By The Landlord
If you've watched The Simpsons, infinite in its playful invention and cultural references, you may be familiar with one particular and influential narrative technique employed in each episode's first few minutes. After the usual preamble section in which the family rush home to an amusing variant as to how they all arrive on the sofa, the first five minutes of each episode proper contain at least one mini subplot that seemingly has little to do with the main story. Why? It's a fiendishly clever way to to draw you in. While you may have already seen the episode before, you're not immediately aware of it until you're several minutes have passed, and then by that time you're hooked. The show is written to mix familiarity with surprise. It works subconsciously a bit like Doctor Who’s Tardis, ordinary on the outside, but once you enter it becomes infinitely larger and can take you anywhere.
The same process can happen with songs. And because they are created by people, it's perhaps no surprise that songs, in turn, can be a lot like people in how we perceive them. Meeting someone briefly for the first time can lead to the wrong impression. Or perhaps the right impression, but without knowing why. At first, some songs appear not your thing at all, perhaps all too obvious, perhaps loud and brash, and yet, when listening again, it turns out they are actually more subtle, layered and nuanced than you realised. Others might appear subdued and unremarkable at the beginning, and then on the second or third encounter, they express themselves in surprising ways, begin to appear differently and gradually bloom with feeling and meaning. This is just like the process of getting to know someone, and sometimes even falling in love. Admittedly some songs, and people, remain just the same - what you see/hear is what you get - but that's of no interest to us here. So this week we're looking for songs with a beginning that is very different from what's to come. In other words - songs that start, apparently falsely, and not as they mean to go on.
By contrast, some artists are always instantly recognisable, which doesn't stop them from being great. Elvis Costello, for example, spent much of his earlier career dispensing with intros - and just got straight into the singing, or two bars in at most. Perhaps he did this as a punk or postpunk ethic, to get his songs instantly heard by record companies, or to get radio DJs to play his songs without talking over them. Some classical music builds slowly, but overtures tend to preview themes of the longer work to help familiarise the listener when their reappear later. Neither of these examples stop them from the music being great or growing on you. However, this week is all about intros that offering initial surprise as to what they are.
But what kind of intros might come under this category? Well, imagine if you only heard the first few seconds of the song. Is it instantly recognisable or does it come out of nowhere and then go somewhere else entirely? How might it do this? Perhaps with non-musical or odd sound effects, some talking, samples of other music, TV or film soundtracks, radio tuning, sirens, cars, trains, or music in entirely different styles to what is to follow. Some can surprise, some disguise, grab attention, retrospectively add something, build mysteriously or help wind up the effectiveness of a song to slingshoot us into the rest of the music.
Let’s get into some examples. The Doors’ The Soft Parade has a strange, shouty, preachy beginning, with Jim Morrison almost sounding like someone else, then it enters a melancholy harpsichord section before even more oddities. Most bewildering, and definitely surprising and certainly hard to identify.
Some songs gently play with a different genre so you don't recognise them at all. Sam and Dave's May I Baby peculiarly begins with a kind cod-Oriental opener, before changing tack into a soul classic.
Or how about this odd sound of, as Jimmy Page put it, “guitars warming up” in first few seconds of Led Zeppelin's Black Dog? Why doesn't it just begin with Robert Plant singing "Hey Mama ..."?
Some songs employ other non-instrumental sounds to intrigue us. Check out the water dripping on XTC's River of Orchids:
Listening in further, you work out that the dripping sounds are cleverly integrated with the song, but at first, you would never recognise this as XTC. In a different, prog psychedelia style, comes this intriguing buildup on this Flaming Lips track, that is also integrated throughout the rest of he song, but at first, you ask yourself, what is this?
Some songs use contrasting intro styles to extremes. After some needle on a groove, we then get some Bavarian folk song, before … Well have a listen. Is this 'Accept'able, or just plain silly? Either way it fits the topic.
When you pick songs to suggest, it might also help to try and remember what it was like when you first heard it. Familiarity can make even the oddest intro instantly recognisable, but try to recall the very first time and how its outward appearance was radically different.
Some could think of this topic is very much like a game, in which, retrospectively we imagine trying to guess the title or artist from the first few seconds. So in the spirit of Playing the Game, let’s have a blast of this at times ridiculously over the top number, with reversed sounds in the intro. Are they cymbals?
There are endlessly more strange and surprising openings out there. And I am delighted to say that this week’s intro guessing gamesmaster and intro expert is the erudite EnglishOutlaw. Make your introductions with suggestions of song intros in comments below until last orders are called later on Monday. EnglishOutlaw’s playlists and writeup will appear on this site next Wednesday. Start!
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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.