By The Landlord
"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." – Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)
“If you're going to read this, don't bother.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Choke (2001)
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” – Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (2008)
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” – James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …" – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” – Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)
“The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.” – George Orwell, Coming Up for Air (1939)
"The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." – LP Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)
"It was the day my grandmother exploded." — Iain Banks, The Crow Road (1992)
Emotional, humorous, odd, provocative, vivid, bizarre, otherworldly, angry, sexual, thought-provoking? What makes for a great opening line? This week there’s a huge cocktail party at the Song Bar. Not so much that everyone is drinking cocktails – though there are plenty of those being served – but that’s the experience of being here this week. “You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar,” says Phil Oakey, by the way. Where does that line take you? Wander through and you’ll hear a plethora of phrases as a host of authors and music artists socialise, each giving an example of what makes for lines that make for an arresting phrase. Right then, shall we mingle? And as you go, this week please suggest song titles and many more lines you too find arresting.
Some like to pose a question. “Why do birds suddenly appear, everytime you are near?” asks Karen Carpenter. But Chuck D makes his question even more voluminous: “Bass, how low can you go?”. Bang! What an opener. “Did someone say birds?” interjects Nina Simone. “Well, I can do that too.” She certainly can with a line that soars from the very beginning:
“Birds flying high you know how I feel. Sun in the sky you know how I feel…”
Leonard Cohen also knows how to lift a song from the start: “Like a bird on the wire / like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free.”
And here’s another master of the melancholy, Brett Anderson, also raising us immediately with a bird-like metaphor: “There’s a song playing on the radio / Sky high in the airwaves on the morning show.”
Roy Orbison’s songs also soared. Elvis Presley described his voice as the best in the world, and Roy inspired many other artists with this surreal, dreamlike, slightly disturbing opener: “A candy-coloured clown they call the sandman / Tiptoes to my room every night.”
One arresting method artists can employ comes from the fact that they do like to talk in the first person, but that’s not always pure self-indulgence. "I put a spell on you because you're mine. You better stop the things you do. I tell ya I ain't lyin'," immediately states Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Well, not every time. Some like to describe a distinctly double-edged situation. “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” intones Silver Jews’ David Berman, dryly. “Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years,” announces LL Cool J. “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey,” says Beck. “Bless my cotton socks I’m in the news!” exclaims a buoyant Julian Cope. “Is that right?” says Mark E Smith. “The minute I get out of my tent, My garden is covered with cement.”
Meanwhile someone isn’t mixing cement, but something else. “Johnny’s in the basement / Mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement / Thinking about the government.” says Bob Dylan.
But let’s not get too bogged down in politics. Barry Gibb’s here, and it’s time to strut our stuff on the dance floor: “You can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk”.
Mick Jagger can’t help but announce his presence either: “Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste.”
Profound statements also make glittering examples of opening lines. Can anyone do better than Elvis Costello? “History repeats the old conceits, The glib replies the same defeats, Keep your finger on important issues, With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues."
Morrissey is feeling a bit awkward here, but reckons he can. “Shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to.”
Morrissey is no stranger to the silent and grey Sundays, and some artists like to open with beautiful ordinariness, such as the Mamas and Papas: ““All the leaves are brown / And the sky is grey.”
Paul Simon is profoundly, but beautifully downbeat too: “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again. Because a vision softly creeping left its seeds while I was sleeping.”
St Vincent though, goes for something a bit more down-to-earth: “Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate.”
Sexual lyrics can be a winner when you want an opener. Alex Turner: ‘“You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your night dress.” Shaun Ryder is even less subtle: “Son I’m 30. I only went with your mother cos she’s dirty.” But can anyone beat Wales’s Mucclusky: “All your friends are cunts / your mother was a ball point pen thief…”
Prince’s lyrics are suffused with sexual content, but here this opening snippet was revolutionary in pertaining to a sexually transmitted disease: “In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.”
Freddie Mercury likes to hint a sexual settings with a little sophistication: “She keeps her Moet et Chandon / In her pretty cabinet / ‘Let them eat cake’ she says / Just like Marie Antoinette.”
The great Jacques Brel, sung here by the equally great Scott Walker, opens with an equally hedonistic life: “And if one day I should become / A singer with a Spanish bum / Who sings for women of great virtue.”
But some scenes are set with less glamour, but are superbly moving and vivid, and laced with pathos. “It was Christmas Eve, babe in the drunk tank. An old man said to me: ‘won’t see another one.’”
David Bowie knew also about sinking low for the next high: “As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent, you asked for the latest party.”
Is it then time to confess and turn to religion? Not necessarily, but this doesn’t stop great lyricists from using this as a theme. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / but not mine…” says Patti Smith.
“I don’t believe in an interventionist god / but I know darling that you do,” says Nick Cave.
Over to you, learned readers. if you like, name some of these songs, but even better, pick many more. And I’ll leave you with this. As one Door closes, more open: “This is the end / beautiful friend.”
And so then, please suggest with song titles and lyrics, from these or an other arresting opening lines from any song genre. And I’m delighted to announce that this week’s guest guru, and learned lyrical lexicographer is the supreme Severin. Place your suggestions in comments below in time for last orders on Monday at 11pm (UK time), for playlists published next Wednesday. Hey, ho, let’s go!
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.