You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and even in the digital age, the first track on any artist’s album is of crucial importance, defining the music, setting the tone and holding open a door into a new world for the listener. Here are the ten best ‘side one, track one’ songs in rock history.
10. Queen – We Will Rock You (News of the World, 1977)
So completely familiar is Queen’s ultimate stadium rock anthem that it’s easy to forget what a fabulously odd little song it is. Largely sung acapella, with only foot stomps and hand claps for accompaniment, it features no ‘traditional’ instrumentation whatsoever until writer Brian May’s over-amplified guitar starts humming in the background some 80 seconds in, and after May’s startling solo, the band don’t even bother bringing that iconic chorus back in. Mind you, they did have We Are The Champions coming up next…
9. Black Flag – Rise Above (Damaged, 1981)
Black Flag had released a clutch of striking EPs before 20-year-old Washington DC ice cream shop employee Henry Garfield (aka Rollins) was recruited to front the band, but this was one hell of an introduction to the new boy. Greg Ginn’s distorted, descending guitar line sucks the listener in like a circle pit vortex before the irresistible gang choruses spit defiance, frustration and rage. Five years on from the Ramones’ ground-breaking debut album, punk rock had transitioned into ‘hardcore.’
8. Iron Maiden – Aces High (Powerslave, 1984)
No-one pens swashbuckling, Boy’s Own adventures like Iron Maiden, and in Steve Harris’ soaring/swooping tribute to RAF pilots facing off against the Lutwaffe in the Battle of Britain, the East London band delivered one of the most exhilarating openings to an album ever. As every Maiden fan knows, for maximum goosebump-inducing effect this should be prefaced by Winston Churchill’s June 1940 ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech (as immortalised on Live After Death), but even standing alone, as it does on Powerslave, it’s impossibly exciting.
7. Metallica – Battery (Master of Puppets, 1986)
Metallica had played the ‘calm before the storm’ acoustic intro-into-killer riff trick before, with the searing Fight Fire With Fire introducing the Ride The Lightning album, but even for those clued in to what was about to happen, the transition from the blissed-out neo-classical opening to the initial symphonic salvo of James Hetfield’s wall of rhythm guitars here is ineffably thrilling. Metallica’s ‘hypnotising power’ never sounded better.
6. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nevermind, 1991)
Yes, the chord sequence which opens Nevermind isn’t entirely dissimilar to that which introduced Boston’s debut album 15 years previously, but from its explosive opening bars, Smells Like Teen Spirit promises a riot all its own. In purely musical terms, grunge wasn’t the revolution it was heralded as by excitable music hacks, but Kurt Cobain’s band unquestionably rewired punk rock for a new generation and the incandescent brilliance of Nirvana’s signature song will burn forever.
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5. Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)
A band who instinctively understood the seismic impact of a powerful opening track (see also Immigrant Song and Black Dog), Led Zeppelin left jaws on the floor with their stunning intro to their second album. From Jimmy Page’s sawing riff to Robert Plant’s lairy, lascivious lyrics, via a mind-scrambling mid-song theremin/drum solo freakout, Whole Lotta Love dialled the blues-rock stylings of the band’s debut album up to 10, and when its parent album knocked The Beatles’ Abbey Road off the summit of the US album chart in the winter of 1969 a new era of rock music was upon us.
4. Guns N’ Roses – Welcome To The Jungle (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
If you listen closely to the opening seconds of Welcome To The Jungle, as Slash’s iconic guitar riff descends for the first time, you can hear Axl Rose quietly murmur ‘Oh my God…’ before police sirens begin to wail. The idea of Guns N’ Roses as ‘The Most Dangerous Band In The World’ is ridiculed now, but back in 1987, introducing an album filled with images of violence, drug abuse and shameless sexual deviancy, Welcome To The Jungle sounded like a threat more than an invitation, as country boy Rose gawped in both horror and delight at the decadence laid bare before him upon his introduction to the ‘City of Angels’.
3. Bob Dylan – Like A Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
The idea of albums as ‘game-changing’ is seriously overplayed these days, but it’s a fitting epithet for Bob Dylan’s acclaimed sixth album. Dylan had already blended electric rock ‘n’ roll with acoustic blues and folk on Bringing It All Back Home, infuriating folk purists who saw his musical evolution as betrayal, but with Highway 61 Revisited – and specifically Like A Rolling Stone - he took his vision to the next level. Born out of anger and frustration (and a 20-page written rant Dylan later described as a “long piece of vomit”), the six minute single found Dylan delivering cynical, bitter, darkly poetic lyrics utterly at odd with the wide-eyed love songs populating the singles charts, and turned the Minnesota-born singer-songwriter into a genuine rock star.
2. The Rolling Stones – Sympathy For The Devil (Beggars Banquet, 1968)
“Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste…” Now that’s an opening line. Mick Jagger’s idea of singing a song from the point of view of Satan was quite a leap into the darkness for a pop singer, and even as he recounts the various horrors, brutalities and tragedies Lucifer has presided over, he makes life in the fiery pits of Hell seem rather seductive. Hypnotic, disturbing, sinister and wholly original, Sympathy… served notice that Beggars Banquet would be the first genuinely essential Stones’ album and ushered in a run of recordings (Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street) which firmly established Jagger’s group as the greatest rock and roll band in the world.
1. Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (Black Sabbath, 1970)
In which four young men from Birmingham invent and define heavy metal in the course of six minutes and eighteen seconds. Introduced by the sound of rain, thunder and an ominously tolling church bell, Black Sabbath’s eponymous masterpiece is a tour-de-force of drama, tension and dark theatre, a doom-laden, mournful study of fear, alienation and mental collapse, encapsulated in Ozzy Osbourne’s stricken ‘Oh, no, no, please God help me!’ cry at the end of the second verse. With one unforgettable riff here, Tony Iommi created a new vocabulary for rock music, and things would never, ever be the same.