I have a lot of music in different formats. There is an eclectic mix of stuff. I am also of the generation that revered albums as a work of art as well as collection of tunes. I loved the artwork, the sleeve notes, the tactile sensation of removing an LP from the paper inner sleeve. I disliked the possibility of it being scratched, smudged or warped. As an aside I do remember a bloke in my year at school having problems with his blue vinyl copy of ‘Out Of The Blue’ by ELO. He left it in sunlight and it consequently warped. His solution was maybe not entirely well thought out. He got the ironing board and proceeded to rectify the warp. He discovered the flaw in his plan as drops of molten blue vinyl dripped onto the carpet.
Albums have become fashionable again (and also bloody expensive). They are retro in the way that C&A acrylic jumpers seem to be (found a load on a rail in a ‘vintage shop’ in Leeds). People claim a better sound from vinyl than MP3 format or on CD. Whatever the rights or wrongs, I noticed something that some bands take great care with. The opening song of an album. It can make or break the listener’s desire to listen further. It sets the tone of the music to follow.
I expect some artists have no say in the running order. In which case the person that does should be commended. The person responsible for deciding ‘Death on Two Legs’ as the opening track of Queen’s ‘ A Night At The Opera’ was inspired. I’m no great fan of Queen but it is a fantastic album beautifully introduced by that track. It has theatre, impact and is representative of what’s to come. This track was written as a venomous attack by Freddie Mercury on their former manager. That representation of the whole is maybe the quality that has struck me over the years about some albums. If the opening song has impact and strength, then it stands a greater chance of retaining my interest.
My old favourites XTC have had some inspired opening tracks. Black Sea opens with ‘Respectable Street’ one of their all time best. Non Such similarly begins with ‘The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead’ also fantastic. Apple Venus Vol II – Wasp Star has ‘Playground’ as the overture. Classical composers used overtures as tasters for the rest of a symphony or operas. It gave the audience an idea of the melodic themes that would occur in the following work. The great comic opera duo of Gilbert and Sullivan built overtures entirely out of musical snippets of their operas. Some bands designed albums like symphonic pieces with songs almost as movements. Two of the great rock giants from the 1970’s both brought out albums built using classical models. Yes released ‘Close to the Edge’, ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ and arguably ‘Relayer’ with this format. Genesis released ‘Foxtrot’, ‘Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ and maybe ‘Selling England By The Pound’ with songs more like movements than rock songs. Yes however did some notable opening tracks to other albums. ‘Going For The One’ released in 1977 (their finest studio album I believe) opens with the title track. The searing opening chords by Steve Howe, launch the album off at a great lick. The rest then builds upon a brilliant opener. Genesis produced two albums without Peter Gabriel but with Steve Hackett. One of which the 1976 ‘Wind & Wuthering’ opens with a masterful piece called ‘ The Eleventh Earl of Mar’. It is one of my favourite openers of all music. It makes the listener want to hear the whole album in order without interruption. There are those who derive great pleasure from appreciating albums in the order presented to you. Maybe it allows the listener to know what is to come and how one track can drift into an other. I listened to Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Old Friends’ recently without it following in to ‘Bookends’ and it didn’t seem quite right.
Jethro Tull have opened some of their great albums with classic openers. Most notable among them are ‘Songs From The Wood’ with its title track introducing and ‘Heavy Horses’. This opens with ‘And The Mouse Police Never Sleeps’ an unusual one but very evocative of the rest of the album. More recent artists also have chosen carefully in my opinion. The Shins new album ‘Port Of Morrow’ opens with ‘Rifle Spiral’ a great song that sets up a truly great album. In contrast, Half Man Half Biscuit, the finest band to have come from the Wirral, opened their brilliant 2005 album ‘Achtung Bono’ with the classic ‘Restless Legs’. Other notables include First Aid Kit opener title track ‘The Lions Roar’ released this year; ‘My Friend John’ the opening number from the Fratellis 2008 album ‘Here We Stand’ is a cracker; ‘Life is Life’ from Noah and the Whales 2011 Last Night on Earth, is a great one.
There is one band however who have perfected opening tracks to an art form. They released 8 studio albums between 1969 and 1979. Led Zeppelin have produced the finest selection of opening tracks of any band. This is the list of their openers:-
Led Zeppelin I – Good Times Bad Times
Led Zeppelin II – Whole Lotta Love
Led Zeppelin III – Immigrant Song
Led Zeppelin IV – Black Dog
Houses of The Holy – The Song Remains The Same
Physical Graffiti – Custard Pie
Presence – Achilles Last Stand
In Through The Outdoor – In The Evening.
I love each and every one without exception. My favourite possibly of all is Custard Pie. It is Zeppelin at their greatest rock and roll best. It is Jimmy Page ripping brilliant guitar riffs and solo licks effortlessly and Robert Plant struts vocally as only he can do using harmonica in an homage to the early blues. I defy any music fan to find a duff one in the list. The band/manager/record company chose so wisely with these tracks ; introducing every album with an explosion.
I was introduced to Led Zep properly in the sixth form by John Racher, Andy Bernau and Mike Ingledew. We formed a mime version of the band on a couple of occasions with myself usually acting the part of Jimmy Page(as I was the guitarist amongst us). I learned to worship at the feet of Zeppelin wondering why I had missed them before. They taught me to listen to the opening track very carefully. Rush brought out a seminal album which I bought on release. Moving Pictures was released in 1981 and opened with the stunning ‘Tom Sawyer’. Having adopted the Led Zep opener principle, I was delighted to play the album in entirety. Indeed the more famous ‘The Spirit of Radio’ is the opening track to the previous fine Rush album ‘Permanent Waves’. So my point is what? Look at your albums in whatever format you may have them. Chose the first track and ask yourself this question. Do they want to make you hear the rest of the album? Maybe these old classical composers had the right idea with the overture.
For those of you who are really nerdy; which track mentioned in this post starts with One Two, One Two Three Four?