Keyboards and Bass
Next up in our 25 Favorite Opening Riffs. Remember the rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. No slow fade-in's or drum fills -- hit that riff from the get-go. 3. No vocals. (Sorry, Little Richard.).
Blondes DO NOT have more fun, and the guitarists DO NOT get all the good intro riffs. Cases in point....
Whiter Shade of Pale / Procol Harum
In the Progressive Rock Hall of Fame -- a hall of fame that, by the way, I am never going to visit -- this 1967 track still stands as the opening salvo that first defined prog rock. I would maintain that there IS no "Whiter Shade of Pale" besides this Bach-Lite motif played on the Hammond organ by Matthew Fisher. In 2009, Fisher won a lawsuit to get equal songwriting credit with the two original co-authors, claiming that the riff he created was an essential part of the song's enormous success. Duh -- ya think?
Baba O'Riley / The Who
The Who had so many great opening riffs, it was hard to pick just one -- but this 1971 classic can't be denied. True, the Who's opening riffs didn't always connect to the songs that followed. (I spent years trying to find their song "Teenage Wasteland," only to discover -- so recently, it's really embarrassing -- that this song IS "Teenage Wasteland.") Pete Townshend claims he wrote this to deplore the number of kids stoned out of their gourd at Woodstock, conveniently forgetting that the Who themselves were stoned out of their gourds at Woodstock. Hmmm. He also invented the name Baba O'Riley as an amalgam of mystic Meher Baba and minimalist composer Terry Riley, both of whom inspired him at the time. And that weird space-frequency organ riff that starts it all? Townshend says he generated it electronically by feeding Meher Baba's life information into a synthesizer, then played the resulting melodic phrase on a Lowrey organ, using a marimba repeat function.
Oh, Pete, you art school poser. Not one whit of that information improves my appreciation of this riff. I prefer to believe that it dropped from outer space into Keith Moon's garden. Because, man, it's really cool, isn't it?
Super Freak / Rick James
It all starts with the bass, the Great Instrument of Funk. Messing around in the studio, trying to cook up one more track for his 1981 Street Songs LP, Rick James doodled this bass lick first, then layered on guitar, keyboards, and campy vocals, hoping to give it a little "new wave texture." Presto: One of the most fun and outrageous funk-soul songs ever. Interesting Footnote #1: After MC Hammer "sampled" (or, um, STOLE) this lick for "U Can't Touch This," Rick James sued him for co-writing credit -- and won, garnering his first Grammy award in the process. (Raise your hand if you think "Super Freak" was ten times more deserving of a Grammy than "U Can't Touch This.") Interesting Footnote #2: With MTV swiftly becoming THE way to market pop music in the US in 1981, Rick James filmed this video -- but MTV wouldn't air it because they didn't play black artists. And to think that just a few years later, Michael Jackson would soar to the top of the charts due to his MTV ubiquity....almost makes you feel sorry for Rick James.
Sweet Dreams / The Eurythmics
Ah, the 1980s -- the decade that almost killed rock music (hi there, Uncle E!). So many earworm synth riffs, so little time. I was tempted to go with Hall & Oates's "You Make My Dreams" just because, you know, my long-standing fangirl crush on Daryl Hall. But then I remembered what it felt like in the 1980s when this Eurythmics song dropped at a party, and . . . well, it's no contest. To plagiarize from my own previous blog post: "It was mechanized, soulless, and yet it functioned perfectly as a bass line (Dave Stewart in fact invented the riff by playing a bass line backwards), stalking the underbelly of the song....a scenario of hope and aspiration, turned to despair by that relentless automaton beat. I picture robots on an assembly line, hustled heartlessly along. But it was a killer dance track, and in the Eighties, that was what mattered."
Under Pressure / David Bowie & Queen
Surely one of the weirdest and most divine pop collaborations ever.
Two masters of the Opening Riff, battling it out for diva top honors. This well may be the best percussion opener ever: one cymbal brush, then those handclaps, punctuated with stabs of electric piano (the piano is a percussion instrument, may I remind you), all strung along by that exquisite two-note bass line. Fun facts to know and tell: Queen bassist John Deacon improvised this riff in the Montreux studio where they threw this song together, and then they all went out for pizza. When they came back from the break, Deacon had forgotten the riff. Luckily drummer Roger Taylor remembered it -- and the rest, as they say, was rock history.