Author's note: Ah, so good to be back from my summer vacation! I took a few months off from my blogging duties for a research sabbatical as I continue to write books that are yet to be published. I must be saving them up until I can place them in one proud row, aligned in encyclopedic majesty along a book shelf. Anyway, thanks for looking in while I was farting around elsewhere.
Ahem, now where was I? Oh yes! Sometimes a single note can start a revolution. Often a few guitar chords are all that are necessary to identify a song, but sometimes it's just that one, singular, extraordinary strum. Don't believe me? How about this one to begin a song (thanks to Wiki for providing the chord):
Ah, yes! you say to yourself. The legendary G7sus4 chord from The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night"! Well, maybe you're not up on guitar chords, or perhaps you are and will argue that the note is actually a G7add9sus4; in any case, there is a whole lore revolving around that single, amazing note.
Not all songs can be so readily identified by a single note as in "A Hard Days Night", but riffs in rock are what make the medium. So rather than just pick out a stray note or two from a few famous rock songs, I've decided to expand today's article to include those songs that have the first great, recognizable guitar riffs of said tunes, along with beginning keyboard milestones or unforgettable vocal introductions. Perhaps I'll even make this article more ponderous by including entire intro sections, and in a future article detail outro, or ending, sections of songs. I'm not sure. This is what happens when one types one's inner monologue, rather than setting parameters prior to beginning the exercise. Let us see where I go with this.
~~I CAN NAME THAT SONG IN ONE RIFF, ALEX (Or, The Rock Riff Hall of Fame)~~
For the uninitiated, a riff is different than a single guitar chord, in that a riff is a short repeated melodic phrase of several notes that often serves as the foundation of a rock song. Here are over 50 opening riffs that nearly everyone in Western Civilization should readily recognize. Just concentrate on the first 10 or 20 seconds of the songs or this article will take forever to get through:
Johnny B. Goode - Chuck Berry
The first great rock and roll guitar riff.
Misirlou - Dick Dale & The Del Tones
The greatest Lebanese rock song of all time.
Pretty Woman - Roy Orbison
The song that launched Julia Roberts into prostitution.
Summertime Blues - Eddie Cochrane
Amplified by The Who. "The numbers all go to eleven. Look across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and eleven."
You Really Got Me - The Kinks
The genesis of power chords, distortion and blown speakers. Actually, Ray Davies sliced his amp speakers with a razor. Because he could.
Day Tripper - The Beatles
Along with Revolution or Helter Skelter.
The House of the Rising Sun - The Animals
Once upon a time, every guitarist's first song.
Satisfaction - The Rolling Stones
For having been satisfied on literally thousands of occasions, I find Mick's statement rather ironic.
Sunshine of Your Love - Cream
Clapton, the first guitar god.
Purple Haze - Jimi Hendrix
Might as well include All Along the Watchtower and Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).
Funk #49 - The James Gang
The sleaziest guitar riff on record.
Whole Lotta Love - Led Zeppelin
Either that, or Communication Breakdown, Heartbreaker, or Rock and Roll. A list too long to..ummm...list.
Mississippi Queen - Mountain
Fuck the cowbells, listen to the guitar!
21st Century Schizoid Man - King Crimson
Of course the sax rides in unison along with Robert Fripp's guitar, but the ax is as raw as the sax, becoming even more industrial in later songs like Red.
Layla - Derek and the Dominos
A song for when you want to cheat with your best friend's wife. Then marry her. Then divorce her.
School's Out - Alice Cooper
Then there's Be My Lover and I'm Eighteen.
Long Cool Woman In a Black Dress - The Hollies
This great guitar intro seems like it should be part of a different song. It's like...ummm...what the hell just happened?
I Wanna Be Your Dog - The Stooges
A riff to fit the lyrics.
Paranoid - Black Sabbath
So many great Sabbath riffs! A few of my favorites are Into the Void, Supernaut, and Symptom of the Universe.
Radar Love - Golden Earring
Golden Earring's obligatory and only contribution.
Smoke on the Water - Deep Purple
Ritchie Blackmore was a riff monster. Like on Burn from Deep Purple, and Man on a Silver Mountain and A Light in the Black from Rainbow.
Aqualung - Jethro Tull
It had to be here, just like "Smoke on the Water".
Hocus Pocus - Focus
The word "spastic" in musical form.
Banga a Gong (Get It On) - T. Rex
T. Rex was better as a legend than as a band.
Ziggy Stardust - David Bowie
Of course, the song following this on the album has a great riff as well Sufragette City, and let's not forget Panic in Detroit. Mick Ronson was Bowie's better half.
Bad Motor Scooter - Montrose
Yes, that is a guitar, supplied by Ronnie Montrose.
Should I Stay or Should I Go - The Clash
The eternal question, still left unanswered.
Blitkrieg Bop - The Ramones
Hey! Ho! Let's go!
Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) - Neil Young
I could have gone with Keep on Rocking in the Free World or Cortez the Killer. Let distortion ring!
Highway to Hell - AC/DC
I am and will always be in the Bon Scott over Brian Johnson camp. No comparison.
Sweet Child o' Mine - Guns N' Roses
So what if Axl Rose sings like an amplified Edith Bunker.
Enter Sandman - Metallica
I would like Metallica much better if James Hetfield didn't sing.
Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana
The song that made "grunge" a household word.
Not all rock songs start out with a mammoth amplified electric guitar riff. Sometimes bands throw in a few chords on acoustic guitar just to see if anyone's paying attention. I am just talking about memorable acoustic guitar intros here, not great acoustic guitar songs. I have entire articles covering those. Here are a few acoustic intros you might recall:
The Weight - The Band
Just a few notes will do ya.
The Question - The Moody Blues
A strumming wrist destroyer.
Pinball Wizard - The Who
Another strumming wrist destroyer. And, on a more subdued note, Behind Blue Eyes .
Oh Well - Fleetwood Mac
Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin
An obligatory song for nearly every rock list ever categorized. Add in Over the Hills and Far Away and The Rain Song from the under-appreciated Houses of the Holy, if you wish.
My God - Jethro Tull
Ian Anderson made a career of acoustic intros, like in Thick as a Brick and Minstrel in the Gallery.
Roundabout - Yes
Another beautiful acoustic bit by Steve Howe: And You and I.
Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
Ah, those first five notes!
Crazy On You - Heart
Girls can play guitars too!
Blood on the Rooftops - Genesis
Genesis remained a great progressive band after Peter Gabriel's exit. They only became purveyors of commercial inanities after guitarist Steve Hackett left.
Ice Cream Man - Van Halen
This song always puts me in a good humor.
~~A HOARD OR KEYBOARD (Piano, Organ or Synth)~~
Although rock music is indelibly entwined with guitar strings, keyboards, too, have made their impact on this music genre. Here are some pitch-perfect beginnings of several classic tunes:
Great Balls of Fire - Jerry Lee Lewis
Green Onions - Booker T and the MGs
Steve Cropper and Booker T! Righteous!
Louie Louie - The Kingsmen
The only unintelligible song banned for having obscene lyrics that could not be understood by the people that banned it. Oh, but they're there, damn it!
A Whiter Shade of Pale - Procol Harum
Bach, resurrected and given a Beatles' wig.
When the Music's Over - The Doors
Or you could go with Light My Fire if you want a more commercial hit.
Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?) - The Moody Blues
Mike Pinder was a mellotron wizard. Check out Isn't Life Strange.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down - The Band
Love the grand piano roll up.
Let It Be - The Beatles
You could do a treatise on Beatles' keyboard openers. How about Strawberry Fields.
In-A-Gadda-Davida - Iron Butterfly
Just listen to the organ intro. The rest will take you half an hour.
In the Court of the Crimson King - King Crimson
Early masters of the mellotron.
Glad - Traffic
A title that mirrors the music.
Hold Your Head Up - Argent
Rod Argent, no longer a Zombie. Which means there is a cure.
Locomotive Breath - Jethro Tull
The most menacing piano piece ever.
Lazy - Deep Purple
Jon Lord beating the hell out of his Hammond on this quintessential version of "Lazy" from Made In Japan.
No Quarter - Led Zeppelin
John Paul Jones was definitely underrated. I have always loved the intro to In the Light
Footstompin' Music - Grand Funk
And it is. Footstompin'.
Baba O'Riley - The Who
That's a lowly Lowrey Berkshire home organ and not a synthesizer like the ARP 2500 Pete Townshend usually used during that period.
Firth of Fifth - Genesis
Peter Gabriel may have had the spotlight, but Tony Banks was the most integral player in Genesis. See his understated style here: The Carpet Crawlers.
Lady Grinning Soul - David Bowie
That's Mike Garson playing manic piano on the album Aladdin Sane. Love his crazy intro on Let's Spend the Night Together.
Imagine - John Lennon
Simple but with immediacy.
Endless Enigma, Part I - Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Of course, keyboardist Keith Emerson was lead player in ELP, so nearly everything starts with keys. But you get just about the whole ball of wax on "Endless Enigma". You could also choose Karn Evil 9 (1st Impression, Part II).
The Golden Age of Rock and Roll - Mott the Hoople
Let's see, he's at a piano, he's wearing sunglasses and it's the middle of the night. It must be Ian Hunter, playing something like All the Way From Memphis.
Parallels - Yes
Rick Wakeman battles Jon Anderson, leaves, Patrick Moraz plays on The Gates of Delirium, and then Wakeman comes back to record on Going For The One, on which "Parallels" appears and the ethereal Awaken.
Funeral for a Friend - Elton John
Hmmm...you might as well add Take Me to the Pilot and Ticking.
~~BASICALLY THE BASS~~
Bass players. The guys that hide at the back of the stage while lead singers preen and guitarists make funny, constipated faces while they pluck. Here are some notable notes from the bottom of the register:
Badge - Cream
A song co-written by Clapton and George Harrison, but notable for Jack Bruce's bass.
White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane
I wonder if any of the band members of the Airplane were even aware they were playing at this time.
Boris the Spider - The Who
Let's not forget John Entwistle's contribution to My Generation
N.I.B. - Black Sabbath
Geezer! Love Children of the Grave too!
Dazed and Confused - Led Zeppelin
I can imagine Neanderthals grunting in enjoyment.
Bouree - Jethro Tull
If only Johan Sebastian had a bass player like Glenn Cornick.
Moondance - Van Morrison
It's the bass that gives this song it's jazzy bottom.
I'm Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band - The Moody Blues
Another great but underrated bassist, John Lodge.
Gutter Cats vs The Jets - Alice Cooper
Dennis Dunaway was a sadly underrated bassist.
Highway Star - Deep Purple
Known for Ritchie Blackmore's searing lead, you have to give props to bassist Roger Glover for driving this song.
One of These Days - Pink Floyd
Of course, you can add Money.
Low Spark of High Heeled Boys - Traffic
Heart of the Sunrise - Yes
The best bass line in rock. Thank you, Chris Squire.
Under Pressure - Queen w/David Bowie
Not even Vanilla Ice could ruin this bass line.
Schism - Tool
Justin Chancellor, the best of a new generation of bassists.
~~A CONCATENATION OF VOCALIZATION~~
They could be sung, they could be spoken, they could be shrieked; in any case, they started off a song, and they are indeed memorable:
Blue Suede Shoes - Elvis Presley
The first great utterance in Rock n' Roll.
Chantilly Lace - The Big Bopper
Tutti Frutti - Little Richard
I Saw Her Standing There - The Bealtes
"One-two-three-FUH!" One of the early great count-ins.
Wooly Bully - Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs
Another prominent count-in. "Uno, dos, one, two, tres, quatro!" Math and Spanish were not Sam's specialty.
Help - The Beatles
Only one word you need to remember here.
Fire - The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
When Arthur Brown bellows, "I am the god of Hellfire!" You tend to believe him.
Departure/Ride My See-Saw - The Moody Blues
Other than Jim Morrison, no one did in-song poems better than the magnificent Moodies.
The Soft Parade - The Doors
I want whatever Jim had when he recorded this song.
The Motorcycle Song - Arlo Guthrie
I don't want a pickle, I just wanna ride my motor-sickle.
Two of Us - The Beatles
Lennon says, "'I Dig a Pygmy', by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids! Phase One, in which Doris gets her oats!" Charles Hawtrey was an English musician and comedic actor. I have no idea who Doris was.
Kick Out The Jams - MC5
One of the most enduring examples of a rock and roll expletive.
Almost Cut My Hair - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
"I will now proceed to entangle the entire area."
American Pie - Don McLean
"A long, long time ago" it begins, like most great stories.
30 Days in the Hole - Humble Pie
They sound like they're having a riot.
The Ocean - Led Zeppelin
You can barely hear John Bonham (he is not mic'd) as he yells : "We've done four already but now we're steady, and then they went 1, 2, 3, 4!" Obviously, this is the fifth take of the song. Then there's the recording engineer complaining about an airplane flying overhead interrupting Led Zep's studio time: Black Country Woman.
Black Dog - Led Zeppelin
A great bit or rock bluster. Zep was never deep in the lyrics department.
Iron Man - Black Sabbath
An unnerving but effective way to introduce the character in the song.
Ballroom Blitz - Sweet
They sound a bit effeminate in their efforts to sound seductive (or whatever the hell that was) during the intro, but they kick in well enough during the song.
La Grange - ZZ Top
Gotta love Billy Gibbons voice on the intro. Even if it the beat and guitar were a direct lift from The Stones' Shake Your Hips, who in turn borrowed it from Slim Harpo.
Meadows - Joe Walsh
I can't make much sense of it, but the coke Joe had must've been pretty clean.
Diamond Dogs - David Bowie
"This ain't rock and roll, this is genocide!"
Excuse Me - Peter Gabriel
I just love the barber shop quartet opening.
Must of Got Lost - J. Geils Band
One of the greatest introductions to a live rock song. Peter Wolf is hilarious! Other memorable live lines are from Ain't Nothing but a House Party and Whammer Jammer/Hard Driving Man.
You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth - Meatloaf
"On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?" Only if you say please.
Revenge of Vera Gemini - Blue Öyster Cult
That's rock poet Patti Smith saying: "You were boned like a saint, with the consciousness of a snake."
Rock of Ages - Def Leppard
I can't stand Def Leppard. But I do like "Gunter glieben glauchen globen." Checking with my German friends, it means absolutely nothing.
Dun Ringill - Jethro Tull
It goes like this: "Six. The Weather's on the change... Lines join in faint discord and the stormwatch brews a concert of kings as the white sea snaps at the heels of a soft prayer, whispered."
Know Your Rights - The Clash
"This is a public service announcement -- with guitars!"
Crazy Train - Ozzy Osbourne
So ubiquitous, it is sung in commercials by children in car seats.
Liar - Rollins Band
Listen to the whole spoken intro. It's a scream!
Post-script: I know this list in no way encompasses all the great intros in rock history, so drop a line with your favorites that I missed. I'll be doing a follow-up article on the great outros and grand finales in rock coming up.