By Jim D’Ville
Music travels in one of two directions—it either goes up or goes down. The same is true for song introductions. Our ears like to follow logical musical paths. To that end, let’s examine some of the most recognizable intros in pop music. Break out your uke and follow along!
Legendary guitarist, songwriter, and producer Steve Cropper was one-quarter of great R&B group Booker T & The MGs, the house band for Memphis-based Stax Records. Cropper co-wrote the MGs’ classics “Green Onions” and “Time Is Tight,” and Otis Redding’s signature smash “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” (among others). But Cropper also prided himself on writing catchy song intros. As he relates in a Musicians Hall of Fame Museum interview, “I was known in those days as the intro guy.”
One such famous Cropper-penned intro was to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” a song he also co-wrote. The song is in the key of E and follows a basic I-IV-I (E-A-E) progression, but what latches on to the ears is the fabulous descending line introduction. D-B-A-G-E (bVII-V-IV-bIII-I). Another Cropper hit, “Knock on Wood,” which he wrote with singer Eddie Floyd, reversed the process used on “In the Midnight Hour.” Instead of descending through the V-IV-I (B-A-E), the progression ascends—I-IV-V (E-A-B) to the first verse on the IV— I-IV-V-IV (E-A-B-A). As Cropper relates in the same MHFM interview, “I just followed the [guitar] dots down on ‘Midnight Hour’ and followed ’em back up on ‘Knock on Wood.’”
R&B horn intros were very popular in the mid-late 1960s. Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” written by Issac Hayes and David Porter, was no exception. Recorded in the key of G, it begins on the I chord, descends through the bVII to the bIII, takes a u-turn, and ascends through the IV, V, and back to the I—I-bVII-bIII-IV-V-I (G-F-Bb-C-D-G).
One of the most iconic pop intros ever was written by Credence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty for his song “Proud Mary.” Similar to “Midnight Hour,” “Proud Mary” begins on a bVII (C) chord, but in the key of D. The intro rocks back and forth between the bVII and V (C-A) chords three times before walking down the scale bVII-V 3x IV-bIII-I (C-A 3x G-F-D). An intro like that will immediately have you rollin’ on the river!
When it comes to ascending introductions, you can’t beat Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” Recorded in the key of G, the introduction beings with a very familiar ascending I-IV-V (G-C-D) chord sequence accompanied with a D-E-F# melody line. Next are two bars of doo-wop that rock the croc: I-vi-IV-V (G-Em-C-D)!
The effective use of rhythm and phrasing can catapult a basic two-chord intro to legendary rock status. Case in point is the introduction to The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Recorded in the key of D, the intro is a simple I-IV-I (D-G-D). The intro begins with two beats on the I and two beats on the IV. The magic is the phrasing of six beats on the one (I) chord and two beats on the four chord (IV), which follows.
Play the following introductory progression and see how many song titles immediately pop into your mind’s ear. In the key of Am—i-VII-VI-III (Am-G-F-E). Commonly referred to as the “Andalusian cadence,” you’ll hear this chord progression not only as an introduction, but as the primary structure to such pop/rock classics as “Runaway,” “Stray Cat Strut,” “Happy Together” and “All Along the Watchtower.”
The next time the beginning a of song catches your ear, take a minute to figure out the structure of the chord progression. Remember, it either goes up or goes down!
Below, videos of Wilson Pickett and The Clash!