Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- the No-Brainers

Note that I'm not saying The Best Opening Riffs-- too many songs, too little time; I couldn't even limit it to 10 as I originally planned (thanks to all you Facebookworms for your avalanche of suggestions). So 25 Favorite Opening Riffs it has to be, in installments of 5 each.

And to keep things fair, a few arbitrary rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. Doesn't have to be a guitar riff, but vocals don't count.  3. Has to be an opener, right off the bat -- sorry, but no slow fade-in's or drum fills. (So long, "Cry Like a Baby", "Purple Haze," and "Whip It").

After years of listening to Casey Kasem-style countdowns, I feel it's almost sacriligeous to start off with the songs you knew had to be on this list.  But c'mon -- let's get 5 obvious winners out of the way.  I hesitate to call them One-Hit Wonders; for all I know, these groups' fans passionately believe in their deep cuts. But for me, these 5 songs are the only tracks I know from these bands -- and it's all due to the opening riffs.

#25. Don't Fear the Reaper / Blue Oyster Cult

Yes, a classic, and it has endured endless parodies to remain The Great Metal Song of All Time -- and it's all due to that obsessive guitar riff.  It starts from bar one and never stops. Okay, yes, the song is dark -- death-loving in the creepiest sort of way, with husky threatening vocals -- but that shrewdly syncopated riff drills into your brain and will not let go. I hear this iconic song from a durable Long Island band and I am immediately back in 1976, unmoored and vulnerable and WTF? ready to be spooked by the dark side.

 #24. Dirty Water / The Standells

How did a 1960s garage band out of Los Angeles (fronted by the brother of West Side Story's leading man, no less) write the quintessential Boston sports theme song? Search me. But here it is, propelled by that brisk elemental guitar line -- a spanking riff if there ever was one. If you're in a Beantown sports bah close to game time, there's nothing that will clear the stools quicker than this down-and-dirty celebration of urban grit.

#23. Smoke on the Water / Deep Purple

That riff is crunchy, nasty, and it doesn't even replicate the melodic line of the song. (What IS the melodic line of this song? It doesn't matter.) If we're really honest, this 1972 track from a should-be-taken-seriously British band simply takes the riff of "Dirty Water" and steeps it in the sort of minor-key metal moodiness that would eventually make "Don't Fear the Reaper" a classic. But for its moment -- no, let's be honest, for all rock-and-roll time -- it is a great riff that announces itself with supreme confidence. You hear those first chords and you KNOW what song is dialing up. The definition of a great opening riff.

#22. Aqualung / Jethro Tull

Hah. You knew this song had to be on here. While I should be a fan of this band -- it's British! it's cerebral! It's circa 1971! The front man plays a flute, just like I did in my grade school orchestra! -- in the long run I just can't be a Jethro Tull fan. (Raise your hand if this surprises you.) But that aggressive opening riff -- who could argue with that? This song was never released as a single, in those early 70s album-oriented times; and yet I am somehow hard-wired to recognize it from beat one. Do I know where the rest of this socially conscious song about a tramp goes? Weeell....

#21. I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night / The Electric Prunes

In 1966 in LA, with psychedelia just starting to ooze its way onto the nation's airwaves, this mind-blowing track from a local Valley band made it onto the local radio just enough for me to fall forever in love with it.  Written by a female songwriting duo (Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz), it vaulted forever into rock immortality by virtue of its opening riff, played on a fuzzed-up Les Paul.  A love hangover par excellence...


Michael Craft said...

My suggestion is Gomez Airstream Driver.

NickS said...

What a great conversation starter. This does seem like sort of topic that you could go round and round on for as long as you wanted.

I saw the post this morning, and it's distracted me slightly all day (which was a good thing, I was happy for a distraction), trying to think of good opening riffs and looking up songs online.

I was surprised to realize that I was not very good at remembering opening riffs -- many of the songs that I thought of as having great riffs turned out to have a different opening, or just weren't as memorable as I would have thought.

But I did find a couple, which I've split up into categories:

Classic Guitar Riffs
Warren Zevon: "Boom Boom Mancini" I don't normally think of Zevon as a crunchy guitar guy, but that one's great.

Short Opening Riffs
Two nice intro's that are each only 4-6 seconds long but absolutely memorable.
Richard Thompson: "I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight"
The Pixies: "Here Comes Your Man"

A couple of random acoustic riffs
"Long Hot Summer Days" (by John Hartford, performed by Sarah Watkins in that video) is great.

As is Stacy Phillip playing "Blue Prelude on the dobro.

Finally, I've tried to avoid obvious choices (like "Is She Really Going Out With Him") but I will make an argument for two instantly recognizable

opening bass lines:

First, Patti Smith's "Gloria" is one of a handful of songs for which I can tell you exactly where I was when I first heard it, and I was utterly captivated from those first notes.

Secondly, I could listen to Gail Ann Dorsey play "Under Pressure" all day. (this recording has slightly better sound quality but no video).

wwolfe said...

"Dirty Water" was actually written by Ed Cobb, who also wrote Brenda Holloway's "Every Little Bit Hurts" and Gloria Jones' "Tainted Love," later made more famous by Soft Cell. Cobb, I'm happy to note, had never been to Boston when he wrote "Dirty Water."