Hey, that #1 up there looks pretty good.
The start of something good, perhaps?
So fresh and new…but a little bit daunting too.
Now, I don’t mean to begin by hurling aspersions at the inherent wisdom of iconic 80’s pop/rock wisdom but the hardest part for me has never been the waiting.
Waiting is building. Waiting is tension. Waiting is anticipation. When it’s done right, waiting is that gentle teasing touch that is more fun than frustration….From the organ and drums that build into “With a Little Help From My Friends”, to the entirety of “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” before Pink Floyd lets you have “Another Brick in the Wall Pt 2”. Even the dissonant bliss in the bass riff that opens “Killing in the Name” and hints at the chaos unleashed to follow. No, waiting is not the hard part. Not once you learn to enjoy the tease.
The hardest part for me is, and always will be starting. Turning nothing into…something. Conquering the blank page and inventing the tease to follow. It’s not that one doesn’t know what to say or even how to say it…it’s a question of wanting to invite the listener to stay and listen. The right introduction is the best chance to incite excitement and warm the ears of an audience. In pop music, it used to be said that you had less than 30 seconds to hook the ear of the listener. Does anyone think it’s even half that long now?
Is anyone even still reading this?
So, in the spirit of beginnings and with half a head fake towards irony, let’s talk about how music grabs us “up front”. Er…by this, I mean the “head” of a song. Uh, let’s just call it the “intro”.
(note to self: consider a column about the inherent sexuality in music clichés).
Perhaps it should go without saying that a great song can’t truly be great without a great intro section. I mean we all study essay writing in school, you can’t start the meat of your “hamburger essay” without stating your thesis in the first paragraph (or bun, I suppose). But it only takes a cursory listen to your average bar/garage band to realize that this lesson may not be getting through to the masses. “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” is an important thing to remember, but a chorus is only going to be great in context. If it’s done right, that context is set out in the introduction. It’s like a setting, the landscape of the song. Consider “Hotel California” by the Eagles, easily one of the greatest intros of all time. By the time the verse starts you can all but taste the desert sand and feel the melancholy of the singer before he even opens his mouth. By contrast, listen to the first minute and 50 seconds of “Bat Out of Hell” and ask yourself this, if you didn’t know this was a Meat Loaf song, wouldn’t you expect someone like Meatloaf to show up?
And while neither of these come in anywhere close to under 30 seconds, they were enormous hits. The invitation to stay and listen was just too good to deny.
But this doesn’t limit the great intro to being an epic concern. There is simply no greater joy for me than the opening 15 seconds of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, I’m smiling as I sit here thinking about it. “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls and “ThunderStruck” by AC/DC do in 15 seconds what Meatloaf takes almost two minutes to do. The stage is set for exactly what you get. And, while I’m at it, are there any 20 seconds that sound more like Jimi Hendrix (or the late 60’s in general) than the opening of “Purple Haze”?
Pop music is immediate and iconic so it needs to be efficient. And, according to the common wisdom, it needs to be 3 minutes long. Every second of a great pop tune is sacred. A great opening is key to this but many’s the time a producer is faced with the cutting down of a tune just to make it fit…“for the radio”.
I often wonder if those producers now weep openly when they watch the opening credits of any of the CSI shows…and listen to tracks that The Who refused to cut down for their albums still making money for them 30 and 40 years later. Interestingly, it’s the intros of these songs that are being used as intros for those shows!
You see some of popular music’s greatest songs are indeed much longer than three minutes.These anomalies are considered the special exception to the hard and fast “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” rule of modern music history. “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan was the first single to break the five minute barrier, it features an legendarily insistent organ solo and sound in the opening by Al Kooper that grabs you and doesn’t let you go. The Who’s 10-minute “Won’t Get Fooled Again” launches immediately and inextricably into a sonic landscape that resembles a sprawling science fiction epic, then explodes through it in a rage of guitar and drums. Springsteen’s “Jungleland” intro manages to make a piano and violin sound urban, calling you to listen to its story from the street. Pink Floyd’s “Money” is six minutes long and has an odd time signature– it has no business being a single, let alone the colossal hit it was; but its initial rhythmic sounds of money being spent gradually melting into the iconic riff has us hooked at hello every time.
The secret to these “anomalies” is that they aren’t anomalies at all. The writers just didn’t wait till the chorus not to bore us. By the time the vocals arrive, let alone the chorus, we’re locked into the journey and because there’s more depth to it, we’re okay if the journey takes a bit longer. More than okay, we’re excited that it takes longer. My high school was rife with music heads finding records from their older siblings and being absolutely mind-blown by the idea that Rush or Genesis had songs that lasted 20 minutes or more!
You might be tempted, and fairly I might add, to dismiss this as a 70’s phenomenon. 20 minutes is pushing it, even for greatness, but the basic theory continues into the 80’s and beyond. “Sweet Child O‘ Mine”, “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Where the Streets Have no Name” all push five minutes or more and they were huge hits. It’s no coincidence that most of you are hearing the intros to these songs in your head right now. A great introduction is the necessary foundation for any great song. And, if you wish to challenge your audience, to create something a bit off the common path, the introduction becomes all the more important. The commitment to a song from any listener is directly related to the quality of the songs opening. It’s that simple.
Consider the Beatles. The Beatles were the very first pop/rock group to perform their own material and they went on to be the single most eclectic music group ever. Much of their success in this can be credited to two things. First, an abiding love for the great songwriting (their early covers of classic songs written by some of our greatest songwriters are among the Beatles best moments) of the early 20th century and second, the wisdom and instruction of George Martin.These two things have one very important thing in common. Both taught the Beatles, either by example or explicitly, that no single second of a song is to be wasted and every moment must be ear catching and have a purpose. The Beatles learned to write with this as their guide. The result? Their average song takes 7.7 seconds before a voice is heard. Yet, in that average of under 8 measly seconds they manage to create some of the greatest song openings ever. “Daytripper”, “Ticket to Ride”, “Come Together”, “Revolution”, “Helter Skelter” and “A Day in the Life” are all fronted by classic introductions. The Beatles even manage to make a single chord an instantly recognizable intro on “A Hard Day’s Night”!
Great music isn’t just one thing. It’s not a single great hook or a cool moment buried in a maze of boredom…it’s all of it. It’s meticulous and it’s minute and starts at the beginning.
And, if it’s done well and right, it’s everything.