A great song doesn’t need a great opening lyric, but most great opening lyrics result in great songs. It is the pistol shot at the start of the race and if it gets the song off to a flyer then the rest of the strides often seem to follow suit, almost as though the song was fully realised before the pen even touched the page.
Sometimes great opening lyrics work in isolation and other times they simply set up what is soon to follow. The very best, however, contain a song within themselves. These are the arresting lines that stop you long before the opening chorus and make sure that you’re not only listening but following them through.
A narrative is usually an integral part of what turns a song from good into something legendary. One need only look at the wonderful wordsmith and Nobel prize winner, Bob Dylan for the blueprint of turning lyrics into widespread love.
Below we have curated a list of some of the greatest lyrics ever written never mind merely openers. From entire discography debuts to perhaps the greatest opening line ever courtesy of Nick Cave, we present these golden nuggets for your pursual as stand-alone poetic gems, not to mention the songs that unfurl thereafter.
The 15 greatest opening lyrics:
‘Gloria: In Excelsis Deo’ by Patti Smith
“Jesus died for somebodies sin, but not mine.”
You only get one shot at a first impression and Patti Smith absolutely nailed hers. The first line she crooned on her debut LP earmarked her as a repository of visceral poignancy. With a nod to the famous Albert Camus quote: “Maybe Christ died for somebody but not for me,” (whether intended or otherwise) she brought some existential poetry into the gritty world of punk.
There is a message in that very influence itself — Smith had a keen eye on the importance of punk. It was a strange movement in that it was determined not to take itself seriously, but, within that, was its vital importance. With existentialism in the mix, Smith grasped the core of punk before others had even processed it and yielded it as a weapon to take down the status quo. She recognised the profound message of the movement and loaded it with, well, profundity.
‘The View from the Afternoon’ by Arctic Monkeys
“Anticipation has a habit to set you up
for disappointment in evening entertainment but,
Tonight there’ll be some love.”
Another first album, first song, first line in the list comes from one of the most hotly anticipated debut records in history. With ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ the Sheffield scoundrels mainlined rock ‘n’ roll into the pop culture like pockmarked bandits of benevolent intent and the only thing left to find out was whether the hype could be believed. Alex Turner seems to address this very notion with his own adolescent soot-covered sonnet as he crooned out this opening line in a sermon to the celebration of youth culture.
Delivered in a single breath, these lines could almost serve as a meta mantra for the record. There’s relatable realism drench in a sort of sharpened poetry. This energy eviscerates the banal trope of ‘it’s grim being young’ that has now become oversaturated to the point of being beige. The ferocity with which Turner sloshes words into the punchbowl catalyses the songs with a sense of immediacy, and this ‘waste no time’ approach wards off any signs of stagnation ala the central tenet of adrenalised rock ‘n’ roll.
‘Sign on the Window’ by Bob Dylan
“Sign in the window says ‘lonely’,
Sign on the door said ‘no company allowed.’”
Perhaps the quality of these lyrics is revealed with a bit more context. 1970 represented a time when Bob was truly despairing of fame and the cursed ‘Voice of a Generation’ tagline. For the album, he intentionally stripped his songs of anything that could be interpreted as some sort of satirical metaphor, and surprisingly such constraints resulted in somewhat of a masterpiece.
The song shines a light on the duality of the turmoil Dylan was facing at the time of writing it: the company that came with fame was bad, but the loneliness of self-imposed solitude was worse. Though on the surface this a very specific notion, in a spiritual sense, loneliness versus the fear of taking the first steps against it is a battle that resonates with a far greater universality.
What’s more, he houses this all in an expressionist vignette—lord knows why, but I’ll be damned if you don’t picture some western displaying the contrasting words on hand-painted signs.
‘Bird on the Wire’ by Leonard Cohen
“Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.”
‘Bird on the Wire’ traverses a journey from the Hydra room in which it was conceived, to the birds perched on the telephone wires that had begun to weave their way across the Greek island, through to memories of nights gone by and ultimately the Hollywood motel room where Cohen finished the song.
The brilliance of much of Cohen’s lyricism is that it etches itself on the sensibilities of any attentive listener. As such the refrain of “I have tried in my way to be free” is one that snuggles into the psyche like a bird in the nest.
Weary but still wandering, Cohen gets the lines off his chest before the needle has had a chance to nestle into the groove. In the process, he establishes that the song is almost confessional, and he takes catharsis in that as he staggers through the past and beyond.
‘Moonage Daydream’ by David Bowie
“I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa comin’ for you!”
Only Bowie would have the daring bravura to begin a song with a line that hits like an unexpected kiss. It’s as rousing as they come and absolutely original. The introduction of Ziggy Stardust is befittingly bombastic. With the influence of William S. Burroughs clearly in the mix, Bowie usurps usual rock lyric standards to bring forth the colour and imagery of the words themselves. It’s a crazy sonic handshake and it seduces in an instant.
In truth, the line doesn’t stand up to any degree of rigorous testing, but by that point, you are already hooked into the otherworldly oeuvre contained therein. It’s like an advertising slogan for the world of avant-garde rock and when coupled with a riff that kicks like a mule the whole thing whisks into a kaleidoscopic whirlpool.
‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ by Tom Waits
“Wasted and wounded, it ain’t what the moon did, I’ve got what I paid for now.”
If there is one subject that has been glossed over far too often in art, then it is the dreaded reality of the hangover. The amount of mornings musicians have splattered down a sink or spent sat down in the shower hoping for some spiritual cleansing, surely heads northwards of infinity, but boy do they skirt away from talking about it. Movies are the same, you’ll never see James Bond wake up after a few too many shaken beverages worse for wear. Not Waits though, good old Waits is all about honesty, realism and the inherent poetry therein.
This mournful ditty has so much beauty to it that you’re almost glad that life comes with its pitfalls and concessions if only to keep you grounded for the next glug of good times. With wit, wonder and a solid picture of the night before, he sums up the highs and lows of one evening too many in a couple of simple words.
‘Elevator Operator’ by Courtney Barnett
“Oliver Paul, 20 years old, thick head of hair, worries he’s going bald.”
With her classic tale of the disenfranchised inner-city, Barnett perfectly elucidates the irrational anxieties of young adulthood from the get-go with her literary opening line. Speaking of literature, there is a mystic history to the shortest story ever written (purportedly by Ernest Hemingway) that reads: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This epithet gets professors in a twist because everything that you corroborate from it happens outside of the words themselves.
Barnett does much the same with her evocative opening lyric. She could’ve left the song there and listeners would already picture their own Oliver Paul and take him on his angsty elevator-based tale. It takes real depth to craft something so exacting and bottomless from an otherwise unremarkable couplet.
‘A Case of You’ by Joni Mitchell
“Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star
And I said, ‘Constantly in the darkness,
Where’s that at?
If you want me, I’ll be in the bar’.”
The intro to ‘A Case of You’ is a moment of such brilliance that you can almost imagine it was written with the sort of grin that someone sports when they know full well they’ve made a start on a masterpiece.
The song exhibits a sort of irascible wit that makes you pity Graham Nash who was on the receiving end of such cutting jibes during their parting, and yet, as ever with Joni, it retains a dignified air and wisdom. She swans off to the bar essentially knowing that she has extinguished the smouldering cares of the past out under a sauntering heel with a line of poetry so perfectly punchy that not even the most foolhardy romance could rise back off the canvas and go again.
‘Ghost Song’ by Jim Morrison
“Shake dreams from your hair
My pretty child, my sweet one.
Choose the day and choose the sign of your day
The day’s divinity.”
Patti Smith once said, “Jim Morrison was one of our great poets and unique performers. His body of work will always endure.” When it comes to ‘Ghost Song’ those two forces, poetry and performance, unite bombastically in a Byronian intro with Morrison’s own mystic twist. When other artists were seizing the groovy zeitgeist, Morrison was extolling words of a more timeless nature.
As Life journalist Fred Powledge wrote upon first seeing Morrison on stage in 1968: “Once you see him perform, you realise that he also seems dangerous, which, for a poet, may be a contradiction in terms.” Later adding, “You sense that Morrison is writing about weird scenes he’s been privy to, about which he would rather not be too explicit.” Nowhere does that woven weird world of society’s primordial undercurrent seem more lucid than with this smooth anthem.
‘Disco 2000’ by Pulp
“Oh, we were born within an hour of each other,
Our mothers said we could be sister and brother,
Your name is Deborah (Deborah),
It never suited ya.”
Jarvis Cooker’s very own anecdotal tones burst an iconic tale into life right from the get-go. If you can hear the words “born within an hour of each other” and not immediately have the melody of the iconic track spring into your mind, then clearly, you’ve simply never heard it.
Behind all the glibness, crudeness and irreverence, there is always something quite childlike and sweet to Cockers words that prove at heart he’s a romantic dreamer. ‘Disco 2000’ is one hell of a jam, but there’s a lot of bittersweet fate and forlorn acquiescence to life moving on in the otherwise exuberant tale.
‘Maggot Brain’ by Funkadelic
“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time
For y’all have knocked her up.
I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe
I was not offended
For I knew I had to rise above it all
Or drown in my own shit.”
Admittedly, this one is more of an opening paragraph than an opening lyric, but I’m not sure what list that its brilliance would fit in if not this one. As the opening track, it introduced not only the weirdly wonderful world of the album perfectly, but it also welcomes you into the oeuvre off the band like ET’s alluring finger.
Despite the absurdity of that opening stanza, there is an underlining satire to it all that the last sentiment delineates. With the world descending into dystopia, you had to seek exultation beyond the faeces-throwing carnage of racism, inequity, the Vietnam War, assassinations and every other element of the atrocity alumni that had circled around the brutalist concrete sprawl of the post-Woodstock prelapsarian death of the 1960s and its pipedream of peace. For the next nine minutes, the opening title track delivers that exultation with the sort of guitar solo that could even squeeze a Sumo wrestler down the tightest of rabbit holes.
‘Across the Universe’ by The Beatles
“Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup.
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe.”
‘Across the Universe’ is a song that arguably sees John Lennon reach his lyrical highpoint. In a song that tries to find a universality in suffering and how to overcome it, he interweaves poetry and cosmological imagery to form a word-bed the float on in pillow-propped contentment.
The origins of the song itself are a looking glass journey of how it now hangs; mingling Lennon’s dreamy disposition with a realist and rather mundane impetus, such is life. Lennon wrote this song after having an argument with his wife Cynthia. He said, “I was lying next to me first wife in bed, and I was irritated. She must have been going on and on about something and she’d gone to sleep and I kept hearing these words over and over, flowing like an endless stream. I went downstairs and it turned into sort of a cosmic song rather than an irritated song… it drove me out of bed. I didn’t want to write it, but I was slightly irritable and I went downstairs and I couldn’t get to sleep until I’d put it on paper.”
‘Too Real’ by Fontaines D.C.
“None can pull the passion loose from youth’s ungrateful hands,
As it stands, I’m about to make a lot of money,
Gold harps in the pan.”
Although many folks would tell you otherwise, alternative music is in a very good place right now, however, if there is one thing to lament then it would seem that not many artists are willing to embrace the visceral vehemence of brooding youthfulness for fear of coming across juvenile. Looking for nods of approval from the ghost of old troubadours this has left the voice of youth culture lingering a little quiet in the music scene, but frontman Grian Chatten and co are more than happy to thrash in the fluorescent mire and gift us poetic gems with a hint of a weekend slur.
In the tradition of writers like Sylvia Plath and Jack Kerouac, Chatten came along and seized the seething passions of youth, thrived on naïve recklessness, and made the sort of art that usurpers the status quo, and spawns a new generation of its own. What’s more, he did it in a voice that rings with sincerity.
‘A Change is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke
‘I was born by the river, in a little tent,
and just like the river, I’ve been running ever since.”
The river in question is the Mississippi, which makes it perhaps the most profoundly multifaceted motif in music history. It can be argued that the Mississippi Delta is where modern music benevolently flowed out from into the world, but likewise, it was one of the most violently racially divided regions in modern history, setting a fluid current of fear in motion amongst the black denizens. Aside from those two notable brushstrokes in the motif, there are myriad more pertaining to the tides of change, the unburdened flow of the soul and so on until the infinities of personal corroborations are all but dried up.
After this line the song almost seems to write itself, in a notion that so many songwriters have echoed over the years, it comes out fully formed by some sort of divine alchemy. This sensation of a song simply rising from the void is perhaps best elucidated by Hoagy Carmichael, who said of the song ‘Stardust’: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.”
‘Into My Arms’ by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
“I don’t believe in an interventionist God,
But I know darling that you do.”
In 1999, Nick Cave delivered a lecture on love songs in which he dusted off and donned the old Spanish word ‘Duende’, which was defined by poet and (perhaps) purely platonic love interest of Salvador Dali, Frederico Garcia Lorca, as exalted emotion unearthed from within, “a mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained. The roots that cling to the mire from which comes the very substance of art.”
Those are some very grand words, but though dignified and humble, ‘Into My Arms’, is a very grand song, with an unmistakable dose of Duende to boot. There is undoubtedly no finer way to express heightened emotion than to invoke the divine from the very outset. In the literary tradition of a first-line that brands our sensibilities with a maxim from which we can measure the rest of the words that unfurl, he conjures up God, and love as a bridge to disparities, that shows the gently duplicitous nature of faith in both guises. By pairing God and love together, he declares not only the extent of his devotion, but a departure from self-sovereignty to something bigger and better than himself, a wholeness that bridges opinion and faith, and he does this all from the very outset.
‘Into My Arms’ is a tender love song, unique not only in its singularity but also its near unrivalled power, with surely one of the most memorable and touching openers in music. Like ‘Hallelujah’, this says to all other would-be love songs – ‘why bother?’.