My Favourite Intros ... Ever!

In a slight variation from my normal theme, I now present ten of my favourite introductions. In fact, this may turn out merely to be the first instalment of many. Or not.

So, what are we looking for? One of the key ingredients of a classic - or even good - pop song, is an immediate hook, something that grabs you. All the usual suspects have excellent intros. Plus, of course, any song that happens to be a particular favourite probably has your musical juices flowing within the first few bars just through anticipation, but that's not necessarily the same as it being a really good introduction.

Luckily, since I am not claiming to be making a definitive list (lacking, as I do, the stupidity to believe that such a thing is possible, and the arrogance to believe that I'm the person do it), I don't have to distinguish between those that I like because I just love the song, those that evoke memories and those that are just genius to my ears. So here goes.

The ISO-standard best intro is, as any fule kno, The Beach Boys' "California Girls". I'm ambivalent about the rest of the song, but the first 20-odd seconds is as fine a piece of music as you will find anywhere. Dreamy, sunny, wistful, it floats just out of reach - entirely appropriate in a paean to beautiful women. Then the rest of the song lumbers in with leaden male chauvinist boots and leers at fit chicks. Such a disappointment. But an illustration that the equation "good song = good intro" isn't infallibly true in either permutation.

One of my favourite intros is actually available in two flavours: "original" and "artifically sweetened". Rose Royce's "Is It Love You're After" has a classic building intro: starting with a throbbing synth pulse, it brings in a four-on-floor kick, then a sprinkling, sparkling hi-hat before hitting us with the stabbing brass riff that is probably more familiar to most people as the intro to "Theme from S'Express", cheekily sampled - or swiped wholesale, if you prefer - by Mark Moore and pumped more full of steroids than a body builders' convention. Sadly, while I find Rose Royce's original to be listenable all the way through, the young pretender drops off sharply after a promising start.

So that's two songs that fail to meet the promise of their first thirty seconds. But don't worry, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band have the answer. "The Intro And The Outro" is the only song to acknowledge that often the best bit of a recording is the intro and therefore to consist entirely of an introduction. Truly comic music is rare but this continues to be endlessly funny. My favourite bit, out of many:
Count Basie Orchestra on triangle. (A single note is played) Thank you.
I could write a whole journal just about ABBA's intros. More than just about anyone else before or since, Benny and Björn understood the value of grabbing the listener good and hard right from the start. They only really hit their stride with Arrival - god, there are some awful songs on the first couple of albums - but after that, solid, solid gold right through. If had to pick my particular favourites, there are two that stand out for me. My dad was doing some work at CBS in 1976 and returned one day with a copy of Arrival for me. The first track, "When I Kissed the Teacher" now evokes for me the magic of my first album, played on my own record player, and the start of a journey into music that has stayed with me ever since, as well as remaining one of the best recorded examples of 12 string guitar I know. My second choice would be "The Winner Takes It All", which is a beautifully restrained and simple statement of the main theme and a subtle start to one of the saddest songs I know. (And who the fuck thought it would be a good idea to have fucking McFly cover it at the London 2012 launch party recently? What the fuck was that all about? For fuck's sake, do these idiots not have ears? Sorry, sorry, rant over.)

Talking of 12 string guitars, what about "A Hard Day's Night"? One of a select few songs that can be identified solely by their opening chords (although no-one seems quite sure what it actually is!), it is of course a classic song, but for me again, it's more a reminder of playing my parents' albums when I was very young. And on the subject of single chord recognition, I'd include "Purple Rain", whose opening chord somehow sounds as though it's being played in the middle of a moody, swirling storm. Obviously heavily in debt to Jimi Hendrix, it nevertheless stands as one of Prince's highpoints.

If making an introduction memorable with a single chord is a tricky prospect, how much more difficult is it with a drum beat? And yet it is a feat New Order have managed more than once. I bet that most well-listened (is that a valid parallel to "well-read"? It doesn't seem right somehow) folks would be able to identify both "Blue Monday" and "True Faith" just by hearing the first beat. A tribute to New Order's sonic mastery!

Finally, possibly the finest last 30-odd seconds of a song - ever! - is that of Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman". (And don't remind me that Simon Bates or Mike Read used to use it as a bed because I don't care.)


Seth Lakeman - Live

The Liquid Room, Edinburgh
Wednesday 30 April, 2008

I have to admit that, beyond having heard or read his name in passing somewhere (probably, if I really think hard about it, mentioned briefly in The Word's coverage of the Folk Awards), I know nothing about Seth Lakeman. I went along to this gig out of a simple wish to do something other than sit in my hotel room or a bar all night. (Not that sitting in a bar all night doesn't have its attractions. But there would be time for that after the gig.)

It could have all gone very wrong, I guess. I arranged to meet up with a colleague at 8, a time chosen completely at random, so we could have been late for the start. The tickets could have all been sold out. The venue could be a dive. And it could have turned out to be dire, finger-in-the-ear folk.

However, thankfully, none of these eventualities transpired. The timing was perfect; the tickets were available; The Liquid Room is great, just the right size; and, best of all, Seth Lakeman plays a muscular, involving music that is a pleasure to listen to.

There was a good crowd, a complete mixture ranging from fresh-faced students to beer-bellied oldsters (including male and female examples of both), who were respectfully enthusiastic about each song, warming up towards the end. Possibly a later start would have ensured a more well-lubricated and liberated crowd, but the gig had to be fitted in before the "Indi-Nite" club starting at 10:30.

Seth came on enthusing about his last gig in Edinburgh, at the same venue, and looking rugged in jeans and a tight t-shirt. Now I understood why there were more women in the audience than I had expected. The band - Seth on violin and tenor guitar, Seth's older brother Sean on acoustic guitar, a drummer and a double bassist (presumably Cormac Byrne and Ben Nicholls, respectively, although I didn't catch their names for sure) - created a nicely balanced, full sound that was articulate and rich without being overwhelming. They all put their backs into the performance, Seth being drenched by the end, but I was particularly struck by Ben Nicholls, who gave the old bull fiddle (as I'm sure no-one actually calls it) some fantastically nonchalant slap and tickle and really enhanced the sound.

The songs were all new to me and so had a tendency to sound somewhat similar, partly due to the instrumentation and partly due to the folky tendency to focus on events from the English civil war or life at sea. Having said that, and having subsequently listened to some, I can hear the differences now!

All in all, a very enjoyable gig, a pleasant surprise and a new discovery for me.

Bearing in mind my complete ignorance and based on what I could hear of the announcements at the time, here is what I believe to be the set list:

  • How Much
  • The Storm
  • The Hurlers
  • King and Country
  • Blood Red Sky
  • Solomon Browne
  • The Riflemen Of War
  • Lady Of The Sea
  • Greed And Gold
  • Cherry Red Girl
  • I'll Haunt You
  • Take No Rogues
  • The Colliers
  • Bold Knight (not 100% sure if this is the right song)
  • Poor Man's Heaven
  • Kitty Jay
  • Ye Mariners All
  • Setting Of The Sun (encore)
  • Race To Be King (encore)


Archie Bronson Outfit - Live

Night & Day Café, Manchester
Thursday 10 April, 2008

I went to university in Manchester, way back last century sometime. In my second year, I lived with two other guys in a small terraced house in Rusholme. We all played guitar, and so every now and then we'd gather in the biggest bedroom with our guitars and have a jam session. Usually it sounded cacophonous, but occasionally it would gel, usually around a simple, descending, Hawkwind-esque riff. We'd set the phaser to a slow swirl and be off for hours. It was fantastic fun to play ... but, er, possibly somewhat less fun to listen to.

This week I was back in Manchester on business and my good friend Pat - one of my fellow junior Dave Brocks annoying the neighbours twenty years ago - suggested that we take in a gig during my stay. So that's how I ended up at the side of the stage in the Night & Day Café, watching two tall, heavily bearded men pound their artfully retro (or possibly just cheap) semi-acoustic guitars to produce a wall of white noise. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Archie Bronson Outfit. And I was thinking, "We used to do this!"

As guitarist, I know it's easy to thrash a few chords through a couple of decent effects (say, a Pro Co Rat and a MXR Phase 90) and produce an impressive racket. It was clear from my close vantage point that the Archies were doing a good deal more than this; they were tightly in sync (apart from a couple of wobbly moments slowing down at the end of songs), the arrangements showed thought, planning and rehearsal and the singer was trying to say something. Unfortunately, all subtleties were lost in a terrible sound mix that rendered the vocals all but unheard and collapsed the guitars into a mush.

I've listened to their most recent album Derdang Derdang and it's full of some excellent guitar interplay, contrasting patterns and riffs playing off each other. Occasionally it's a little lifeless, but you can hear the details of the instrumentation, the arrangements and the vocals. Clearly these guys have spent a lot of time getting the music to this state. So I think it's a shame that the live experience was so unrepresentative.

You know, call me an old fuddy-duddy if you will, but I think most gigs are too loud. I know it's a challenge to be heard over an enthusiastically played set of drums, but it's got to be possible to get a better fidelity of sound that this in a small bar. A lot of clever people have spent time working on sound reproduction over the decades, so why do we still have live mixes that are clipping all the time and burying finesse in a welter of (unwanted) distortion? Maybe it's just done like that because, well, that's how it's done.

Still, they were well received and there were some very enthusiastic people down at the front (including a couple of girls who looked they were dancing at a disco and clearly knew all the songs). And I'm pleased I went. I don't go to many gigs these days (actually, I never did in those days either), so it was good to be reminded what it's like to experience music physically as well as aurally. The drums really got a good thumping and every beat on the bass drum went right through me. Meanwhile the guitars produced a dense texture of squalling, shifting riffs that seem to be coming from everywhere at once and the singer bellowed indistinguishable lyrics into a mike. The overall result was fiercely energetic and and fun to experience - for a while anyway. The gig was short; maybe half a dozen songs, then an encore, but that's OK, they didn't outstay their welcome for me. And I got back to my hotel in good time. So thanks for that guys.