I’ve included the above just for some context from one of my favourite movies and favourite books and favourite book to movie adaptations… I had a pang to list some things in this way. A bit snobbish but what the hell, it’s fun to write.
The Side One – Track One is ultimately a thing long lost to the veil of history as digitisation conquered all, but the thing that stands out for this is that traditionally, the best ones are album tracks. It’s kind of cheating when the first track on an album is the single and a predominantly successful single, as happened and still happens en masse. As someone who’s played music, your first track on an album is setting the tone, destroying preconceptions and making you feel comfortable that you picked a nice beer, sat in the comfiest chair with the best headphones on and decided to dedicate forty minutes to an hour of your life to this musical work you have on.
So, looking at albums I personally own, I’m going through some of my favourites. I’m going to miss loads because I probably don’t own them and music streaming does often make me forget how much good music is out there that I’m missing. If I included all albums, I’d be here forever. But please, share your own favourite first tracks. There’s no need to be as picky with rules or anything, but this makes for an interesting conversation, no?
Five Years – David Bowie (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, 1972)
You can see what I was listening to that drew me back in to this internal conversation. Recent events really did show just how transcendent Bowie’s music was across any era. My first experience of this song was watching Old Grey Whistle Test compilations that my dad had taped from the TV in the late 80s as the show was drawing to a close. But this song is often regarded as one of the best opening tracks for an album. It’s got all of the character from Bowie’s previous albums in the strings, punctuated by the other worldly echo that ends the song compared to its incredibly crisp beginning.
But the Bowie that came before had changed. You could tell in his tone, his lyrics and his confidence. It was harsher, less forgiving and, most importantly contained the swagger of a new character. You could hear the groundwork for it in songs like Queen Bitch and Andy Warhol from Hunky Dory, but it came to its full characterisation as soon as you start playing Ziggy. Go from The Man Who Sold the World through to Ziggy and you’ll realise as soon as Five Years starts that you got where the music needed to go.
Apocalypse Please – Muse (Absolution, 2003)
Before Absolution Muse had released two studio albums, Showbiz and Origin of Symmetry. Showbiz had some excellent tracks on it and showed a competent band who had a unique sound (you might remember the song Sunburn being used for various Apple adverts around the late 90s), but it was a style of music that was quite safe at the time with bands like Feeder and Stereophonics – radio and MTV2 friendly. Origin became the complete opposite, a heavy Prog Rock monster doused with classical motifs and sonic noise that owed more to its progenitors than the clash of nu-metal, pop punk and radio alt-rock of the early 2000s. Come Absolution, the shrill of Matt Bellamy’s voice had been perfectly nuanced and tempered between the extremes of the previous two albums. Gone was the enforced reverb and echo to create a sonic madness. Instead was the beautifully captured natural sounds from recording processes in the UK studio sessions.
Apocalypse Please starts with a drum intro, the militaristic drone that comes towards you, inspired by the anti-war protest and sentiment of the time, peppered with the barking of orders like a Roger Waters/Pink Floyd song. Then out of nowhere the hard, smashing piano riff hits you at a beat you aren’t expecting. The monotony of doom is perfectly interrupted to bring you the scale, the impact and the immediacy of music that’s coming. But it’s welcoming because it’s also incredibly clean. There’s no feedback, no insane effects, with Bellamy’s voice slightly peaking to gain some natural distortion and strength beyond the low, loud hits. Followed by a soft almost impossibly synchronous chorus of harmonic voices like those heard from Queen thirty years before. This clean sound carries on throughout the album, even with the effects and Bellamy’s talent at getting the most unique, odd and interesting sounds from his guitars and Chris Wolstenholme’s bass. Rich Costey does a perfect job at keeping the rhythm section as simple and punctuated as possible and that means that nothing else is competing, everything can be heard perfectly. Absolution is certainly my favourite Muse album thanks to this, as well as the amazing Storm Thorgersen cover, and I know that Apocalypse Please did eventually become a single, but it introduces everything about that album and about what Muse had become perfectly.
Bombtrack – Rage Against The Machine (Rage Against The Machine, 1992)
Again, this is another song that became a single eventually, but not until a good eight months had passed since release so it’s ok, I think. It’s hard to find songs that didn’t become singles because that ultimately means they aren’t strong songs, especially in the 80s. The 80s normally had a bad habit of sticking the singles within the first five tracks of an album and leaving it as that. But as it hit the 90s, a bunch of radicals (I don’t want to use the sub-genre terms of rock’s culture at the time) formed and waited until their music found the right label to keep their message. Pushed together from the ashes of punk bands, Rage Against The Machine set out to make an immediate impact.
Around the time, remember, you have Nirvana riding high and the Seattle grunge sound taking over the radio and TV airwaves – Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, etc. Rage were never in this commercial space and their high energy, politically charged message came loud and clear, visually and musically. The striking cover of the vietnamese monk, the creeping bass and guitar that hits a tempo which is immediately slowed by the heavy riff laden, distorted funk beat. Zack de la Rocha’s rap begins and you realise that this isn’t a band bound by convention. It’s the fusion of years of oppression that has found its way in to music, the freedom it has borne and a generation of young talented angry kids who knew how to up tools and harness it for their needs. Repeated chorus lyrics continue like a riot chant. The music slowly grooves but with enough intricacy to keep your ears and your body moving. The faster riff at the beginning reminding you this isn’t just a rock band with funk undertones. Edwin Starr, Black Sabbath and Public Enemy, all fused in to one, outspoken group. Bombtrack doesn’t let you forget that.
More to come in part 2…