I was flipping through ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’, Bob Stanley’s magisterial history of modern popular music (which should be essential reading for anyone with anything approaching a passionate interest in the subject – it’s 737 pages long, but you can skip), when I came across a remark about the role of the intro in a great pop record. In the days when radio play was the key to sales, a good hook at the very start could make all the difference. Record makers realised this and played around with the concept (and its creative potential), and the intro eventually became a miniature art form in its own right.
So I started to wonder what might be amongst my top great intros. I drew a few boundaries: it had to be instrumental, which sadly rules out, for example, Good Vibrations (‘I…’) and Heartbreak Hotel (‘Well…’); it had to aurally identify the record before the song itself actually started – to stand alone, if you like; and as a self-imposed constraint, it had to be from the fifties and sixties: both because that’s my formative musical era, and because those decades were definitely the golden age of the intro.
[I wanted to make this a kind of quiz – guess the intro from a brief sound clip – but I lack the technology for this, so the Spotify links (where they work) will be followed by the whole record. I hope you don’t mind.]
Okay, here goes (don’t expect many surprises):
More or less randomly selected – it tied with ‘That’ll Be The Day’ – but in the fifties, upfront guitars like this were a blast between the ears. And Chuck’s has lasted longer: you can still hear it played today, if you listen closely. And it’s a better song, at least lyrically.
Because it’s is just so beautiful, and contrasts so drastically with the next selection, the same song opened up to such opposite interpretations, surely a hallmark of an imperishable masterpiece of songwriting.
Frank Sinatra – I’ve Got You Under My Skin (or more correctly Nelson Riddle):
These two intros to the same song couldn’t be more different in setting the emotional tone (sad resignation versus angry menace), not to mention the musical tenor, of what’s to follow, yet they’re equally memorable.
Spoiled for choice here really – God Only Knows was a close contender – but this is just so evocative!
The Beatles - Strawberry Fields Forever
Well, I had to include one, didn’t I? Again, random choice. First ever use of the Mellotron? And it does illustrate one intro trick, which is to start with the bridge or middle bit; they played this card over and over again. Strangely, it doesn’t appear to be available on Spotify; why would that be? Oh, I know…
The longest intro in pop history? It might sound tame now, but when I first heard it on Luxembourg, through a wave of phase, I thought I’d tuned in to some other planet, which of course I had.
Because I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard it. And because, for reasons lost in time, it made me want to sing as well as play rock ‘n’ roll. And because of the rimshots.
The shortest intro in pop history, just two rapid-fire drum rimshots – it hardly qualifies. But it counted for a lot more in 1956. Drums had never been so loud.
Bob Dylan - Like a Rollin' Stone (again, no Spotify link)
Yet another rimshot, followed by a mind-spinning swirl of quintessential 1965. You heard the words before they even started – didn’t you?
And of course I’ve kept the best till last… Dave Anthony's Moods - New Directions
Modesty forbids me from saying more ...!