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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Undun," the Guess Who's jazzy warning against acid

One of the finest pop compositions of the 60s is very much embedded in its time.

Looking back at last night's post on Ed Sheeran's "The A Team" really got me thinking about the nature of tragic female characters in popular music. Their commonality results in a wide range of tales told around a singular premise: their demise, which need not be fatal for its impact to be felt.

Whereas "The A Team" dives deeply into the tragic Angel and the route her life took to get to where Ed Sheeran found her, one of my favorite songs of the 1960s is a simple reflection in the immediate aftermath of a young woman's misadventure. Colored by some particularly flavorful guitar chords and a persistent pull back to its minor key, the Guess Who's "Undun" is lyrically rooted in the tumultuous decade's end with Randy Bachman's overarching allusion to a 'trip' gone terribly wrong.

The B-side to the Guess Who's Canadian chart-topper and American top-10 hit "Laughing," the Bachman-penned "Undun" has a variety of inspirations that reflect the time period in which it was released. The title arose from Bachman hearing a phrase from Bob Dylan's painful "Ballad in Plain D," in which he recounts that his ex-girlfriend "was easily undone..." Dylan's line continues, but that one thread was enough to lyrically inspire Bachman, especially once he saw a woman at a party fall into a coma after a bad LSD trip. (As I said, it's all very late 60s.) At that point, as Burton Cummings sang, it was "too late" to save her. Cummings' lyrics are positioned as a mournful reflection on the woman's innocence — "She didn't know what she was headed for" when she dropped the acid, and "she found out she couldn't fly" above and away from her problems with the assistance of psychedelics.

Bachman's narrative is certainly a defining feature of "Undun," but it isn't the one that truly draws me to the track; rather, I've always taken an interest in the song because of its jazz influences and chords. The jazzy feeling partially comes from the instrumentation, including Cummings' flute solo, but it more so comes from one particular chord — the major flat 5. Take a regular major chord (the root, third, and fifth — in C Major, the notes C, E, and G), and lower the fifth by a half step (e.g. G to G-flat), and the result is a colorful alteration that can go many different places with the tritone between the root and fifth. Bachman's friend Larry Breau, a jazz and country guitarist, taught him the chord, and Breau is thus to thank for the song's distinctive air. Bachman opens "Undun" with C Major flat 5, keeping the lowered note as is while sliding down the other notes to B Major. After repeating that motif, B is revealed to be the dominant of the song's key of E minor. That flattened fifth, G-flat, is thus the second note of the root scale, and it is thus a prominent note that gets lots of air time through its use in chords and Cummings' chorus vocals.

Apart from the major flat 5, the haunting bridge harmony piques my interest. The constant minor root chord set above a chromatically rising and falling bass gives on a James Bond-like feeling — something highlighted even further by E minor being the key of John Barry's iconic 007 theme. There's an inescapable tension in hearing the bass slowly move while the chord above is stays the same; Bachman and Cummings make that tension mournful with lyrical lamentations that go along with the verses' themes.

As intriguing as its individual elements are, the whole of "Undun" surpasses the sum of its parts because of how Bachman and Cummings weave the various elements together. The jazz chords and harmonies add an adventurous, mysterious feeling to a solemn lyrical backdrop that mourns a loss of innocence and control. It's a track I've always found underrated and under-played, and I hope my highlighting it here will lead others to appreciate the song like I do.


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