Day 79: Tourist Information

‘Why is the world in love again?
Why are we marching hand in hand?
Why are the ocean levels rising up?
It’s a brand new record for 1990
They Might Be Giants’ brand new album Flood’

(from Theme from Flood by They Might Be Giants)

I’ve been thinking a lot about introduction songs lately, because I’ve just tried to write one, Tourist Information. The sad fact is that this song only exists because I thought it’d be funny to open an album called Tourism with a song called Tourist Information, it being the first place you go when you visit somewhere.

What is an introduction song? My favourite is Theme from Flood by They Might Be Giants, which is as literal as these things get – a 30 second track in which a choir sings “It’s a brand new record for 1990, They Might Be Giants’ brand new album, Flooood!” at the beginning of They Might Be Giants’ 1990 album Flood

I still remember the first time I heard Theme from Flood because I’d never experienced an album starting that way. I especially loved how time specific it was. Albums usually aspire to be something more enduring and substantial than a mere single. This one seemed to be cheerfully acknowledging, right from the off, that it would be obsolete by 1991. Ironically, the line about the ocean levels rising up makes it feel even more resonant three decades on.

I put a post on Facebook a few weeks ago, hoping friends would point me to other introduction songs, ones I hadn’t heard of or had forgotten. The responses suggested Theme From Flood is even more unusual than I thought. They were all thoughtful suggestions, but I would categorise most of them as great opening songs rather than introduction songs. The Fear by Pulp, Zoo Station by U2 and Sat in your Lap by Kate Bush all got nominated on the basis that each set the tone for everything that followed and immediately established that these albums (This is Hardcore, Achtung Baby and The Dreaming respectively) would be different to anything their creators had done before, so you should sit up and pay attention. Well sure, but that’s also what singles are for (and so Help the Aged, The Fly and Sat in Your Lap had already done that job as singles). And ultimately I’m not sure something quite counts as an introduction song unless it doesn’t quite work out of context. As a test case, who would listen to Theme from Flood on its own?

By that rule, I reckon More Songs about Chocolate and Girls by the Undertones – suggested by my oldest friend Martin – fits the definition, with its chorus of “Here’s more songs about chocolate and girls” which only makes any sense if it’s actually followed by more songs about chocolate and girls. I reckon Theme from McAlmont and Butler does too (thanks Paul ), just because everything about it makes you imagine the opening credits to a TV show called McAlmont and Butler, and to listen to something else afterwards would feel like rudely switching channels. I think Introducing the Band by Suede also counts (thanks Alan), partly for the conspicuous contrariness of opening with a song called Introducing the Band that doesn’t sound like anything else your band does for the next 40 minutes. Robbie Williams’ The Heavy Entertainment Show (“where Eminem meets Barry Manilow”) gets an honourable mention (thanks Gary) for taking the piss out of the whole genre. And I think my friend Gerry’s suggestion, Born in a Storm from Deacon Blue’s Raintown, also qualifies for the immediately obvious thematic link between song and album title, and also its brevity (one minute 33 seconds, before it segues into the title track – in other words it’s not a song you’re likely to listen to on its own.)

Part of the point of an introduction song is to indicate that what’s being introduced has some substance and depth. Why else would it need an introduction? When the Beatles pioneered the concept album with Sergeant Pepper, they largely did it with an introduction (the ‘concept’ is kind of abandoned later on) and a few prog rock albums unsurprisingly have introduction songs (my Facebook poll flagged up two by Pink Floyd – Pigs on the Wing from Animals and Speak to Me from Dark Side of the Moon).

The best place to look for introduction songs, though, is the genre that’s most focused on words – hip-hop, which has a long and quite distinct history of albums that open with short skits or other tracks that only really make sense as a warm-up for something else (thanks Hannah for reminding me of this); there are often interludes and outros too. I’m no expert on hip-hop so I’ll definitely defer to other people on this one, but I do like the hilariously dark intro to Ice T’s 1988 album Power, in which two fans get into a fight over the new Ice T album (‘How you got that tape man, it ain’t even out yet?’) before one of them shoots the other. (“I gotta call the paramedics man…. Wait, let me see what this tape sounds like…”). And Countdown to Armageddon by Public Enemy is just a brilliant intro to It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (it’s immediately followed by two classics, Bring The Noise and then Don’t Believe the Hype – what a way to open an album).

By my own rules, then, Tourist Information doesn’t actually qualify as an introduction song. My thinking was that it would act as both an advertisement and a kind of content warning (‘contains melancholy’) for anyone discovering my music for the first time via my new home, Wee Studio Records. Except that it also works perfectly well as a song in its own right – one about island life, mental health and wild weather, if you’re interested – and beyond the title the only way it really introduces the album is that it uses tourism as a metaphor, as a few other songs also do in different ways.

So maybe I need to have another go. But perhaps I don’t need to make a whole new album to do it. My friend Martin also reminded me of how, in the early days of CD singles, you might get up to five or six tracks as record companies experimented with a new format. So Erasure’s Victim of Love single starts with a short, introductory live track, and – albeit much later – Marc Almond’s The Days of Pearly Spencer single starts with a 55-second Debussy instrumental. 

Or, maybe an introduction song is a preposterous thing to be releasing in 2022, when most people listen to music on shuffle and (despite Adele’s best efforts) ignore musicians’ carefully chosen track lists entirely. Either way, it’d be fun to make a compilation (sorry, a playlist – showing my age there) of introduction songs, and if anyone has I’d quite like to listen to it. There might also be a book in it. A few years ago Alasdair Gray did it for literature with his Book of Prefaces, adding his own joyful and perceptive introduction to centuries of literary introductions. Who could write something similar for pop music? Momus, maybe? David Byrne? Brian Eno? If it’s not been done already then someone should.

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