Readers recommend playlist: songs that start with the chorus

Getting straight down to business this week with songs from Abba, Tears for Fears, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald and the Fall

Here is this week’s playlist – songs picked by a reader from hundreds of your suggestions. Thanks for taking part. Read more about how our weekly series works at the end of the piece.

Last week’s call out for songs that start with the chorus left wyngatecarpenter asking in the comments: “Can I suggest another topic – songs that you remember starting with the chorus until you listen to them and realise you were wrong?” Such is the power of the chorus.

Little wonder then that another nominator, Clare Munks, noted the chorus was once more commonly known as “the burden”. Song structure has developed and altered over the centuries and differs between cultures, leading Mussoliniheadkick to ask: “When is a chorus not a chorus ... when it’s a refrain?” to which Lizzzie, not unreasonably, replied: “I’m hoping it’s the bit that’s repeated a lot that everybody knows.”

To keep it simple, then, I took refrain to mean a repeated line rather than an independent section within the main body of a song.

The playlist on YouTube.

Let’s begin with the Beatles – prime exponents of chorus-first songs. Mario von Poppel aid in nominating She Loves You, “their career pretty much started with a chorus”. And who am I to disagree? There’s a thread in rock’s chorus-first evolution that could be said to go from the Beatles to Slipknot via the Kinks, ELO, Kiss, Cheap Trick, Twisted Sister and Guns N’ Roses. I chose Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me next because it has a melodic, honky-tonk boogie and its refrain wonderfully draws in the listener – apologies to lovers of rock bands that wear big hair, daft masks and spandex.

Pre-Beatles, tunes from musicals held sway. Reader ajostu remembers “taking a chorus” meant jazz musicians ripping away lead in verses “so that only the guts of the song – the chorus – was used.” Ella Fitzgerald’s version of All The Things You Are contains only its core and is deliciously “singable” for that reason.

But it’s not only jazz repurposing choruses from musicals; Rammstein take the instantly recognisable thematic heart of Amerika from Leonard Bernstein’s America.

Some songwriters, like Chic’s Nile Rodgers, specialised in chorus-first, he even emboldened David Bowie to open Let’s Dance chorus-first. Rodgers remembers in a Guardian piece from 2016: “I thought about my songs and how they all start with the hook because in the black world we don’t have many stations or chances to get a hit – you have to feed people dessert before the main course.”

That need to create instant recognition means readers like YippeeYouCan’tSeeMe literally “woke one morning and remembered [a chorus-first] song” because it was so catchy – these next three are what RR regular DaddyPig calls “no nonsense, no tension building, just get cracking” tunes. First the funky disco of Odyssey’s Going Back to My Roots, then Sweet Sensation’s soulful Sad Sweet Dreamer and Little Esther’s jiving T’Aint Whatcha Say It’s Whatcha Do.

Confusingly, the term “hook” is often used instead of chorus in hip-hop, but let’s embrace it. The World is Yours by Nas takes the guts of a jazz song – I Love Music by Ahmed Jamal Trio – and, as jazz musicians do, creatively uses it to grab your attention.

However, chorus-first need not be easy listening; I doubt the chorus of the Fall’s Totally Wired was written for a sing-song down the pub. And though chorus-first songs often begin a capella, who says they need be singalong or have easily discernible lyrics, as is certainly not the case in the Bug feat. Daddy Freddy’s Can’t Take This No More.

The chorus-first style isn’t of course an English language only phenomenon. Songs from India to Latin America were suggested, João Gilberto’s carnival favourite A Felicidade just one example.

Sadly, chorus-first doesn’t guarantee popularity, otherwise the Triffids’ Bury Me Deep in Love would be better known. But playing with its conventions won’t lead to failure either; Tears for Fears demonstrated that in letting it all out memorably on Shout.

I’ll end with three instantly recognisable chorus-first tunes – unforgettable, that’s what they are: Abba’s Dancing Queen; KC and the Sunshine Band’s That’s the Way (I Like It); and the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

Not all songs appear on the Spotify playlist as some are unavailable on the service.

New theme: how to join in

The next theme will be announced at 8pm (GMT) on Thursday 22 March. You will have until 11pm on Monday 26 March to submit nominations.

Here is a reminder of some of the guidelines for Readers recommend:

Paul Hayes

The GuardianTramp

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