How long does a song have to stay awesome to be an awesome song? Some pop songs offer their best moment right out of the gate, no fast forwarding required or even recommended. A great opening hook gives a song huge momentum, as in today’s song from ABBA. The song as a whole presages the transition from disco to New Wave, with prominent synths instead of strings or horns. But the chugging, “take-a-chance, take-a-chance, take-a-take-a-chance-chance” fifth interval bassline from Bjorn and Bennie, switching to an open octave on the dominant for the second chord, makes such a terrific counterpoint to Agnetha’s and Anni-Frid’s melody that I’m actually disappointed when the “real song” kicks in halfway through the chorus.
I seem to be a sucker for those cold acapella openings; I love them from Fun., and The Eagles, and Larry Gatlin too. Even Blue Swede’s bizarre “Ooga Chocka” version of “Hooked on a Feeling” gets the blood pumping far more than the pedestrian 70s rock-pop instrumentation comprising the bulk of the song. Music requires tonal movement, and there are so many directions to go after a sparse-yet-arresting beginning.
Some songs put a great instrumental riff at the beginning and then spend the rest of the song on autopilot: Axel F and Jump come to mind. (These were also the first two that my wife independently suggested when I mentioned this theme.) Does anyone really care about any part of “Gonna Make You Sweat” after the first ten seconds? Often the opening riff recurs again under the vocals later (The Power of Love, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, Orinoco Flow, Layla, Every Breath You Take) or between verses (Nine to Five, Land of Confusion). Occasionally it never rears its head again, as in the Go-Go’s Head Over Heels. All these songs have decent middles and endings that still don’t live up to the full promise of their iconic openings. Often, one good riff is all it takes.