Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- Genius Class

Okay, over the rules One More Time. Not the The Best Opening Riffs-- too many songs, too little time -- but 25 Favorite Opening Riffs, in five 5-riff installments. The 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 a true opener -- the very first notes of the song, proclaiming this song's distinctive DNA. 

Remember how, back in the day, AM radio DJs used to gab during song intros, trying to sneak a few more words of banter/announcements/advertising messages?. That used to drive me crazy. Transistor held up to my ear, I wanted to prove my pop savvy by being the first in the room to shout "I love this song!"

I know I said I was leading off with the "no-brainers." But some of you may have noticed -- and, if you're anything like the music fans I think you are, been distressed by -- the absence on that list of the REAL no-brainers. Which are, forthwith and henceforth...

Sunshine of Your Love / Cream

Sheer genius here, to double the bass riff with the electric guitar -- a particularly fuzzy guitar as well, with a wah-wah pedal and Marshall amps. The great bassist Jack Bruce wrote that commanding riff and it dominates the song -- those first four notes (LISTEN HERE!) sliding seductively into a dark downward spiral, over and over. Every bassist I know has learned this riff -- but it just doesn't sound the same without that scratchy guitar on top.
NOTE: Invoking the "one riff per band" rule, I decided on this rather than "Layla," even though they're by two different Clapton bands.  Sorry, Slowhand, but the competition was fierce.

Satisfaction / The Rolling Stones

Oh, the one-riff-per-band thing made this very tough. So many great Stones riffs -- but in the end, how could I have picked anything else? Talk about fuzzy guitars -- Keith Richards added a fuzzbox to his Gibson to get this snarling, snarky tone just right. It's only three notes, up and down a tiny minor-key scale, but how perfectly does it encapsulate the song's theme of pent-up frustration -- up and down, over and over, never breaking out of that narrow range.  It makes me want to smash things -- which is, presumably, the point.

You Really Got Me / The Kinks

Oh, why did I impose that one-riff rule?  Well, basically, because otherwise this entire list of 25 might well have been nothing but Stones, Kinks and Queen riffs, with a Beatles tune here and there. But of all the great Kinks openers (and yes, I AM prejudiced in this matter), how can we deny the riff that started it all for them?  As with the previous two songs, the distinctive tone of the guitar makes all the difference; in this case, the mutilated amplifier of Dave Davies, turning his electric guitar into an angry buzzsaw. Ricocheting between two notes, with just enough syncopation to sound erratic and dangerous, it's an aggressive cry of sexual frustration that will not be denied.

Summer in the City / The Lovin' Spoonful

How long does it take the Lovin' Spoonful to claim your eardrums? Two notes plus one drum-whack. True, the notes are ominous, swelling organ tones and the drum-whack is punitive to say the least. But oh, for sheer economy of effect, this gritty urban anthem of seizing conditional pleasure scores BIG-TIME.  Considering that everything else this band had released was mellow jug-band stuff -- "Daydream," "Do You Believe in Magic" and "Younger Girl" -- this hard-hitting 1966 urban song reminds us that the Lovin' Spoonful were originally a New York City band. And their reward for working so hard?  Their only #1 hit.

Hard Day's Night / The Beatles


Okay, I too resist the idea that the Beatles get to win all the prizes. Even though I was a true Beatlemaniac back in the day and still adore my Chosen Beatle (Paul McCartney), I would love to spread the accolades around. But let's face it: with one discordant guitar chord, the Fabs announced that their hit record was going to be better than your hit record, and they were right. They win for sheer economy of effect; they win for the streamlined drive of the track that followed. This song is a relentless, exhilarating ride into the heart of pop and out again. It was the title track of the first LP I ever owned (note: the American version, really a film soundtrack, but I so loved that movie) and I would love to be objective.

But I can't.

But really: One chord and you KNOW what song this is.

And isn't that the definition of a great opening riff?


NickS said...

It's hard to argue with any of those choices -- they are all all-time classics.

I do note, as you've wrapped up the list, how many of the selected songs are from the 60s and 70s. I wonder if that is, in part, indicative of the ways in which Rock music shifted after the 70s -- there was much less energy and creativity in mainstream rock (for lack of a better term) and more fragmentation into different genres which produced any number of classic songs but perhaps fewer classic "rock" riffs.

The other possibility is that there are only so many different ways to approach an opening riff and within that, it's tempting to acknowledge the people who were the early geniuses mapping that territory.

It does make me wonder what, if anything, you could even make an argument for from the last 20 years. I'll think about that.

Iñaki said...

Sorry, did you say Queen?

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, yes, Queen -- deal with it. :)

And Nick -- the 60s and the 70s laid down so much of what we deal with. Fact is, the opening riff is at least partly a radio gambit for slicing through the DJ chitchat and laying claim to the listeners' ears from the get-go. Later bands have generated some killer opening riffs but as a cultural signifier, it doesn't have the same impact.

NickS said...

Fact is, the opening riff is at least partly a radio gambit for slicing through the DJ chitchat and laying claim to the listeners' ears from the get-go.

Hmmm, I don't know that I'm convinced by that. You might be able to pick out an era of music which was dominated by albums (in which musicians didn't need to worry, as much, about grabbing people's ears in the first couple of seconds) but I'd think that in the contemporary world of shuffle play, and unlimited music downloads, I'd think there would be just as much pressure to stand out and grab people's attention.

Later bands have generated some killer opening riffs but as a cultural signifier, it doesn't have the same impact.

That was my theory, but seeing you put it that way, I want to push back -- who's cultural significance are you talking about? Sure, you're never going to have another band as big as the Beatles, but there are plenty of bands which will have just as much cultural significance as Led Zeppelin, or Queen (and that isn't to be dismissive, it's just to say that as big and recognizable as they are, they aren't sui generis like the Beatles).

Two thoughts: first -- this reminds me that, unlike you, I've never had a period of my life when I was invested in the cultural significance of pop music (I blame being raised by folkies :). There is no music about which I could say something like "You all know that riff ... But bonus points to you if you first heard it in 1964, either after August 4 in the U.K., or after September 2 in the U.S." I sometimes miss that, it's a way of listening to music which is so mythologized, but I always have the feeling of coming to music late, and learning to appreciate it in retrospect, rather than being swept away in the moment.

Second, I remember a conversation with my brother, a while back, in which I said that the 90s just seemed like a bad decade for music; and that there was surprisingly little great music. He said, that might be true, but only if you didn't count rap or hip-hop as part of that statement. Now, he never listened to that much rap music, but he listened to enough to know that it was tremendously important both musically and culturally (to back to the quoted comment). That's still a large hole in my musical knowledge but it gives me pause before I would opine on the cultural significance of contemporary music -- I'm just not in a position to judge.

On the other hand, I will always enjoy George Starostin's gleefully opinionated essay arguing that, "Sixties' rock is essentially superior to everything that came after."

NickS said...

Just to finish that thought -- and probably stating the obvious.

My point was that if the 60s and 70s are the period of music for which killer opening riffs have the most significance for you there's no reason to apologize for that (the title of the series says "favorite" rather than "greatest" for a reason) and many reasons to celebrate.

I only wanted to push back on being too loose about going from "personal significance" to "cultural significance" because the latter is a more ambitious claim.

What's more, thinking about all of that, I'd say it's really an argument for picking whatever speaks to you and not worrying too much about trying to pick a list that reflects cultural or historical importance (except where that is personally important as well) because the latter is a mugs game.

Dave said...

I love this series, Holly. I never would have thought of "A Hard Day's Night" as having one of the great opening riffs of all time, but your argument is persuasive.

There are some songs with great opening riffs, like "Tighten Up," where the entire song is captured in the riff. But there are also ones where the opening is sensational but a form of misdirection. "California Girls" is a prime example. It's one of my least favorite Beach Boys hits, but the opening is fantastic.

Another example is "Backstabbers." I love the first 30 seconds, which is unlike any instrumental opening to any hit single I can think of. Like "California Girls" intro, it's a mini-symphony, albeit with the same time signature as the rest of the song, and at least I had no idea where it was going. When the O'Jays burst the riff with their loud "What They Do!" it's one of the great moments in pop music.

Dave F.

Uncle E said...

Does the bass count? If so, the opening bass riff for Nutted By Reality, is one of my faves.

fredneil said...

If we're looking for unconventional Beatles choices, how about "She Loves You." It does what an opening guitar lick should; it grabs you and is instantly memorable and distinctive, but it's not a guitar lick, it's a drum intro. How many songs have great drum intros? This,
"Sing Sing Sing" and "My Pal Foot Foot," but those might as well have been solos. Ringo only needs to hit the drums four times.

Holly A Hughes said...

So many great songs you all have mentioned. That "one riff per band" rule eliminated -- probably unfairly -- so many great songs. I wrestled with making "Wouldn't It Be Nice" the other Beach Boys choice, but yeah, "California Girls" is superb too. (As is the Beatles' answer, "Back in the USSR.") "Back Stabbers" -- hadn't thought of that song in years, but such a great pop edifice. And "Nutted" of course, Uncle E, except that that song never really finds a single groove to stay in -- it's like 3 songs in one!

NickS said...

Mike Taylor has just started a series of posts exploring the roots of Heavy Metal music, which is interesting precisely because he is taking a wide look at songs and artists who broke sonic ground that eventually lead to Metal (the first song he mentions is "You Really Got Me") and in the process he makes the case for another great opening riff -- "Purple Haze"

"Everything about Purple Haze is a declaration of intent. It starts with the strutting guitar introduction: two root-and-diminished-fifth power chords, themselves a diminished fifth apart, working the Devil’s interval for all it’s worth. Then the guitar sings out the main riff over the bluntest possible drum-and-bass metronome before erupting into the classic Hendrix chord sequence of E7#9, G5, A5. That first chord, previously known only in jazz contexts, was to become a Hendrix signature, driving Foxy Lady among other songs. In his hands, it became a brutal thing, a whole blues scale in a single moment."