The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead”

This week, I’ve been listening to The Smiths’ 1986 album “The Queen is Dead” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. I remember my introduction to this album well. It happened twenty-five years ago, when I was sixteen. I went to a rural school in Ohio. A new kid from Colorado lent me a mixtape to introduce me to music he was into. Between the tracks by groups like Fugazi and the Rollins Band, was a song got my attention. When I asked my friend about the song, he groaned. “My friend made that tape for me and put that song on their as a joke to annoy me.” I immediately fell in love with The Smiths. This week was neither an introduction, nor a revisit, as I’ve been listening to it ever since I first heard it.

The music mixed the old and the new; innovative but through a lens of nostalgia. Just the sound of it felt like warm sadness with lyrics unapologetically near maudlin. The lyrics were boldly melancholic, self-aware, sardonic, and sad. There was a touch of humor without comedy. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, but the atmosphere made it feel like a lost memory.

The song “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” was my introduction to the Smiths. It remains one of my favorite songs by any artist. The lyrics of this song show obvious influence from the New York Dolls’ “Lonely Planet Boy which is also one of my favorites.

Johnny Marr also borrowed a guitar riff from the Rolling Stones’ cover of “Hitch Hike” which was also copied by The Velvet Underground. Light reverb touches the light jangly multi-tracked strummed acoustic guitars creating the first layer of nostalgic atmosphere. The strumming is a standard rhythm guitar pattern. Mike Joyce, likewise, plays a standard and appropriate drum pattern without flourish. Andy Rourke’s bassline provides the only real melodic interest to the musical accompaniment. During the chorus, Marr plays the synth-string on an Emu Emulator with long high-notes with a few trills, again with a light reverb. Later, also is a flute line hauntingly, but playfully, played under a verse. All of these simple elements come together beautifully through layering and production.

While the instrumentation is simple, the chord progression itself is fairly unusual. The tonic chord barely gets used as one until the chorus, which is part of what let’s the chorus sounds as if it is an answer to some question not quite posed by the verses.

The title track “The Queen is Dead is a beautiful mess of organized chaos. A sample from the movie “The L-Shaped Room” starts the track. Then a tom drum loop pounds introducing the drive of the song. This is joined by the rest of the drums, which were recorded separately. A driving bassline supports the track.

Layers of rhythm guitar play V-V-V-V-V-V-VI# for most of the song, closing with a coda of V-VI#-I. At least, that’s how I hear the chord progression. I always feel a little uncertain when there’s a borrowed chord (the VI#), if I’m notating it correctly. A wild guitar with incredible feedback through a wah pedal enhances the sense of chaos and urgency. It also buries the less crazy rhythm guitars.

The opening verse makes clear the speaker’s opinion of English royalty. I’m not sure what exactly is meant by the “boar between arches” line. A search online lead me to plenty of discussions, but not real consensus. I particularly liked the idea that potential play on words with ‘boar’ and ‘bore’ and ‘arches’ with ‘archers’. I also saw mention that the arches were historically a symbol for royalty and that Richard III’s emblem was that of a boar. The Richard III bit seems more coincidence than meaningful to me. It’s also not certain if the speaker feels hemmed in, if the marshes are hemmed in, or if the Queen is hemmed in. Regardless, what we have here are biting comment on the Queen written much more poetically than usual pop and rock lyrics.

Farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a boar between arches
Her very Lowness with a head in a sling
I’m truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing

Near the middle of the album, “I Know It’s Over” possibly received the most plays throughout my twenties. This so slow jazzy blues number tells of loneliness and lost love. Even more so, what the speaker has lost is love, but the possibility of a love to another. “I know it’s over and it never really began, but in my heart it was so real.” Her pending marriage drives home the truth that he will never be loved. He bitterly warns the groom, “Loud, loutish lover, treat her kindly, though she needs you more than she loves you.” Though, it’s clear that he’s not speaking to the groom directly. All of these conversations are imagined from an empty room “as I climb into an empty bed.”

Musically the song rolls through the 50s chord progression (I-vi-IV-V) at a slow tempo starting at about 70 BPM and rising to about 76 BPM for the climactic coda. The drums are minimal through most of the track, focusing mostly on a jazz-inspired use of cymbals and tapping the rim. The electric guitars gently strum chords giving plenty of room for the vocals.

Of course, I could go on and on about one of my long-time favorite records.

The Deadliest Summer (2017)

Album Cover for The Deadliest Summer single

I present a new single release of Trip Gunn music: “The Deadliest Summer” with b-side “Dial Tone”, with a cover featuring artwork by 19th century French painter Eugène Boudin. It wasn’t intentional, but perhaps the September equinox is an appropriate time to share “The Deadliest Summer”.

I wrote this song as “Orange Velvet Crush” in the fall of 2015. The final version differs little from that first draft. Most revisions to lyrics were just a matter of word-choice and rhythm, but the first two lines of the chorus were completely replaced. Originally they were “Times passes slowly, but it goes so fast; I held on to the trees and celebrities.” I disliked them when I wrote them, but I believe it’s better to write anything now and revise later than to wait for good stuff. The inspiration for the new lines came from a line of Henry Darger‘s book Crazy House; The book begins as a reality-based autobiography, but with the line “Oh yeah, there’s one thing I forgot to mention…”, Darger goes from reality to tales in his fantasy world instead. I appreciate that within the context of Henry Darger, but it also fit beautifully with the subject of this song.

This is one of only three songs that I worked on with a band in 2016. We only had a few practice sessions before dealing with typical but annoying difficulties, including practice space issues and scheduling conflicts. At any rate, we played around with the chorus chord progression a bit, but I ended up going with the way I had written it. Either I didn’t heed good advice or it worked out in the end. Still, I finally got to use my Danelectro guitar on this one.

Lyrics

When you walk through the October moonlight
With the smell of streetlights reflected in the rain
Drinking grape soda from glass bottle stars
Where autumn leaves danced between cars

The clouds harbor August memories dark
Windows reflecting legends in dusty panes
Where every portrait is felt by your green
Hoodie and orange velvet crush dreams

It’s the longest winter, the deadliest summer
There’s something I forgot to mention
Ghosts and mirrors, smoke and fog
Too many to count and I forgot them all

When I walk through the November twilight
And the dusty streets of nostalgia
Drinking gun-powder tea from looking glass
Revery’s loose leaves dance past.

It’s the longest winter, the deadliest summer
There’s something I forgot to mention
Ghosts and mirrors, smoke and fog
Too many to count and I forgot them all

It’s time to deny it all
The heart that sighs in December
It’s time to deny it all
The heart that dies in the summer
The deadliest summer.

Dial Tone

For a b-side, I chose the song “Dial Tone”. While “The Deadliest Summer” is revisiting a time associated with a space, “Dial Tone” is caught in a specific time and place. I started with the chorus and took some time to get the verses. Then inspiration came from the line “in my bedroom in those ugly new houses” in The Smith’s song “Paint A Vulgar Picture“; Viewing the chorus through that line, I saw the whole scene. I spent time as a teenager at a brick house on second street in Athens OH. The song has nothing to do with my friends that lived there, but that house serves beautifully as the setting. Regardless, the song is certainly about a very teenage experience.

I knew from the start how the melody for the chorus, but not the rest. So, I chose the key and based some of the chord progression on the dial tone for landline phones. Two sine waves combine to create the tone, one at middle-A and the other is very close to an F below the A. I avoided too obvious a use of a dial tone sound, but played with hints of it throughout.

Lyrics

In a tired brick house on second street
Sitting on a bed corner dying
I held on the telephone a lifetime
And crumpled slowly burning

Listen to the dial tone
Wonder if you’re even home
Would you even answer the phone
I’ll never ever know

Could we shine like the darkest night
Cradles stars in its belly?
Would we fill a shoebox capsule
A heartache waiting to be unburied?

Listen to the dial tone
Wonder if you’re even home
Would you even answer the phone
I’ll never ever know

Tremble so silently
Scribble a diary faintly
In the vacuum of the afternoon
Quietly waiting

A mediocre ineffectual fool
A mediocre ineffectual fool

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