Monday, September 24, 2012

Top Ten Classic Rock Intros

OK, so I was in the process of putting together evidence to show just how much the presence of Monte Cook on the D&D Next design team was going to result in a cool-yet-unplayable game experience, when, shock of shocks, Cook announced he was leaving WotC due to differences of opinion with "the company".

Mind. Freaking. Blown.

The new lead designer appears to be Mike Mearls, the guy who put together the most punishing scenario in the Age of Worms adventure path, and while I still don't think D&D Next is going to end up being the Golden Apple of RPG gaming, I'm less worried that it'll be a giant gaming turd.

So moving on...

At about the same time, I was participating in a pub quiz, and during the music round one of my teammates responded to the opening of The Hollies's "Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress" with the comment, "Best rock song intro ever."

Really? I thought. That's the best we can do? So I've spent the last six months dutifully listening to KQRS and trying to put together a slightly more accurate accounting of best rock song intros.

Right away, of course, I ran into a definitional problem. What constitutes an 'intro'? Well, it's the part before they start singing, isn't it? (Forgive the rhetorical flourishes -- I've been watching a lot of Zero Punctuation lately.)

So does that mean the single chord that opens The Beatles's "Hard Day's Night" or Elton John's "Rocket Man" counts as an intro? Sure, why not.

OK, then what about "Crazy Train", which opens with Ozzy Osborne shouting "All aboard!" and cackling maniacally? Well, maybe.

And how about songs where there isn't any singing, like the Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein"? Where does the intro end and the song begin there?

Well, OK, clearly we need some ground rules here:

1) The song must have vocals.

This avoids the whole existential 'where does the intro end and the song begin' problem referenced above.

2) The start of the vocals indicates the end of the intro, unless such vocal consists of what is now termed a 'rock utterance'. The 'rock utterance' is any vocalization like 'hmmm', 'yeah', 'ooh', or the like which is basically just an excuse to treat the singer's voice like just another instrument. (For examples, see about 2/3rds of the intros to the songs on Aerosmith's "Big Ones". Steven Tyler loves him some rock utterances.)

Now I fully admit that someone could put together a list of the top ten rock intros that violate one of my two rules above, and that some of the songs on that list would be objectively better than some of the songs on my list. When that alternate list happens, I'll worry about responding to it, because for now, I've got my own list to do.

10) Bon Jovi, "Dead or Alive"

Right off the bat we start off with controversy -- most folks would probably recommend "Livin' On A Prayer" as a better rock opening. However, starting the list off with this song lets me begin explaining the concept of 'style points'.

There's nothing specifically wrong with "Livin' On A Prayer", but it is fundamentally very similar to many other rock intros -- I could probably just have gone with Autograph's "Turn Up the Radio" as number 1 and saved myself a lot of research time -- but uniqueness counts. So too does the idea that the purpose of the intro is to introduce a song, and "Dead or Alive" definitely invokes the 'Old West' feel that the song will then mine for semiotic references. Plus, it's pretty damned cool -- if a rock intro makes you think, "Hey, something cool is about to happen," then it's done its job.

9) The Doobie Brothers, "China Grove"

On the other hand, sometimes just some kick-ass guitar riffs make for a great rock intro. This one definitely invokes 'fun time' as part of its intro promise, and the song doesn't disappoint.

One thing learned while looking for the YouTube reference for this sone -- the intro loses something significant when performed without the keyboard part.

8) Roy Orbison, "Oh, Pretty Woman"

The sabermetric study of baseball statistics (you were just waiting for me to sneak in that reference, weren't you?) has a concept called "era adjustments" -- the purpose of an era adjustment is to take into account that some times in baseball history were especially favorable to or hostile to a particular kind of player. Without era adjustments, we'd think all the great pitchers pitched in the Dead Ball Era and during the mid 1960s, and all the great hitters played during the 20s, 30s, and the Steroid Era.

You can do something similar with rock songs, particularly with respect to 'covers', where one band re-makes a song originally made famous by another band or, more rarely, where a band makes a song famous that wasn't originally famous when done by another band.

When making an era adjustment, it's a good idea to have a baseline in mind, and in our case, we're going to use Van Halen as the baseline. For instance, when Van Halen covered the song "You Really Got Me" by the Kinks, Ray Davies of the Kinks mentioned that he prefers the Van Halen cover to the original song, comparing the original to a prop plane and the cover to a jet fighter. (Later, when informed of this, Eddie Van Halen said he was flattered but that he preferred the original, saying "Ray, that prop stuff is the shit.")

On the other hand, Van Halen also did a cover of Roy Orbison's classic "Oh, Pretty Woman", and the result is pretty much what Van Halen called his cover of "You Really Got Me" -- modernized, but not really improved.

By the way, you will not find a Van Halen song on this list, not even the intro I judge the best of all Van Halen intros, "Hot For Teacher". I feel the same way about this as I feel about Jack Morris for the Hall of Fame -- someone has to serve as the equivalent of the 'you must be at least this tall to enter this ride' sign, and I have no problem with Morris being that guy among baseball pitchers or Van Halen being that band for rock intros.

7) KISS, "Detroit Rock City"

I'd be willing to bet that, if you surveyed people about what specific song they thought of when you said the words 'classic rock', this song would be in the top 5, and maybe the top song overall. It might not rate as my best rock intro, but it's arguably the ur-example of a classic rock intro.

6) Golden Earring, "Radar Love"

If a song was going to challenge #7 above as 'classic rock intro you think of when you hear the words 'classic rock'', this would be the one.

This song also does the 'intro to the intro' thing -- the opening guitar riffs don't seem to have a lot to do at first with the drum and bass riff that composes the actual intro to the song, but then you realize that the guitar riffs are meant to invoke 'the road' (which is why this sone also makes some great traveling music).

Golden Earring as a band is a really interesting story -- their two well-known US hits, "Radar Love" and "Twilight Zone" came out more than a decade apart, suggesting to some that this is a band that came within one song of being a 'one-hit wonder'. In fact, the band is Dutch and has had multiple hits on the Dutch charts in its over 50-year career.

"Twilight Zone" was disqualified from the list, of course, because of the spoken-word component of its own intro:

Somewhere in a lonely hotel room
There's a guy starting to realize
That eternal fate has turned its back on him.
It's two AM.

That would rate very highly on a follow-up list of 'best rock song intros with words'.

Finally, you haven't lived until you've done 'Radar Love' on Rock Band 2 as the drummer and gotten the 'great solo!' pop-up.

5) Joe Walsh, "Life's Been Good"

Joe Walsh's career as a rock star was predicated on his ability to build songs around awesome guitar riffs, and this song is no exception. Though other riffs might be more complex, this one is, in my opinion anyway, the most classic.

If I ever end up writing a TV series featuring a lottery winner as wandering private investigator, this song will be its theme.

4) The Police, "Synchronicity II"

Some might be offended by the inclusion of a synthesizer riff on my list, but two things:

First, the riff presages the 'weirdness' that is the dual-story in the song's lyrics (though I disagree that the 'something' that crawls up from the depths of a Scottish lake is actually Nessie -- even in the 70's it was presumed that Nessie was a dinosaur, not a humanoid creature).

Second, the traditional guitars and drums come in quickly enough, with what for the era, was a thrashing dance beat. (Kids these days probably consider it tame, though.)

In these ways, the intro to "Synchronicity II" definitely hits the style points meter, and hard.

3) The Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter"

Probably the most influential rock intro on this list, and in a depressingly ironic fashion -- the song itself is pretty clearly anti-war, given the lyrics, but it's best known for being used in Vietnam war-era depictions of the combat itself. It was used in the TV series "China Beach", and eventually found its way into the "Call of Duty" soundtrack. Ultimately it's all cash for the Stones, and the song is good enough to warrant being recognized by the current generation of gamers, but it's more than a bit sad that some folks who know the song only from gaming might not actually pick up that it's not really the song they might think it is.

2) Molly Hatchet, "Flirting With Disaster"

Take "Detroit Rock City" and add a fifth of Jack and you get this.

Another ironic twist, given the title and the chorus, is that the song is really just about the singer's ambiguous feelings about his musical career, not about any deep political or philosophical issue.

1) Supertramp, "Take the Long Way Home"

Style points. And it's my list.

Depressingly, Roger Hodgson (who is now billed as a singer-songwriter) does this song on his tours, but only with the piano part. Without the synth opening chord and especially the harmonica, the intro just isn't the same. The version linked above is a cover that nails the intro, but doesn't carry that energy through to the song. The original Supertramp version remains definitive.

A few other honorable mentions, more to show that I did my homework than anything else:

Deep Purple, "Smoke on the Water"
Def Leppard, "Pour Some Sugar On Me"
Guns 'n' Roses, "Welcome to the Jungle"
Tom Petty, "Runnin' Down A Dream"
Night Ranger, "Sister Christian"

and of course, probably the best-known rock intro of all:

Led Zeppelin, "Stairway to Heaven"