By Zara Hedderman
A few months ago, I took to Twitter and asked its cyber community what they considered to be the strongest opening song of a debut album. I’ve always had a fondness for Björk’s ‘Human Behaviour’ from her 1993 aptly titled Debut. However, there are discrepancies regarding the validity of this suggestion based on her 1997 LP entitledBjörk as well as her output with The Sugarcubes. These stipulations became increasingly important in the search for the best opening song; it had to be from an undisputed introductory body of work from an unknown artist or act. Therefore, the visceral howls on ‘Mother’ from John Lennon’s first solo record post-Beatles as Plastic Ono Band is, while an astounding piece to greet a listener, is redundant in this particular instance.
Almost immediately, my phone pinged with suggestions as varied as ‘Foxey Lady’ from Jimi Hendrix’sAre You Experienced,‘Welcome To The Jungle’ catapulting listeners into the stomping world of Guns N’ RosesAppetite For Destructionand ‘10:15 Saturday Night’ from The Cure’sThree Imaginary Boys. The following evening, the conversation continued over creamy pints. The evening was instantaneously enveloped by the topic. The list, which took form as a playlist in my phone, expanded to include The Stone Roses’ ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, and even Girls ALoud’s ‘Sound of The Underground.’
When you’re presented with a debut album by an unknown artist, a strong opening song is imperative to secure the interest of the listener enough to rouse excitement in them to confidently commit the next forty or so minutes to the remaining songs. Think of it being as important as a firm handshake up meeting someone for the first time. Those introductory notes are sometimes all it takes to form a strong connection with a band to take you back to the moment when you heard them for the first time.
Sartorial concerns set to an energetic melody tempered by a regimented beat and a bumbling guitar solo commanded attention as twenty-year-old Elvis Presley pleads through quivered vocals on ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, the opening track of the Tupelo, Mississippi - born singer’s self-titled debut from 1956. From the moment you press play, we’re presented with an exhibition of youthful exuberance packed with self-conscious expressions. Considered one of the earliest examples of rockabilly, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ seamlessly melds pop, country and blues, creating a perfect tempo teenagers craved for weekend socialising. Furthermore,Elvis Presley would go on to be the first rock and roll album to sell a million copies and spend multiple weeks at the top of the charts.
Surprisingly, the seed for ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, written by singer-songwriter Carl Perkins in December 1955, was planted by Johnny Cash. The lyrical arc grew from a story Cash shared about his military service and an airman who referred to his military regulation shoes as his “blue suede shoes.” The cause for the song was strengthened when, at a dance, Perkins witnessed a young man warning his partner about scuffing his shoes. They were, coincidentally, blue suede.
Perkins and his band enjoyed success with the single - it placed higher in the charts than Presley’s version - until a car accident resigned Perkins to a hospital bed for an extended recovery period. Throughout the 1950s, it was common practice for artists to include covers on their records, as was the case with Presley whilst recording his debut. His label were eager to release all of the songs as singles but, out of consideration to Perkins, Presley wanted to refrain from releasing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, instead placing it at the top of the record’s tracklist. However, his wishes were denied and the song came out in September 1956.
‘Blue Suede Shoes’ set a precedent for The King’s career up until his death in 1977. From the iconic opening bars that perpetually conjure the image of precarious hip-shaking to lyrics veiled with vulnerability despite projecting a polished aesthetic; you can slander his name, but don’t sabotage his image.
Before settling down as the Velvet Underground in 1965, Lou Reed and John Cale undertook various guises as the Primitives and then the Warlocks. After a few adjustments - the appointment of visual artist Andy Warhol as their manager who suggested the inclusion of the distinct timbre of ChristaPäffgen, aGerman-born singer known as Nico, to the line-up - work began on their self-titled debut.
Celesta tones twinkle overhead, like light glowing through clouds as dawn breaks. On ‘Sunday Morning’, Lou Reed combines the euphoric feeling of carrying Saturday night elation into a new day. However, this state of ecstasy is met with paranoia borne from trying to gather the content of conversations had whilst in an altered state. The dreamlike production on Reed’s reverbed vocals coupled with the lightness of Cale’s viola on the song presents a sort of false introduction to the darkness that would envelope The Velvet Underground’s soundscape. It’s strange to consider ‘Sunday Morning’ as a bedfellow to the feral sensibility across the instrumentation of ‘Venus In Furs’, ‘Heroin’, or ‘European Son.’ With the exception of ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, there’s a stillness to ‘Sunday Morning’s’ arrangement. It’s the restorative cooling gel used to ease the fiery heat emitted from frenetic guitar jamming and pulsing percussion that dominates the record.
It was the final song written and recorded by the band for the album, and was initially penned with the intention of Nico singing lead vocals. The song and album, however, acquired little attention or acclaim for the band upon release in 1967. It would take a decade before critics comfortably asserted its importance within alternative rock music. Despite the initial commercial failure ofThe Velvet Underground & Nico,Brian Eno considered the impact the band had based on a conversation he had with Lou Reed. Speaking to the LA Times, Eno said of that debut, “[It] sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!” Over the fifty-three years since the song was committed to tape, a myriad of artists - from Beck to Billy Bragg and The Undertones, too - have covered ‘Sunday Morning’.
There are few debut albums that open with such a striking declaration as “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” A spirited introduction that, with the advantage of retrospection, perfectly launched Patti Smith into the mainstream. The Chicago-born artist spent the years leading up toHorses, Smith’s 1975 debut, honing her poetic craft, busking in Paris and then moving to New York, taking up residency in the Chelsea Hotel and became a known fixture in the city’s underground scene. By 1974, Smith and her band were signed by Clive Davis to the newly established Aritsa Label and work began on the legendary album which fused poetry and punk music.
Former founding member of The Velvet Underground, John Cale shared production duties with Smith (a working relationship that would prove contentious) for the record. Taking Van Morrison’s original composition ‘Gloria’, which he recorded with Them in 1964, and marrying it with a poem she wrote entitled ‘Oath’, would prove to be an electric combination. It’s fitting that Patti Smith should re-imagine Morrison’s song in her debut as the Belfast-born artist was known for his prowess in improvise lyrics. Here,Horsesbegins with a soft melody, you’d almost miss out on the velvety ivory tones that provide a pathway to blues driven guitar-play. Before you know it, a full band are jamming as Smith sounds as though she is improvising her way through the lyrics through a series of vocal acrobatics and a croaked cadence.
It’s difficult not to get swept up in the energy of the song, it manages to capture the essence of a live performance and the foundation of art-punk, which is perhaps why this has become such an anthem and continues to be a steadfast favourite amongst Smith’s fanbase. By the time the song reaches its final phase, the instrumentation erupts into a raucous fit of sound, an invitation for anyone with a penchant for mosh-pits.
WhenHorses came out in the winter of 1975, it was extremely well received by critics. Its influence and DIY sensibility would provide a base for bands and artists like R.E.M., Sonic Youth and PJ Harvey.
The Jesus and Mary Chain - ‘Just Like Honey’, (Psychocandy, 1985)
Using Phil Spector’s thundering beat from The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’, The Jesus and Mary Chain took this feature and built their own unique wall of sound from the fuzz of guitar feedback, lots of distortion and densely layered reverbed vocals. The Reid brothers (Jim and William) melded motifs from German industrial music with the sounds of 1960s girl groups and also embodied the raucous nature of The Velvet Underground - the Reid’s favourite band - to create a fundamentally monumental body of work in the form of their 1985 debut,Psychocandy. A cornerstone within the shoegaze canon, the Scottish noise-pop group will forever be celebrated and recognised for the album’s opening track, ‘Just Like Honey.’
Its impact is immediate with both the lyrics and instrumentation drenched in pain and nostalgia as Reid laments mid-song, “Walking back to you is the hardest thing that I can do.” The sentimentality pulsating through the line is so universal and utterly devastating, paired withthatdrum beat it instantly becomes a song that promises to help you through any hard time. Similar to The Velvet Underground with ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Just Like Honey’ provides some semblance of calm even with a sprinkling of chaos amidst the distorted arrangement.
A resurgence, catalysed by Sofia Coppolla’s 2003 filmLost In Translation, rejuvenated an excitement amongst pre-existing fans whilst simultaneously opening the band to a completely new, younger audience who missed out on The Jesus and Mary Chain’s initial wave throughout the 1980s until the release of their 1998 albumMunki marked a near decade long break until their return in 2017 withDamage and Joy. Before that, however, the band took to the main stage at Coachella festival in 2007 and invited actress Scarlett Johansson to perform ‘Just Like Honey’ with them. To commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of its release, The Jesus and Mary Chain touredPsychocandy for a series of concerts across North America and the United Kingdom in 2015.
Britney Spears - ‘...Baby One More Time’, (...Baby One More Time, 1999)
In the run-up to the Millennium, collective Y2K paranoia paused momentarily with a jolt of piano chords accompanying a then unknown teen from Louisiana admitting to an anguished state of loneliness. Britney Spears spent her adolescence singing in churches before taking to Star Search, a precursor to American Idol and The X Factor before joining the Mickey Mouse Club alongside Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. While her popularity at this early stage was modest, the young Spears was primed and destined for stardom.
When she turned sixteen, Spears ventured to Stockholm, Sweden (where the majority of her debut...Baby One More Time was recorded throughout 1998) to work with pop producer extraordinaire, Max Martin. He played her with a song he had in his arsenal, one which had been rejected by both TLC and the British boyband Five, with the working title ‘Hit Me Baby (One More Time.)’ Spears immediately loved it and was eager to record it as her debut single. A few hurdles were met along the way; initially the teen was intimidated by the studio setting and evoking the emotion required in her cadence. On a more serious note, the label showed concerns for the song’s title which was changed from ‘Hit Me Baby (One More Time)’ to ‘...Baby One More Time’ to avoid accusations of condoning domestic violence. With the song recorded, Jive Records enlisted Nigel Dick to direct the music video to launch Britney Spears’ music career. The rest, as they say, is history.
The arrangement contains all the hallmarks of a 90s pop songs; whomping bass lines, drum beats that disperse like glittering fireworks and a chorus that’s always on the tip of the tongue; even two decades later. The melody was partly inspired by Robyn’s early success with ‘Show Me Love.’ Upon release, Spears was everywhere with her hit single and the subsequent impact it made on pop culture is insurmountable. From halloween costumes inspired by her school-girl character from the video, parodies on SNL to a breakout of pop stars that followed in Spears’ steps from Katy Perry to Ariana Grande.
Moreover, the success of ‘...Baby One More Time’ and the album it introduced of the same name, is outstanding. Not only is it the best selling album by a teenage solo artist but Britney Spears has gone on to become one of the most successful pop stars of all time. The song continues to be a highlight in Spears’ concerts.
Arcade Fire’s beginnings were tumultuous, to say the least. On the night the Canadian-based band launched their debut self-titled EP in 2003, frontman Win Butler and former member Brendan Miller had a verbal disagreement onstage which resulted in Reed quitting the band. He wasn’t the first to quit Arcade Fire prior to the recording of the band’s debut record,Funeral. This perfectly established the dynamic of the band and the music they would produce; impassioned, unrelenting and constantly evolving.Funeral would effortlessly embody these integral elements of the ensemble led by Win Butler as he navigated through songs borne from grief.
Easing the listener into an album exploring themes surrounding death and family,Funeralspawned some of Arcade Fire’s most important and recognised songs including ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ and ‘Wake Up.’ Opening the album is the slow-burning, ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels.)’ Elegant sounds of a piano echo and trickle beneath staggered fuzzed chords. The melody retains a calm pace until the midpoint of the first verse where a strong, quickened beat gathers momentum, preparing the audience for the eventual explosion of sound which emits a certain release of tension that has been pent up for some time which is built on layers of gorgeous tones and textures, steered by Régine Chassagne’s gorgeous backing vocals for added depth.
It’s an apt introduction to the band, who roused intrigue for a number of reasons; an impressive number of members, amongst which contained a married couple (Win and Regine), all of this was topped off with the range of instruments involved and the fullness and drama that amplified their arrangements. This record, from garnered the attention of critics and even develop a celebrity fan club led by David Bowie who featured on their 2013 LP,Reflektor) with U2 using their song ‘Wake Up’ to introduce the band throughout their Vertigo tour in 2005 until 2006.