For no reason whatsoever, these are my thirty favourite opening lines to British pop songs from the 1970s, arranged chronologically. Or rather, this is the first half of that list, covering 1970-75.
Some of these are chosen because they capture the period, but others aren’t. You’ll disagree with my choices, no doubt. I expect I shall disagree with them myself tomorrow. The only rule is that the first lines should be more than just the title, because best titles would be a different category altogether.
The second half of the top thirty – from 1975 to 1979 – will follow in due course.
Where’s your momma gone?
– Middle of the Road, ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ (1970)
We never do discover the answer to the mystery outlined in the opening words. Last night momma was definitely here – we know this, for she was to be heard singing – yet this morning she’s disappeared, leaving not a trace. And it transpires that poppa’s gone as well, also without any explanation. Maybe there are no explanations, no answers. As in a Beckett play, all we have is a sketch of a situation, a hint of our alienated isolation in the universe. It’s a bleak start to the decade. Very bleak.
Generals gathered in their masses,
Just like witches at black masses.
– Black Sabbath, ‘War Pigs’ (1970)
I could have chosen ‘Black Sabbath’ itself, the first track on their 1970 debut album, with its opening line that sounds like a Jacobean tragedy in the making: ‘What is this that stands before me?’ But if you could only have one opening lyric by the Sabs, surely this is it: the rhyming of ‘masses’ with ‘masses’ is just irresistible. Lyricist Geezer Butler made his own rules.
Everybody’s a dreamer and everybody’s a star
and everybody’s in movies, it doesn’t matter who you are.
– Kinks, ‘Celluloid Heroes’ (1972)
The most Music Hall band in British pop spell out one of the central tenets of Music Hall: the audience are part of the act.
I am a free man, and my father, he was a slave.
– Labi Siffre, ‘Saved’ (1972)
These days Siffre’s a poet, and his words are often more elliptical, but as a songwriter in his 1970s peak, his strength was unadorned statement. And this is arresting, to say the least.
At last the crimson chord cascade
To shower dry cordials within.
Too late to leap the chocolate gate,
Pale fountains fizzing forth pink gin.
– Roxy Music, ‘Bitters End’ (1972)
No, I have no idea either. But it paints a picture.
Standin’ on the corner, swingin’ my chain,
Along came a copper and he took my name.
He put his dirty maulers on my long drape coat,
So I whipped out my razor and I slit his throat.
– Crazy Cavan & the Rhythm Rockers, ‘Teddy Boy Boogie’ (1973)
The 1970s was a time when there was great concern over youth violence, with the skinheads singled out for official disapproval. On his debut single, the great Cavan Grogan sought to reassert the Teds’ rival claim to be Public Enemy No. 1.
I’m an urban guerrilla,
I make bombs in my cellar.
– Hawkwind, ‘Urban Guerrilla’ (1973)
Youth violence was nothing new in Britain, but the explosion of political violence in the 1970s was something else. Hawkwind grew out of the same underground culture that gave us the anarcho-fantastists of the Angry Brigade, and theirs was the image that Robert Calvert’s lyrics were intended to evoke. By the time it was released in July 1973, however, the Provisional IRA had begun bombing London, and things changed. The old hippy amateurs were being replaced by ruthless professionals.
Last night I saw a (uh) strange movie (uh, uh)
Everyone was in bed.
– Troggs, ‘Strange Movies’ (1973)
The 1970s was also a time when pornographic films were peeping out from the underground, wondering if they might dip a toe into the mainstream. And Andover’s Finest were there to record the moment in a song that was promptly banned from broadcast. Presumably it was Reg Presley’s grunting that frightened the BBC horses.
My name is Geordie McIntyre,
And the bairns don’t even have a fire,
So the wife says, ‘Geordie, go to London Town.’
– Alan Price, ‘Jarrow Song’ (1974)
But the 1970s are probably remembered most for the economic and industrial crises. Sometimes, though, the perceptions are inaccurate. Unemployment reached such horrendous levels in the following decade, for example, that the dole queues of the ‘70s are sometimes forgotten, lost amidst the images of nylon-shirted union-barons. Alan Price’s evocation of the 1936 Jarrow March offers a counterbalance, and the personal testimony of the opening lines – echoed later by ‘My name is little Alan Price’ – brought the story into the present.
The song is from the album Between Today and Yesterday, which also includes Price’s masterpiece, ‘Under the Sun’.
He used to wear fedoras, now he sports a fez.
– Slapp Happy, ‘Casablanca Moon’ (1974)
Well now, that’s just about perfect, ain’t it? Enigmatic and exotic, elusive and allusive. As is the rest of the song.
People come and go and forget to close the door
and leave their stains and cigarette butts trampled on the floor,
and when they do – remember me.
– Eno, ‘Some of Them Are Old’ (1974)
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got this down as the choice for my funeral music. Glam was always an essentially elegiac artform, and this farewell sigh from Here Come the Warm Jets is just beautiful. Though he’s not often cited as such, Eno was one of the great pop lyricists, despite which he would keep on doing that instrumental stuff.
When I was young, every song that we sung
– Goodies, ‘The Inbetweenies’ (1974)
In which Bill Oddie parodies the retro-pop that was having its moment in the sun at the time, most obviously with the Bay City Rollers doin’ do-wop-be-dooby-do-ay as they sang ‘Shang-a-Lang’ and ran with the gang. Which prompts me to ask, does anyone else remember a song by Alan Price with a chorus along the lines of ‘Doo-da-wop, flip-flop, flim, flam and fly’? Or did I make that up?
Well-a well-a you changed your name to Abigail Rocketblast.
– Mud, ‘Rocket’ (1974)
Included just for the cheesy chutzpah, really.
I wear my jeans too short, my necklines too low,
I’m getting stared at wherever I go.
– Suzi Quatro, ‘Your Mama Won’t Like Me’ (1975)
A song in which Suzi hams up the Bad Girl archetype in a fine piece of sleazy funk. The TV promo appearances didn’t follow the dress code of the opening couplet.
Man, it was mean to be seen
in the clothes you wore for Lent.
You must have known that it was Easter.
– Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, ‘Mr Raffles (Man It Was Mean)’ (1975)
Bear in mind that Harley’s last single had been the #1 ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, one of the most perfect and immediate pop songs ever. To follow it with something as left-field as this was what Sir Humphrey used to call a courageous decision.