before their disintegration and the death of lead singer Peter Laughner at the age of just 24 from acute pancreatitis. Hat-tips from a handful of subsequent acts were all that kept the band alive as a footnote on rock history. Which is a pity, because this song burning on the fumes of nihilism and alienation is a masterpiece … in a horrific way. Over gaunt arpeggios and twisted barre chord attacks, Laughner hauntingly croons of generational disillusionment, self-harm, drug-induced narcosis and the imminence of his own death, sounding every bit the doomed burn-out.
|55||Godspeed You! Black Emperor|
F♯ A♯ ∞
'Dead Flag Blues'
“The car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel.”
A grim spoken poem over a distant but threatening synthesised keyboard was Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s entrance to the world: announcing that everything had gone disastrously and irreversibly wrong. The Canadian post-rock nonet sews together allegorical apocalyptic images including a machine bleeding to death and the populous reduced to sedated vegetables that sound like the Old Testament grimly rewritten for the new millennium.