“I’m the kid who ran away with the circus…”1
“There’s a young man dying as he stands beside the sea…”2
“I saw a stranger with your hair, tried to make her give it back…”3
“You want to dance with the angels? Then embroider me with gold…”4
“Couple in the next room bound to win a prize. They’ve been going at it all night long…”5
“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me…?”6
“I put on my blue sued shoes and I boarded a plane…”7
“Moving in silent desperation, keeping an eye on the
“Wasted and wounded, it ain’t what the moon did, I’ve got what I paid for now…”9
“If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean. And if I had a pony, I’d ride him on my boat…”10
“War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”11
“I was born in a crossfire hurricane…”12
“I met her on a Monday and my heart stood still…”13
“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me…”14
How important are the first lines of songs? If you’ve read any of my words before this point, you’d know that I’d say EVERY word is important (see “Wasted Words”). But your opening lines carry a special weight. They are not necessarily more important than any other line, but they serve a special purpose.
In fact, each segment of a song’s structure has a designated purpose. We’ve talked about structure before – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. Now, let’s break that structure down into micro-units and macro-units.
When I queried my musical friends about opening lines, one of them reminded me that many of the classics from the 1930’s and ‘40’s had an entire introductory verse, unlike the rest of the song musically, and largely forgotten soon after the “meat” of the song stayed in our collective memories. Most of us know, or have heard, the song “Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg. We know it opens with the lyric “Somewhere over the rainbow…” But, it doesn’t. There’s an entire opening verse:
When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There's a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your window pane
To a place behind the sun
Just a step beyond the rain
Somewhere over the rainbow…
This was the accepted style then. I suspect it also had to do with getting the listener’s attention. Or, rather, giving the listener a little prep time to focus on the “meat” of the song to come, to guide them in gently – a little meditation time, or foreplay. (I suppose a comparison can be made to the “curtain raiser” in a Broadway musical. This is the song that opens the second act. It’s usually one of the weaker songs in the show, or a throw-away number, by design. At the start of act II, the audience is still in the lobby, eating snacks, in the bathroom, engrossed in conversation, finding seats, etc. The opening number is there to bring the audience in and focus them on the rest of the play to come. Do you remember the opening song for act II of “Fiddler on the Roof?” Probably not. You probably remember much of the great music – “
When songs do have an intro, it’s usually a short musical intro – the last four bars of the main musical statement is common. So, you need to draw your listener in in a hurry. You need to set the mood, establish the tenor, and set up the story in two to four lines. That’s not to say the mood and tone can’t change. Listen to a Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But you’ve got to lead your listener into the song and give him some expectation, maybe create a little anticipation, about where you’re going to take him. There can always be surprises. And surprises can be good.
Look at the above examples. Some of them are from well known songs and you may recognize them, and some you may have never heard before. I’ll opine about a few of them here, but look at them and think about where they take you and how (or if) they serve their purpose. I’m sure you can come up with your own list, and that might not be a bad exercise.
When Edwin Starr sang, “War. (Huh! Yeah!) What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” there was no doubt about the intentions of this song and where it was going to go. On the flip side (metaphorically), John Gorka surprises us in the first fourteen words of the song I quoted above. He starts out with a fairly benign and common observational comment: I saw a stranger with your hair. It could be a conversation starter, small talk. But, he says what we least expect: tried to make her give it back. It is all at once surprising and funny and a little unsettling, maybe a little disquieting. It usually gets a laugh when he does it live. We know we’ve been set up – but for what? We’ve been drawn into this lyric, and as we listen to the story unfold, we realize that he’s taking us somewhere very deep, even bordering on pathos (Gorka’s good at pathos). There are surprises in each verse, but he set us up to expect surprises. And he never strays from his topic (the person to whom he’s singing) which he also set up in that first line. It’s a beautifully crafted song.
Paul Simon – pick any of his songs, he’s a study in lyrics in and of himself – gets us going with, “Couple in the next room bound to win a prize. They’ve been going at it all night long…” Makes you want to know more. And with Paul, you know you’re in for a well-spun tale; start the fire, get comfortable. On the other hand, when Mick Jagger wings into, “I was born in a crossfire hurricane…” you know you’re in for a wild ride.
Obviously, there are many other factors that contribute to what we expect from a song within the first few bars – tempo, chord progression, instrumentation, the sound of Paul Simon’s voice versus Mick Jagger’s voice, etc. But, like building a house, the lyric is the frame of the song on which everything else is hung, whether it’s a thirty-six room mansion or a yurt. Or even: I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still. The do run run run, the do run run.
1“The Kid” by Buddy Mondlock
2“Young Man Dies” by David Wilcox
3“I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair” by John Gorka
4“Dance With the Angels” by Lisa Loeb
6“Free Bird” by A. Collins/R. Van Zant
8“Walking Man” by James Taylor
9“Tom Traubert’s Blues” by Tom Waits
10 “If I Had a Boat” by Lyle Lovett
11 “War” by N. Whitfield/B. Strong
12 “Jumping Jack Flash” by M. Jagger/K. Richards
13“Do Run Run” by J. Barry/E. Greenwich/P. Spector
14“Let It Be” by Lennon/McCartney