Song Intros: It's the start of something amazing

What's the best way to begin a pop song? Guitar? Drums? Wind? Donald MacInnes chooses 12 of the best intros in pop history

Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana

Just Kurt, with a 1965 Fender Jaguar sounding like it's playing through an amp the size of an Xbox. It's a "nothing" kind of riff; just a guitar player strumming. But once you've heard it once, you'll always know that, while it might have a meat-and-potatoes chord structure, it's like the tickle in your nose before a sneeze. It's inevitable that, three bars in, Kurt is going to step on his Cosmic Overdrive pedal, giving Dave Grohl the room to deliver a kick-drum/snare 1-2-3-4 and Krist Novoselic the space to execute a star jump and the whole thing rockets into the ionosphere. And entertains us.

Crazy in Love - Beyoncé

Closing Glastonbury is a big ask, what with 91 per cent of the audience clinically paranoid and up to their waists in waste. At the very least, your opener's intro has to jam the smelling salts of rock redemption under their hooters to energise their jaded funk. Realising this, Beyoncé and her all-girl band dropped "Crazy in Love", which was never going to fail. Yes, the "Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, oh-no no" break was her idea – one by which writer/producer Rich Harrison was initially far from convinced – but it was he who buttered on the triumphant horns from The Chi-Lites' "Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)", a Zen lesson in how samples should – must – be utilised. Weave in a slack-belted rhyme from Jay-Z and you have the start of the NME's best song of the decade.

Common People - Pulp

Keyboard player Candida Doyle used to work in a toy shop, and her plinky-plonky noodling at the start of Jarvis Cocker's scornful poem to the downwardly-aspirational is silly and toy-like and very European. It could almost be St Etienne at their most nylon. But then Jarvis sidles up to our ear and apes a more baritone Alan Bennett, as he tells us dismissively where she came from, what she had a thirst for and what she was doing at college. And the conspiratorial tone is even more enhanced by the evident lack of a microphone pop-screen in the studio, so each word containing any letter "P" is like someone blowing in your ear. "People" has two, of course, so it's quite tickly right the way through the song.

Back in Black - AC/DC

For the title track to the second-biggest-selling album of all time, this begins with genuine simplicity and some restraint. Producer Mutt Lange could have been forgiven for editing the intro down to the bit where everybody goes "DUH! Duh-nuh-nuh, duh-nuh-nuh..." but the album didn't end up selling 49 million copies by being obvious. What we get is drummer Phil Rudd tap-tapping on his hi-hat, shadowing Angus Young, who's tickling muted chops out of his Gibson SG. All you can think of as it ticks along for two bars is what's coming. Like the intro to Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)", Young knows that it's the act of NOT letting rip that makes the eventual explosion so staggering.

I Am The Resurrection - The Stone Roses

Reni sits at his drums, head down, fishing hat masking any emotion. Then, with snare and kick drum: "Dit-dit-dit, dum-dit, dum-dit, dit, dit, dum-dit, dum..." On every listen, you expect Mani to join in with that hurdy-gurdy bassline sooner than he does, but Reni holds it perfectly balanced for a massively confident eight bars, all on his own. Given that it's so damn hard to resist, most listeners begin to mark time; marching inside their shoes, imitating Ian Brown's gibbon-esque shuffle. Then in comes Mani. And before you know it, Chester Cheekbone begins his benediction: "Down, down, you bring me down..."

Ghost Town - The Specials

Drifting from silence to noise out of early-Eighties urban nothingness, The Specials began their premature obituary of Thatcher's Britain with the sound of wind droning through a deserted multi-storey car park in Coventry. Somewhere, a band plays, but we don't lock into it properly until a snake-charming flute begins to hypnotise us, like Kipling's Kaa the python in Disney's Jungle Book. But as the flute melody reaches the end of its tether, the classic ska trombone attack parps forth the ominous "Dun-duh-dahhhh, duh-duh-duh-duuuuuhhhh-duh". And we realise that this town (ah-uh) is coming like a ghost town.

Is There a Ghost - Band of Horses

When a song has but 14 words, you might expect them to be used sparingly, but South Carolina-based folky-folk Band of Horses use them all before the intro is even done, in this magnificent, ambiguous ode to the formerly alive. Or a departed girlfriend who didn't dig beards. As a bell-like arpeggiated guitar smooches with back-and-forth cymbal washes, Ben Bridwell's Neil Young-ish vocals repeat plaintively: "I could sleep", four times, before adding "When I lived alone/ Is there a ghost in my house?" He then delivers those 14 words all over again, before sparking up a chugging guitar which sounds like a truck stuck in traffic. Then it all goes off, zooming past your head in a din. At their 2008 London gig, this intro produced tears.

Dancing Queen - Abba

Next time you're in a church hall, walk to the old upright piano in the corner. Lift the lid and place your right thumb on the farthest right white key, with your thumb nail facing to the left. With a swift motion, drag your thumb from right to left as quickly as you can. The song's co-writer and Abba's keyboard guru, Benny Andersson, thus presented this magnificent discotheque classic in the most succinct of ways. What followed didn't need to be trailed. It just needed handing over. Lead vocalist Agnetha Faltskog said: "It's often difficult to know what will be a hit. The exception was Dancing Queen. We all knew it was going to be massive." Co-vocalist Anni-Frid Lyngstad reportedly burst into tears when she heard the rough demo. That's impact.

Fat Bottomed Girls - Queen

When you've got a lead singer with the planet-flattening voice of Fred Mercury, you'd be well advised to use him as much as possible. And what better way, then, than by unleashing his wholly-believable heterosexuality on an a capella Gregorian chant about women's chunky behinds – especially when they allude to some Chef-from-South-Park naughtiness: "Are you gonna take me home tonight/ Ah, down beside your red fire light". The song's composer, Brian May, and drummer Roger Taylor certainly pitch in to the multi-tracked Bohemian-ism, but emotionally the intro is all Mercury, much like on the similarly-introduced "Somebody To Love" (which might well have made this list with a following wind).

One Step Beyond - Madness

Madness decide to cut to the chase and command the public to lend an ear. Hence "One Step Beyond"'s call to arms. Jamaican ska pioneer Prince Buster wrote the song, but his version was mostly instrumental, so Madness took the, "Hey you, don't watch that. Watch this!" exortation from another of Buster's tracks, "The Scorcher". Suggs's co-vocalist Chas Smash acts as MC as he contributes the slightly-stilted, consonant-heavy monologue to introduce his colleagues. "You better start to move your feet to the rockinest, rock-steady beat of Madness!" he says. Across the UK, pork pie hats started vibrating and Madness were delighted to deliver a heavy, heavy monster sound.

Imagine - John Lennon

Yes, Oasis referenced the ex-Beatle's ham-fisted, two-chord intro as a curtain-raiser to their baroque anthem "Don't Look Back in Anger", but that – we are told – was a homage. Coldplay also took the languid, four-beats-to-the-bar, plodding piano intro (see "The Scientist") and pretty much built a career out of it, not that there's anything wrong with that, I suppose. But Lennon surely got there first, picking out the simple chords on an old upright joanna, as producer Phil Spector looked on, no doubt wishing he could chuck an orchestra in to that minimalist nothingness. Of course, when you've got an introduction as simply beautiful as this, you'd better have some useable lyrics to take things on to the next level. "Imagine there's no heaven... s'easy if you try..." Ah, alright – you seem to, then.

I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor - Arctic Monkeys

Favouring the straight-to-the-point artillery barrage of Green Day's "Jesus of Suburbia", Alex Turner's musing on how well some girl would suit being under the disco lights is commenced with chopped, enormously overdriven guitars and stuttering, 50-calibre machine-gun snare drum work from Matt Helders; every crescendo a squeezed trigger. Weirdly, given that the song talks about "dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984", Alan Wilder, from the 1984 (then) electro-pop outfit Depeche Mode, has described the hit track as "a bombardment of the most unsubtle, one-dimensional noise". But that's just the way we like it!

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