The Best First Lines in Music

In yesterday’s Pretty Little Liars recap Tim called the opening line of The Outfield’s “Your Love” his favorite opening line to any song ever. He even dared me to come up with a list of songs topping it.

Well, in the immortal words of Barney Stinson…

And I have bad news for you, Tim, “Your Love” doesn’t even crack my Top 50.

Of course, the topic raises several tricky questions: What constitutes an opening line? The first complete sentence? The first rhyming couplet? Until the first pause? And what criteria should we use to evaluate “the best” opening line? The catchiest? The most memorable?

I ended up being pretty flexible on both questions. Some of these lyrics were chosen because they are legitimately great lyrics. Others were chosen because of how they’re sung. Others are chosen because they are the most iconic moments of great songs. I’m sure I’m forgetting some great ones (I had only one day, chill out!), but here is an initial draft of the Top 50 opening lines in music history:

50. “Heat of the Moment” — Asia : “I never meant to be so bad to you / One thing I said that I would never do”

This one was obviously helped by South Park.

49. “Way Down in the Hole” — Tom Waits: “If you walk through the garden / You’d better watch your back”

This one was obviously helped by The Wire.

48. “Ohio” — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our own”

47. “Sincerely, Me” — Better Than Ezra: “I can still recall / the way you looked that fall”

46. “Changes” — 2pac: “I see no changes / Wake up in the morning and I ask myself / Is life worth living or should I blast myself?”

Somewhat surprisingly, this is the only rap song on the list.

45. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” — The Pixies: “There was a guy / An underwater who controlled the sea”

Obviously, they don’t all have to make sense.

44. “Sad and Lonely” — The Secret Machines: “Did you get your heartache and your headrush confused?”

43. “No Woman No Cry” — Bob Marley: “Said I remember when we used to sit / In the government yard in Trenchtown.”

42. “Just Like Heaven” — The Cure: “Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick / The one that makes me scream, she said”

41. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” — The Beatles: “Picture yourself in a boat on a river / With tangerine trees and marmalade skies”

The first of five appearances by The Beatles, only Bob Dylan will have more…

40. “In the Flesh?” — Pink Floyd: “So you thought you might like to go to the show?”

39. “See You Again” — Miley Cyrus: “I’ve got my sights set on you and I’m ready to aim”

This one, of course, begs an important question: If you already have your sights set, then what more does aiming entail?

38. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” — Bob Dylan: “Go away from my window / Leave at your own chosen speed”

Unfortunately, finding Dylan originals on YouTube is always tricky, and nobody else can really do his lyrics justice.

37. “Blister in the Sun” — Violent Femmes: “When I’m walking I strut my stuff / And I’m so strung out”

36. “Folsom Prison Blues” — Johnny Cash: “I hear the train a comin’ / It’s rollin’ round the bend”

35. “Comfortably Numb” — Pink Floyd: “Hello / Is there anybody in there?”

34. “Let’s Get It On” — Marvin Gaye: “I’ve been really tryin’ baby / Tryin’ to hold back this feeling for so long”

33. “The End” — The Doors: “This is the end / Beautiful friend…”

32. “Blue Monday” — New Order: “How does it feel, to treat me like you do?”

31. “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part I” — The Flaming Lips: “Her name is Yoshimi / She’s a black belt in karate”

30. “Anarchy in the UK” — The Sex Pistols: “I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist!”

29. “Thirteen” — Big Star: “Won’t you let me walk you home from school…”

28. “Serve the Servants” — Nirvana: “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old”

If anyone else sang this line, it would not make the list, but as the first line of In Utero, it’s perfect.

27. “Ziggy Stardust” — David Bowie: “Ziggy played guitar…”

The shortest line on the list…

26. “Tom Sawyer” — Rush: “A modern day warrior / Mean, mean stride / Today’s Tom Sawyer / Mean, mean pride”

25. “Shelter from the Storm” — Bob Dylan: “’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood  / When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud”

24. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” — The Velvet Undergroud and Nico: “I’ll be your mirror / Reflect what you are / In case you don’t know”

23. “Hey Joe” — Jimi Hendrix: “Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?”

I can vividly remember the first time I heard this line.

22. “Hound Dog” — Elvis Presley: “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog / Crying all the time”

21. “Somebody to Love” — Jefferson Airplane: “When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies”

20. “Mr. Tambourine Man” — Bob Dylan: “Hey Mr. Tambourine man play a song for me / I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to”

19. “Time” — Pink Floyd: “Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day…”

18. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” — Crosby, Stills & Nash: “It’s getting to the point / Where I’m no fun anymore”

17. “Thunder Road” — Bruce Springsteen: “The screen door slams / Mary’s dress waves”

Springsteen has a lot of terrible lyrics, but this one is perfectly simple.

16. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — The Beatles: “It was 20 years ago today / That Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play”

The fame of this one goes a long way…

15. “Jack Straw” — The Grateful Dead: “We can share the women / We can share the wine”

14. “Strawberry Fields Forever” — The Beatles: “Let me take you down ‘cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields”

13. “All My Friends” — LCD Soundsystem: “That’s how it starts / We go back to your house”

12. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” — Bob Dylan: “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time too…”

Just a mastery of English phonetics, this line is fun to say.

11. “A Change Is Gonna Come” — Sam Cooke: “I was born by the river, in a little tent / And just like the river I’ve been running ever since”

10. “Eleanor Rigby” — The Beatles: “Ah, look at all the lonely people…”

9. “Good Times Bad Times” — Led Zeppelin: “In the days of my youth I was told what it means to be a man”

8. “Like a Rolling Stone” — Bob Dylan: “Once upon a time / You dressed so fine / Threw the bums a dime / In your prime”

7. “Sympathy for the Devil” — The Rolling Stones: “Please allow me to introduce myself / I’m a man of wealth and taste”

6. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” — Bob Dylan: “Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe / If you don’t know by now”

The last of Dylan’s six appearances. I probably could have made the whole list with just his catalog…

5. “Not Fade Away” — The Grateful Dead (originally written by Buddy Holly): “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be / You’re gonna give your love to me”

Did you know that Buddy Holly originally wrote this song? If I did, I had forgotten.

4. “A Day in the Life” — The Beatles: “I read the news today, oh boy”

3. “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Queen: “Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy?”

2. “Good Vibrations” — The Beach Boys: “I, I love the colorful clothes she wears / And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair”

It’s possible that I should have included only the first “I” as the first line, since it’s so perfectly sung.

1. “Baba O’Riley” — The Who: “Out here in the fields / I fight for my meals”

The climax to a historic intro…

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15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wey on February 3, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    I find this both interesting, and impossible to evaluate…

    Reply

    • Posted by Josh on February 3, 2011 at 2:07 PM

      …same. I think arguments about these rankings would be incoherent. In fact, I still really don’t know how I would even go about making such a list.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Wey on February 3, 2011 at 7:44 PM

    glad to see Bryan make the list, albeit tangentially.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Wey on February 3, 2011 at 9:49 PM

    It is. Extremely.

    Reply

  4. Posted by doc on February 5, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    “Willin’” – Little Feat – “I been warped by the rain, driven by the snow, I’m drunk and dirty don’t ya know, and I’m still, willin’”

    Reply

  5. Posted by doc on February 5, 2011 at 9:42 PM

    By the way, Willin’ is covered by many singers and bands (see below)and was voted in one survey as the best truck driving song ever. For you youngun’s out there, Lowell George (father of Inara George of “the bird and the bee”) was a singer/songwriter/guitarist of immense talent. Jackson Browne called him the Orson Welles of rock and roll and Bob Dylan had great admiration for him.

    Bob Dylan
    The Byrds
    Commander Cody
    The Flying Burrito Bros.
    Linda Ronstadt
    Black Crowes
    Steve Earle
    moe
    Phish
    Brooks & Dunn and many others

    Willin’ lyrics

    I been warped by the rain, driven by the snow
    I’m drunk and dirty, don’t you know
    And I’m still
    Willin’

    And I was out on the road late at night
    And I seen my pretty Alice in every head light
    Alice
    Dallas Alice

    Chorus
    And I’ve been from Tuscon to Tucumcari
    Tehachapi to Tonapah
    Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
    Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed
    And if you give me
    Weed, whites, and wine
    And you show me a sign
    I’ll be willin’
    To be movin’

    I’ve been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet
    Had my head stoved in, but I’m still on my feet
    And I’m still
    Willin’

    Now I smuggled some smokes and folks from Mexico
    Baked by the sun, every time I go to Mexico
    And I’m still

    Reply

  6. Posted by james Schneider on February 6, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    My goodness. Out here in the fields/ I fight for my meals is retarded. It doesn’t make sense, and is not a good lyric. At all. Also, there is no ranking here, this is the order you thought of them, poser. And Changes, while excellent, doesn’t make up for the absence of rap. My top five rap songs(besides Changes I suppose), would be Runaway by Kanye West, Little Weapon by Lupe Fiasco, Big Poppa by Biggie, Marshall Mathers by Eminem, and Midnight by A Tribe Called Quest, in that order, with Runaway at 5 and midnight at 1. Changes would probably be at 2.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on February 6, 2011 at 4:47 PM

      Wait, are those your favorite rap songs, or the rap songs with the best first lines in them? Also, the problem with rap w/r/t first lines, as Marshall Mathers and Runaway show, is that there’s so often a voiceover intro before the first line, which basically disqualifies it from “Best First Line” discussion. I mean, where do the lyrics of Marshall Mathers even start?

      Reply

      • Posted by james Schneider on February 7, 2011 at 5:02 PM

        Those are my favorite openings, not songs(although Midnight is phenomenal). And anyways, the clear #1 to this list is I’ve Seen All Good People by Yes.

        Reply

        • Posted by Josh on February 7, 2011 at 5:51 PM

          Right on, James. I’m not sure how to compare first lines lyrically–as I implied above–but in terms of sound, that is almost certainly my favorite vocal opening to any song.

          Reply

    • Posted by John S on March 1, 2013 at 2:29 AM

      I know this is 2 years overdue, but I just want to challenge James’ assertion that “Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals” doesn’t make sense. How could it be any clearer? Where is he? In the fields. What’s he doing? Fighting for his meals. What’s confusing about that?

      Reply

  7. Posted by Persephone (purse-eh-phone) on January 1, 2012 at 7:47 PM

    Some are difficult to say, but many of these songs lines are not interesting at first look… After listening to these for some time, I have concluded (sadly) that if I didn’t have the time to listen to the whole thing, I would not buy any of these songs on iTunes or anything. But it’s hard to evaluate this, so good job!

    Reply

  8. Posted by Erik on June 7, 2012 at 11:23 PM

    Some great tunes here, but I have to say..for total-package-value in an opening line..no one tops The Bloodhound Gang’s ‘A Lap-Dance Is So Much Better When the Stripper Is Crying’ <—- and THAT is just the title!! Kinda reaches out and grabs your attention, doesn't it?!

    Reply

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