Saturday, June 5, 2010

Opening Tracks

Scott D. Parker

The good folks who run the NPR Music blog recently posed a couple of questions: Do opening tracks on an album matter? What are some of the best opening tracks?

My answer to the first question is an unqualified and resounding yes. I may be showing my age here but opening cuts on an album say something about the album. In some instances, the opening track is a microcosm of the entire album’s worth of songs. Take a classic example: Miles Davis’s “So What?”, the opening track on his seminal Kind of Blue LP. All that you need to know about the entire album is summed up with “So What?”. The vibe, the mood, the beat, the type of soloing, it’s all there. You almost--almost, mind you--don’t need to listen to the other songs.

A particular favorite sub-genre of opening track lore is opening tracks on debut albums. Some artists come out of the gate fully formed. In this camp, I put Chicago. The first track of their 1969 debut is “Introduction.” It is my all-time favorite Chicago track. Period. In this seven-minute song, all that I need to know about Chicago is present: awesome guitar work, tight horn section, ballad-live middle section, raucous ending. It’s a microcosm of all things Chicago.

Other stand-out opening tracks:
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” - Nirvana
“The Girl from Ipanema” - Stan Getz and João Gilberto
“Purple Haze” - Jimi Hendrix
“Break on Through” - The Doors
“Blue Rondo a la Turk” - Dave Brubeck
“Thunder Road” - Bruce Springsteen
“Where the Streets Have No Name” - U2
“If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” - Sting
“Like a Rolling Stone” - Bob Dylan
“A Hard Day’s Night” - The Beatles
“I Walk the Line” - Johnny Cash

Other times, an artist grows into his art. Here I’m thinking Bruce Springsteen. Not to speak poor of his first two LPs but, clearly, his third, Born to Run, is where Bruce Springsteen became Bruce Springsteen. I can think of others: Prince, David Bowie, Dixie Chicks, Diana Krall, KISS, Genesis, the Decemberists.

How does this relate to books and authors? I got to thinking how many debut books by famous authors fall into the former category (brilliant opening work) versus those authors who grew into their success. And I am counting books, not collections.

Brilliant debuts:
Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep
Stephen King - Carrie
Mickey Spillane - I, The Jury
Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird

Grew into their art:
Dashiell Hammett - The Maltese Falcon (3rd book)
F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
Dennis Lehane - Mystic River
Dan Brown - The Da Vinci Code
Michael Chabon - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - The Hound of the Baskervilles
Jonathan Franzen - The Corrections

Seeing this short, and incomplete, list makes me wonder if it’s easier for a musician rather than an author to break out with a stunning debut. I tend towards yes, in the general sense, since an author’s “first published book” may not be his/her actual first book written.

What do you think? And can you add some names/books to these lists?


Ron Earl Phillips said...

Marcus Sakey's THE BLADE ITSELF was an outstanding debut book and my favorite of his so far.

Most cases I discover a writer well after their debut, such as Dennis Lehane. I've read all his stand alone's, but none of his series books, though I did see GONE BABY, GONE. My favorite of his SHUTTER ISLAND.

I've never read CARRIE. My first King book was NEEDFUL THINGS and then THE STAND, and my favorite is SALEM'S LOT.

John McFetridge said...

What makes the book business different is this idea of a hardcover first and a more affordable paperback a year later.

I would guess most people who read Carrie read the paperback and didn't buy the hardcover when it was new.

This may be why authors get a couple or three books to find an audience (I freakin' hope so, 'cuase what do you do if your first three books are all flops?).

This is also why I'm excited about the idea of more affordable e-books. For years hardcove sales determined how big a papeback print run would be (if there even was a paperback print run) and how much marketing would go into it. That's a little elitist, isn't it, letting only people who can afford to spend thirty or forty dollars on a book decide if a cheaper version will be available?

(of course, I'm just bitter because my last book flopped in hardcover so now there won't be a paperback. I hope there's an e-book at least).

But look at Stuart Neville and Brian McGilloway, hits right out of the gate and excellent books.