All this month we are celebrating the art of the opening track here on TMSDOTORG. Some of our favorite people will be sharing some of their favorite opening tracks and we hope they become some of your favorite too. You can listen along on Spotify! Have any suggestions - hit up our Facebook page (please?!?!)
“Money Jungle” - Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach, from Money Jungle
Three iconic, prodigious jazz men, making a trio album together. Before I heard a note of this record, I was trying to construct in my head what it would sound like. Before I hit “play” on my CD player, I expected a blues to greet me, or perhaps a barnstorming piece full of walking bass. Instead, the first sound you hear is Mingus sounding like he is fighting a bug off of his bass; Roach comes in with a paranoid hiccup of a drumbeat, and then Duke enters with his spare melody, jumping around the bed of anxiety laid down by his rhythm section. The tune eventually morphs into something of a Monk-like groove, but never loses its feeling of unease and discomfort.
According to legend, the session was a tense one; so tense that the trio never recorded their contractually agreed upon second album. This particular track, also according to legend, was recorded directly before Mingus walked out of the session, and you can hear that tension and anger (which is legendary) in the wrestling match he has with his four strings. Ellington, the staunchest traditionalist in the trio, plays like a possessed man, almost raising doubt that he is the same man noted for “Take the A Train.” Only Roach approximates normalcy, and with his rollicking drums as the foundation, the other two can do truly unexpected things.
This is a great opening track because it completely disarms the listener. What may be expected to be the Traveling Wilburys of jazz turns out to be far less conventional and listener-friendly than could have been expected. By placing “Money Jungle” first, it lets the listener completely off the hook, in terms of expectations. When the album goes in unexpected places following its leading track, the journey seems possible and, somehow, even probable. The track doesn’t allow for anything other than open-eared listening; and damn is that appreciated.
“Mother” - John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
Funeral bells kick off the first John Lennon album that isn’t made up of tape loops and noise experiments. The bells go on for what feels like too long, and are then followed by rudimentary drumming, spare bass lines, and open piano chords. What makes this song, however, isn’t the simple instrumentation, it is the brutally honest lyrics and gut-wrenching vocals from Lennon.
The instrumentation isn’t exactly window dressing either, though. It sets the tone for the album - none of the orchestral overdubs of Let It Be or the intricate arrangements of Abbey Road are anywhere to be found. Instead, this is the sound of a band playing in a room with zero embellishments. It builds a bed upon which Lennon’s primal scream inspired vocals can lie unadorned and in full view.
“Mother” is all about loss; specifically, it is about the loss of his parents before they could make a real impact on his life. As harrowing as the verses are, it is when he begins to repeat “Mama don’t go, daddy come home” over and over - each time more painfully than the last - that the song really kicks you in the gut. By the end of the song, the listener is so exhausted and raw that everything else seems downright sunny by comparisson (when the lyric “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” isn’t the fifth saddest lyric on a record, you know you’re dealing with some serious shit). The funeral bells let you know that the Lennon you know is dead, and prepares you to deal with the ghost of the mop topped teen heartthrob. And the ghost is one scary motherfucker.
“Re-Make/Re-Model” - Roxy Music, from Roxy Music
You’re at a cocktail party - it seems pleasant enough, as small talk and the clinking of glasses fill your ears. All of a sudden you hear some honky-tonk piano starting, a drum set knocks the wind out of you, and all of a sudden there are six guys playing their asses off, giving it all they have in the middle of this bourgeois affair.
There’s a saxophone behaving more like a rhythm guitar, there’s a dude with a weird fucking haircut playing with tape loops and sound effects, and the bass is meandering in a melodic and unexpected way. The vocals are shout/sung, the guitar and piano chug along and the drums keep moving at a pace that seems unsustainable. Eventually, the saxophone freaks the fuck out and the bass becomes a little unhinged, and those sound treatments get louder in the mix.
Finally, when things seem to normalize again, each member of the band takes a solo: the drums do a funky little dance, the bass cops “Day Tripper,” the tape loops skitter and whine, the sax is doube-tracked and majestic, the guitar does a simple repeated chromatic line, and the piano player drunkenly stumbles up the keys. The once-pedestrian cocktail party has devolved into a ruckus, and it is fucking glorious. Finally, the drummer does the longest fill you can imagine and everything ends with a bang (until the sound effects offer a little epilogue). You feel winded, and glad to be alive.
That is “Re-Make/Re-Model.”
“Debaser” - Pixies, from Doolittle
With “Debaser,” the Pixies are snake-oil salesmen. They take an album full of angular weirdness, beautiful melody and ugly instrumentation, Biblical lyrics, and faux-60s pop and distill all of that into a super fun, bouncy, seemingly straight ahead song that tricks you into going deeper.
This song basically enforces pogoing and singing along, and everything about it is great. It is easily digestible Pixies that still have all of the great elements in play. Black Francis sings in spanish; weird art films are referenced; Joey Santiago plays a solo that is direct and mesmerizing, and Kim Deal and David Lovering play in a way that implies simplicity but is actually incredibly tight and nuanced.
As the album unfolds, each of the elements of the song unravel into the other tendrils that make up the record. The screamed “chien!” becomes the basis for “Tame,” the consistent and unrelenting bass line informs “Wave of Mutilation,” the pounding drums show up in “Dead,” the guitar lines, both melodic (“Here Comes Your Man”) and unsettling (“Mr. Grieves”) continue throughout.
“Debaser” is the glyph that helps you understand who the Pixies are, and for an album trying to gain new fans and establish the band as a force to be reckoned with, it is the absolutely perfect opening salvo.
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” - Wilco, from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
A beautiful pop song hidden in a miasma of weirdness. Acoustic guitar. Electronics acting as wind chimes. Pianos being played in every conceivable way. Tremolo. Static. Drumsticks using gravity as much as precision playing. Shrieking, piercing noises. Weirdly personal emotions hidden behind magnetic poetry. Hints of straightforwardness debased by thumb-piano. Every percussion instrument in that box in the back of the music room of your high school.
I am trying to break your heart.
I am trying to break your heart.
But still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy.
I am trying to break your heart.
Everything gels and then falls apart. Shouted semi-repeated lyrics. Samples of other songs on the record poking their heads out. A jarring goodbye via feedback.