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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Brian Wilson and the best opening line in pop

Brian Wilson's 70 today. My favourite Beach Boys record is "Don't Worry Baby" from 1964 because "Don't Worry Baby" has the best opening line in pop.

"Well, it's been building up inside of me for, oh, I don't know how long..."

If you know this record at all that line has probably been embedded in your memory since the first time you heard it, so perfectly do its seventeen syllables carry the tune. (Presumably he needed seventeen. That's why he puts an "of" between "inside" and "me".) In later years Wilson chased complication for its own sake. In "Don't Worry Baby" he was simply expressing in music the feelings of a young man whose heart was so full it hurt.

Wilson wrote the song with Roger Christian, a DJ who specialised in words for songs about cars. Presumably it's Roger we should thank for lines like "And if that ain't enough to make you flip your lid/ There's one more thing, I've got the pink slip, Daddy" in "Little Deuce Coupe". Christian could have come up with that first line. I doubt it. It wouldn't be hooky or detailed enough for a wordsmith. Wordsmiths read words. Musicians hear the sounds they make. Whenever a musician wants to bring another artist's song into conversation he'll quote it by singing a snatch of it. That's how he remembers it. A songwriter's job is to make sure you can never hear it any other way. With "Don't Worry Baby" Brian Wilson nailed it, as they say on The X Factor.

13 comments:

  1. How about 'I may not always love you' from 'God Only Knows'? That's another good (brilliant) one. Well done Brian.

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  2. I know you probably don't want this turning into a list of favourite first lines, but her goes:

    "I may be old but I'm someone new, she said" from Neil Finn's 'She Will Have her Way'.

    It follows your observation that great lyrics sound great when they are sung. And it has the added benefit of, for me, being ten or so words that touch me deeply and seem to pop into my head every day. Even though I don't love the song itself, funnily enough.

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  3. I looked at that line and for a second thought it was the opening of 'Love and Mercy', which scans in an almost identical way...
    "I was sittin' in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin"...
    In passing, the Facebook cronies that I hang out with have been ruminating the week on 'Sail on Sailor', the great lost, last Beach Boys classic... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQOaLP-qPmk

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  4. "It starts with just a little glance now..."
    Here Today. A class act.

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  5. "Well since she put me down I've been out doing in my head" 14 syllables. 17 in the next line. How does he do that?

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  6. Sorry, surely the best opening line in pop is "I am an antichirst". Only Johnny Rotten in his snarling punky pomp could make "antichrist" rhyme with "anarchist"

    (And i know he spits out "Right now" in the intro before that but that is so barely human it doesn't count as a vocal line)

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  7. 'I've been in this town so long that back in the city I've been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time' runs it a close 2nd don't you think ? A Van Dyke (Parks) masterpiece.

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  8. Not a brillliant first line itself, but a first line that made an entire song: "I'm not in love..."

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  9. Though 'Don't Worry Baby' is my favourite BB song but I've never managed to find a better opening line than 'One velvet morning when I'm straight'.

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  10. I don't wish to suggest that any of the above suggestions are "wrong" - although a couple of them clearly are - but what I admire about "Don't Worry Baby" is not its quality as an opening line when written down or quoted but its qualities as a piece of music. Too much so-called "pop criticism" tries to treat the words and music as if they were elements that were developed separately and had to be somehow welded together. The best of them arrive ready-made and are many times more powerful because of that.

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  11. "Girl Don't Tell Me" starts with

    Hey little girl, it's me, don't you know who I am,
    I met you last summer when I came up to stay with my gran


    How many other songwriters would have written that, looked back at it and thought "what the hell was I just thinking?"

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  12. Girl Don't Tell Me is my favourite BB song, just not my favourite lyric.

    I sometimes think Don't Worry Baby is a condensation of two lyrical themes - "I guess I should have kept my mouth shut when I started to brag about my car" would be a great first line too, wouldn't it?

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  13. I love the little Fabs homage in Girl Don't Me - a Beatley guitar riff and a "Ringo roll". It was Carl's first lead vocal. The second was God Only Knows, the third Good Vibrations. How cool is that.
    There's a great version of it by Tony Rivers & The Castaways. Unusually there's no group singing at all on the BB version but the Castaways give it the full-on harmony group treatment.
    As far as Don't Worry Baby goes, what a beautiful sound. And a song about male bravado masking insecurity and the male ego relying on a female for confidence and support is pretty sophisticated and progressive gender politics for a supposedly dumb jock "trivial" surf band.
    Favourite BBs opener: "It's automatic when I talk with old friends that conversation turns to girls we knew when their hair was soft and long ..."

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