Many songwriters/composers will tell you that each song and piece of music is a mini-story, thus a compelling introduction to a song can really help to set the mood or tone for what follows. Maybe the writer wants to pump up the listener for a head-banger, or maybe they are trying to set a mysterious feel to draw you into paying closer attention to the lyrics. Sometimes the time spent on the start of a song can get taken too far: like the 3-4 (or more) minute intros of some prog or acid rock songs. Yet when done right, a good song intro can almost stand on its own and might even be more memorable than the lyrics themselves. Here are some of our favorite songs with great intros:
I love good song intros because it feels like the songwriters are taking the time to think about all the elements that go into the song, not just the lyrics or guitar solos. Back in the golden age of radio, an instrumental song intro was often ruined by chatty DJs who would take advantage of the time to make “witty” comments and then rush to plug the radio station letters or dial number, right up to the second the first lyric would start. I always wondered if they had some sort of visual countdown to the lyrics starting, although on rare occasions they would even talk over the first words, which would really piss me off, especially when I was trying to tape the song off the radio. Fortunately, in the age of streaming, most people are not subject to this happening anymore. Here are 10 tracks that stand out for me:
- “Enter Sandman”, Metallica (1991) – For me, this is the gold standard of rock song intros. It starts off with a clean guitar riff, then the bass drum kicks in, building with some more drums, and then the distorted guitar rhythm. The anticipation the build-up creates is fantastic. If I hear this song, I want to hear it from the first note, always.
- “Thriller”, Michael Jackson (1982) – Some bumps, a creak of a door (or coffin), echoing footsteps, a blast of thunder, howling, and building synthesizers all set the spooky tone for this Halloween favorite. Producer Quincy Jones’s work on this entire album was amazing.
- “Roundabout”, Yes (1971) – This starts with a few notes from Steve Howe’s acoustic guitar before his plucking gets more complex and Chris Squires’ thumping bass kicks in. It’s almost a minute before John Anderson starts singing, but it’s worth the indulgence.
- “Let’s Go Crazy”, Prince (1984) – The Purple One takes us to church with a pipe-organ style keyboard track, and the priestly lyrics: “Dearly beloved/ We are gathered here today/ To get through this thing called ‘life’…”. He goes on to talk about the afterworld before the song kicks in with the percussion and then Prince’s deep guitar riff. Prince always applied creativity to every element of his songs, and he also gives this track a great ending.
- “Thunderstruck”, AC/DC (1990) – It’s an overplayed staple of sports stadiums, but when you are there in person, it really works to pump you up for the upcoming game.
- “When The Levee Breaks”, Led Zeppelin (1971) – Led Zep has some great song intros – “Immigrant Song” and “Kashmir” are both probably more well known. For me, this is my favorite – just love the interplay between the thumping drums, harmonica, and Jimmy Page’s guitar work. It’s been used in a ton of shows/movies. Was I the only one that didn’t know this was a cover of a 1929 blues song?
- “Two Tribes”, Frankie Goes To Hollywood (1984) – One of my favorite 80s songs, this song has two different intro versions – both awesome. One is heavier on a Russian-themed orchestral music piece, another uses stock audio of an air-raid warning, underscoring the song’s nuclear war theme. There are also some funky 12″ remixes that extend the intro to well over two minutes.
- “Vicarious”, Tool (2006) – Tool is a band all about dense song composition, and this track is just one of several examples where they use multiple layers of electric guitar programming, bass, and percussion to create a dark and dramatic introduction.
- “Baba O’Riley”, The Who (1971) – Possibly the most iconic song intro in rock music. Just the intro was used in one of my favorite Miami Vice episodes called “Where the Buses Don’t Run”. That show was groundbreaking for incorporating music in its storytelling – something we take for granted today. Before Miami Vice, TV shows hardly ever used established songs – instead, having them re-recorded by some hack because it was cheaper. It was rough.
- “In The Air Tonight”, Phil Collins (1981) – The mesmerizing intro to this song, which feels longer than it plays, is one of the reasons this track still has so much staying power. The quiet drum programming and sparse guitar notes set up the lyrics we all know, building to that iconic drum break by Collins.
DJ: A pretty good list. Led Zeppelin like the Rolling Stones have so many iconic and great openings. When I was thinking about AC/DC I completely missed “Thunderstruck”, it’s lesser known unless you are at a sporting event. Yes has so many great openings that never stop. Prince, the Who, Michael Jackson are no-brainers. “Beat It” or “Billie Jean” could easily make this list as well but I get “Thriller”. I never cared for “In the Air Tonight” but that song and the intro always sets a mood in a film or TV show.
I like song intros for a practical reason, I know what’s coming on, and I can keep it or change it. It also sharpens my mind for the day I finally end up on Name That Tune which is finding a revival on Fox. But seriously a song’s intro sets the tone of where the song is going to go. It can be harsh, drawn out, no music, lots of music, acoustic or loud. Could have done a whole other list as I feel some bands or songs have just been left out. Where’s Hendrix, the Police, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, and so on – not on our lists – so here is mine:
- “You Shook Me All Night Long”, AC/DC (1980) – I know we both picked an AC/DC song – go figure, but the opening of this is pure 80s middle school dance, and it brings me back to hearing the opening on every bus trip to school. The back of the bus was rocking.
- “Layla”, Derek & The Dominoes (1970) – Eric Clapton’s stirring “Layla”, which actually seems to be two songs has the electric opening of “Slowhand’s” guitars riffs. “Layla” is often used in many movie trailers. It’s a great opener and a great song about stealing another man’s (George Harrison) wife.
- “Machinehead”, Bush (1994) – the 90s brought in grunge and, although Bush is not really grunge, they are close. This opening is angry and also a staple at sporting events. The rousing guitars go right into “Breathe in, Breath out….”. Classic 90s guitar that still holds up today.
- “We Got to Get Out of This Place”, The Animals (1966) – Going way back on this one. The opening is just a guitar and then you hear the light touch of the cymbal a few times. It’s simplistic but effective. The song for anytime I hate being somewhere almost always comes to mind, you can figure it comes to my mind often.
- “Sabotage”, Beastie Boys (1994) – Not really much different than most Beasties openings, you got the feedback on the guitar and the drum beat synchronized but it’s the yell that makes it right around 13 seconds. It leads right into the accusatory “I can’t stand it I know you planned it…” Just a loud angry song – pure bliss.
- “Helter Skelter”, The Beatles (1968) and “Here Comes the Sun”, The Beatles (1969) – I am cheating here – although I could use many Beatles songs, I wanted a contrast. “Helter Skelter” has two seconds of loud guitars before Paul starts. A precursor to Heavy Metal, it’s balls to the wall for ’68. The flip side “Here Comes the Sun” opens with a solo guitar – George I presume – strumming actual notes that sound hopeful. The music makes you believe that good times are ahead even before he sings. Must be why it’s a staple in school chorus, a masterwork.
- “Gimme Shelter”, The Rolling Stones (1969) – I have a Vietnam movie or a 70’s crime film what song can I use that has a great opening? There is only one. “Gimme Shelter” (Martin Scorcese’s favorite) has been used everywhere. The opening is great, it builds, piano, guitar, percussion (maybe a glockenspiel in there) and goes on for almost a minute. It makes it sound like a literal storm is coming. The Stones have so many but this was is beyond iconic.
- “The Killing Moon”, Echo & The Bunnymen (1984) – Like the previous track this one is all about mood. You get the guitar and then Will Sergeant plucks the guitar. The sound is ethereal. Great for a Halloween party that is sick of “Monster Mash”. An emo love song for the dark and lonely.
- “Jive Talkin'”, The Bee Gees (1975) – Oh Barry Gibb you lovable bastard. I love how he came up with this opening. He heard cars going over a bridge making a certain sound and he replicated it on the guitar. That’s a master at work and the start of this song is literally the start of the Bee Gee’s Disco era.
- “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, Joy Division (1980) – The strumming of the bass and lead guitar into the smashing of the drums is electric, but the kicker is then bringing in Bernard Sumner’s synth of the chorus into the opening. A band that kind of started it all and a song that made them famous even post Ian Curtis’ suicide. Great track more people should know. Bouncy as long as you don’t hear the lyrics, downer if you do.
MG: “Sabotage” is a good one – I almost picked “Sure Shot” from The Beasties which starts out with the dog yelping sound. I expected to see a Bee Gees track make your list, “Saturday Night Fever” has a killer intro as well. I’ll go with “Helter Skelter”, but “Here Comes The Sun”? I can’t go for that. “Layla” and “Gimme Shelter” are definitely classic and a go-to for movie trailers. I like “Machinehead” and also enjoy the gradually intense intro to Bush’s “Comedown” from the same album. There are actually a lot of good examples from 90s bands other than those we mentioned: Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, etc. Our mutual favorite from our nightcrew days, the Pumpkins’ “Silverfuck”, would have topped my list, but I figured it was never a single and no one would know it.