Technological revolutions can change the way pop songs are written. In 1949, RCA Records introduced a new 45rpm record made of vinyl instead of the more brittle and fragile shellac that 78rpm records were made of. There was one big caveat – it could only hold about three minutes of music. The pop single as we know it was born, the equivalent of 99-cent download song of its day.
Radio followed suit. Songs earmarked for radio play were released as singles on 45s. This approach meant that other, longer tracks were ruthlessly edited to fit the ‘radio edit’ format, often losing minutes.
In the 21st Century, an equally seismic change in the way pop songs are written has arrived with streaming services like Spotify. With another song only the click of a button away, and no revenue unless at least 30 seconds of the song have been heard, songwriters have frontloaded their songs to pack as much impact as possible into the first half minute – and often long before that.
But it wasn’t always like this. Through decades of pop music, we’ve learned a lot about how a long intro can create a memorable song. So, as Record Store Day approaches this weekend, we want to take a moment to celebrate the lost art of the classic long intro. Some of the examples below use intros to cast light and shade. Some amp up the anticipation for when the vocals kick in. Some deliberately try to subvert the rules. All of them created iconic moments in pop history.
If you want to hear them all, listen to the playlist here.
I Bet That You Look Good On the Dancefloor (2005)
Usually, guitar bands wait until the instrumental break to get seriously messy. Not so for Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys, who burst out of the traps on their debut single like an ensemble of over-excited Labradors. It’s only after nearly half a minute that things calm down enough for the song’s propulsive first verse to take over, not giving the track any moment to catch its own breath.
Pet Shop Boys
West End Girls (1985)
Neil Tennant formed Pet Shop Boys after several years redefining music journalism as a member of pop magazine Smash Hits, a title known for not always having a reverent attitude towards the music it covered.
The Pet Shop Boys’ first song, however, re-recorded by producer Stephen Hague after an earlier version had been released as a club mix in America, was a masterclass in moody scene-setting. In the first few seconds, snatches of far-off voices can be heard before the foreboding synths glide towards the spare, funky ‘bassline’ (actually another synth) and one of the greatest opening lines in modern pop music: “Sometimes you’re better off dead, there’s a gun in your hand and it’s pointing at your head.”
Hotel California (1976)
Like a Twilight Zone episode with an extended guitar solo, The Eagles’ best-known song began life as a reggae/Latino-inspired song fragment guitarist Don Felder had recorded on his own. Singer Don Henley heard it and liked its Latino groove enough to dub it ‘Mexican reggae’, and penned lyrics with an almost supernatural undertone. Mirroring the band’s experiences of hanging out in Hollywood’s Beverley Hills Hotel – a scene of LA glamour and quiet excess for decades – Henley created the story of a traveller driving through the desert who stops to rest at an isolated hotel populated by unsettling characters.
Given this cinematic setting, the intro acts almost like the opening titles and a slow-paced establishing shot, carrying on for almost a minute before the traveller appears out of the desert dust.
Stairway to Heaven (1971)
Both loved and loathed by guitar shops, Stairway to Heaven may not necessarily be the best song the band ever wrote but it’s more than likely their most memorable. It became one of radio’s most requested songs of the 1970s, despite never being officially released as a single.
Guitarist Jimmy Page says the idea was to write a song unfolding into more layers and moods, and accelerating as it went through every level. In describing one of the most memorable guitar intros in rock history, Page told the BBC: “I wanted to put something together which started with quite a fragile, exposed acoustic guitar, playing in the style of a poor man’s Bourrée by Bach.” Bassist John Paul Jones came up with the idea of using recorders to give the intro more of a medieval feel, which paints a portrait of fragile serenity, before Robert Plant’s vocal eases in yet more vulnerability.
Baba O’Riley (1971)
The Who might have started out as proto-punk Mods, clattering their way from one three-minute single to the next, but things got operatically ambitious pretty quickly. The 1969 album Tommy was guitarist Pete Townshend’s musical reaction to coming into contact with the teachings of Indian spiritual master, Meher Baba. He planned another ‘rock opera‘, Lifehouse, but the project failed and a clutch of the songs written for it became the next Who album, Who’s Next, in 1971.
Townshend wanted to input the vital signs and personality of Meher Baba into a synthesizer, creating music out of the data. It never quite worked, but the jittering intro at the start of Baba O’Riley is one of the few traces of this outlandish project, partly influenced by American musician Terry O’Riley, to survive.
The Stone Roses
I Wanna Be Adored (1989)
Another epic intro to kick-start an iconic album. I Wanna Be Adored is another archetypal intro as classic build, creating a sense of brooding menace that is at odds with the album’s received status as a dance rock classic. Amid a psychedelic collage of sound, Mani’s bass kicks in at around 40 seconds, shortly followed by two guitars, and then the drums, before the song properly rumbles into view after a full minute-and-a-half. Dance? Classic rock moves, to a tee, proving that this Byrds-via-the-Balearics outfit always had an eye on the past as well as the future.
Where the Streets Have No Name (1987)
By the time U2 came to recording The Joshua Tree, they were already a major success, though not yet household names. The album would be the band’s overground moment, and its epic opener had a large part to play in that success. What became a live favourite began with guitarist The Edge playing around with a melody in the house he had recently bought just before The Joshua Tree sessions; recording it on a four-track tape machine. The Edge later admitted he was trying to “conjure up the ultimate U2 live-song”, because the band feared the new album was short on songs that would become live staples.
The resulting intro takes over a minute before the bass and drums kick in; before then, it is a jangling melange, highlighting The Edge’s trademark arpeggio. What’s more, the intro is in 3/4 time, a time signature more common in waltzes than it is in pop music. At around one minute, this archly un-pop time signature dissolves into the more common 4/4 time – one of the great time changes in pop history.
Theme From Shaft (1971)
If it wasn’t already the theme to a film, it would have likely spawned one from the intro alone, which was cobbled together from promising fragments that composer/singer Hayes had from other projects for the Stax record label. It was the first soundtrack project Hayes worked on. “As this was my first such undertaking, at the initial meeting I had with the producer and director in New York you could see the anxiety on their faces,” Hayes told Mojo magazine in 1995. “They tested me by giving me the opening scene – footage of Shaft coming out of the subway – to take away and see how I got on.”
The film’s opening scene introduces private detective John Shaft emerging from a subway, sniffing the air like a hunted animal. The theme, with its anxious wah-wah guitar seemingly scuttling across the screen, is the perfect bedrock.
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone (1972)
Very much the daddy of epic intros, Papa Was a Rolling Stone is a masterclass in ebb and flow, and a precursor to the extended mix of dance-friendly records that would follow in the 1970s and 80s. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong as a three-minute pop song, it was originally recorded by fellow Motown act The Undisputed Truth. When The Temptations decided to cover it, they gave it the ultimate widescreen soul treatment.
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone takes more than four minutes for the vocals kicks in. Along the way, there are peaks and troughs of instrumentation – wah-wah guitar, organ, hi-energy handclaps – all the while underpinned by 20-year-old drummer Aaron Smith’s insistent hi-hat beat, and a strong and simple bassline. The single version ran for nearly 12 minutes, and it still doesn’t feel long enough.
Shine On You Crazy Diamond (1975)
In terms of Ariana Grande songs, you could listen to both thank u, next and 7 Rings, regram one of her posts, and still have time to put the kettle on before the vocals in Shine on You Crazy Diamond begin. In the 1970s, an intro could conceivably take up half of one side of an LP (and often felt even longer). Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here saw exactly that, with two-thirds of Side One of the album taken up by Shine On You Crazy Diamond, an elongated elegy to missing member Syd Barrett, who had left the band in 1968.
A sprawling, nine-part movement, this is more a mini-suite than an intro, with the band stretching the idea of an introduction to breaking point and beyond: Roger Waters’ vocals don’t appear until Part IV (which doesn’t mean ‘Part 4’ in Roman numerals – this was the height of Prog Rock, after all).
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