On a walking trip in the Ardennes with two of my oldest and best friends, it was that point on the second morning when you start looking forward to finding somewhere that might serve you coffee. And wondering whether there’ll be time when you reach the station for a beer or two before the train.
We were walking on a path through some woodland, and the day was warming up, requiring the shedding of coats and jumpers. To pass the time I asked Paul and Jerry to name their favourite five tracks from the traditional prime spot (in old vinyl parlance) of ‘track one, side one’. It kept us amused for most of the morning.
Of course, the concept of even the first track on an ‘album’ is something that for many younger people has little meaning. But it always meant something to me, and for some strange reason, the task of thinking of the best list exercised and interested me a whole lot more than it seemed to engage Jerry and Paul. I could never whittle it down to just five of course (fifty is hard enough). But I did over the coming weeks settle on a list that I thought would fill a decent CD.
And here it is, with reasons (and in most cases clicking on the title will play you the song, through the magic of YouTube).
London Calling The Clash (from London Calling)
There are many reasons why a song stands out as a top Track One Side One pick (or TOSO, as I’ll call them). A pretty strong reason would have to be when a song is the best song, on the best album, by the best band ever. That pretty much shakes out any room for ambiguity.
Key moment: 2 minutes 49 : “Now get this. London calling, yes I was there too, And you know what they said? Well some of it was true.”
Fisherman The Congos (Heart of the Congos)
Not the strongest track on the album, but this is probably the most fully realised and coherent reggae record ever made, a product of Lee Perry’s legendary Black Ark studio and a suite of songs that in many ways make up more of a Lee Perry record than the Congos (the fact that the group made no music that came close to this on any other record supports that view).
The singing is superb, and it is that, combined with the muddy, woozy beauty of the backing track, that lifts this above the crowd. Maybe not the strongest track, but Fisherman was a strong enough rhythm in itself that it later formed the basis of a whole album, with a dozen different artist taking a turn at singing, toasting and dubbing it up into different songs.
Key moment: the bit at around 5.03 where the snare drum drops out, leaving a sinuous and muddy rhythm behind the high-pitched voices singing: “Simon, Peter, James and John come ashore to feed the ‘ungry belly ones.”
Reel Around the Fountain The Smiths (The Smiths)
Track One, Side One, first album, first great new band since the Punk eruption. Nothing here in isolation sounds new: people have played guitar this way before, hit the drums like this, and sung this way. But put it all together and it sounded like nothing ever had before, or would again. People always say the Smiths were miserablists; but this song just aches with longing and frustrated desire.
Key moment: the moment four minutes in when the song sweeps unexpectedly into a new verse and Morrissey boils down all his obsession about ‘A Taste of Honey’ into the lines: ‘…but take me to the haven of your bed….was something that you never said.
Debaser The Pixies (Doolittle)
Starting with a plunking bass riff, igniting the guitars and detonating the drums before Francis Black screeches his way through some hilarious mashed-up art-school lyrics filtered through the dumbness that all pop must have.
Key moment: At 30 seconds in, imagine the look on Luis Bunuel’s face as Black howls: ’Girl you’re so groovy, I want you to know. Don’t know about you, but I am un chien Andalucía’
Blitzkrieg Bop Ramones (Ramones)
January 1977. I was at a friend’s birthday party in a hall in Bracknell. The previous month, the Sex Pistols’ notorious sweary appearance on TV had launched Punk into the nation’s consciousness. But so far the music had made no impact on me (not least because there was hardly any available). I had never heard the Ramones until someone brought their first album to this party and, late in an evening of soul and Rolling Stones music, subversively put this track on. I had never heard anything like it before and the dance floor instantly cleared of one group of people, quickly replaced with a heaving group of pogoing teenage boys. One of them was me.
Key moment: Twenty seconds in, after the all-out attack of the intro, the acapella chant of ’Hey ho, let’s go’, over the drums, and then the rumble of the bass as a prelude to everything crashing back in and sweeping you away.
The Sound of the Underground Girls Aloud (Sound of the Underground)
Maybe a controversial choice (at least among my buttoned-up friends), but worth its place because it’s the first track on the first album of what turned out (despite their manufactured origins) to be maybe the best, most original, just plain poptastic British girl group ever.
Key moment: it starts with a kind of drum and bass disco intro but then completely throws you by a switchback turn off some weird Duane Eddy guitar into a more straightforward pop verse before (at 55 seconds) the guitarist does a machine gun scrape down the neck and the singers dive into that chorus on a wave of mad but frankly exhilarating surf guitar.
Thunder Road Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run)
A close run thing between this and Badlands, which was track one on the first Bruce album I ever listened to. But Thunder Road edges it for the beautifully seductive way it starts so gently, just piano and harmonica, and the lyrics seem to tumble out, gathering pace and drawing in further instruments without deviating into anything as vulgar as a chorus for absolutely ages. And for the fact that in four minutes it lays out the template for the whole of what many people will still say is the finest Springsteen album. In this one song Springsteen packs as much freedom, rebellion, romance, lyricism and sadness as most bands manage in their whole career.
Key moment: 3:43 – “It’s a town for losers, we’re pulling out of here to win…”
Running up that Hill Kate Bush (Hounds of Love)
England’s foremost female pop eccentric. This album has to feature because it is her most fully realised: after she had thrown off the shackles of mainstream pop, and had total control of her output, before she sank too deep into balladry, and with just the right balance of lunacy and melody. This track is a worthy opener, and also showcases the extent to which Kate Bush is, next to Morrissey, our finest exponent of singing that makes even the shortest words multisyllabic (‘it’s you and me-he-he’ ).
Key moment: 3.00 Kate does that thing she does with her slightly deranged, deep voice and sings ‘Come on baby, come on darling, let me steal this moment from you now. Come on angel, come on come on darling, let’s exchange the experience.’ Always sends a shiver down my spine.
Show of Strength Echo and the Bunnymen (Heaven up Here)
Echo and the Bunnymen never topped their second album, although at the time it seemed merely the threshold to world domination. This another kind of TOSO: not the best track, not any kind of career-defining song; but from its first few notes you know you’re in safe hands, and the album is going to take you somewhere well worth going.
Key moment: 0:28 – the thrilling way the intro suddenly swings into a different rhythm and the drums drive the song along as the guitar notes bend around the beat and Ian McCulloch announces himself: “Realistically, it’s hard to take it all too happily…”
Do the Strand Roxy Music (For Your Pleasure)
My biggest musical regret: in 1973, when Roxy toured and played at Bracknell Sports Centre (they really did!). With Brian Eno still in the band. I could have gone. But I didn’t.
Because I was too young to appreciate that the apparent weirdness of their first two albums hid a powerful pop sensibility. Because there was something too out-there about their look and sound (when I first heard ’Virginia Plain’ on radio Luxembourg it was like something beamed in from another solar system. I kind of liked it but I didn’t know if I was meant to). Because they hadn’t yet made, and I hadn’t yet heard, their third album, where everything came together perfectly, often imitated and never bettered. They had only hinted at it with this lead-off track on album number two, with its unique list of a thousand dances. And you just knew Bryan Ferry had tried them all.
Key moment: 3:29 – the bit where Ferry sings ‘Rhodedendron, is a nice flower. Evergreen, it lasts for ever. But it can’t beat strand power’ has always had a place in my heart.
Gimme Shelter Rolling Stones (Let it Bleed)
A real struggle choosing this one. You could choose ‘Rocks Off’ because that kicks off the sprawling masterpiece that is Exile on Main Street. But that isn’t as good a song, and in some ways is a little Stones by numbers as a lead off track. You could go for ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ (and I very nearly did), and you’d have one of the wittiest, most subversive Stones songs ever, and the start of a great album.
But not as great an album as this one. And for me ‘Gimme Shelter’ just shades it, because Let it Bleed is as good as it gets. The last Stones album of the ‘60s, and as perfect a capturing of the mood of the times as you could get. A sense of shifting sands is audible from the beginning of ‘Gimme Shelter’, as the song slides in on that zither and sinuous guitar, before driving forward on Charlie Watts’ drums to take us decisively away from the summer of love and towards a world where, as the song says, ’rape, murder are just a shot away’.
Key moment: it could be deeply depressing, but Mick Jagger offers some hope towards the end, at 3.45, as his voice goes deeper and tender with: ‘love, sister, is just a kiss away’. And then fades out.
Just Like Honey Jesus and Mary Chain (Psychocandy)
An easy choice. This brooding, reverb and distortion-drenched slice of lust and longing opened the first JAMC album, when they were possibly the most exciting and influential new band since the Sex Pistols. The rest of the album successfully mines the same seam (with a bit less Phil Spector influence on some tracks, to their cost). After that, their career continued on in almost a straight line: each successive album less original and exciting than the one before. So this track was about as good as it got.
Key moment: when most of the instruments drop out after the solo at around 1:50, leaving drums and voice and a cliff-face of echo as the singer repeats the title over and over to the end. You just know there’s something in that honey that you can’t get in Tesco.
1975. I was still deep in Elton John and ELO and 10cc territory. Walking to school one day with my friend Jim we met the only black girl in our school, called Ros. She had under her arm a couple of vinyl LPs. The one that was on display had on its cover a stylised drawing of what I could only describe as two ’tribesmen’, draped in large robes, and holding spears. Across the bottom of the album cover were the links of chains. Big red block capitals said ’Burning Spear’ and smaller white letters on black said ’Marcus Garvey’.
I had no idea which was the title and which the artist. Nor did I have any idea what this record would sound like (and I didn’t get to hear it for some time to come). But something hooked me right there and then, and gave me the sense that there were worlds of music far beyond Bracknell and what I got to hear on the radio. And this song is the first one on that mind-expanding disc.
Key moment: it’s all great, the horns, the high-stepping cymbal sound, the deep rasping old testament conviction of Winston Rodney’s voice. But the best moment for me is 2.30 in, where Rodney’s voice takes on an edge of desperation, seeming almost to crack as he damns the ‘first betrayer, who gave away Marcus Garvey.’ I had no idea what he was on about, but I knew he meant it.
Fisherman’s Blues Waterboys (Fisherman’s Blues)
The trouble with ‘folk-rock’ is that all too often it comes off as neither rocky enough nor folky enough and is responsible for no end of fiddly-diddly nonsense. Even the Waterboys have committed those sorts of crimes. But on this album, the fruits of an extended stay in Irish rural isolation, they got it all right. For once mandolins and violins and whooping vocals all come together as they should . And this track kicks it off with one of the most gloriously optimistic and joyful four and a half minutes of music you could ever hear. I don’t suppose fishermen think their life is always full of sunshine, but for a few minutes you can believe it is.
Key moment: It happens several times during the track, and slays me every time, when he seems unable to contain his excitement and joy and simply whoops wordlessly. The best and most uninhibited comes at around 2.53: ‘with light in my head, you in my arms…whoo hoo hoo’
Like a Rolling Stone Bob Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited)
Obvious and predictable, I know. But unavoidable, even though the Dylan competition includes Subterranean Homesick Blues, and Blowing in the Wind and Tangled Up in Blue, to name but three. Probably most significant as a single release (way too long, wordy and sneering but somehow from the moment the pistol shot of the opening snare drum throws open the door to that unmistakeable electric organ sound you know you’re not in Kansas anymore). But still one hell of a way to kick off what is probably my favourite Dylan album.
So what do you think? Too predictable? Not enough variety? Way too rock and pop influenced. Tell me your own favourite opening track, and why.